You’re reading Chapter 3 of our #BestTravelStoryEver series, featuring adventures from our very own Flighties. Catch up on the other chapters here!
“Sihanoukville! I need a beach,” I pleaded. “I’m sure Phnom Penh is incredible, and we’ll see it someday, but right now, I need a beach.”
Laura hoped to taste Cambodge; its French colonial roots most prevalent in the capital and its proper crusty bread, pain au chocolat, perfect coffee and who could blame her. I wanted that, too, but our last two days at Angkor Wat were the hottest of my life. I was ready to leave dusty Seam Reap for the nearest coast and bypass Cambodia’s sweaty capital altogether like only a traveller can – with the intent to return.
At the tail-end of the wet season, Tonle Sap Lake is navigable by boat and the promise of rushing air in my face was a no-brainer compared to the sweltering air on a bus or even the convenience of flying. We booked our ferry to Phnom Penh and promptly left before next morning’s light.
Our transfer to the ferry was by way of mini-van; an alright looking eight-seater with a brand new spare tire and a smiling young driver. Collecting us first, we made three more stops until we were a cozy twelve strong. Tonle Sap River was about 100kms, or on Cambodia’s roads, four to six hours away.
The early morning pick-up left us all hoping for some shut-eye on the road but the number of potholes made it impossible, and as we all agreed later, thank goodness. Cambodia’s countryside at daybreak is stunning, unravelling like an Impressionist painting; basked in a yolk yellow, the rice paddies and rolling hills, even through a dirty window, took our breaths away.
Toilet breaks took place behind our van on the side of the road with clear instructions from our child driver not to stray. The countryside was still littered with landmines.
We lost a tire a couple of hours in that we casually replaced over warm beer from the night before and tuna baguette sandwiches.
We rolled up to a washed-out bridge an hour later and crossed the river on a rickety bamboo pontoon. By all accounts, we were travelling.
We finally pulled up to where we were to meet our tender, a six-man canoe with an improvised engine that would deliver us to our ferry at last. The air was so thick with gasoline I was afraid to light a cigarette.
Through bulrush reeds of the narrow tributary, uniformed kids returned from school while wiry women sold rambutan and lychee fruit, all from boats like ours. A few minutes later we were at our ferry and climbed aboard.
As we pulled out of the mouth of the river, I parked myself in an open doorway in the otherwise overcrowded vessel. We picked up speed until we skipped across the lake, the air screaming in my face. Gilded pagodas pierced the horizon and the muddy water made the grass around them glitter. I loved the lonely fishermen but they seldom waved back. Even the maritime etiquette was foreign.
We reached Phnom Penh in the late afternoon. We could either find a place for the night or somehow try to get to Sihanoukville as soon as possible – another 100kms away.
For a capital city, you’d expect a pier or maybe a dock of sorts. Instead, we pulled up alongside a concrete wall where a narrow wooden plank was passed to a deckhand to bridge our ferry to land. A crowd of eager touts began to gather, their matchstick arms waving, shouting familiar tourist words at the wobbly passengers onboard.
“Hotel! Moto-bike! Taxi!”
All working for a commission from the establishment they would bring guests to.
“HOTEL! MOTO-BIKE! TAXI!”
We lined up on the plank and made our way forward. Weighed down by our backpacks, the balance beam was tough. A smiling young man pulled us up by our forearms and we got in his car.
In its late afternoon rush-hour bustle, Phnom Penh felt lawless. The Khmer Rouge genocide left behind a country in which 80% of the population was under 30 years old. Kids as young as fourteen would conduct business and it almost felt like anything could happen at any time. We couldn’t understand its order if it had one. It was a country essentially run by children. Our driver was seventeen – tops.
It was loud, intense and still stifling hot. We saw a million moto-bikes the guidebook promised and tasted their unchecked exhaust from the backseat of our cab. We knew where we wanted to be.
“How much to Sihanoukville?” I asked.
Shocked, Kenji, our driver, thought about his answer, studying us as we counted our money. He eventually gave us a price and we agreed. In endearing broken English, Kenji said he could even get us there before dark.
