Those drivers were certainly ‘bad boys’. We didn’t need to speak Khmer to understand that they were rude; loud; grossly inappropriate to poor, local passengers; profiteers; unethical; and equally importantly, incredibly aggressive and unsafe drivers.
We’d had a few uncomfortable and thought-provoking bus journeys by this point. From the stomach-wrenching, windy roads starting in Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng in Laos to the profiteering menace of Paramount from the Laos – Cambodia border to Kratie, I hadn’t really considered travelling could get any worse.
It’s our own fault, really. We were trying to be efficient, and trusted a polite-sounding guy full of smiles too easily. He made us feel as though we were getting a bargain – paying $12 each for a bus ticket to Phnom Penh from Kratie. He explained we could get a cheaper bus, at $8 each, with many people, no air-conditioning, and many stops for the indirect route. Naturally, we agreed to paying more for all of those wonderful ‘comforts’. If only we didn’t trust the seller.
It’s a shame I didn’t keep the business card with the name of the hotel; otherwise, I’d be able to warn future travellers. He was a hotel representative, doing what hotel reps do: getting commission off the sales. But commission wasn’t his only profit; with his false smiles and seemingly-good intentions, he coaxed us into paying more for a service he knew he wasn’t offering. He was merely trying to pocket the difference; and he succeeded.
At 11am, we arrived at our hotel in anticipation of this ‘comfortable’ bus we paid for. Instead, we found a random man on a scooter asking us to hop on; telling us he wanted to drive us with our massive backpacks to the bus station so we could get to Phnom Penh… We refused, and asked the hotel tuk-tuk driver to take us to the bus station instead.
I felt a bit sorry for the tuk-tuk driver. There was a placid, kind look on his non-English-speaking face that gave me the feeling he knew we were being grossly manipulated and ripped off. But, of course, he didn’t say a word.
We were then told to board an old mini-van that was clearly falling apart. To make matters worse, the van’s floors were stacked with planks of wood, leaving hardly any legroom at all. The driver demanded we sit in the back, which we complied to temporarily, but then realised the whole thing was a hoax, and that we should at least sit in the front.
Without exaggeration, sitting with my knees scrunched up to my sweaty face and holding on to the mini-van’s side panels for my life, we sat through 8 gruelling hours of aggressive over-taking, honking and shouting in an incredibly full bus… watching motorbike upon motorbike being pushed off the road. A local lady and her child were abandoned in the middle of nowhere, as the drivers yelled at them to get off at a stop different to what their mere Khmer kip paid for. We witnessed local upon local getting stuffed into this 12-seater mini-van without any consideration of personal space. One teenage boy even had his bum pushed inappropriately into the bus when he delayed to enter as a result of the very obvious lack of space. What’s even worse is that none of us had the courage to say anything… do anything…To this day, I am so grateful that we came out of that mini-van in Phnom Penh all in one peace.
Now that I’ve completed most of my planned long bus journeys, I can confidently say our ride with the Cambodian ‘bad boys’ was the worst ever yet. I had never felt so uncertain about whether I would have a future at all, convinced it couldn’t be possible to survive such fast and unsafe driving.
Nonetheless, after a cocktail and a toast to ‘surviving our bus journey’, I did my research. I read as many news articles and reviews about transport in Cambodia as I could find on the net, and discovered that Cambodia had a notorious reputation in Southeast Asia for deadly traffic accidents. I also uncovered a company by the name of ‘P. P Sorya Transport’. Though some former travellers complained of smelly toilets, delays or losing some of their belongings: my discovery of this company enabled us to have some of the – most importantly – safest long distance bus rides we had yet experienced in Cambodia.
- Out-smarting a Cambodian profiteer: The unbearable heaviness of lying at the Cambodian border (thirdkulturekidparis.wordpress.com)
- BBC article about Bus crash injuring and killing Westerners in Cambodia: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-17191907
- The Phnom Penh Post, article on Cambodian traffic accidents: http://www.phnompenhpost.com/index.php/2012041155573/LIFT/steering-safe-for-new-year.html
- Warning to travellers in Cambodia from the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office: http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/travel-advice-by-country/asia-oceania/cambodia
- Blog on Traffic Accidents in Cambodia, highest in ASEAN: http://cambodiacalling.blogspot.com/2009/07/cambodias-traffic-accidents.html
- WHO’s Annual Report in 2004 for Traffic Accidents in Cambodia: http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/road_traffic/5year_strategy/en/travis_annualreport_execsum.pdf