Sunday, 2 October 2011

Like a tin of sardines indeed, Siem Reap - Banlung, 24 April 2011

One solitary minibus sits still on the gravel, the morning is dark and wet following an overnight shower.  I am part of a group of nearly twenty people standing in bemusement as the driver attempts to squeeze us and all of our bags into the tiny bus that should only carry 16 people.  The bags a piled high on the front passenger seats and overhang the four seats that face away from the driver directly behind him.  All the time, our comments declaring this as a farce are met with a response, "This is only for 3 hours until we meet your VIP bus".  It's of no use complaining at the situation and as he says, it's only for three hours until we meet our bigger and more comfortable bus that will take us to Banlung. 

Five people are squeezed onto each row that should only seat 4 people.  It's uncomfortable.  Tom and I are sitting behind the driver facing backwards and our heads are tilted downwards as the bags stop us from sitting back with our heads against the head rests.  It's uncomfortable.  We feel lucky as there are only three people on our row but  just before we departed another girl hoped aboard and we were squeezed up with our hip bones grating against one another.  It's only for three hours, then we will have comfort once again.
The driver smiles as he knows he's got away with it again and slams the door shut without hesitation.   With that slam, a bag hanging over our heads gets dislodged and slowly falls upon us.  The bus hasn't even moved yet and bags are falling.  The minibus winds it's way through the still quiet streets of Siem Reap and the sun is now beginning to brighten the sky.  It's the second time in a week that I had been up for sunrise althoughthe first time, despite the initial anxiety, was far more pleasurable.  Whilst watching the tourist centre of Siem Reap disappear, I remember what Dr Richner had said last night.  He reminded us that although the centre of Siem Reap is full of expensive hotels and nice restaurants, it is a fascade that is masking the true poverty of Cambodia for tourists. 

An hour has past by since we left the city limits of Siem Reap and the rain has begun to drop heavy loads on us.  When the rain falls, fear of accidents increases.  Despite the rain, the minibus is getting warmer and we're stuck with the decision of having the window open and getting wet, or keep it shut and let the hot and humid air slowly suffocate us.  We chose to open the windows.  The bus is full of tired looking western faces all feeling let down yet again.  Nobody speaks.  Everybody is just staring blankly at the flat terrain passing by out of the window, it's flat like Norfolk and reminds me of home somewhat.  Some have MP3 players blasting music in their ears as they try to forget where they are and let their musical memory take over for a while. 

My treasured companion on this trip is my Creative Zen MP3 player and I don't know what I would do without it.  Everytime I leave somewhere I have a routine check of my important items, wallet, passport, camera, MP3 Player.  All other items are circumstantial and easily be replaced.  I made a terrible mistake in China when I was trying to transfer some episodes of '24' onto my Zen and instead of hitting 'Eject', I hit 'Format' (stupid buttons are next to each other!) and it wiped my entire music collection.  Thankfully, I had brought an external hard drive with all of my music on so it wasn't lost forever due to my incompetent Mandarin reading skills.

The journey is becoming increasingly tedious as we drive along an unremarkable road that has the normal amount of bumps in it than any South East Asian Country that intermittently stir you from your slumber.  It's now been a couple of hours since we left Siem Reap and it still hasn't stopped raining.  The bus driver slows and negotiates his way off the road and into a small car park.  Great, it must be break time.  Time to stretch the legs, grab a bit to eat and go to the toilet.  As soon as the doors open, everyone becomes excited and impatience fills their eyes as they want freedom from the cramped minibus and taste some fresh air.

I have learnt that pit stops in South East Asia are inconsistent and sometimes far too long.  This stop was no exception, we're standing there looking at each other with eagerness as we want to get back on the road and to our destination whilst the driver sits there munching down some noodles and drinking gallons of tea.  I wonder how much the bus drivers receive from the owners for bringing their load to a persons shop/café?  I leave the restaurant area and quickly run next door where a make shift shop has been erected under some tarpaulin.  There were several baskets with different types of goods in them, mainly biscuit type treats.  I bought a packet of digestive biscuits from the lady and returned to the restaurant with the other people waiting patiently.

