VIP Bus Through Cambodian Hell
150 kilometers in a record breaking 15 hours. Not walking. Not running. Not by bicycle. By bus. Two break downs, two bridge collapses and numerous flat tyres equates to 25 hot and bothered tourists attempting to cross a rapidly closing border.
The bus ride from Siem Reap, Cambodia to the Thai border and on to Bangkok is not for the feint hearted. So called VIP buses that leave Siem Reap promise the world. Air-conditioning, restaurant stops and plenty of leg room. That is the bus that leaves Siem Reap, but things quickly change once smoke starts billowing from the engine. A short stop and some bunny hopping and we are on our way again after a short 30 minute stop.
Only 4 kilometers from town, the bus comes to an abrupt and noisy stop. “Bus no go,” I am told by the driver, who has obviously broken down at this place before, as he seems to know all the families who have come out for some entertainment.
“No worry, new bus come now. Same Same.” The catch phrase of Asia. Same same but different is not a comforting assumption in this instance.
One hour later a bus comes hurtling down the road with luggage balanced on its roof. It comes to an abrupt stop, almost ploughing into a field as the driver waves his arms furiously in an attempt to give warning.
“No problem. Same Same,” I am told. Same same my arse!
The bus is already full of passengers who were obviously on the same deal. Whilst the overly cautious watch their baggage moved from one bus to another, the others scramble onto the bus to claim a seat.
Vinyl chairs wide enough for two locals and an aisle that is already full of luggage are my first hurdles. Crawling monkey-like to the back of the bus I sit down next to a traveller I am about to get to know very intimately.
“I would be pushing my luck if I asked for air-con, wouldn’t I?” My response is a chuckle and a knowing laugh. “Just you wait,” I am told.
It didn’t take long for me to find out why. Over 40 degrees Celsius outside and with small windows and no fan, I begin to sweat a few minutes down the road. This is the kind of sweat that runs down your back, your forehead and inside your arm.
Things seem to be progressing – we continued to move for 30 minutes until we hit the real road. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the tarmac dried up and this huge bus motored onto a dirt road. Not just any dirt road, but one that threw the bus around, taking it perilously close to locals on scooters game enough to overtake.
Those unfortunate enough to be inside begin to be thrown around like stuffed animals, all looking at each other to say that this can’t really be a road. Holding on for dear life and randomly falling into the lap of the person on either side becomes commonplace and apologies are no longer required.
Suddenly the bus comes to a screeching halt. In the middle of nowhere, in the Cambodian countryside, is a huge traffic jam. Large groups huddle in the shade of their small trucks that could not possibly hold that number of people. Some investigation tells me that a bridge up ahead has fallen down.
A wander past staring locals finds a small bridge with what seems like hundreds of people crawling over like ants. A bright light catches my eye and I follow it to see a man welding the bridge back together wearing some borrowed sunglasses with his bare hands. After an hour of watching in astonishment, the traffic begins to crawl across the river. Thankfully, several large trucks crossed the bridge before my bus powered across.
Bridge is not quite an accurate description for these structures. They consist of some wooden pylons and some steel bars holding up some wooden planks. As each wheel touches the new plank, it tilts on an angle and threatens to fall into the gulf below, until the weight of the vehicle returns it to its previous position. The measurements of these bridges are never quite accurate, as the steel bars never reach to the adjoining road and it’s a slight revving of the engine and a huge leap of faith that makes it to land.
This process repeats itself a second time and is accompanied by several blown out tyres for several more hours. After 12 hours on the road, or stationary beside it, the Thai border appears. The icing on the cake for everyone is that the border closes in 15 minutes and it’s over a kilometer and a huge queue away. With a look of resignation and the vow that I will never go back down that road, I haul my life’s possessions onto my back and get my elbows out to push my way to the queue.
Thankfully I make it across the border just as the boom gate goes down and have a much more enjoyable journey into Bangkok.
On arrival, I greeted friends who had travelled in air-conditioned comfort including a footrest and ice-cream. They travelled at 30,000 ft. My jeers as to their inadequacy as ‘real’ travellers and my desire to experience the local culture were a source of amusement for many nights to come. Next time, I’ll take the plane!
The VIP bus service is offered by several companies in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The ride costs US$10 and the guarantees of air-conditioning, leg rests and leg room are all very false. A better option is the flight, from $150, with 6-8 flights daily direct to Bangkok. Buyer beware ï¿½ you’ve been warned about the bus!