On the Road — Cambodian Edition
Khmer pop music blasts at full volume from a phone speaker behind me. A couple rows further back, two fashionably dressed girls chatter away, pure excitement in their voices. I assume they’re talking about their plans for the New Year celebrations that begin tomorrow, but the only word I can decipher is baa — yes — almost always repeated at least three times and in a tone that’s less like the fast American yeahyeahyeah, and a little more like a contemplative yes, yes…yes.
We’re on a bus through the Cambodian countryside, and the seats behind us are packed with revelers traveling to Phnom Penh for the three day carnival celebrations. But the real fun is up front. Two women are wedged onto the bench seat next to the driver. One of them is carrying a baby that has squalled a couple times over the course of our meandering drive, but has mostly been standing up on his mother’s lap, excitedly staring out the windshield. Swap an American child in his place, and in twenty years the kid would be paying a serious monthly therapy bill from this trip.
Our driver answers a call on his old burner-style phone roughly every three minutes. The calls come through so often he doesn’t bother to put his phone down, just holds it for the entire drive. In between calls he’s pretty much laying on his horn with his fist the entire time, always three short bursts followed by a long one, then a pause as if the horn is gasping for air before the melody begins again. With his free hand he’s steering this 15 passenger minibus haphazardly around potholes. I’d like to say I’ve gotten used to the bumps and swerves and drops from pavement to rough dirt shoulder, but that would be a lie. We jockey between tuktuks and overloaded semi trucks for room on this two lane road passing for a highway. Back home this would be the kind of state road that’s decorated with white crosses from teenagers that took curves too fast on bald tires. Here it’s the equivalent of I-95, bringing us back to Phenom Penh from a sleepy island near Sihanoukville, the port city that’s filled with new high rise Chinese casinos and trash strewn streets.
This is the last leg in a journey that, according to Google Maps, should’ve taken about five hours. Even that seems like insanity, because it’s only about 235 kilometers (145 miles) between Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh. That’s basically the equivalent (in distance) of driving from my old place in Columbus to the north side of Atlanta, the kind of drive Kira and I made one Thursday night to see Bill Burr perform a standup set, then drove back and went to work the next morning.
In Cambodia, things aren’t that simple. We woke up at 7:30 to pack our small backpacks and grab a coffee at the hostel bar where, just eight hours ago, I was drinking local beer while a fun group of European backpackers held a limbo competition under a kayak paddle. From the hostel’s beach we waded into thigh-deep water to a 20 foot boat with two outboard motors for the 15 minute trip over to the main pier on the island. After a 45 minute wait we caught a 30 minute ride on a ferry back to Sihanoukville’s port, where we waited an hour and a half in a warehouse and I drank a grape soda.
We’d been promised that the minibus would pick us up at the port and take us straight to Phnom Penh. I have no idea why, but I naively believed this absurd story. Instead of the promised bus, a tuktuk driver loaded us and our bags, along with a nervous looking French girl with a massive backpack, into his tiny glorified scooter and took us on a slow tour past the Chinese casinos. He stopped at a stand on the side of the road, surrounded by trash and a couple worn out old buses, where a girl wearing a broad black sun visor and a sweatshirt in the 90 degree heat told us to sit down — the bus would be here soon.
An hour sitting on a plastic lawn chair later, she held up five fingers and said, “thirty more minutes mister, bus coming.” And I’ve gotta hand it to her, she was clearly working hard, coordinating…something. Over the course of that first hour, and the next hour after that, she answered calls and sent voice-to-text messages on no less than four phones. It might’ve been five, but after listening to tinny ringtones in the sun for that long, I lost count. I wish I knew what she was saying. Hell, I wish I understood how her whole business worked, top to bottom. All I know is, she somehow knew to expect us, possibly the only two American travelers in this entire country, all because the lead bartender at our hostel had made one phone call at 11 the previous morning when I, hungover from doing shots with the European kids the night before, asked him if he had a schedule for the buses to Phnom Penh. She never checked the tickets our friendly bartender had written out on very official looking papers, and she never asked us for a dime more than the $12 each we’d paid, by credit card, to the bartender the day before. And yet, somehow, despite the delays and a 20 minute stop to pop the hood so the bus’s engine could cool, and a rainstorm that slowed us to a crawl while eighteen wheelers blasted past driving in the middle of the road, six hours later we were dropped off at the front door of our hostel, twelve hours after we left our last one.
Sometimes, traveling around developing countries, I’ve been shocked by how smooth and professionally run certain systems have been. Arriving in Cambodia, as I’ve written about before, was like that. In fact I think the customs inspectors in Atlanta could learn a thing or two from their bedazzled-uniform-wearing colleagues in Phnom Penh. But sometimes, after hours in a rattling bus and everything, miraculously working out, kinda, you have to look around and think — how the fuck is this real life?
And yet, it is real life. It’s real life for the millions of people that call this country home. It’s travel for us, a novelty to write bullshit essays about while you’re bored or to tell your friends about when you get home. And if you aren’t careful, that’s all it is, just more digital detritus for Instagram and Facebook.
What it should be is a success story.
45 years ago this country was terrorized by one of the worst genocides in modern history. One in every four Cambodians was executed in a bizarre attempt to create a communist agrarian utopia. 20 years ago there were so many mines at Ankor that it was unsafe to walk between the temples, and there were few, if any, paved roads to get there. There certainly was no Google Maps to check how much longer you could expect to spend on the bus. And yet, despite the occasional electricity blackouts and the corruption and the increasingly authoritarian government, Cambodia is growing. In 2002 the average income was less than a dollar per day; despite the lingering effects of Covid, economic models project per capital GDP to exceed $3.65 per day in 2022. That’s not a lot of money, but it’s enough to make a difference. And income generated from tourism has helped with that — between 2004 and 2018 the annual number of tourists jumped from just over one million to over 6.2 million. All told, according to the World Bank, between 1990 and 2019, Cambodia’s Human Development Index score increased over 61%.
What does all of that mean for travelers? On the surface, it means you have LTE most places you go, and there are lots of ATMs. Cambodia is, contrary to what you might read online or see on TV, an incredibly easy place to travel. But unlike some destinations, where you’re just another gringo or Yankee, I felt incredibly welcomed in Cambodia. I appreciated the smiles and happy waves from the people we saw in the streets, going about their daily lives; I felt like maybe I was doing a little bit of good by coming here, helping kids practice their English, and telling other people that it’s an amazing destination. I felt a palpable degree of hope — and that’s a really incredible feeling.
This is the first in a short series of essays I’m writing on our all-too-brief time in Cambodia. Unlike most of the other countries we visited on our three month extended honeymoon, Cambodia seems relatively unknown to American travelers, and I hope to highlight both the joys of travel here, and the struggles that the Cambodian people still face as they work to shed the history of conflict in their country. If you haven’t already, make sure you subscribe to receive the rest of the articles in this series.