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Thursday 18 Jul 2013
Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Night buses and border crossings

I spent most of the day in the same fashion as yesterday - swimming, reading, blogging and eating fish Amok.  I tried to get the Amok recipie but the chef was kept his secret close and wouldn't tell.  Natalie and Jill had decided to go over to the island of Koh Rong, a popular backpacker chill out spot near Sihanoukville.  Jon, Carl, Simon, Josh and I were spending the next 10 days in Vietnam, working to Josh's timescale.  

Another epic journey started in the rain.  We had bought nightbus tickets through to Ho Chi Minh City from the travel agent next to our hostel.  He told us the ticket included free transport to the bus station, which turned out to be a small tuktuk and an even smaller car.  Jon, Josh and I got in the tuktuk, while Simon and Carl took my bag in the car with them.  The rain got heavier so we pulled the covers down the side of the tuktuk and tried to avoid the leaks.  A few minutes later, the tuktuk driver told us we were stopping for another passenger, though how he thought anyone else would fit, I have no idea.  Then we were turfed out completely into a bigger tuktuk with another driver but the other passenger never appeared.  We finally got moving again and headed off toward town.  15 minutes later we were overtaken by another tuktuk with Simon and Carl in the back, who we'd last seen heading off by car!  They took a different route but we met up in time to catch the bus. 

Learning from last time, we boarded the bus with assertiveness blazing and made sure we got the seats we had actually booked.  I played the 'solo-female-traveller' card, which thankfully I've rarely needed on this trip, to avoid being the one sitting next to a stranger.  Simon took the single seat this time and I sat next to Josh, with the Swedes in front of us.  We also took our main bags on board rather than risking the unlocked storage under the bus.  We were on the bottom row this time, which was actually more comfortable than the top deck as I wasn't scared of falling off. 

A few hours into the journey we stopped for a toilet break, which turned out to be by far my worst toilet experience in Asia, and that is saying something.  I climbed out of the bus to find we hadn't stopped at services, just a collection of barns and farm buildings.  The guys had walked ten feet from the bus and stood in a line peeing into the darkness.  When I asked the driver if there was an actual toilet, he waved vaguely in one direction, so I ventured cautiously that way.  The first thing I did was walk straight into a sludgy puddle, then got barked at by a couple of unchained dogs that came flying out of nowhere.  I am not overly comfortable with dogs at the best of times, and this had horror-movie written all over it.  I dashed back to the bus and asked the driver to be more specific.  He said nothing, but wandered to the back of the bus and looked around at the other side of the road, which offered only a ditch with nothing to shelter behind.  I don't mind squatting, but I prefer to have at least a bush between me and a bus full of passengers.  I asked again and he just waved vaugely back into the darkness.  

I went back on board and grabbed my head torch, warning Josh not to let the bus leave without me.  I then headed back into the dark and found my way between the puddles, unchained dogs barking a frenzy and what looked like someone's vegetable garden until I found a small outhouse with a toilet.  I'm not sure if the driver knew it was there or if I was trespassing into someone's garden but I didn't care by then.  The door didn't lock and the trough of water for flushing was borderline stagnant, so the smell was pretty awful, but when you have to go, you have to go.  I half expected a chainsaw to come through the door at me any moment, imagining a classic horror movie soundtrack in my head.  I got out of there quickly, then demanded a bottle of water and something to wipe my muddy feet with from the useless driver so that I wouldn't get mud (and who knows what else) over the bed, blanket and my rucksack when I climbed back in.  I was not a happy bunny.

At around 1.30am, we rolled into Phnom Pehn and passengers started to get off. The driver told us we had to change buses too.  So much for a direct bus to Ho Chi Minh!  There was no information, but Josh followed some others and found the new bus.  This one was a double decker bus with bedseats on the top deck.  Our seat numbers were redundant so we quickly grabbed a few bedseats together.  Then we discovered we had to go to an office, show our passports and exchange our tickets for new ones.  Josh and Simon took all our passports while we held the seats and hoped we wouldn't get moved to the cramped ones at the back with the air-conditioning units taking out half the headroom.  Once again we had taken our bags on board and flatly ignored the bus conductor's requests for us to put them in the bus storage.  None of us were prepared to risk having our bags stolen.  As it was, the aisle was so narrow we couldn't have move our bags until everyone was in their seats anyway.  Luckily there were no seat numbers on the new tickets so we stayed put where we were.  The last few people on board ended up in the cramped back seats.  This included a couple of very obnoxious Italian girls seemed to take our bags as the reason they were stuck under the aircon units - two wholly unrelated facts - and loudly complained about us and deliberately stomped all over our bags while doing so.  We ignored them and eventually they stopped moaning so everyone could get some sleep.

The bus finally left Phnom Penh around 2.30am and despite the awful roads, I actually slept quite well until we stopped again at 6am, this time for a half hour breakfast stop.  A bowl of beef Pho (noodle soup) kept me going for a while.

From there it was just over a kilometre to the Cambodian border, where we took our hand luggage and passed through immigration on foot to get our passports stamped.  When we met up with the bus again, there was a guy collecting everyone's passports ready for the Vietnamese border.  It's a little disconcerting to hand your passport over to someone who is wearing neither a uniform nor an ID badge, but if he was scamming us, then at least we were all in the same boat!  We drove a few minutes on down a road lined with casinos before reaching the Vietnamese border offices.  This time we had to take all our bags off the bus and wait in an airport-style immigration hall.  Our passports had indeed made it there before us, so we waited until our names were called, collected our passports and put our bags through the x-ray machines.  That done, we met the same bus again on the other side and loaded ourselves back on board.  This time, we realised that the bag storage was actually inside the bottom deck of the bus, not in storage hatches underneath, so we did leave our bags there before reclaiming our seats upstairs (depriving the Italians of quite so much to moan about).

The border crossing had taken nearly two hours and woken me up fully, so I started to watch the latest series of 'Glee' instead of going back to sleep.  It was quite poignant to watch after the news of Cory Monteith's death, one of the lead actors in 'Glee'. He'd struggled with addiction for years but had seemed to be coping.   A few days ago, he was found dead in his hotel room after an overdose of heroin and alcohol at the age of just 31.



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