Fear and Loathing on the Siem Reap-Phnom Penh Night BusOctober 7, 2013
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