Backpacking isn’t all about wild adventures in beautiful, exotic places. The unfortunate truth is that you have to travel between these exotic places.
It may be delays at airports or arduous journeys on overcrowded minibuses. It could be grueling nights on sleeper trains or testing taxi trips. Whatever the case, making the trip from A to B can be a stressful and sometimes depressing aspect of backpacking life. It can quickly become a downer to the whole lifestyle if not tackled properly.
The truth is, the two worst things about going travelling are all the packing and all the travelling.
The key is to always look for the light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes though, that light can be pretty damn hard to see…
We’d only been on the road just over a month in late 2011. Alongside the numerous taxi scams we had encountered coming through Thailand and Vietnam, I spent the best part of our first sleeper train journey staggering back and forth between the squat toilets. There I would cling on to the handrails and hover like I’ve never hovered before as the train hurtled and clunked its way around twists and turns.
After that one I decided I’d rather be unconscious for the rest of our long journeys. I invested heavily in diazepam, which was available over the counter from almost every pharmacy at the time. Paddy was a little concerned that we might go to the toilet as we lay comatose on the train. I waived away such nonsense and told him not to worry. I had no clue if that was possible but decided to gamble.
Oddly enough, the worst journey I’d taken to date wasn’t the 13-hour sleeper where I felt unwell. Nor was it the 18-hour trek to Hoi An or even the 26-hour marathon to Ho Chi Minh City. No, the worst one thus far was the little four hour bus journey from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville.
Sihanoukville, or ‘Snookyville’ as many have come to call it, is the little beach town in Cambodia that has been bubbling on the edge of the radar for several years now. With some off-shore islands that are Cambodia’s answer to Koh Samui and Koh Phangan, Sihanoukville is growing in popularity. While it is yet to attract the full-on commercialism that has overrun the islands in the south of Thailand, it is developing rapidly.
For now, it is paradise in poverty. A backpacker’s paradise no doubt but definitely worth a visit while there is still some authentic charm left. Getting there, however, was far from charming.
We had been out the night before, as per usual.
Paddy passed out moments after we boarded the bus but was rudely awakened soon after as a Gollum-like creature appeared at his side and started gabbling in a strange tongue, clearly unhappy at the sight of Paddy catching flies. As it turned out, we were in the wrong seats. A quick shuffle across the aisle corrected the problem and Gollum happily replaced us by lying across both seats and rubbing two dirty bare feet on the window.
Paddy slipped back into his slumber in an instant. The bus filled while I studied Gollum from behind the cover of my sunglasses.
I initially thought it was male as it was completely bald and stood about four foot nothing with a hunched back, possibly taller when dehunched.
However, as it spoke to the women in the seats in front, the tones were more feminine. Aged hands and a weary face directed my guess towards a woman in her sixties. Her attempts to get comfortable lying down were ended as the bus filled to capacity. She had to sit up to allow a younger Cambodian woman sit down next to her.
Gollum looked unhappy and turned to face the window, curling her feet up beneath herself. The bus set off soon after and before we hit third gear, music began to blare from the speakers. This effectively cut the ribbon on the roughest bus journey I’ve ever endured.
At first I hadn’t actually seen the TV screen from my position midway down the bus. I just assumed the driver had put the radio on the most annoying channel he could find. Soon enough I spotted the screen though and put two and two together to realize this was Cambodia’s version of Glee. Only with old people who were all clearly mentally ill.
The locals on-board, which made up the vast majority of the bus, loved it. They were entranced by every song as they smiled in awe and some even clapped and hummed along to the beat. Gollum wasn’t fussed though as she coughed loudly into the window pane and grumbled into a handkerchief.
Not understanding a single word coming from the TV, I quickly lost interest. However, I had realized something about the TV; it was clearly a distraction from the real horror show on display just a few feet below.
Dropping my gaze to stare out the window-screen I had noticed we had made it onto a main road. Still as bumpy and pothole-ridden as the back roads, the main roads in Cambodia were slightly-better sealed and a little bit wider. This one still only had two lanes though.
Cambodian drivers have a peculiar habit of creating an imaginary third lane in the middle, which can be used to go in either direction at any time. The problem with this is that not many vehicles can fit down a lane that is 12 inches wide, so inevitably any traffic in the standard two lanes will have to move to the side, or else be moved to the side.
For four hours I stared out the window as our driver, who may have been in the musical film at one time, grew increasingly confident in his ability to get to Sihanoukville in record-breaking time, even if it meant we all died on the way.
