Well, we can’t say that we weren’t warned – we did know that the overland trip from Bangkok to Siem Reap would be terrible. But we also knew we had no choice – we really, really wanted to see Angkor Wat, and our budget couldn’t stretch to 500 pounds for us to all fly there and back. So instead of the 1 hour flight, we endured the worst bus trip we’ve done as a family. We had a 7am start at Bangkok, where the bus picked us up outside our accommodation – even at that time in the morning, it was obvious that the air-conditioning was nearly dead, and the thousand mozzies in the bus made a meal of us all. But this was a backpacker-special, and we’ve noticed that tour operators can get away with things that the Thais would never put up with. The trip towards the border was slow – we were overtaken by everything, including a dustcart – and every few minutes we were passed by a coachload of cold Thais, while we sweated away in our sauna-bus. Finally, after 180 miles on motorways and highways, and 6hours, we pulled into the lunch spot, 6 miles from the border. Basically the trip is run by a bunch of people who want to get every penny possible out of you, so the stop was designed to get people to pay them to collect their Cambodia visas in advance. We didn’t bother, because we knew we could get it instantly at the border, and for a lot less than we were being charged – but we still had to wait for 2 hours anyway. The finally, at 3 o’clock we were piled into another minibus and driven to the border.
The crossing was easy, and the visas issued quickly. We had to walk across the dusty bridge and road between the two countries, past the swish casinos that sit in no-mans-land. At the other side our bus chap collected us, and got us into a tuk-tuk to go to their office for the minibus – and then got us back out of the tuk-tuk because the minibus had come to us! But that only went 300 yards, before dropping us at their office. And then we waited while everybody was sorted into different minibuses. Finally, at 4 o’clock we were off, in a jam packed midi-bus.
The first 40 kilometres were better than we thought – the road had tarmac, although in some places that had been badly rutted by lorries, and potholes a foot deep and six feet long had been made by the rains and traffic. So it was slow going, but it wasn’t as dusty as everybody had warned.
But that soon changed. After the first town when the main highway turned right to Phnom Penh, we were on a dust road.
The slow pace turned even slower (much of the time the driver couldn’t see more than 10 feet in front of us), and the windows were all shut because of the dust. We started to simmer gently (outside the temperature was nudging 36-degrees, but the aircon kept it to a gentler 30 in the bus)
Life in Cambodia passed the windows. The snap above shows a Cambodian petrol station – basically a line of Fanta bottles filled with petrol for motorbikes (the dominant transport on the road, and seemingly everywhere in Cambodia).
We kept going, occasionally overtaking overloaded lorries (a scary time, because there was no way that the driver could see beyond them), and diverting into the fields around broken bridges (hmm, might not have been so bad if we hadn’t spotted occasional mine warning posters in the villages). At 7pm the sunset, and soon it was dark. We had no idea how much further we had to go, and at 8:30 we stopped for dinner in the only restaurant on the route – slap bang in the middle of nowhere. Our first impression is of a country with crushing poverty – the villages are the most basic we’ve seen, and the people appear to have very little.
After another hour we stopped for a toilet break – again the only ones on the trip – and were besieged by small children selling handicrafts, drinks and begging for dollars. (Cambodia runs on dollars – the local currency is useful only for small items in the market – everything else, from drinks to meals to transport, is priced in dollars). Everybody we met was fascinated by Emily and Charlotte, and every time we stopped they were the centre of attention.
Finally at 11pm we arrived in Siem Reap – 16 hours and 280 miles later – and average of less than 20 miles an hour. Of course it was pitch black, and everybody seemed to be in bed. We were dropped at a guest house which was a building site, so we got a tuk-tuk to look for another one. After an hour, failing to find the ones we’d been recommended, we ended back up at the building site, and booked in for one night.
Despite the hour, the journey and the heat, the girls had been really, really well behaved throughout. On the bus they’d enjoyed the bumps, comparing the trip favourably to the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. And they’d had some great company from Bob, an American traveller who had an endless supply of songs, stories and activities for them. Even the factthat we only had 2 toilet stops during the whole day wasn’t a problem! We were all wondering how we would enjoy Cambodia – it seems full of hassle and extremely difficult to travel.