The journey to Phnom Penh was long and uncomfortable, as many a journey in South East Asia can be. A boat, a tuk-tuk, a minibus and a coach brought us from Laos’ 4000 Islands to the Cambodian border where we were herded into the harsh sunlight and sticky, heavy heat.
The cracked open landscape and the bleached earth forced all eyes to squint behind sunglasses. The cattle-like shuffle towards the border conjured an uncomfortable feeling, as passages from Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor danced in my head.
I experienced a jolt of unease at the surreal similarity between our entitled walk towards the officials that invoked fear despite our innocence, and that of the people of Cambodia in Year Zero.
I knew that visiting this place would have an effect on me and somehow I knew it would be more than the following trip to Vietnam, despite my greater knowledge of the atrocities carried out there, and the dog-eared copy of The Girl in the Picture I had been reading on the journey from Laos.
Coming face to face with the guard who checked our passports, I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to him during the reign of the Khmer Rouge? What had he seen?
The unexpected health check that required each traveller’s temperature to be taken further intensified the feeling of walking in the footsteps of Cambodians in Year Zero.
After being shuffled to the next post to pay for the visa, and two different ‘bribes’ had been extracted, we made our way onto Cambodian soil.
It was dry, vast and empty.
We joined the crowd of fellow baggy panted, sweating travellers waiting to get back on the bus. A bus came, filled itself to capacity and drove away, coating us in a sprinkle of fine dirt.
As is often the case when backpacking, we were unsure of whether another bus would come, and whether the money we paid in Don Det would cover transport from the border.
Finally, after the relentless sun had extracted more moisture from our skin, another bus arrived and we jostled our way on.
Somehow, we got seats together at the back of the bus and I congratulated myself for scoring the window seat. The apparent stroke of good luck revealed itself to be quite the opposite within minutes of taking off. I was sitting right on top of the vibrating engine and felt as though my behind was slowly cooking.
The entire aisle was jammed with people sitting in a ‘Rock-the-Boat’-like train, legs wrapped around the body in front. Some were standing, gripping the seat closet to them as they struggled to keep their feet planted in the few inches of space they had claimed.
The heat was intense and the air was sparse. We drove on for hours, swaying from one side of the road to the other, experiencing Cambodian bus drivers’ driving for the first time; crazy, fast and with the horn beeping incessantly. I concentrated on staying perched on my hot, loose seat and watched the crowd in the aisle rock precariously, limbs bumping against each other as the journey wore on.
As darkness gathered, we stopped for a toilet break. We rushed to join the queue, grateful for a moment’s respite from the confines of the bus. I tried to hide my sweat-soaked trousers, but everyone looked slicked in grease. The night air provided a welcome treat.
When we walked back to where the bus was, we found it was no longer there.
We spun around, frowning as we tried to think whether we had missed something. A group of men sitting on low plastic chairs in the shadows stared at us and laughed under their breath. We tried not to panic as we walked around, thinking maybe the bus had moved, but where were all the other travellers?
Soon, there was no denying reality. We had been left behind. Our backpacks were on the bus, we had no phones, we didn’t know where the hell we were, and the men in the shadows suddenly morphed into dangerous predators. Panic set in and we started to hurry away from the building, hoping to see the bus in the distance.
As we scurried down the dark road, my heart was racing. What would we do?
Then, we made out lights down the road. Lights that were coming closer. It was a bus, reversing backwards! We ran towards it, hoping that somehow it was ours. The bus stopped, and, to immense relief, two older men who had been sitting next to us emerged from the open door and called us over. We raced over, relief surging through us.
By some miracle, these men had wondered where we were. They then raised the alarm and got the driver to come back for us. We were blessed.
We climbed back aboard, giddy with relief. We shared our snacks with our heroes in an inadequate show of gratitude.
By the time we reached Phnom Penh we were exhausted, our euphoria following our near-abandonment had long faded. Yet, seeing the bright lights and the busy streets gave me a jolt of energy. I had butterflies. I was here.
We climbed off the bus and all the stress of the journey vanished as I took in my first impression of Phnom Penh. We were instantly surrounded by a group of young men on scooters, calling out to us in perfect English, with beautiful features and dark eyes that reflected the city lights. A large Coca-Cola sign hung overhead.
We climbed into a tuk-tuk and took off through the streets. Our friendly driver told us his life story and offered to be our driver for our stay.
After our last destination, an almost derelict hut on stilts in Don Det, the decision had been made that we would stay somewhere nicer for one night. For a whopper $10 each we found a room in a nice hotel which to us, after two months of staying in the cheapest possible places, seemed like a 5 star resort.
We rode the silent lift with a friendly bell boy, cringing at the thought of how dirty, and likely smelly we were. Once in the white, immaculate room with real sheets and pillows, we jumped around with delight and immediately took turns hopping in the heavenly shower, trying our best not to leave black footprints on the floor and almost crying with pleasure at the fluffy white towels.
As soon as we were decent, we went out to explore. The streets of Phnom Penh were dark and we walked in the middle of the road lined by thin trees on either side. There was something in the air that kept giving me that feeling that I was where I belonged. The road let us to the deserted market. It was dark and empty, save for a few little restaurants where the locals were sitting. We passed a large cow on a spit and a couple of stands selling drinks and corn. As we walked through the market, stepping on abandoned fruit and vegetables, the smell of garbage did nothing to quash my excitement. I longed for daylight so I could get my camera out.
We came out of the depths of the market and onto a wide, brightly lit boulevard. It was filled with beautiful French-looking buildings housing expensive Western restaurants. All were way out of our price range, but we chose one and ordered the cheapest thing possible, before returning to our deliciously clean beds and falling into exhausted slumber.
To be continued…
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