Monday, 15 August 2011

Battambang to Siem Reap, There's a Blue Pumpkin at the end of every journey, 20 April 2011

As the old proverb goes, 'There's no rest for the wicked'. Another day had arrived and with that, another early morning bus journey. It was Kate's birthday and to celebrate we were heading off to Siem Reap to meet up with Tom and Nicky who were travelling straight up from Phnom Penh. The bus journeys have become second nature and the once never ending trips now fly past without too much hassle. There was once when I thought a four hour bus journey was ridiculously long, now it's nothing to me.

I got up and grabbed an ice cold shower. There's no choice to have a hot one here and the water flow fluctuates uncontrollably from the nozzle. Kate and I met downstairs in the reception, I greeted her with a 'happy birthday!' hug and we picked our bags up and went back to the restaurant next door for breakfast where we were going to be collected. Before I arrived in Battambang, I had planned to take the boat to Siem Reap across the Tonle Sap Lake instead of the bus, however, Kate persuaded me to save the cash and get the bus with her to Siem Reap and take a boat trip from there instead.

We ended up buying the bus tickets from the restaurant next door as we couldn't get a sensible price from our hotel. As I was checking in, they told me it was $10 for the bus but speaking with Kate late on, they told her $6 and both asking us later we got $7. We couldn't quite get over their unjustified pricing system and having been quoted $5 from the restaurant next door, we went for it. We sat down and ordered breakfast. The owner was a friendly man who appeared happy and strangely on top of his business for a Cambodian. As we were tucking into our breakfast at a casual pace, we were suddenly approached by the man who told us our lift to the bus had arrived. That's absolutely crazy, we thought, it was on time! We grabbed as much food as we could before hurriedly grabbing our bags and heading outside to the minibus waiting for us in the middle of the road.

As with any trip, you never know what to expect. Were we going all the way to Siem Reap in this minibus? I hoped not as I wasn't too sure how much life was left in the motor. It spluttered and spat it's way round the corner and pulled up beside a red bus with metallic strips down the side. We were offloaded along with our bags and transferred onto the bus where a handful of people were scattered throughout along with several large sacks of rice in the isle. Kate and I stumbled down the isle and dumped our bags on the shelf behind the back seats and made our selves comfortable for the journey ahead. I checked my watch and it read ten minutes past eight which meant we had another twenty minutes before the bus was due to depart. A few minutes passed by and a few more people got onto the bus along with four young Buddhist monks draped in bright orange and in their sandals. Before coming to a Buddhist country, you have this idealist image of monks living a deeply spiritual life in peace and solitude, you never expect to see them hanging off the back of motorcycles or texting on their mobile phones.

I felt a shudder under my seat as the engine fired up with a slight hesitation. I checked my watch again and was perplexed as only five minutes had passed. The bus began moving off and my confusion turned into shock. The bus was leaving early? That is completely unheard of! How can that be? Nothing ever leaves early! Was I in an alternate universe where things leave on time? I looked at Kate, she looked at me and I could tell we were both thinking the same thing. We not only left on time, we left early! The bus weaved it's way through the small streets of Battambang that were alive with busy tradespeople and overloaded pickup trucks and made its way onto the main road out of the city.

A few kilometres from the city, the bus slowed and stopped at a police checkpoint. Just routine, I thought as this is just the way it is around here. The bus driver opened the door and left with some papers in his hand. He walked towards the police car where there were several coppers loitering and taking turns to stop vehicles coming in and out of the city. A few moments passed and the driver climbed back on the bus accompanied by the police officer that had pulled us over. I couldn't believe our luck, the bus pulled away but turned sharply towards the other side of the road, then reversed and, to my amazement, began heading back the way we came. Kate and I looked at each other and silently questioned our sudden change in direction. Familiar building passed by the window outside and not only did we go back into the city centre, we went out the other side to a police station where the driver and police officer hopped off and disappeared for several minutes before returning. During that time, none of the other passengers seemed to question this annoyance. Although we started off the journey twenty minutes early, we were now ten minutes late. I suppose you can't win them all!

Despite this mild inconvenience, the rest of the journey went without further incident and we pulled into the suburbs of Siem Reap a few hours later just as the clouds overhead threatened to explode in glorious precipitation. The bus went through what looked like the centre of the city, it dropped off a few people on a little side street and continued on its way. Kate had already visited Siem Reap and began to look concerned that we may have missed our stop but thought that maybe there was a bigger bus station somewhere. The bus crossed the river and hit a main road. That's when our concerns increased and a just as the bus began speeding out of the city we stood up and shouted 'STOP!' at the bus driver. He understood and pulled over, we tried to ask if there was a bus station but we couldn't get any information from him at all so we just grabbed our bags and headed off the bus. On the way out, I made the mistake of standing on a plastic bag which exploded under my feet. It was full of holy spew from one of the young monks. Nice.

Unfortunately the bus had passed through the city and was now quite a way from where we needed to be. Of course there was a tuk-tuk driver at hand who took us to our respective hotels at a friendly Cambodian overpriced charge. Kate was staying at another hotel with her friends and I had chosen a guesthouse that Nicky and Tom told me they had booked. I checked in, dumped my bags and headed outside as I knew the most amazing thing was about to happen. Standing outside, I looked up at the darkening sky with open arms as the rain started to fall and cooled me to the core.

Other than the rain, another Cambodian cooling technique is that of The Blue Pumpkin, Kate had introduced Nicky, Tom and I to the delights of this amazing bakery that's akin to the insides of an Apple Mac a few days before in Phnom Penh. It's fantastically cold and offers a huge variety of fruit smoothies, cakes, savouries and anything you could want. It became our meeting place and later that night we met up with Tom, Nicky and Kate's friends before heading off for a birthday meal for Kate.

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