Fear and Loathing on the Siem Reap-Phnom Penh Night Bus

I finished work late Friday night, so in order to make the most of the weekend we decided to take the overnight bus at midnight. This would put us in Phnom Penh by 6:30 the next morning, give us two full days in the city, and would get me back to Siem Reap in time for class Monday morning. We went for a late dinner with friends, but got a call just after 11pm announcing that the bus was ready to depart and that we were late. We didn’t end up pulling away for another 90 minutes.

The conditions of the bus vary by trip, even when traveling with the same company, so we know to pack water and the warmest clothing we own in Cambodia. Water won’t necessarily be provided and the bus is better insulated than even the tiniest hotel rooms, so it is either steamy and moist with passengers’ hot breath or an ice box that leaves you with a sore throat.

We took our shoes off before we boarded and put them in the perfunctory plastic bag provided by the driver. I had my Reef sandals pinched a few years ago when I left them on the shoe rack at the front so I always bring my shoes to my bunk, but this time the driver was adamant that I leave them upfront.

We tried to squeeze through the aisle to reach our seats at the back of the bus, but after leapfrogging over filthy feet and hopping in and out of bunks to let people push towards the front we found our spot occupied by a family of three.

Brandishing our ticket stubs and gesticulating vigorously proved fruitless. With no open bunks in sight werealized that our only option was to backtrack until we reached the conductor. So after more unfortunate shuffling and leapfrogging we reached the front of the bus where the manager told us to wait as he plunged back into the depths. Forty minutes later we were in a seat.

Blankets are provided, as are faux ‘Beats by Dre’ headphones, but water isn’t guaranteed — which is almost tolerable since there is never a toilet onboard. Some first-timers do not realize this until after the journey is underway, like the young American girl sitting in front of us who made sure that everyone onboard knew that she had a small bladder and would never last the six hours without a bathroom break. An English guy across the aisle passed her an empty bottle and a plastic bag then wished her luck before popping in earplugs.

Her complaints ceased as soon as one of her friends passed her a can of beer and a blister pack of Xanax, but the ruckus continued as another friend produced a baggie of Ketamine and the four of them took turns leaning across the aisle and noisily blowing lines off the end of a key until one of them was left poking his tongue into the creases of the baggie.

It was impossible not to monitor the mini party. Even with earplugs in, the lights on the bus had gone off so the activity of those four backpackers was illuminated by the flash of one girl’s camera while she attempted to document every minute of mischief.

After about thirty minutes all four were whining that they needed the toilet, but they didn’t believe there truly wasn’t one on the bus, and yet they were too blissed out to go check. So they continued to whine. And drink beer. And open beer cans that they wedged in between the seats and shoved in the aisle without sipping.

Eventually one of them rolled into the aisle, knocking over a handful of cans and spilling beer in the process of inching toward the front on his hands and knees. After a few minutes the driver agreed to pull over. I knew this because the three still in their seats kept screaming for updates while they played footsie with each other and occasionally other unfortunate and drowsy passengers.

When the bus stopped by the side of the road the four bumbled off the bus. Standing in a row under the bus’s limelight, they peed in the bushes. The spot they had chosen highlighted them against the pitch black so that the entire bus, had they been awake, could watch them relieve themselves and subsequently spark a spliff.

When we arrived the next morning I emerged from my cocoon, took stock of my belongings, then I dropped into the aisle where I promptly stepped on and burst a plastic bag full of urine that had been left behind. Of course, when I got to the front of the bus my shoes were gone.

Naomi Collett Ritz

16 thoughts on “Fear and Loathing on the Siem Reap-Phnom Penh Night Bus

  1. keithcowans Reply

    moral of this story,which is most likely true,never take public transport in cambodia,buses have a terrible reputation,and safety is non existent

  2. Casey Nelson Reply

    Good travel entry. I like it.

    The inconveniences of overland travel in Cambodia sure have changed in recent years. Used to be vomiting women and farm animals in the cab. Now it’s druggy backpackers and whiny girls with walnut bladders…Well, maybe not so different.

