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XXXII: Trans-Cam Highway

Siem Reap to Phnom Penh

sunny 38 °C
View RTW 2013 on WorldWideWill's travel map.

I'd be lying if I said that we were excited to be spending six hours on a bus on the Cambodian roads, but at midday (after finally settling my giant room bill) Felix & I were loaded into a tiny "Mercedes" minibus and driven around Siem Reap collecting travellers en route to the bus station. It was a 10-seater, but the driver managed to squeeze in 15 passengers plus backpacks and we ended up with two crazy Cambodian women sat on our feet surrounded by bags of food. You should know that Felix can have a rather short fuse at times, and I had been up until 3am that morning on Skype, so we were both far from being in the mood to play sardines with broken air conditioning. When these women started throwing food at their German "boyfriends" (?) and then stroking our legs and laughing we'd had enough and when we reached the station we took seats on the coach as far away from them as possible!

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The bus wasn't uncomfortable, and the views across the rice fields and the still unbelievably flat landscape kept me entertained for at least three hours of what ended up being a seven hour journey. It was a real shame to see so much waste everywhere though - just like Morocco, a beautiful country has been ruined by the arrival of Western plastics and every ditch was full to the brim with discarded bottles and plastic bags. The roads themselves were simply awful, and as we'd taken the back row of seats we were being thrown around for most of the trip - it's hard to imagine what the roads were like before their "overhaul" two years ago. I'd remembered reading that in Thailand the back seats of a bus are always reserved for monks, and when an orange-clad Buddhist got on the bus before lunch I wondered if the same rule applied in Cambodia. No one asked us to move so we stayed put...

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At the lunch stop the roadside snack offer was less than appealing: mounds of fried insects which were being happily devoured by our Japanese bus-mates. Crunchy. We had only been given 20 minutes for lunch so we settled for a coke in the restaurant and (as we hadn't noticed the one on the bus) had a toilet dash. I mention this part because while I was drying my hands I received an alarmingly sharp poke to the ribs and turned round. Standing behind me, bony finger still outstretched, was the monk! I didn't have much time to think about this near-assault from a supposedly peace-loving man, as he started shouting at me in Khmer and then expected me to respond. Clearly I had no idea what he was on about so I just repeated what he'd said, got a nod in return and then I was left alone again, nursing a small round bruise. We left the restaurant via a long loop away from Mr Crazy-Eyed Monk's table, and with no better food available we came back to the bus with two loaves of bread and a pack of Laughing Cow cheese. This was a low point in food terms, made worse by how long the cheese had been in the sun, and I have no clue how neither of us got ill.

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The last four hours passed painfully slowly, though we were faintly amused by the choice of films they decided to show - Prison On Fire, followed by Prison On Fire II. Not quite what we'd expected to see on the way to the S21 prison but clearly the driver was a big Chow Yun Fat fan. Arriving in Phnom Penh at 8pm presented several issues, the main ones being hunger and the need for a bed (we had so far failed to decide on a hotel). Once again the bus was surrounded by tuk tuk drivers who, as usual, tried to convince us that everything was "very far". The free wifi sign alone (honestly) drew us off the street into KFC and we sat down with a Pepsi to find a nearby bed. Our 15 minute walk to the hotel gave us a chance to see the capital city and we weren't blown away - the traffic was mental, with the same lack of lights at a 4-way crossroads as we had seen in Siem Reap only with twice as many vehicles, and it was dirty. Here everyone throws their rubbish on the street where it sits until the rubbish collection lady arrives in the evening, so the accumulated smells towards the end of the day are far from welcoming. Our street turned out to be on the edge of a thriving sex tourism hotspot too, something that had been left out of the hotel's facilities list. We were shown around a couple of rooms and settled on a rather nice twin on the seventh floor (largely due to the breeze), and after refusing to pay full rate ($45) we negotiated a 33% discount at booked a few nights at $30 with breakfast included.

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We ate by the riverside and had a couple of well-earned beers. Then the stream of beggars started, first with single mothers and sickly children, then old men and finally children carrying baskets of flowers who had been trained to ignore the word 'no'. It was gone 10pm and this poor boy stood at our table for 15 minutes before moving onto the next one where he fell asleep on his feet. We returned to the room slightly angered by the contrast between the two cities and made plans to see the more sombre sights tomorrow.

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Posted by WorldWideWill 06:42 Archived in Cambodia

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