Bangkok or Bust , Taking the Long Route From Phnom Penh

Moto, bus, moto, boat, moto, boat, taxi, feet, car, bus, taxi, car.

Twenty-two hours from Phnom Penh to Bangkok. My husband and I got lucky. The way back entailed 58 hours and a little adventure.

It is now possible, thanks to new border opening, to travel overland and overseas from Phnom Penh to Bangkok via Koh Kong. It costs about $25 one way, assuming  good karma is in order.

But why go?

Good question. We’re not sure we have the answer, but here are some of the prospects.


The Koh Kong Moto Ride

The boat from Sihanoukville dumps you at the Koh Kong dock, with no signs, no indications where to go.

“Where do you go? I take you,” sings the usual chorus of moto dops. We want to go to Thailand; they insist we must take a moto, then another boat.

Footnote: 1. Koh Kong has nothing but new motos. 2. One can walk most anywhere in Koh Kong.

We hop on two separate motos, creep 3 meters to the road, 25 meters around the corner to the driveway, 20 meters more to the water. We fork over 500 riel apiece to a big round of laughter.


The Koh Kong Taxi

Once upon a time, it was a Toyota, and it wore a white coat of paint. Now a thick film of ochre mud cakes the metal bits that aren’t stripped bare and rusted through.

Inside sports a front seat, a back seat and just enough nuts, bolts and metal to make it go. No carpet, but a vast sea of rainbow-colored wires. No padded ceiling. No stereo or speakers; just vacuums where one would put such amenities if one had them. Barely a dash board. No windshield, either: just the remnants of glass, shattered and taped, painted black—yes, black—all but for a narrow slit at eye level, which doesn’t show anything but a muddy smear from the windshield wiper that indeed works, minus the rubber. Metal scrapes against glass.

Someone painted the rear window purple.

The right rear door has its problems. The good news: there is one. The bad news: it doesn’t shut. But the driver has his routine: Open the window, pluck a wire from the bowels of the car, run it through the window and through the handle on the inside of the car, tie a knot. Good enough.

With about 10 turns of the key, we’re off. Briefly. The car burps and dies, the rear door flies open. Driver hops out, ties a new knot for the rear door, then trots off to a thatched hut. He re-emerges two minutes later with a soda bottle of gas. He pops the hood and pours the gas somewhere in the engine. Ten more key turns and the car belches to life.

There’s something backwards about the ventilation in this car: Fumes go inside.

It’s 4:39 now, and Mr Driver is on a mission to get us to the border in time to cross before 5 pm. Did I mention the rainy season? Did I mention it’s a 16 km mudslide from the dock to the gate?

We coast down slippery slopes. The wipers pound back and forth, smearing the peep hole. The driver rolls down his window.  Green fields of cannabis everywhere, planted in tidy rows.

It’s a flood zone until we reach the pretty pastel cement-block buildings dotting the land, dwarfing their ramshackle neighbors. The Koh Kong International Casino and its offshoots emerge.

Meanwhile, Mr Driver miscalculates a gouge in the middle of the road. We and all our bags smash the nasty metal ceiling and land with a bounce on the seat again. Mr Driver laughs.

Brakes need a check-up, too. We slide to the finish line: the immigration house.


The Bus, Part I:

Trat to Bangkok

It’s 11 pm. Do you know where your socks are?

The bus from Trat to Bangkok is frigid. I cover myself in thin plaid cotton, but it’s not enough to keep my feet toasty after a drizzly day in sandals. I pull towels and kramas from my bag and envelop my appendages in warmth. I rejoice in my shivers. I, born and bred in -30 degrees winters, have never felt such cold pleasure in Cambodia.

A uniformed bus boy serves us each a dry sponge cake and an icy cup of neon green Fanta.

We make it in five hours flat—no honking horns, no dodging cattle. Smooth, orderly highways. And there’s a bathroom on board.


The Bus, Part II:

Bangkok to Trat

Electrical fires never inspire confidence. There is no confidence on bus No 917.

The hostess passes out neon green Fanta in little blue cups. The bus stutters to a stop and we sit in stifling heat as clinks and clanks burst from the rear, where the driver mauls the engine.

We’re stuck in the middle of Thailand; we appear to be the only English-speakers on the bus. We have exhausted our Thai vocabulary— three words: bathroom, thank you.

We hop out to join a small crowd of passengers along the shoulder of Highway 3, watching the would-be mechanics at work. How many men in suit pants does it take to fix a fan belt?

Who knows. But eight try.

A bottomless supply of belts mysteriously appears, but none seems to make the engine purr (it’s more of a sonic screech).

The hostess brings out another round of neon green Fanta. After the men yank a third belt from the engine, she herds us back on board. The driver chugs the beast just en­ough to reach a restaurant 50 meters ahead, where a man grilling chicken looks up with a delighted grin.

But this is more than a restaurant. It’s a pipe shop. A paint store. A pottery emporium. And a guesthouse with the strong odor of a stockyard.

The hostess gets her bottle of neon green Fanta. Bus No 914 and bus No 915 zoom by.

A half-hour later, another No 917 comes to the rescue. All aboard, including the hostess with another liter of neon green Fanta.

The driver turns the key—nothing. Dead battery. The chicken man flips a wing and grins.

Seven men in white oxfords try to push-start a 10-ton diesel bus. When that fails, our original driver grinds the first bus around and attempts to tow the second bus using the discarded fan belts. Surprise, surprise, the belts break.

Yet another bus appears. We passengers from the first No 917 bus fling our gear into the storage compartment of this third bus. Five young men march off the bus, making room for the newcomers. They get to wait for the next bus. The chicken man still grins.