Within minutes, we were off the main thoroughfare, leaving the madness behind. A few minutes more and we were on a quiet side road, with no other car in sight. Towering cattails swayed on either side, hypnotizing like a dangling watch. I studied the map to keep from falling asleep.
Suddenly, we stopped, and Kenji jumped out to take a phone call, slamming the door behind him. Cambodia may have lacked a pier to dock at but even back then, everyone had a mobile phone. It was still years before I had gotten my first.
Laura and I looked around, watching Kenji pace nervously in front of the car, listening more than speaking. When he returned, he seemed different. Anxious, maybe even upset. We asked if everything was okay with no response. He started the car and we sped away.
The next little while felt strange. We hadn’t passed a car or any oncoming traffic at all. Kenji kept shifting and shuffling, reaching down between his legs and under his seat. We were in the absolute middle of nowhere.
We began to slow down until we stopped again. Kenji grabbed the keys from the ignition and stepped out, this time locking the car doors behind him, disappearing into the surrounding jungle.
“What is happening?!” Laura asked nervously.
“I have no idea,” I replied. I knew the fear in her eyes was in mine too so I looked away.
We each tried to open our doors to no avail. Our power windows were shut to maximize the shoddy A/C. We searched for Kenji through the dirty back window as the sun tried to hide, bugs swarming in the hot dusk around us. We sat and waited quietly. I pulled out our map again – we looked to be about two-thirds of the way to Sihanoukville.
A loud click and an opening door shot us into attention. Kenji was back and even more unsettled. He turned around to us and said that he couldn’t go any further. He told us to get out and to wait for his friend who’d be coming soon to take us the rest of the way. It was the last thing we wanted to hear.
“Wait, where?” I sternly asked. “Here? In the middle of nowhere? No. Kenji, we need to get to Sihanoukville – please! You said you would take us. You can’t just leave us here. We made a deal. We trusted you!”
Kenji looked back and scanned my face. I don’t know which one of us looked more perplexed. He sat there for a quiet moment then surprisingly started the car. As we began to move, he continued to shuffle and squirm, still reaching down between his legs and under his seat.
Frightening thoughts began to fill my head. I considered everything; jumping out of a moving car, spending the night in the landmine-laden jungle, everything. I wondered what was under Kenji’s seat. I thought about a bloody fight. I thought about jail in Cambodia – all of it.
I got up the courage to prepare for ‘him or us’ and quietly reached into my pocket for the only weapon I had, a lousy set of keys. I fit them between my fingers, hoping it wouldn’t have to come to this.
It wasn’t long before we started to slow down again, still in the middle of nowhere. I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I made peace with my fears and braced myself. Our car stopped.
“My wife,” Kenji began. “She mad, very mad.” His voice almost quivering. “New baby. Two small children. I am late. Very, very late.”
My sweaty hand loosened around my weapon. “Huh?” I said.
“I work in Phnom Penh.” Kenji continued. “Not Sihanoukville, Sihanoukville far. Very, very far. My wife very mad.”
I leaned back in my seat, utterly drained emotionally.
“Really? This is about your wife?” Laura asked in disbelief.
“Yes.” He confessed.
“And all those stops?” she asked.
“I pray! Buddha temple on side of road.”
Relieved beyond belief, Laura reached into her money-belt and pulled out her remaining Riel. She handed Kenji a roll of bills, everything she had, while I sat there in shock, keys still in my hand. I was completely beside myself. I couldn’t believe I was prepared to kill a completely innocent and oblivious man.
Kenji thanked Laura for the cash incentive and began to drive again, this time happily and even faster. I wanted to laugh with relief or cry in disgust with myself. As the sun was about to disappear we climbed a steep hill towards it. Over the hump, the sun wasn’t done, its belly now lapped by waves. We could make out land’s end, the Gulf of Thailand. We made it.
As we got closer to town, a pair of moto-taxis scrambled towards us like fighter jets and we stopped for the last time.
“Moto-taxi take you now,” Kenji said. We got out, threw our backpacks on and each climbed on the back of a small motorcycle. Our drivers couldn’t have been more than thirteen.
“No helmet – no problem!” they laughed.