There’s not much choice when you’re in the middle of nowhere on the ‘quiet’ island of Don Khon in Si Phan Don. The only proximate ticket vendor who proposed to loan us the money for onward travel happened to be affiliated with the (we later found out) not-so-reputable Cambodian ‘Paramount’ company.
We purchased tickets to Kratie in Don Khon; we were told we would arrive in Kratie for about 13:00 – 14:00, if we left Si Phan Don at 08:00am. Our ticket included the boat ride to Ban Nakasang, a bus to the border and another bus passing through the town of Stung Treng and into Kratie. We hadn’t realised, however, that this ticket vendor was over-selling tickets beyond capacity. Nor did we realise he did business with Paramount, a transport company plagued by criticism on accounts of unsafe driving, traffic accidents, and overcrowding.
I realised there could be a problem when we waited for the bus at a travel agent in Ban Nakasang. Dozens of tourists and backpackers were huddled in little circles: some, smoking; others, buying beers for the journey; some, being hassled by locals to buy x, y and z; and others, sitting and filling out Cambodian visa applications under the supervision of an eloquent Laotian English-speaker charging $30 for the service. We ended up falling into the latter category; so much activity surrounded us, we weren’t too sure what we were doing, or whether anything needed to be done at all.
As Nico went to an ATM, I overheard a Dutch couple complaining to the workers. ‘Paramount, we don’t want to travel with Paramount. Our friend lives in Cambodia, and she says Paramount is a scam. We don’t want to travel with them’. I felt a bit sorry for her, as we really were in the sticks. It was a pointless battle really. There was virtually no competition in Ban Nakasang – irrespective of Paramount’s reputation, Paramount it would have to be.
Though this may not reflect too favourably on us, Nico and I realised that if we wanted to get to Kratie at all… and to have a reasonably safe journey… we’d need to play the ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ game. Sounds horrible, but in the Cambodian heat with 20 x 2kg of weight to account for, the last thing on my mind was philanthropy, or to be titled the next ‘Mother Teresa’. We simply wanted to get from a to b in one piece.
We created a strategy: Nico was in charge of all of the bags and I was in charge of securing seats for us (this was particularly important as there was a disproportionate ratio of people to seats available on the bus). We executed this strategy for all bus transfers, and – as far as securing seats go – it worked.
However, when waiting for the next bus for 3 hours at the Cambodian border – again with a disproportionate ratio of people to available seats – we realised we formed part of a very small minority of passengers whose final destination was Kratie. The majority of travellers were going either to Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. As a result, after 3 hours of waiting and sweating and wondering what the hell was going on, a man from Paramount announces that all passengers going to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh ONLY were to load their bags and take their seats on the bus.
I counted about 5-6 others who were going to Kratie – all of whom were told to wait yet again as they observed the bus fill up and exceed capacity, seat by seat. Nico and I contemplated what to do; even after a Cambodian official outright told me ‘no’, when I asked whether we should enter the bus.
Our tickets were to Kratie, but we didn’t care. We decided to play the same game as the officials: Nico loaded the bags, and I sneaked into the bus and secured us two seats. I felt slightly exhilarated by our defiance, but simultaneously worried about what might happen next. They would eventually check our tickets…they might ask us to leave… we might have to bribe them… maybe we should pretend we lost our ticket? Maybe we should change the destination written on the ticket to Phnom Penh or Siem Reap? Who knew? Nonetheless, I felt an unbearable heaviness from lying at the Cambodian border.
Nico eventually managed to get in the bus and took his seat next to me. There was confusion about who should be on the bus and who shouldn’t… about whose bags were left behind, and whose weren’t. All of the seats on the bus were now full. And sadly, the pockets of people going to destinations other than Siem Reap and Phnom Penh stood stranded outside.
I felt a bit guilty; as, had we not sneaked into the bus, we would have been stranded with them. The officials then played another round of their game, and told those who were stranded that they could give them their money back… Okay. And then what? Where would they go? They were at the border with the nearest town being in Stung Treng, two hours away.
The officials then gave these travellers another option: they pulled out a handful of mini-plastic stools to some travellers, and nothing for the rest. The entire middle row of the bus was packed with crouching travellers… some due to travel for 4 hours in horrible conditions.
As the Paramount workers eyed each passenger up and down, Nico urged me to pretend I was asleep, as sleeping passengers appear less guilty. Such bad cons, we were!
Nonetheless, the officials came…they inspected our tickets… noted we were going to Kratie… and carried on. Not a single word was mentioned about why we had seats. They didn’t really care. They knew they were going to stuff everybody like sardines into their bus. All they wanted was to make as much money from one journey as possible. And fortunately, we outsmarted them: secured our seats and successfully ventured south into the profiteering lands of Cambodia.