Monday, December 10, 2007

The road to Kampot Cambodia

(By Mia)
What a contrast, crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia! Leaving the world of paved roads, frequent buses, and yellow polo shirts and entering the land of air pollution, land mines, and "share taxis." We planned on our trip from the Thai border down to Kampot (our then-destination and current location) taking maybe a day, which is how long that short distance would have probably taken in Thailand. The Thai transportation system is truly incredible: chaotic and disorganized to the naked eye, but smoothly efficient in practice. We got used to showing up at bus stations in even the most remote corners of the country, saying the name of the town we wanted to go to aloud, directed at no one in particular, and without fail some kind stranger would look up from his dried-chicken-leg-on-a-stick and point us toward the appropriate bus. We'd sit down, someone would come along to collect the fare, and within a maximum of 20 minutes we'd be on our way to the next destination. Some of the smaller towns we visited didn't even have bus stations, so we'd be directed to go sit in front of the pharmacy, or on the corner next to the fruit stand, and wait for a bus going in the right direction. While at first this made me a bit uneasy, the right bus always promptly arrived. We'd wave it down, the driver would open up the door, we'd shout "Phimai??" he'd respond "Phimai," and we were off.

Not quite so easy in Cambodia. We were in a hurry to get out of Thailand because our 30 day Thai visas expired on the 28th, and the government charges by the day when tourists overstay their welcome. We arrived at the border the night of the 27th and were informed by a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled open air carriage of sorts; from the front it looks like a vespa pulling a buggie) driver that the border was already closed.

So we spent the night in Thailand and got up bright and early to cross over into Cambodia. The landscape, the people, the air - everything changes drastically immediately upon crossing over the border. We were greeted by throngs of begging children lining the streets and passageways through customs and passport control, crippled legless men along the sidewalks reaching up with outstretched palms for hand-outs and mothers holding infants with snot and mud-smeared faces asking for money. Once we'd finally had our passports stamped and pushed through the throngs of taxi drivers and eager "guides," we negotiated our way to what we expected to be a bus station. Upon arrival, it looked more like a tourist agency. We said no no no, that we wanted to just go to the central bus station, but were told again and again that there in fact was no bus station, just bus companies. Not only that, but at 9:30 AM, the last bus for Phnom Pehn had already departed. After Joe scoured the city for the elusive public bus station (which indeed never materialized) and was ensured at all the other bus companies around town that there were no more buses that day to Phnom Pehn, we were forced to arrange a share taxi to Siem Reap for the outrageous price of $12/person.

The share taxi trip consisted of Joe, myself, and two large Russian men all squeezed into an unmarked Toyota Camry for a long, bumpy, 3 hour ride to Siem Reap. It is so dusty on the dirt roads of Cambodia that nearly everyone wears what look like surgeons' masks over their mouths and noses at all times. There are the standard blue/green disposable variety that we see in hospitals and dentist offices in the US, and then there are the more fashionable cotton variety in assorted colors and patterns. Those who don't wear masks cover their mouths and heads with checkered scarves, whose many other uses have been illuminated over the course of our time here.

We assumed that the big city of Siem Reap, home to the world renown Angkor Wat, would surely have a more extensive bus network but, sure enough, once we arrived we heard the exact same story: there is no central bus station (only competing bus companies scattered throughout the city) and all the buses to Phnom Pehn have already departed. After many more visits to many more bus companies, we were forced to spend the night in Siem Reap and depart for the capital city in the morning. Surprise, surprise, by the time we got to Phnom Pehn the next day we'd missed the one and only bus to Kampot, and would have to catch it at the ungodly hour of 7 o'clock the following morning.

This last bus trip, while similar to the Siem Reap - Phnom Pehn leg, merits further description. After everyone was seated, someone came around and handed out a small plastic black bag to every other passenger. Our first thought was that they were perhaps barf bags, and that this trip would be even bumpier than we'd experienced the day before. We soon discovered that they were in fact designed for loudly spitting big, coughed-up loogies (proper spelling anyone?) into, and each bag was companionably shared between two passengers. When after a couple hours the bus pulled to a stop along a deserted road, with nothing but rice paddies as far as the eye could see, I was initially concerned that we were having mechanical difficulties. And then people started getting off. Turns out, we were at our first rest stop. The men, of course, just unzipped and did their business right there alongside the bus. But, with no trees or bushes to be found, I was very interested to see how the many women disembarking would handle this delicate social situation. Which brings me to the alternate use for the versatile Khmer scarf. Low and behold, the checkered headscarves double as stall doors when sophisticated ladies need to take a pee in front of a busload of strangers. As I indiscreetly watched with fascination from the window, the women simply took the scarves from their heads, wrapped them around their waists, pulled town their pants, and went! Incredible!

In further busing excitement, on the same trip we came upon a broken bridge. Well, it was actually only half-broken. One side had caved in, while the other side was still teetering on the verge of crumbling, propped up by pieces of cardboard and a few sticks. Instead of going back the way we'd come, the impetuous drivers decided to forge on! All the passengers disembarked, presumably more to lighten the weight than for our own safety, and carefully crossed the bridge first, staying to the left (and more intact) side. Next came the bus with it's brave crew, exterior wheels up on the pedestrian walkway, a few feet above the interior wheels on the ground, perilously close the edge and the rushing water below. With creaking wood and pounding hearts, they successfully made it across, and we continued our thrilling journey! But the fun didn't stop there. Joe also had occasion to eat a fried tarantula at the next rest stop, the legs of which he said tasted a lot like french fries. The pouch of tiny white eggs inside the body was apparently a different story.

And all that was just trying to get to Kampot.

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