For most of the journey he decided it would be much quicker to drive on the wrong side of the road.
I watched in horror as he forced cars, bikes, buses and cows out onto the ditch for hundreds of yards at a time. Occasionally he would come to his senses and return to the correct side, but moments later he would be back out again, showing everybody in Cambodia he was the King of playing ‘Chicken’.
The viewing became unbearable at times and I pulled my head back in from the aisle. Looking around, I was astonished nobody else had seemed to notice what was happening. Then again, perhaps they were so used to it by now they found it easier to watch the TV. Better to try to block reality out.
I looked over at Paddy who was busy headbutting the window in his sleep, oblivious to it all.
Meanwhile, Gollum was hawking a demon out of herself into the handkerchief. I began to wonder if she was going to collapse with a busted lung soon. The snarling in her throat rumbled like a brewing thunderstorm, only to be drowned out by the TV, which seemed to be getting louder with every song.
The horrible cacophony was capped off by the head-piercing rasp of the horn. My guess is it was an early Christmas present. The crazy driver was definitely making good use of it. While Paddy could sleep through an earthquake, I require almost total silence, so even if I could somehow block out the rest of the noise, the driver was only giving me about seven seconds between blasts on his horn to try and fall asleep.
Trying to position myself more comfortably, I crossed my right leg over my left and closed my eyes momentarily.
Opening them and looking across the aisle to see what Gollum was at, I caught the stare of the woman sitting next to her. She looked unhappy; unhappy with me.
In Buddhism, the foot is regarded as the lowest and most unclean part of the body. To point the foot at someone is a bit like flipping the middle finger. Realizing the sole of my bare foot was aimed directly at this woman, I quickly copped on and dropped my foot to the floor. She smiled as if to say ‘good boy’.
After that I gave up on sleep and resumed my viewing of the comedy driving. At this point, Crazy was busy slaloming through school kids on their bicycles, swerving right to left before swinging back onto the correct side of the road just in time to narrowly avoid a head-on collision with a tuk-tuk. Coming up to a sharp bend in the road, he decided it was the opportune moment to attempt a take-over of four cars at once.
Putting his foot down, Crazy gave the horn eight or nine short blasts to let everyone know he was coming and moved out to go for it. A lorry was coming full steam towards us.
Pausing for a second, he seemed to be toying with the idea of squeezing down the magic middle lane.
Gripping the head-rest of the seat in front, I braced.
Finally, Crazy opted to get back in line and wait for another chance. Breathing a sigh of relief, I lay back in the seat, closed my eyes and willed time forward.
A pit-stop gave us a chance to stretch our legs and get some refreshments. Paddy spent his 15 minute break in a cubicle while I sampled some of the not-so-fresh food that had been cooking in the sun all morning. It was a bad choice and within minutes of getting back on the bus my hangover seemed to get worse.
The musical was over and had been replaced by some form of comedy show that had the locals in stitches for the last two hours of the trip.
Gollum remained nonplussed. Her sporadic spells of loud coughing and growling into her handkerchief went on, which started to make me wonder if we would have to pull in at the next town to find a priest for an exorcism.
The wheels rolled and bumped on endlessly. The symphony of horns, laughter and coughing continued without mercy, drilling a hole through my head. I shielded my eyes as the sun rose high in the sky and beamed through the window. Paddy had awoken and was feeling like he was going to be sick. I had a different need for the toilet which was becoming just as desperate.
This was getting uncomfortable. The sweat rolled down my head and back as Crazy continued on his death-defying mission. He was also busy trying to beep out a rave song on the horn. At this point I would have nearly got out and paid a taxi the rest of the way. I already had eyed up Gollum’s handkerchief to use as a white flag.
But just as it seemed like I was about to slip into a state of psychosis, suddenly, out of nowhere, came serenity.
The TV was turned off and slid up into its place as the laughter died down. We had turned off the main road and were on a quieter side-road. It had less cars and therefore less horn-beeping. Palm trees appeared either side of us. Looking out the window, we seen hundreds of the trees standing in front of the clear blue sky. We were coasting towards the seashore that had appeared on the horizon.
We had reached Sihanoukville. Even Gollum looked happy.
Now to find this hostel that everybody was raving about with the swimming pool and bar. I tried to take Paddy’s mind off his groaning gut.
“Apparently they cram 26 people into a tiny little room. You sleep on little thin mats six inches from your neighbor either side of you. Everyone just lying on what is basically a wooden shelf, but it only costs $2 a night!”
“What’s it called?” he asked.