It wasn't long until the bus driver stood up and began to summon us to the bus.  Only another hour, I was thinking.  It's already been two hours, the worst is over.  We all climb back into our seats in silence.  Some have food, some have drink and some don't have anything and sit there staring outside again, speechless.  Indeed another hour did pass by and the bus stopped on the side of the road.  Fantastic, I thought as I admired the 'V.I.P' bus parked up beckoning people aboard to experience its luxury.  'People go to Laos, get off, change bus now.'  the bus driver ordered.  'What?  How about Banlung?' I enquired.  'No, one more hour.  Then change bus.' he responded.

Feeling dejected, we're back on the bus again but at least there is more space to stretch out comfortably since half the passengers have got off.  I intermittently look at my watch and the second hand seems to be moving backwards. However, unnervingly true to his word, the bus pulls into a town, with incredibly dusty streets and we're asked to get off.  We are asked to queue up at a desk to exchange our tickets for our next bus.  You can sense that everybody is happy and utterly relieved to finally be getting onto our 'VIP' bus and perhaps relax for a few more hours until we reach Banlung. 

In a happy and prosperous step, I lead the others across the road with our bags in our hands towards the bus that is waiting to take us the rest of the way.  After safetly navigating the traffic I begin to climb into the bus and as my head turns to view the inside, my smile lessens and my mind begins to boggle.  There are no available seats left on the bus.  Not only were there no seats left, the isle was also full of people sitting on packages and bags of rice.  The sea of Khmer faces stare back at me blankly as I turn around and pass on the bad news to the others. 

"You're not going to believe this guys, but there are no seats left!"  I warn the others and in shock and disbelief they each go onto the bus and discover the truth of my words.  Swearing begins amongst the group as the final straw has very much borken the camels back.  I head back across the road with a couple of others and confront the man.  "Excuse me?" I begin politely.  "How do you expect us to fit on that bus."  I ask and am met with a blank look.  "There are eight of us and there are no seats." 
        "On your bag, on your bag!" The man insisted.
        "How?  No room in aisle!"  I returned.
        "On your bag!"  He annoyingly repeated.
        "We can't!  There is NO ROOM!"  I fired back feeling frustrated.
        "We want a F***ING seat!" The Northern English girl returned angrily.
        "No, get on now, on bag."  He defended.
        "I don't think you understand…  We paid $28 and there is NO ROOM to get on!"  I said in an effort of understanding. 
        "Not my problem!"  He stated in an attempt to end the debate.

By saying those three words he ignited a rage deep within me.  How dare he stand there and tell us it's not his problem.  "Who's problem is it then?"  I enquired.

        "Not mine.  Get on the bus." He flippantly responded. 
        "How can you say it's not your problem.  You work for the company who sold us our tickets, right?  Then it is your problem!"  I try to remain calm as others begin shouting and swearing at him.

Whilst this debate continued, the driver of the bus had obviously reached his cut off point and drove away without us. A brief moment of silence followed where we all looked at one another.
“When is the next bus?” We enquired.
“Tomorrow!” He replied dryly without an ounce of care in his voice.

Oh great, we are now stuck in the middle of nowhere. We were not getting any further, so we provided the man with some options. Either, they take us all the way to Banlung in the minibus or pay for accommodation overnight and guarantee seats on the next bus. The man picked his phone up and dialled a number, he began to speak fast and agitated down to the person on the other end and then presented the phone to me and said “Boss!”

I took the phone and explained our predicament to the lady on the other end. She was speaking fairly good English and asked me what we wanted her to do. What did we want them to do? The bus we wanted was full and had just left us. An option was for us to stay in this town until the next day when we could try and get on the bus again but they weren't prepared to pay for our accommodation. Another was for the minibus to take us half way to Kratie where we could get on the bus and hopefully get a seat from people who got off. They refused this option too. The only option was for the minibus to drive us to catch up with the 'VIP' bus and the lady promised us some plastic seats to sit on in the isle. After arguing some more and trying to stand up for our non existent rights we gave up and got back on the minibus to catch up with the bus. The driver was driving like a maniac as he was fuelled with frustration at these foreigners who had caused him so much grief. I wasn't sure we'd actually make it to the bus alive.

