Aside from me, there were four men in the bus from Bangkok to the Thai-Cambodian border. I think we were all in mid or late twenties. As prudent humans tend to do, we spread out to give each other space. I wound up resting my eyes most of the ride, and didn’t talk to the other guys until we disembarked.
We made some introductions and small talk while the folks at the border took our passports, presumably to make copies. Three of the men on the bus were English. Two had set out from Norfolk together: J was tall and outgoing, and F was not so tall and soft spoken. Both of them were friendly. The third Englishman coincidentally came from the same town as the others, but had only just met them in the bus station in Bangkok.
The third Englishman, D, wasn’t as friendly as the others, but he was civil enough. D came from a bit of money. According to J and F, D’s father owned a nightclub or some such back in England (maybe several nightclubs).
Despite D’s caustic demeanor, he shared a long story about how he wound up in Bangkok with the rest of us. D was afraid of flying, but managed to make the journey from England to Australia via commercial jet. His original plan was to take a cruise ship from Australia up East Asia, then take trains all the way back to Europe. However, there was a bit of an incident on the cruise.
The ship, apparently, had a casino on board. He was playing one game or another when he noticed an Australian man looking at him in a way D didn’t particularly care for. D asked the Aussie if there was a reason for the stink-eye. They exchanged some unfriendly words.
Annoyed but not wanting to escalate, D picked up his chips and moved to another table. The Australian followed him. Rather than flinch or waste any more words, D took a preemptive swing and knocked the Aussie on his ass.
The cruise ship sided with the Australian and kicked D off at the next port in Malaysia. Still afraid of flying, D decided to try to make it on time for his train rides by getting through Southeast Asia by land. So, he took a number of buses until he met the rest of us in the station in Bangkok.
That was D. Aside from sharing this story with the group, he didn’t speak all that much. He generally sat there with a beer and a scowl, and sometimes burst out with a hearty laugh.
The other English guys, J and F, were different. They smiled more often and were fond of conversation. This was particularly true in the case of J. For the short time I spent with him, I thought of J as the type of guy who jumped in first and thought about it later. He had a t-shirt wrapped around his foot that told a similar story:
Earlier in his travels, J had the opportunity to try his luck with a flaming jump rope. A jump rope was lit on fire, and drunk tourists took turns skipping. J not only tripped on the rope, but the thing caught on him and swung around the entirety of his ankle and left a significant burn. Nothing a t-shirt couldn’t fix, apparently. Despite the constant pain he must have been in, J smiled almost all the damn time.
J’s buddy F was quieter but still friendly, and he and I had a shared interest: the Uncharted video game series by Naughty Dog (an exclusive to Playstation consoles).
So, those were the three Englishmen: Friendly J, quiet F, and afraid-of-flying D. The fourth guy was an American expat who’d been living in Phnom Penh for quite a while. The American served as a sort of guide as we made our way from the border to the capitol, starting by figuring out which bus to take. In retrospect, we may have been better off doing our own research.
The bus we got on was, quite possibly, the worst form of transportation I’ve ever experienced. Apparently, we’d gotten to Cambodia in the middle of some sort of holiday—a holiday in which the entire country migrated back to their hometowns. The bus was packed, so the aisle was filled with stools for additional seating.
You could say I was lucky to be in a regular seat. However, the air conditioning was blasting the entire time and the vent over my head was broken. There was no way to shut it off or redirect it. I stuffed it partially with some paper, but it didn’t do much. My attempts at sleep over the next several hours were fruitless. The cold air rushing over me made sure of it.
Still, I didn’t have the worst seat out of the five of us. D was sitting across the aisle from me and, after a while, he noticed a slow stream of fluid creeping toward his shoes from in front of him. He pointed it out to us but left the most important detail unsaid until we got off the bus at the rest stop: it smelled like piss.
The rest stop was essentially a hybrid of a restaurant and would-be convenience store. Since it was the middle of the night, I think the kitchen was closed. So, our only options were bags of chips, canned drinks, and the like. While the rest of us were stretching our legs and buying some junk food, D got to work.
He approached the driver of a shuttle van—a much nicer vehicle. D asked if there was space and, as if it were written by a lazy author who didn’t care about events being too convenient, there were exactly five open seats.
So we grabbed our junk from the bus and jumped ship to the shuttle van. Leaning back in a comfortable reclining chair, with the vehicle’s A/C set to an appropriate temperature, I finally got some sleep. The contrast was tremendous.
We arrived in Phnom Penh in the day and the first thing we did was eat. The American expat brought us to a restaurant where he knew the manager—the manager also being the tuk-tuk driver that brought us there. I ordered the Shaking Beef and we all had our morning beer.
After the meal, we parted ways with the American expat. The English guys and I went to the Vietnamese embassy so we could get our visas for Vietnam. D was in a hurry to get there, and the rest of us went with him since we weren’t sure how long it might take to process. It took about twenty minutes.
Still trying to get back on his original itinerary, D said goodbye and left us as there. Since I had no solid plans, I went with J and F to Siem Reap. We took yet another bus, leaving the capitol to see Cambodia’s iconic temples.
We arrived in Siem Reap in the middle of the night and in heavy rain. Having not done any research about where to stay, we asked a tuk-tuk driver to take us to a hotel. When I woke the next morning, the power was out. That didn’t stop me from showering in the dark before going downstairs for breakfast. With no power, I was a little worried the kitchen might be out of commission, but I was treated to a nice breakfast (though I don’t recall any of its contents—I think, maybe, it was eggs with something).
J and F hadn’t come down by the time I finished eating, so I had a tuk-tuk driver take me to buy a cheap rain poncho, in case the weather turned bad again (it didn’t). After that I had to wait a few minutes for the Englishmen to be ready. We had another tuk-tuk take us to see the temples.
We saw a few different wats, but I didn’t take note as to which was which. Angkor Wat is easily distinguishable, of course. Then there was also Ta Prohm, the temple overgrown with trees where they filmed parts of Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life starring Angelina Jolie. However, there were definitely other temples. In between our wat-hopping, we had lunch in an outdoor food court: a bunch of tarps, tables and chairs serviced by a number of different “restaurants.” I had some fried rice which, like most of the food I had in Cambodia, was good.
The front of Angkor Wat’s main complex was having some work done, so there was scaffolding and a faux facade. The same thing had happened when I visited Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, so I wasn’t too disappointed. To make up for the construction, the universe treated me to a show: A fruit stealing monkey. The monkey watched a woman with a plastic bag full of fruits for a moment, then ran by and snatched it from her. Rather than going off to some secluded place to assess his spoils, he started eating the fruits right in the middle of the walkway.
After a long day of tourism, we had dinner at some grill restaurant which essentially sold exotic meats to foreigners. We ordered a set which included kangaroo, crocodile, ostrich, and snake. I don’t recall any of it tasting amazing, but we grilled our own meat and it’s more than likely that I overcooked everything.
With our appetites satiated to some extent, we gave the Siem Reap nightlife a try. I think we went to two or three different places before I eventually stumbled back into my room. Soon after that, I left J and F in Siem Reap and returned to Phnom Penh on my own. I was planning to go straight to Vietnam from there, but I missed the last bus. So I checked into a hostel and spent a night wasting more money on alcohol before returning to Saigon.