Traveling in-country is an undertaking that can turn even the most patient traveler into a raging lunatic. My 120 mile trip to Phnom Penh often turns into a two day adventure thanks to inclement weather, road maintenance delays, or missed taxis. Despite the seven hour trip, I look forward to weekends away from site when I can visit with my American friends, and eat food that is not rice. A few weeks ago I took a trip down south to visit my friend Kristine, and the taxi ride will be one that I’ll never forget. The 60 mile trip from Phnom Penh to her village took nearly 8 hours. I hope you enjoy my story.
“Hi, I’d like to go to p’saa chubah ambeuh,” I tell the tuk-tuk driver in Khmer.
“P’saa thmey (central market)?” he questions me.
“No, no, no. I want to go to p-s-a-a c-h-u-b-a-h a-m-b-e-u-h,” I restate slowly, knowing that my words are understandable so long as they fall on attentive ears.
“Ok lady, I take you to Wat Phnom,” he tells me in English.
“No, dammit. I want to go to p’saa chubah amebuh. It’s across the bridge on National Road No.1.”
“Oh! P’saa chubah ambeuh. Ok, I take you there.” He replies.
“How much for one person?” I ask in Khmer.
“Brahm dollah (five dollars),” he answers.
“Five dollars? To go two kilometers? No, I’ll pay you….a dollar and a half,” I bargain.
“Three dollars,” He counters.
“No, a dollar and a half,” I state and begin to walk away pretending to look for a cheaper tuk-tuk.
“Ok, ok, ok lady. Two dollars.”
“Alright.” I finally agree.
I climb in and immediately sling my right arm through the straps of my bag. I don’t want to become an easy target for the notorious Phnom Penh moto thieves. They drive up next to tourists in tuk-tuks, grab their bags from inside and take off through the traffic, rarely to be caught.
We turn into P’saa Chubah Ambeuh at 9:30am sharp, like Kristine said to do. The tuk-tuk is swarmed by a crowd of Khmer taxi drivers. One grabs my arm, another grabs at my bag, and yet another hops onto the moving tuk-tuk to try and convince me to ride in his taxi. They yell their destinations at me:
Holding tight onto my bag I jump off the tuk-tuk the moment it stops. I shove a wad of khmer riels into the tuk-tuk driver’s hand and push through the crowd of men saying that I already have a driver and to leave me alone. I make my way to the taxi vans parked near the food stalls that sell everything from cold bottled water to fried grasshoppers to sugar cane juice served in a plastic sack with a straw. I find the only taxi going to Kristine’s village; it’s empty except for the driver and his wife.
An empty taxi in Cambodia is a bad omen because taxis only leave when they are completely full. There’s only one option in dealing with an empty taxi: get your iPod out, get comfortable, and patiently wait until it fills up. A thirteen passenger van is considered “full and ready to leave” when the three following conditions have been met:
1. There are at least 25 people crammed inside the van, plus another 5 sitting on top.
2. There are about 30 cases of Anchor beer, a few dozen chickens, a moto, and a few bicycles tied to the top too.
3. The Khmer music in your van is loud enough that it drowns out the Khmer music in the van next to you, which is only three feet away.
I take a seat in the back next to a window after negotiating the price with the driver. The May heat hits hardest around 11:00am. Today it has to be close to 100°F with stagnant and humid Asian market air sticking to every inch of me while I sit and wait. Every smell emanating from the market fills my nose and soaks into my clothes. I can smell the gasoline being pumped by hand out of hundred gallon steel barrels, the fermented fish paste that Cambodia is known for, and the rotting pile of trash that was soaked by a rainstorm yesterday afternoon and marks the beginning of the tropical rainy season. The sellers stop by my window every few minutes trying to convince me to buy salted river clams, bananas, bottled water, and cheap plastic toys.
“Lady you want buy something. I give you special price.”
“Lady you buy water.”
“Lady you want pineapple?”
The van slowly starts to fill with people and I continue to sit and wait. It’s been nearly two hours now. I’ve sweat through my tee-shirt and have been constantly wiping the drips off my face and arms with my favorite green bandana. The driver climbs to the top of the van to tie down some empty 5 gallon plastic gas containers, three bicycles, and an assortment of neon colored flower patterned body pillows. Out of the corner of my eye I see our driver fall off the van and land on the ground. The rope he was balancing himself with snapped and he went over the side, but fortunately he landed on his feet.
The anticipation of our impending departure makes me irritable. My mood does not improve when the young guy sitting behind me lights up a cigarette and fills the van with cheap tobacco smoke. My blood boils and I turn around to tell him that he should smoke outside away from me because the smoke makes me sick. He laughs at me and I realize that I’m just a foreigner with a silly accent who can’t express feelings of anger using only basic Khmer.
We begin to move after more than three hours, but five minutes into the ride I leap out of my seat when something furry moves across my foot. I don’t realize that I’ve scraped my leg on a loose piece of metal until after I look under the seat in front of me expecting to see a rat, but instead find a puppy wagging its tail. I don’t remember seeing the dog get on the van.
Now that we’re moving, my clothes start to dry out, I cool off a bit, and my mind is looking forward to spending the weekend with a friend, but mostly I am looking forward to getting off this van and having a cold bucket bath. We reach the Neak Lohm ferry crossing after an hour or so. The road we are driving, National Road No. 1, is the main route between HoChiMinh City and Phnom Penh. It crosses over the massive Mekong River and travels through the Mekong Delta, the largest rice producing region in southern Vietnam. To cross the river you have to take a ferry at the town of Neak Lohm. A few years back the Japanese government gave Cambodia close to $10 million to build a proper bridge that could handle the immense amount of traffic that travels this route daily. That money was “misplaced,” so here I sit at the Neak Lohm ferry crossing, also known as that absolute arm pit of the earth, waiting to cross the river.
I go through the motions again with the sellers who shove plastic bags of warm fruit, sunglasses, and styrofoam containers of rice in my face trying to entice me to buy their food. After refusing to buy anything they eventually leave me alone, only to be replaced by beggars, who reach in through the windows, grab my hands and ask for money. Again the young man behind me lights up a cigarette in the van. This time though instead of relying on my limited Khmer, I reach back and start grabbing for his lit cigarette to throw it out the window. He gets the point and exits the van to smoke outside. We eventually load onto the ferry, cross the Mekong River, and turn off onto a dusty cow path of a road through the poor rural areas of Prey Veng.
Soon after turning onto this dirt road, a foul smell begins to take over the van. Putrid smelling vans are part of life here and I’ve learned to always have a bandana with me to cover my nose and mouth as a makeshift face mask. Nearly two hours after turning off onto this rough dirt road I overhear the Khmer family in front of me say: “Gcong chikah slahp.” This translates to “baby dog dead.” Now I think I know what the smell is: the dead puppy underneath the van seat in front of me. I ask the family if we can throw it out of the van, but they say no because it will be cooked for dinner tonight.
The van ride ends 10 minutes later and I jump out never being happier to be finished with a road trip. The lesson of this story: if the dog dies in the van because of heatstroke, it’s too hot to be traveling in Cambodia.