8 July 2011

Travel to Phenom Penh

We thought this should be fairly easy.  A direct VIP bus that isn’t supposed to stop except for a quick lunch break, and the main highway in Cambodia.  You have to keep the tourists happy traveling out to see Angkor Wat and back don’t you?
No.  You don’t.
The bus was ment to pick us up from our hotel at 7:45.  We knew it would only be a mini bus, as the proper bus leaves from the bus station at 8:30.  We were waiting out the front at 7:45 as told.  No bus.  8:00, still no bus.  8:15 and we started worrying, as we weren’t sure if the main bus would wait for us, or the mini bus had gone to the wrong hotel.  You know all those fears and ideas you have when things aren’t working to plan.  8:30 came and went.  I was still thinking everyone was working on Cambodian time still, but cutting it fine, when the mini bus rocked up, threw our luggage and us in the back and raced off.  The pickup lasted less than 5 seconds!  At least we knew we were still going somewhere today.  Only six more hours to go.  It is 240km after all.  At the main bus station we were accosted by the usual people selling you overpriced baguette, pineapples and the like.  However after making sure our bag made it onto the right bus (It does pay to check here) we were on and in our seats.  After the waiting this morning, the bus left at a reasonable time. 8:45.
The trip started out well with us being given a water and choice of custard roll or donut.  The  custard roll was quite good, and made a small breakfast.
After driving out of the city, we found out that we were using the north highway to go to Phenom Penh.  This is the side of the lake that we had done on our other trip to get to Siem Reap.  Not a good sign.  So a lot of the country side we had seen in the dark was now visible to us.  The fluorescent lights we had seen everywhere at night were still there, and we had worked out that the sheets over and under them were to catch crickets.  They are still a popular snack this side of the country.  About two hours into the trip and 50km, things started to get interesting.  There was a traffic jam.  Not to worry, it’s the highway.  They will clean up the accident soon, and we can continue on our way. An hour later we still hadn’t moved, and no one knew what the problem was.  Not to worry.  We asked to be let out for a minute, as I needed a cigarette by this stage, and the floodgates opened.  Everyone left the bus.  20 minutes later we were all asked to pile back in,and we moved on.  A whole 100m or so.  Then nothing.  Finally an explanation came, and one of the other customers on the bus that could speak english translated for us.  There was a road block further up and people were protesting corporate and government land grabs.  However the police, and mayor of the region had been called and it would be cleared up soon.  Cambodia time remember.  Half an hour later we were out of the bus and dripping in the shade when we were told that we would go 25km back to the last village for a quick lunch while the situation was resolved.  On the bus again.  There was a complicated sequence as the bus turned around, and we drove half way back to Siem Reap.
The food at this joint didn’t look that appealing, so we crossed the road to the small street stall.  The lady there was a bit shocked that Europeans were choosing her small stall over the big complex.  A drink, baggie of chips, and some small bits of bread only cost about 6000r.  There was a good laugh by everyone, as our Cambodian is non existent, and her english was as well.  She knew her numbers, but got hundreds and thousands mixed up, so I way overpaid.  She gave the excess change and while I thought for a bit that I had paid tourist prices, it all cost about $1.50.  Makes you realise how much you are ripped off in the city.

Waiting there was annoying.  It was hot, sticky, and smelly.  There was very little shade, apart from in the food stall, and a few scraggly trees outside that were either occupied by people or ants.  Biting ants at that.  The food stall was a tin shed filled with people from all the other busses that couldn’t get through either.  The 7am bus was there from our company, plus half a dozen others.  So there was the human heat as well.  No fans, and the only seats were the ones for customers.  After an unknown period that felt like years, we were finally allowed onto the bus again for the next attempt.  There were a couple of people on our bus that gave up and organised a taxi back to Siem Reap, as they would miss their flight to Bangkok and their connection home.  Thinking it was better to do a bus directly from Siem Reap to Thailand.  I still am not sure who made the better choice.
On the drive back to the road block we were told the solution.  We would need to grab our bags and walk three kilometres through the road block to get to the bus that was coming the other way.  They would have to do the same, so it would be a bus swap.  It was past midday now, and hot.  We were not looking forward to this.  However it seemed there was no other solution.
After driving as close to the road block as possible, we all got out and picked up our luggage.  It was chaos.  There were people everywhere, motorbikes nipping around stopped cars, trucks that were sideways and trying to turn around, and being pushed from every direction, or pushing yourself to avoid the bikes, or just to go forward.  There were already people from busses the other side walking this way, and they did not look happy.
The walk through the chaos was not too bad considering.  It was about 5 or 6 hundred metres to the road block from where the bus finally stopped.
The road block and protest itself was a bit disappointing.  All the houses were cashing in by setting up stalls selling drinks food and water at hopefully vastly inflated prices.  There was a palm tree lying across the road with people sitting or standing in front of a large banner.  As it was in Cambodian, we couldn’t read it.  There weren’t many people there.  Maybe 50 or 100.  Then there was a break of about 50m where there was nothing but tourists, luggage, and motorbikes going in every direction.  The other side was a repeat of the first, but they had a wagon!  Then onto find the bus.  It wasnt too hard.  After getting all the luggage onto the bus, and most of the people we headed off.  As we had not been kept in a group it looked like we would leave some people behind, but it turned out that they had walked too far, and we picked up the missing passengers in dribs and drabs.
The excitement over, we drove past long lines of busses, trucks and people selling drinks.  One driver was making the most of it, and set his hammock up under his truck.  Someone would wake him when he could move again.

The rest of the trip was uneventful, but a serious dent in time.  It was well after five in the evening when we got into Phenom Penh.  After extracting ourselves from the multitudes of people offering tuktuks, motos, hotels and food, we took stock of our surroundings.  The bus company was kind enough to give us a map of the city, and we had been dropped off on the rivers edge right next to the night market.
There was a guest house on the opposite side of the market so we made our way there.  The room was ok, but smelt a bit musty.  It would do for a night.
It was time to look at the capital.  A quick stroll around the night market was a bit of a let down.  This was mainly clothing and a few trinkets.  Nothing like the Siem Reap markets.  There was a stage with performers.  Everything from love duets, to contemporary dance, and kids having fun.  The food was interesting.  Mainly a selection of things on sticks.  You gather what you want and they cook it for you.  There were big mats on the ground, where you left your shoes, and sat on the mat to eat.  Not too bad, but I think you really need to know what the products are.

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