The third bus has neon red Fanta.


The Taxi:

Trat to Khlong Yai

When the Bangkok bus dumps you in Trat, your options are few. Trat is about 97 km from the border. Most taxis only go as far as Khlong Yai, a small town 17 km short of the border. That costs 60 baht a person. If you’re desperate, you can generally find a truck that will take you straight to the border for 250 baht a person.

For people who waste most of their day playing musical buses, timing is key. Just for argument’s sake, let’s say two of your buses break down and you arrive in Trat at 3:37 pm, well past the scheduled noon arrival time. You can chance the border, which closes at 5. That route will cost two people 500 baht. But it’s iffy.

So we opt for the communal taxi to Khlong Yai. (Note: This adds two nights to the trip. The border opens at 7 am and the Koh Kong boat leaves at 7:15 am. That’s not enough time to catch the boat, requiring a night in both Khlong Yai and Koh Kong.)

And so we’re off in a big old Toyota sedan. A Veloil tag dangles from the cigarette lighter, proclaiming “the most advanced lubrication technique only.” Dirty, ragged plastic lotus flowers hang from the rear-view mirror. A gold Buddha sits inside a jewelry case on the dash, which is cushioned with blue carpet. Four silent Thais snooze in the back seat.

The driver stops to fill up, and the gas-station attendant sports a grin that spans his face. He laughs, approaches us, inquisitively points east and, we assume, wishes us well in Thai.

The driver passes gas and it stinks.


Khlong Yai Dinner

Two things stand out about the dinner that night:  1. I threw up four hours later. 2. Drug bust.

There we were, enjoying our curried fish and basil chicken at an outdoor restaurant when, ever so quietly, a bunch of undercover cops round up the three young men sitting two tables away. One runs. The cops handcuff another guy and pull a sack of white powder from his crotch. Then the cops and the kids search the riverbank, presumably for more drugs. Before hauling the guys off, one young cop turns toward us, bows his head and smiles.


Run to the Border

A taxi truck is the only way to get from Khlong Yai to the border. We start somewhere amid one driver, 10 passengers, a 100-quart cooler, an empty rice sack, a full rice sack, two empty plastic bowls, two plastic bags smelling fishy, a stuffed backpack and miscellaneous luggage.

When we arrive, we have 17 people, all the or­iginal belongings—plus a camera with an extra dent—a rusty scale, a 20 quarts of gas, five soaked backs and 10 soggy feet after our roof lets loose a deluge when the truck gets going.


The Boat:

Koh Kong to Kompong Som

A young man walks down the aisle and hands each passenger a plastic bag. One hundred plastic bags, and we haven’t left Koh Kong yet. It’s 7:15 am. This could be a long ride.

A wad of blue and green plastic bags, tied firmly around our emergency-exit window in row 18, evokes visions of an indoor flood. A steady drizzle rattles the metal boat.

A dozen or so Khmer Rouge defectors (we guess as much by their stiff new government patches, ragged fatigues, flip flops, rusty rice pots and well-worn guns) pile on top the boat beside us, headed for Sre Ambel. We wonder about their fate.

The soldiers on our boat stay inside.

We bump along for 15 minutes or so and the air grows hot. Humid. Stifling. Pearls of water gather on the metal poles lining the aisle, then drip to the floor. The air conditioning quits—and with it, all fresh air. This boat is fully enclosed, sealed tight, made at least partly in preparation for the submarine ride ahead.

And then it comes. The swells, the rolls, the swaying from side to side. The force beneath us gathers momentum, and our driver fights it, an eye for an eye. “We shall beat this roaring monster. We have twin diesel engines. We have a GPS unit. We shall cruise as fast as the almighty mechanics allows us. Ha ha.” I imagine the driver chuckling to himself.

The underworld balloons to inhumane sizes, lifts our lowly vessel from its perch and hurls us into oblivion. The boat bottom smacks against the sea’s violent ceiling. The driver thinks again. We chug along—sway­ing, swaying, swaying. Then the en­gine stops abruptly. Four frightful, ominous seconds in silence.

The tempest blows again—this time we roll with it, not against it. Port side window submerges; starbird side shows cloudy sky. Switch sides. Port side points up; starbird side looks straight down to the nether regions.

Disturbed groans emanate from row four. Soldiers everywhere succumb to profuse sweating. Heads hit the seats in front of them. Panting fills the room.

And then the wretching begins. Rustle, rustle—get out the plastic bags—pass the garbage buckets around, stroke your wife’s sodden hair, find another bag for the little kid, haul out the menthol—by any means sleep if you can.

A Russian UN guy heads to the bathroom for an obscene amount of time. A Cambodian woman selling fruit sings softly in Khmer.

The second round of plastic bags comes through at 8:20. They don’t last long. A woman on the port side digs a dirty bag from the gar­bage bucket and adds to its contents. Her teen-aged son with three hoop earrings pats her back in sympathy.

Two hours of raging insanity. There comes a point when the human brain acts as its own sedative, numbing all thoughts and senses, forcing the body to lie back and wait.

And then there is sun. The skies miraculously clear and we reach Koh S’Dech, a tiny mid-way island. Windows and doors bust open, fresh hot air rushes through, and half the boat falls asleep.

We pull into Kompong Som two hours beyond that—fatigued, sweaty, stinking of innard juices. As we exit, we pass two bins at the front of the boat housing approximately 10 old and weary life jackets.

Sure enough, the overland/overseas route to Bangkok is open.



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