Around ten minutes had passed and we pulled into a roadside restaurant where the 'VIP' bus was parked up waiting for us. What never occurred to the driver was that there was no space on the bus back in that small unknown town, how would there be space now? So here we are, a bit further down the road but with the same issue. We all climbed out of the minibus and grabbed our bags. As soon as we were outside the argumentative man, whose problem it was not, was heading back inside the minibus to drive away but I literally jumped in front of the van to stop them and told him that he wasn't leaving until we got on the bus.

The negotiations continued just like before but this time it was with the bus driver and after another ten minutes, he stopped, hopped aboard clearly at the end of his patience and began driving away without us. The bus started to reverse back onto the road and we had no option but to jump aboard. I was the last one to jump on and it was a squeeze, I was hanging out of the door as the bus reached the road and began driving off. I feared that it was going to be like this for the next 6 hours.

My fears were brought to an abrupt end as the bus pulled over at a road side garage. The driver stood up and barged by us, pushing me out of the bus onto the gravel. I watched on angrily as the bus driver talked to the man and his wife who obviously owned this garage. I say garage but it was more like a shack where they lived but had some mechanical tools. They finished talking and walked towards the rear wheel. The driver, a large man, eased himself onto the floor, laid on the floor and pulled himself under the bus to inspect the inside tyre which had obviously had a puncture.

The drivers assistant, a small lanky young man had retrieved some tools and had attended to retrieving the spare wheel from under the bus. The other passengers remained on board the bus, looking idly on as it was routine. I was calming down after our anguishing last hour and enjoyed a moment of peace looking around the garage on my own. As the workman, the driver and his assistant pulled off the offending wheel, several passengers obviously had had enough and got off the bus and walked away looking to hitch the rest of their journey. That was great news for us as it meant there maybe just enough space for us to squeeze further on the bus.
Nicky and Tom with our Northern bus friends, it's funny now!

The wheel had been repaired and we were back on the road again but this time we had managed to find enough room to use the plastic stools that were supplied to us. It was uncomfortable, Nicky's knees pushed into my back and in turn my knees in the back of the girl in front. It's only until we reach Kratie, we reminded our selves, only to Kratie. The hours passed by slowly and Kratie seemed to be an allusive place that would never appear. To my left, A northern English girl had squeezed herself onto a seat with two Cambodian boys who seemed less than happy to share their seats with her and to my right an angry German girl sat there periodically swearing at the driver and his assistant as they sneered and laughed at our uncomfortable position.

Kratie finally appeared three long hours later. This is where we would finally be getting a seat all to ourselves. We all looked on with eager eyes, locating potential seats but they never materialised and the bus moved off with even more angry foreigners on board than ever. I wouldn't mind this situation if we had only paid $5 like my train ride in Mongolia, I got what I paid for and I accepted it but this is blatantly taking the piss. Paying $28 to be lied to and treated like cattle. Even more frustration is that there is nothing we could do to put things right or complain. We had to accept this situation, embrace it and understand that we would look back at this journey and laugh about it.

I finally got a seat for the last couple of hours as we turned of the paved road onto the a gravel like surface. The bus hit pot hole after pot hole throwing us side to side making us hang on to the seat in front. Nicky was still on the floor but seemed to be comfortable enough. Tom was lucky enough to have gotten a seat a very long time ago somewhere down the back of the bus. As we travelled across the precarious wooden bridges over streams, rivers and ravines that creaked as the bus made its way steadily across. The sun had gone down a long time ago which made visibility down this narrow gravel road, surrounded on both sides by jungle nearly non existent. Every now and again we would see solitary houses amongst the trees with fires burning.

We eventually arrived in Banlung around 9pm after one hell of a journey....  But that wasn't the end of it.....

1 comment:

  1. "The bus hasn't even moved yet and bags are falling." Hilarious. Why does Nicky look so bloody happy in the photo? Sounds like a nightmare dude...but makes for hilarious reading. Keep blogging! Kathy x