Today we were leaving for Siem Reap in Cambodia from Si Phan Don or 4000 Islands in Southern Laos. I had bought bus tickets last afternoon at the reception desk for $ 35 USD. We got an ordinary breakfast at the hotel. The coffee was really disgusting, and this is annoying because the coffee produced in Laos from the Boloven plateau was supposed to be really excellent.
A mini-van fetched us from our hotel to catch the VIP bus (SPC Company) to cross the Cambodian border in Stung Treng We were waiting for the ferry boat which was an old platform that carries large trucks, buses and passengers. It did not look too reliable, but it worked, the rudder is tinkering with a steering wheel and a chain connected to the engine. Our new Italian friends Simon and Frederica struck a conversation with a monk.. He’s happy to practice English and he told them how he went to study in China for free at the monastery. Many bright young people benefited from their years of being Buddhist monks to travel and learn to speak English for free.
10:21am From the other side of the Mekong the mini-van driver attempts to locate the bus. We made a first stop on the side of the street. We landed on a road lost in the middle of nowhere. I saw a small store and went to buy something to drink. An old Lao man invited me to share his Beerlao. “No no, I have a stomach ache uncle!” The sun was hot and shade was rare. The bus finally arrived. As we boarded the bus, we noticed that the first floor was filled with vegetables and other agricultural products. We made a stop near Don Det to board other tourists and locals also going to Cambodia.
10:53am the Customs could not be more rustic; it looked like a disorganized logging camp. This border was opened recently and official buildings were still under construction. We saw a small quarantine post where a dozens of people were waiting to be admitted into the country. The custom officers distributed a yellow sheet to everyone. A health notice which states: “International passengers may be exposed to infectious agents ever encountered before. You may need medical assistance. If you feel unwell during your stay in Cambodia, fever, cough, diarrhoea or severe vomiting. Please seek medical assistance.” Thank you for the warm welcome, it’s reassuring.
I bought a beer at a street store right next to the customs; the good and cheap Angkor beer. We experienced the local currency for the first time, Riel. The exchange goes for 4000 riels to 1 USD. We gave our passport to the bus guide when he charged me 25 USD for a month visa and a $ 5 fee which cannot be accounted for. Passports were given back to their owners one at a time by calling out their names, it felt like being handed our life jackets at summer camp.
11:49am All passports were returned and we entered Cambodge. The deep rural landscape surrounded us all along the way. Southern Cambodia is still intact; it offered scenes of everyday life of its inhabitants frozen in time. It was a mixture of flooded rice paddies fields, bamboo house on stilts and Buddhist temples. In the southern province the people live mainly on fishing and agriculture. We made a stop at the first public market to drop off the vegetables from Laos. The market was in poor condition and the ground was covered by litter. The people of this community live in poverty but they continue smiling.
We made a stop to eat in a Cambodian « tuck-shop ». The food was good and very affordable, less than a dollar for a plate filled to the edge. Forget about the toilet; everyone was going across the street to relieve themselves. I heard people complaining and then we realised that problem. The bus would first reach Phnom Phen which is located 315 km beyond Siem Reap before returning to our destination. 630 km for nothing?! The bus company decided its route depending on the destination of the majority of people on board. So we must follow the rest of the group. Note to Self : Learn about the itinerary first and not the destination. You may save yourself from being in this kind of situation. Long live to the adventure!
15:30, we stopped at Kratie to pick up some passengers. I went to withdraw some money from the ATM and was amazed to receive U.S. dollars in Cambodia. The USD is the currency mostly used. People only use the local currency for small change.
16:27, we were still in the countryside, land is unfounded and people have to use boats for reach the main road. A succession of rice fields, fishing nets and piles of firewood can be seen from the only main road.
18:00, we were told that in one hour we would switch over to another bus to Siem Reap. Good news for us as that would save us at least 2 hours of road.
11:33 p.m. Arrived at Siem Reap after more than 14 hours since our departure, but we made it. It was all darkness in a muddy parking lot, far away from the mythical city that we dreamed about. We attempted to take a taxi parked along the roadside. The bus clerks forbade us to ride with the taxis there. He insisted that he had arranged for a complimentary taxi for us already. It seemed organized; he wanted to keep the passengers from the bus for himself. We got into a cab with the guide against our wills, but we really had no choice but to follow. It was so dark and you could get lost easily in this town with just a backpack. Our Italian friends were even more frantic than us, but ended up boarding the taxi as well. The roads were muddy and most of them were still under construction. I stood on guard in case anything happened.
We were taken to a guesthouse, Aroma Daily (http://www.aromadaily.com). We went to view the room which was not fancy, but it cost only $ 15 for the first night and $ 12 from the second night onwards. The tension remained strong as the Italian retaliated loud, he did not like to have been taken in hostage. Then he requested for our phone number to make sure that we would be fine later. There was no way to wander around alone in this city at night, in total darkness with our luggage on our backs. A couple of Angkor beers and a good night’s sleep would do us good. We would find ourselves someplace else early morning tomorrow.