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Bangkok to Siem Reap – Overland


The sales assistant flashed me a plausible smile as I handed over the cash. “The bus leaves at 7am, you’ll be there by lunchtime”, he said, causing his assistant to choke involuntarily. I looked again at the route printed on the ticket: Bangkok to Siem Reap, the main tourist town in Cambodia. That sounded feasible: surely it couldn’t take long to cover 250 miles? Really, I should have known better.

Bright and early next morning, I presented myself outside the little travel agency, one of many identikit establishments running the length of Khaosan Road in Bangkok’s backpacker district. With a couple of days to kill before returning to London, I was eager to visit the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat. The twenty other passengers settling into the comfortable air-conditioned coach seemed equally excited about the prospect, and something of a school-trip atmosphere prevailed as we joined the heavily congested eastbound carriageway.

I soon got chatting to those around me: a young couple from Scotland approaching the end of an 18-month world tour; Ruud, a seven foot-tall Dutchman bound for the unspoilt beaches of Sihanoukville; and Steve, a hardened traveller from Australia with a passport smeared with visa stamps from the world’s hotspots. We quickly realised we’d all paid different amounts for this latest trip: the 200 baht (£3) that I’d willingly parted with seemed extortionate next to the 40 baht that Steve had negotiated.

There was also disagreement as to how long the journey was likely to take. Ruud reckoned a maximum of five hours; somebody accused him of exaggerating. When a voice from behind said we’d be lucky to arrive by nightfall, everybody laughed. Steve wasn’t laughing, though. In fact, the laconic Aussie seemed to know something we didn’t, and was busily unpacking a fat paperback, portable CD player, food rations for a day, six litres of water and an inflatable pillow. I thought about the bag of crisps I’d brought along in case of delays, and felt vaguely troubled.

By this time we were still in the outskirts of Bangkok, stranded in a shifting sea of yellow taxis, three-wheeled tuk-tuks and rasping motorbikes. The driver kept up an impressive stream of Thai-language profanity as he fought the traffic, interrupting the flow only occasionally to open the door and spit spectacularly onto the tarmac. It was mid-morning before the industrial townscape finally sank into an horizon of emerald rice paddies. We enjoyed a period of smooth progress, blissfully unaware it was to be our last.

The peace ended abruptly at the border town of Poipet. Descending drowsily from the bus, we were easy meat for sharp-eyed touts insisting (falsely) that we needed their help to complete customs formalities. Desperate beggars and shoeless children tormented our heartstrings right through passport control. Glancing back, I noticed our cosy bus turn back for Bangkok. In its place on the Cambodian side stood a rusting pick-up truck with space in the open back for perhaps four people. A chirpy fifteen-year-old, introducing himself as Tiger, our courier, explained that a bridge had collapsed that morning. Regrettably, we’d be using this “temporary transport” as far as the river. An incredulous New Zealander spoke for us all: “Surely we can’t all get in that thing?” Tiger smiled disarmingly.

Getting picked up can often be fun.

Half an hour later, twenty-one rucksacks were lashed to the tailgate, their owners were crushed together under the midday sun and the chassis was scraping the road. Then the engine howled in protest, a cloud of smoke and dust billowed up and we nosed onto a road rutted with cavernous craters. During the hour that followed, those at the front soon learned to shout “hang on!” as the next pothole gaped; hearing this, the rest of us would clutch frantically at each other’s clothing as the vehicle lurched violently. Other times the call was “duck!”, prompting twenty-one heads to dip beneath swinging branches. Once we were forced off the road into a field, where the spinning wheels sprayed us liberally with mud before gaining a grip. I looked again at the small print on my ticket: “Always a trip to remember”. Not an idle boast, I reflected.

Ours was by no means the only overloaded pick-up weaving along the narrow track. Others were practically eclipsed under tottering towers of rice sacks; even the smallest motorbikes seemed to bear a minimum of four passengers. Perched nonchalantly on the roof of the cab, Tiger amused us with a series of increasingly bizarre anecdotes. At one point he claimed to have travelled to New York by magic hippopotamus; he also said this was the best road in Cambodia. Obviously he enjoyed a joke.

Just when all feeling in our legs was fading, we rattled onto the bridge, hastily patched with iron sheets. Prising our sticky selves gratefully apart, we climbed down and took a quick head count: all present and correct. The next bus was waiting: more basic than the last, but at least it offered space and seats. We’d been on the move for seven hours, and now it was just 80 miles to Siem Reap.

Tiger hadn’t been joking about the road. From the town of Sisophon onwards, Route 6 became a bombed-out belt of stony ground dissecting a flat green landscape. No sooner did we bounce from one hole before pitching into the next. The driver reduced speed and swerved as best he could, but still the effect was like tumbling down an endless staircase. Hours passed and the sky darkened; some people attempted to sleep under the flickering lights, but then the bus would slam into another crater and our heads would add to the dents in the ceiling.

At one point Tiger announced we were stopping for a “bathroom break”. Although keen to stretch our legs, he urged us not to wander into the trees, warning of the eight million landmines still dormant in Cambodia. Already we’d seen dozens of men on crutches, just some of the two thousand unfortunates who stumble onto the deadly devices each year. The country’s troubled past continues to haunt daily life, with unexploded ordinance still affecting 40% of villages. Suddenly our own temporary inconvenience seemed irrelevant.

Before much longer, the pitching and rolling stopped, smooth tarmac flowed beneath the wheels and brightly-lit hotels beckoned on either side. The last 80 miles had taken eight hours; we arrived in Siem Reap at 10pm, fifteen hours after leaving Bangkok.

Was it worth the hassle? No question. The town was absorbing, the people were lovely and Angkor Wat was extraordinary. For the next couple of days I enjoyed Cambodia hugely, and then returned to Bangkok. The flight back took 45 minutes.

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