Before I tell you about the rest of our trip, I want to enlighten you on the merits (perils) of utilising Cambodian public transport.
Picture the scene:
We’re in a far North-Eastern Province of Cambodia, close to the Vietnamese and Laos border. Eighty per-cent of local people belong to one of the various local tribes.
We’ve had a miserable couple of days and we’re facing a 15 hour bus journey back to civilisation (westernisation) in Siem Reap. We’re effectively in the middle of no-where.
There’s mixed emotions as we board our decrepid, banged up second-hand Daewoo bus at 6:30am. Excited to escape the ‘hole’ that is Ratanakiri Province, but dreading the long, arduous journey which awaits us.
As usual, we’re delayed by 30 minutes for no apparent reason. For the umpteenth time this trip, I find myself cursing Cambodian public transport and muttering to myself how “this would never happen in Korea”. It’s going to be a long day.
Eventually, having already devoured our rations of Cambodian style Wagon Wheels for breakfast – we’re on our way.
Within 30 minutes, we’re stopping again. Not to pick anybody up, collect a package (as Cambodians prefer using buses instead of an actual postal service) but for a toilet break.
We’re not even at a service station, we’ve pulled over on the side of a dirt road.
Next thing I know, people are filing out and doing their thing, women included – quite openly squatting by the side of the road as other cars passed and passengers looked on. I could understand if we hadn’t stopped for ten hours, but is this necessary after thirty minutes? Really?
Ten minutes later, we’re finally on our way.
Forty-five minutes later, we’re stopping again. This continued for the next eleven hours. The most toilet stops I recorded during a one-hour time period was four, between 13:00 and 14:00. Quite unbelievable.
I was quite openly cursing and being the obnoxious, uncultured and close-minded western tourist. I’ve found I don’t deal with incompetence and tardiness well, especially when I’m paying money. Even if it is a nominal sum.
Once we finally got off the bus, nature calls and I need to pee.
I enter the squat toilets, I’ve got everything out. In the corner of my eye, I notice some relatively large spiders hanging on the ceiling above my head.
“I can handle them”, “Focus on where your peeing”, “Be brave” – I told myself.
Unfortunately I couldn’t, I didn’t, and I wasn’t.
I glanced up again, and to my horror, I realised there was a huge tarantula (not just a big spider – an actual tarantula) hanging centimetres from my face.
I felt like I was in a horror film. Childhood memories and fears borne out of the film ‘Arachnophobia’ came flooding back. I’ve had nightmares about this kind of scenario for as long as I can remember. Now I was staring one of my worst nightmares quite literally, in the face.
I froze, absolutely terrified.
Within a second, quite naturally – I panicked. I squealed / screamed like a little girl in mortal horror and ran out of the toilet with everything still hanging out. I didn’t care that the local shopkeepers probably saw everything.
I’ve always feared this might happen on our travels.
I’d inadvertently confronted my fear and survived. But instead of conquering it, it remains stronger than ever.
Once my heart-rate had calmed sufficiently, I chose to urinate on a grass verge on the side of a main highway in the glare of the afternoon sun. There was no chance I was going anywhere near those toilets again. Besides, Cambodians do this all the time so I didn’t feel quite so bad. If anything, I was embracing the Cambodian spirit of public urination.
Shortly afterwards our connecting bus arrived. We wondered how an earth we were supposed to fit on the bus for all space was taken up by people, bags or packages earmarked for delivery en-route.
Not to worry though, we’re in Cambodia!
There’s always room. If there isn’t, they’ll make some. In spite of my moaning, I admire their ability to cram as many people, packages and bags into as smaller space as is humanly possible. And who said Korea was crowded?
After another ten minute delay, Amelia and I (plus a family of four) did indeed manage to squeeze into the little seats at the rear. It didn’t matter that people were sitting on the floor, and that three children were now sat on one parents knee – we had seats – and the bus company was maximising its profits. Everybody’s happy.
It was tight and extremely uncomfortable. Our backpacks squeezed between our legs, there was little-to no air-conditioning and the windows wouldn’t open. We consoled ourselves in the knowledge that we had made it this far, and the promised land of Siem Reap was only three-four hours further.
Five minutes later, as we are trying to get comfortable and relax with our Ipods, Amelia pokes me to re-gain my attention.
“That little girl is having a pee” she says, as she points to the little girl sat next to us and my backpack. I wasn’t overtly impressed obviously, but she was young (maybe 3 or 4) and at least she’s peeing into a bottle or something. Right?
No of course she wasn’t. Her mum had pulled down her trousers and let her squat. We looked at the floor as urine trickled away from her legs and towards my bag. Fortunately we managed to save the backpack in time.
I was incandescent with rage and disgust. I swore loudly and moaned to Amelia how it’s “Bloody disgusting”. Even Amelia, who is usually quite liberal and impassive was visibly irritated.
We cursed at our luck, we cursed Cambodians, and we cursed Cambodian buses.
The little girl had only been on the bus five minutes, could her mother not have taken her to the toilet before she boarded?!?!?!?! Are these people for real?!?!?!
An hour or so later, we’re slowly beginning to get over it.
I soon realise the little boy in front of me is now peeing,
“At least he’s peeing into a black bag” I pointed out to Amelia. Two minutes later, the little boy is still peeing. I then realise that the bag is no longer being held in front of the boy, it’s underneath his rear.
“The little boy is having a s***”
I laughed, so did Amelia. What else could we do?! Just when we thought we’d seen it all, we hadn’t.
To make matters worse, we stopped at a service station a minute or so later – could the little boy not have held it in?!
The remaining hour of the journey was largely uneventful and peaceful, we even managed to move seats as people got off at the various small towns and villages.
It turned out there was actually a toilet on board but it had been rendered unusable by the packages and boxes that were jammed in. We cursed some more.
Upon arrival at Siem Reap, we were harassed by Tuk-Tuk drivers who tried to convince us that our hostel no longer existed and had in-fact burnt down. Conveniently they knew of a good alternative with a ‘good price’. Fortunately we’d been warned of this scam when we made our reservation. It turns out the hostel owner refuses to pay the tuk-tuk drivers commission for taking them to his hostel.
It was owned by a British man, and coincidentally there were three other people from Leicester staying here.
We’d had a bad day. but at least we hadn’t killed anybody or found ourselves locked up in a Cambodian prison cell.
From this moment on, the holiday only got better.
Western restaurants galore, English-speaking people galore and what’s more? It’s not raining.
Siem Reap is a wonderful place.