Transportation in Cambodia can be described in many ways: adventurous, exciting, a mystery, dangerous, something to dread and/or hate, a way to make new friends, or a big leap of faith. Cambodia is a small country, but the infrastructure and roads (or lack of both) make it exceedingly difficult to travel. In town travel is easy, but leaving town presents many options. I’ve heard so many horror stories, and finally have some of my own to add.

My first transit snafu was a minor one. Last week I was on a boat with my friend Lisa on Tonle Sap lake (one of the options for transit between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh and small stops along the way. Also the largest lake in Asia). We were the only two people on the boat of about 12 feet long. The motor over heated due to some minor flooding. We were only stranded for about an hour before they got it working again. Not bad.

This past weekend I travelled to the city Battambang. Choices are boat, bus, or taxi. I had to work on Friday, so arranged for a taxi to pick me up at 4pm. Well, at 4am Friday morning I awoke to someone banging on my door and window. Terrified and not knowing what was happening, I curled up in my bed hoping it would stop! Eventually I figured out the mistake. Communication breakdown.

So 4pm rolls around, and my driver shows back up. I had paid for a private taxi, which is simply a man that drives me to my location in his car. After about 10 minutes on the road, we stopped and I was left in the car for about 30 minutes alone without a clue as to what the driver was doing. He comes back with another person. A private taxi no more, and I know that I’ve been ripped off and this other passenger is getting a free ride thanks to my payment. We stop again after about 25 minutes in, this time for the driver to fill up on food. He comes back with a bag of fried chicken, pepper flavored crackers, rambutans, and Angkor beer. Then hands me a coke saying “sorry sorry sorry!” On we go. Another stop, this time to pick up another man, and round two of food (including beer number 2 for my driver). In the end I arrive in Battambang nearly 2 hours late because of the stops, irritated that I got scammed, but very happy to get out of the car smelling like a combination of meat, beer and garbage in 100 degree heat.

The great visibility through the back window as I tried to spy what my driver was doing during one of the stops.

However in retrospect, that taxi trip was like heaven compared to my Sunday travel back. I purchased a bus ticket on Saturday night for an 11am Sunday bus. After enjoying a delicious breakfast of American pancakes with Megan and new friends, I head to the bus station early to verify my seat. The bus pulls up right on time, but we’re told it’s broken. The Cambodians who were waiting for the bus scuffled off to whatever their solution was, and myself and the other two barangs stood awaiting a new solution. We were told to get in a taxi, free of additional cost. No extra cost shocked me, and I should have known it was too good to be true.

The three of us are in the back of the taxi. We drive about 15 minutes then turn off the main road and head into a village. We drive a bit more, unknowing to us where we are headed, and pull into what appeared to be some form of a mechanic shop. An adult woman gets in the front seat, holding three children in her lap. The driver fills up the trunk with some items, then opens my door to tell me to move over, that another woman and her two children are getting in the back too. This taxi was your average Toyota Camry Sedan, and was DEFINITELY not going to fit a total of 11 people. We said no – no way, it’s not safe, and that we paid for safe conditions on a bus and will not accept this. We argued for a while, using a sad mix of limited English and my terrible Khmer. The woman in the front got out, and the other woman got in, and the first tried to get in the back to see if that would change my mind. Still, no. We drove back to the bus station where the manager told me we had to do it, but we relentlessly argued until we won. We still had one of the women and her children in the front, so had to drive back to the village to drop her back off and unload the items in the back.

This is where it gets interesting. At some point during the switch, one of the women lost some money. When this was realized, all hell broke loose. There was yelling, hitting the air, slapping money on the hood of the car and more screaming. I have never seen a Khmer person use physical force on another person, but was a bit worried for our safety and theirs. The three of us sat in the back seat, watching the scene unfold as basically the whole village came and surrounded the car. The women were eventually separated and the village chief came. At this point we had to get out of the car for fear of overheating ourselves. Not knowing all the details and knowing the driver was already frustrated with us over our stance on passenger capacity, we sat near the side of the car trying not to interfere. A few children befriended me, and we played a few rounds of hopscotch and I used my wonderful Khmer number skills to count up to 15 with them during each hop.

Eventually, we got back into the car and on the road. Finally! But no, we were just heading to the police station. Another hour of sitting there, not much of a clue as to what was happening. Eventually, another taxi came to pick us up which then made for an uneventful trip home. I don’t know the resolution of the story, but I hope no one really stole the money, and that the women were able to find it. I am, however, very grateful that at no point the accusation turned to the barangs in the back seat as potential theifs. I (thankfully) have not had to have any encounters with police here, but have been told by many people that if there is ever a dispute between a foreigner and a local, the foreigner automatically loses.

So is my story of the 3 hour trip turned 8. Next weekend I will travel to the capital city Phnom Penh via an overnight bus, which I am sure will come with more stories; just hopefully not a trip to the police this time.