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The Road to Siem Reap

By Aram

December 6, 2008

The young Cambodian stepped to the back of the bus, lifted a panel from the floor, inserted a crowbar into the gaping hole and began reefing at the rear axle. After much sweating to the engines rumbling something clicked free and the bus lurched backwards. Right then I knew we were off to a good start. The Russian sitting next to me smiled,

Maybe we use for toilet later.” His accent was nearly impossible to understand. The Cambodian replaced the panel and blocked the spinning shaft from sight.

I laughed in the good natured way of slightly concerned people.

I took bus Laos to Thailand.” My ears almost bled to comprehend the words. “Midnight and we leave roadway. Look.” The Russian pulled back his shirt sleeve to expose a jagged tear across his shoulder. Upwards of 24 stitches gripped the wound tightly closed.

Holy man!” What else to say? “At least the women will think its sexy right.” I smiled.

The driver dead. Many terrible injured.” My newest acquaintance spoke with impassive Russian bluntness. I absorbed the butchered syllables as the bus jerked still then ploughed forward into the mud and muck. Now I was certain we were off to a good start.

We stopped two minutes later.

Outside the window two young men in flip-flops worked a compacter pounding gravel into the mudded roadway. Their toes looked plump and vulnerable. I averted my gaze and instead registered the reason for our sudden stop. Using what looked like a watering can, gasoline was poured slowly into the buses petrol tank. We were barely five hundred metres from the border of Thailand and the world had turned on its head. Even the traffic switched from left to right.

A flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap goes from 2000 baht, and maybe even cheaper if you search. On the other hand a bus trip is only 300 baht. From where I sat in Bangkok it was a no-brainer, even if the road to Siem Reap is legendary. Stories flow of potholes swallowing cars and breakdowns faked to force unsuspecting travellers a night in nowhere, billed of course. People give their head a shake, think it over and then jump on a plane. My head’s always been a shit shaker.

The watering can did its job and once more we lurched forward. It seemed the only way the bus moved. With nineteen of us crammed into a vehicle designed to fit fourteen midgets things were slightly cramped. Knees bent to my elbows.

I turned once more to the Russian. “Crazy shit about the driver.”

The Russian nodded and looked grave as only Russians can.

We turned onto the road to Siem Reap.

Fun at the best of times after seven days of continuous rain the way now looked prime. Ships in a storm seldom roll so furiously. I gripped the seat in front with fingers, toes and even kneecaps. My head begged my neck to let it smash itself through the glass window. Nineteen people from eight different countries abruptly had nothing to say, in part for fear of severing one’s own tongue.

I smiled despite it. I couldn’t help it. This is what I lived for. No more package tourists’ day-tripping through Thai islands plastered with stickers directing them where to get on or where to get off.

No, this was filth and muck, dust and dirt, a life felt alive and I loved it; the Kingdom of Cambodia.

I managed to hold onto this sentiment for 45 minutes before the carnival ride began to drag. It’s true about the potholes being big enough to swallow small cars, but I don’t believe a word about fake breakdowns cause you don’t need to fake it. The road, like a living thing, takes all vehicles daring its path and spits them out in battered hulks along its width and girth. It’s just a matter of time.

Lucifer’s carnival ride from hell continued.

I watched the shifting landscape of rice paddies to open sky, to shanty homes to open sky, to cud-chewing cows to open sky. Two hours found us breaking in a small town. Mud and dust took turns filling the square. I looked about hopefully for a trusty chicken-on-a-stick, happy to stretch my legs and relax tearing muscles. Charcoal burned in a small kiosk and I swayed towards it eagerly.

Sticks they had but skewered on them resembled nothing I could name with confidence. One offering may have been a large cricket or a small cockroach, deep fried and hot spiced to taste. Strewn beside this was something that can only be described as some small animal’s intestines, neatly speared and ready to salt. I somehow managed to avoid temptation despite a rumbling belly and we boarded the carnival ride once more.

A bond unspoken grew between its occupants. Encouraging smiles from the French couple, laughter at my feeble jokes from the Aussi, nervous looks from the English. Only the Russian remained composed and determined like he’d seen a hell beyond this mild discomfort. I guess he had.

We lurched off once more.

Five kilometres further we came upon an asphalt of sorts. Collectively you could feel the relief lift the bus smoothly along. A bit of chatter even began, slowly, but building fast.

Ten kilometres later the asphalt crumbled with our spirits. Stormy seas set in once more.

We came to a cast-iron bridge of undetermined age. Half its bulk looked swept away. It physically shifted as we crossed it. Half the bus almost physically shat themselves.