  3. bobby dennie Reply

    Not surprise this bud are all but nothing trustful safe and reliable got same kind of surprise from 4000 islands in laos to siem reap they informed us 1 hour from siem reap than we will go down 4 hour more to phnom phenn and back to siem reap. I was near kill someone but finally we exchange with another on a restaurant parking two hours after. When we finally reach S.R it was dark and tuk tuk almost kidnapped us to a bride guesthouse. ..a bad experience but the rest of the cambodia was so great all is forget gor me…Some bad apple around tourist spot

  4. Pinnochio Reply

    I am in utter disbelief at the gall of these simian Americans to be drinking and doing drugs in cambodia. I am apoplectic at this outrage !

  5. Pinnochio Reply

    We all need to set an example when travelling abroad and it is of the utmost importance to be respectful, kind, and polite. If this type of behaviour continues, I suspect the khmer will soon mimmick this type of malevolence. I fear the day when I witness cambodians urinatining in public and acting in an uncultured fashion. These loathsome, primordial ‘backpackers’ must be stopped if we are to coexist harmoniously on this planet !

    • Coffee Tiger Reply

      “I fear the day when I witness cambodians urinatining in public”

      I witness Cambodians urinating on the side of roads on the daily my friend, even the Russian Blvd, Monivong, and Kampuchea Krom; 3 of the most used roads.

  6. Dave Perkes Reply

    I dont think you should judge all Cambodia buses by comparison with the night bus experience. I would never use one; but I have used day buses between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh without dramas. Giant Ibis is by far the best with new ac buses with seat belts and (in my experience) good driving. Mekong Express are better than most. Though their fleet is aging fast.
    Forget the vans; crazy drivers and many stops for the most part.

  7. Dave the Avenger Reply

    I am shocked and outraged at the smallmindedness of some travelers. Let’s be honest the nightbus is shite. It is unfair to criticize people because they want to have a good time on a journey which is arduous to say the least. I know you secretly would have loved a healthy bump of that ketamine.

    Neyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!!!!! (that is the sound a horse makes)

    • neni Reply

      What is unfair is that “fun” of a few make the journey even more difficult for the most :/

  8. Simon Reply

    It’s true there are no loos on many long distance Cambodian buses – I know this as a friend of mine regaled us all with the tale of a small child crapping in the aisle somewhere between Mondulkiri and Siem Reap. Nice.

  9. Anonymous Reply

    Yes, I agree taking the night bus (which I took from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap) is one of the most recent horrendous travel experience I ever had.
    It was very cramped and I was so distressed that I even refused the water that was offered. I think everyone should avoid the night bus.
    It is through good fortune that I came out from the journey safe and sound.

  10. Anonymous Reply

    Luckily, there were no child crapping in the aisle or urine bag bursting in front of me, though I saw some of the passengers stopping along the way to do their business.
    But it was really horrible to see the rubbish strewn place, which was very visible, even at night, in what was considered a bus station to them, and feeling a bit wary when I was told to board the bus with strange Chinese characters on it because as far as I know I did not book any Chinese bus. Even after showing them my ticket, I was told to get on that bus. The bus that I booked had a Khmer sounding name. Anyway, I went up the bus reluctantly as they were no decent hostel around and as it was already almost 12 midnight. I was really upset, when one of the bus staff tried to squeeze another man to my bunk which is obviously meant for one small size person only. Luckily, he took my hint when I said that I will only (reluctantly) share the very narrow bunk with another female. It was with great relief that I was left alone for the rest of the bumpy journey. I did not mind the cold in the bus but it did have a strange smell. And I paid 12 dollars for the nightmare.

  11. theebz Reply

    3 years ago i took the bus, it caught fire, the driver kept his foot on the gas, smoke filled cabin and flames out the back. Eventually the bus broke down and stopped. i took a deep breath and patiently waited or all the khmers, not totally freaking out, barging to get off, to exit and clear the way, i then exited quickly thanking my lucky stars.
    i now have two big bikes and take either one, never the bus! as notorious as the roads are i feel safer on the bike as i am in control of the vehicle on which i travel. experienced riders keep very aware of what’s going on within proximity at any given second and take it slowly 60-90kmh, no more, and never be a hero and take a silly risk, never! soon i get my brand new 4wd, yippee!

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