Traveling across Cambodia is an experience in and of itself. While the temple complex of Angkor Wat is considered the wonder of Cambodia, I feel that taking a bus ride across the country is its true wonder. The verdant fields splashed with colorful Buddhist stupas against the blue firmament will leave a person speechless. When we weren’t driving through rice fields, we were slowly making our way through villages.
We took a coach bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap (approximately 320 kilometers) with Giant Ibis Transport. We pre-ordered our tickets ($16 per person) for the bus before we even arrived in Phnom Penh and they picked us up from our guesthouse on the date we specified. The bus was nice but most of the services they promised were a bit different from what we read online. Rather than having toilets on the bus, we took breaks at two rest-stops. Traveling time was three hours longer than originally stated. However, with everything said above, I’m completely grateful. It gave me more time to relax and watch Cambodia float by. Moreover, we had air-con, entertainment, and room to stretch our legs. On the local buses, you pay $5 to be crammed into a tin can with strangers lying across your lap.
National Highway 5 and 6 connect after crossing Prek Kdam Bridge over the Tonle Sap River. These two highways serve as one of the main arteries for vehicular traffic between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, although “highway” in Cambodia doesn’t adhere to its denotative meaning. In Cambodia, paved roads are a convenience only found in the major districts or main streets of cities and on certain parts of the national highway system. There are no on-ramps, off-ramps, or access roads. In the wet seasons, overflow from the Tonle Sap river outside of Phnom Penh will wash out parts of the road resulting in crashes or major traffic congestion. Many tourist sites warn travelers to take a bus during daytime hours during the wet season to ensure safety because bus drivers are able to see these wash-outs in the distance.
The bus pulls over at a rest-stop/outdoor restaurant for tourist buses. Everyone unloads and takes a seat at one of the tables. The menu is mostly Western food, nothing local. The air is humid and muggy, but a breeze blows despite the trees that surround the small cluster of houses situated around the restaurant.
I head to the toilet hoping for the best. I open the stall door….Yes! There is a toilet seat! And there is toilet paper! After finishing my business, I walk out, wash my hands (hey, no soap but there is hand sanitizer), and spy a chair with a box sitting in it. I look closer at the hand-written note attached to the box: “TP isn’t free. Leave a donation!”
I sit back down at the table with Danielle while we watch everyone else order and eat. Most tourists order big hamburgers or sandwiches, sides, and cokes or beers. They munch down greedily. To the right of our table, outside the restaurant area, a group of kids plays football with each other. Most of the boys are only wearing pants. One boy, his pants too big, holds them up while he kicks. They are laughing and happy. A little girl in a soiled dress stares at us while the other kids keep up their sport. Eventually, the boys stop playing and the group of kids makes their way to the restaurant area as they watch all the tourists eat. I try to guess at what they are thinking, but I don’t see anything other than longing.
The last scene I remember from that rest-stop was the bus-driver shooing the kids away as we boarded and drove off.
As you get closer to villages or communes, the highway turns into dirt roads accompanied by pot-holes, ditches, and brain-busters (a slang term from my youth when I used to ride in the back of the bus with my friends). Other buses and coaches fly by and you get a glimpse into another world. Foreign tourists are reclined in their chairs, the shades drawn tight to prevent the outside world from peeping in. Local buses have their windows rolled down and multiple pairs of feet hang out of them. When we pass, a woman holding her baby locks eyes with me for a split second. The second stretches as we both turn our heads, the link holding between our eyes, and then they disappear in a cloud of billowing dust and smog.
Once you are in the villages everything slows down. The bus, its shocks trying to adapt to the patchy roadway, slowly clambers along and life outside slows with it. Villagers look as you pass by, used to the sight of the huge coach buses that motor by their homes every 15 minutes or so. Most faces smile, but some slump down from disappointment–another bus that has gone by which isn’t stopping to buy any wares.
In the bus, even when it’s slowed, you feel disconnected. You see the sweat dripping down a boy’s face as he walks down the road with his groceries in hand; above you, the air-con is blasting down and making you cold. You look outside and can almost touch the palm branches and feel the breeze; the glare from the window messes up your pictures and you keep bumping your head as you strain to take in the magnificent world outside. Kids are laughing, people are shouting, and there is even a celebration with music; all you hear is the “Clack! Clack! Clack!” of a gun from a poorly directed action movie on the TV.