Joining forces with the Aussi we decided to make bets on the first to lose it. It was something to pass the time. To my disappointment the French girl beat out my favourite, the English rugby player, called the bus to a halt and hurled sick into the surrounding muck. To my credit the Brit followed suit and joined her, but five seconds shy. Gutted, I handed the Aussi a 1000 riel note. Not so gutted to lose 25 cents, more gutted that a brief distraction from the erupting landscape was over so quickly.

We bounced on.

Various religious sites passed us and I noted them with curiousity. Buddhists shrines dotted the landscape mingled with the odd mosque, Hindu Shiva’s and even a Jesuit service. I’d always assumed the Jesuits had gone out of business around the time of the Spanish Inquisition but here one stood bleak and alone. Rivalling all these sites for regularity was the Cambodian People’s Party, assumedly some sort of political affiliation, and obviously growing in increased popularity.

Four hours into our journey, perhaps halfway, somewhat ironically we found ourselves passing a carnival of sorts. Set in the centre of many wood piles that masqueraded as homes sat a decrepit Ferris wheel. Ringley Bros Circus circa 1921 must have opened up shop here, come across some unforeseen reason to vacate rather abruptly without time to take down the antique beast. It rotted away motionless. Yet somehow I knew the locals must give it a crank from time to time jumping on with delighted cries and mass hysteria. There didn’t look like much else to do.

We staggered on.

Dark took over from light and with its arrival the local mosquitoes filled what little room remained. Hands slapped, knees slammed and I swear I heard someone weeping with a distinctly British accent.

Seven hours in we stopped for dinner. Nineteen passengers, not one over 35 years of age, hobbled off the bus like a group of senior citizens. Joints cracked and some leaned against others for support.

We surveyed the menu costs and saw that they knew we had nowhere else to go. I went with chicken and the fried sparrow they served me turned out to not be half bad. I think the Aussi got the remaining bits since serving each man a tiny bird to themselves would undoubtedly have hurt the profit margin. We both looked over with rumbling jealousy at the Russians heaping portion of noodles and boiled dog. He looked plumper with each bite. Bones crunched against teeth.

During dinner our Cambodian driver and his sidekick made some repairs and I saw the trusty crowbar make some sparks. Hunched and feeble we filed back into hell.

Only two and half hours left.” The crowbar mechanic offered with a smile. Surprisingly he received none in answer.

Back into rough seas I gazed up at the Southern Cross and took small comfort from it as sailors of old once did. Like a beacon its five points of light followed us along through my window. So long as you’re there, I thought, all will be well.

Five minutes later clouds blotted out the stars and sheet lightening rocketed across the sky. My head slammed into the seat back from a sudden dip and I’m sure a tick of some sort burrowed itself into my left knee.

We waited intently for rain knowing that its arrival would take all hope of destination from our grasp. The road would wash away in a surge of flowing mud.

We grated onwards – and into light.

Glowing fluorescent neon dotted the landscape like some pagan ritual of alien worship. Small children and old folks alike ran through shining beams with torches flaring wildly side to side. Lightening continued to fill the horizon illuminating the sheer mass and volume of the nutty cult. Then I heard it, even over the grinding gears and thumping heads, back legs fiddling furiously in the night, swarming locusts feasted on the insects drawn to the light stick, in turn captured and feasted on by the locals. Each passed village was in a frenzy to fill the bag most full with the large grasshoppers and guarantee bragging rights come morning.

We grunted on.

All became still in the next moment. Tranquillity steadied the bus. My neck muscles relaxed. Had we stopped? A small whoop from someone sounding distinctly like me brought the truth into focus. We were on a proper paved road, we passed gigantic hotels - we were in Siem Reap.

Driving 150 kilometres from the border of Thailand we arrived at our destination over nine hours later.

The final stop was at a five dollar room and I nodded acceptance. My stomach felt torn and knees scraped raw. My back was a spastic xylophone of twitches, my neck expanded with veins I’d never known and my shoulders bulges monstrously. Needless to say my left and right buttocks had both long vacated the premises and orbited some distant solar system beyond all hope of helpful sensation.

Angkor Wat tomorrow?” The hotels proprietor asked eagerly when he handed me the key. “I arrange.”

Anchor what?” I stared through him, “No thanks, I already sailed today.” I closed the door.

A sign in bold type expressed the desire that handguns or grenades not be brought into the room. It looked like more than an idle suggestion. I checked my pockets just to be sure then collapsed on the bed. It rolled and swayed and lurched me to sleep.

Somewhere, in the distant part of a dream, I heard the rain begin to pour.

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