Fun With Private and Public Transport: Thailand and Cambodia

With the hyper-efficiency of Hong Kong’s transit drifting further into the distance with each whir of the jet turbines outside our window, and no end in sight for our trip, we were certain of only one thing as we flew into Bangkok – that in the coming weeks we would assuredly be subjected to new and exciting varieties of transport-related horrors, delights, ripoffs, and restroom disasters.

To be fair, things could’ve been a whole lot worse. Aside from several severe instances of swindling, bugs being feasted upon and feasting upon us, all in all Thailand and Cambodia had their acts together. Or perhaps our bodies and minds were inured to life on the unpaved, cliff-perched, pee-scented road; or perhaps we just got lucky. In any case, here’s some Jesus-level access to the trouble we saw when we tried getting around.

Logan and Steve: Bangkok to Phuket; 24 hours; Private Transport

As Devon paraphrased whilst in India, “the best laid schemes of mice and men / often revolve around cheese.” This journey was no exception to the made up rule; a simple, tangible plan that orbited a capacious, hernia-inducing brick of brie composed entirely of curdled stress and top-notch Thai tourist-screwery.

While the deeper-walleted of our now larger group of compatriots were flying directly to the island of Koh Samui, Logan and Steve would be subjecting themselves to an overnight bus, then a ferry to meet up once order was restored, and a preposterously-priced hotel suite had been acquired on behalf of their gainfully-employed friends.

Instead,  in a muggy Internet cafe an hour before their departure Logan and Steve learned through the miracles of very timely Facebook statuses that the gang had been grounded in Phuket on account of Ko Samui being underwater. After a brief, heated Skype session with the gang (Steve mostly focused on, “Why the hell didn’t you call us?”), they sprinted back to their travel agent and were bled $12 to change their destination. The would still catch the same upcoming bus, but transfer in the morning onto one that was Phuket-bound. Everything was arranged, their blood pressure declined.

The journey itself
What worked: Mid-afternoon, the boys found themselves settling into snazzy double-decker, with squishy reclining seats,  air conditioning set to ‘Tundra’ (with knockoff Disney blankets of indeterminate hygienic value for combating the cold), and two very loud action movies to keep them entertained until 2AM. Providing a welcome diversion from the chill and explosions was a French hippie couple avec enfants (because toddlers love the culture of Southeast Asia and are definitely going to remember and cherish a trip there), courageously resisting the unfair social constructs demanding that they attempt in any way to stop their miserable kids from howling at the top of their lungs every five minutes for the entirety of the ride.
What didn’t work: Steve’s shoulder and the nerves down his left side, due to the angle of the seats, his resolute refusal to take care of his body, and an abrupt inundation of anxiety. In assuaging it, he was compelled to sneak downstairs to try sleeping atop even less comfortable piles of luggage. Had he known how much time he’d have to sleep on transportation the following day, he might not have bothered. Still, it was good to rest up given the immense dickery they would soon encounter.

Once they arrived at a dark crumbling dock in the mangrove nether region of Surat Thani, the Boys were treated to a fine dose of Suth’rn hospitality and waited ninety minutes for a van, then driven into town to a kind of urban cave that had been half-heartedly converted into a place to buy stale coffee, candy bars, or bus tickets.

Two hours later, a tremendous, sneering woman of impressive jowl-itude arrived with a minivan, claiming to be with the bus company, and that their ride to Phuket would cost another $20. Aside from actually finding the prepaid bus that would take them to Phuket, the Boys’ mission immediately centered itself on making this beastly creature feel bad about herself for bilking tourists. Results were not promising, but neither were hopes of finding any actual transport. Struggling to refrain from disemboweling everyone around them, they pried from a nearby tuk tuk driver that a public bus was departing for Phuket in five minutes. Where was this bus located? At the bus station. And where was that? Ah, well, only he could get them there, for $3 each.

Countless curse words and less than two hundred yards later, they were at the bus station fruitlessly demanding their money back. Within half an hour, they had boarded the bus. Seven hours of jungle roads, roadside squat toilets, and sweaty half-dozing later, they arrived in Phuket Town. Two hours of minibus-riding later, they arrived near the resort everyone else had been inhabiting comfortably all day. Ten minutes later they met everyone, and two days after that they had finished complaining.

Logan and Steve: Mueng Krabi to Bangkok; 12 hours; Private Transport

Like conception, the French Revolution, or that first, pivotal hit of crack cocaine, the ghastliness and horror of this bus trip lay primarily in its aftermath. Dumped well beyond sunrise on a side street of west Bangkok, Logan and Steve met the day with the discovery that our bags had been rifled through by the curious fingers of the bus’ staff, all of whom were now riding triumphantly off into the sunrise. We could now chalk up to that irrepressible cad Stealy Dan the following:

–Our cell phone/entertainment center
–Logan’s sunglasses and sunscreen
–$5 from a plastic bag in Steve’s bag (though they’d somehow overlooked in the same bag a $45 wad of Indian rupees and his American passport)

Mad, powerless, and unable to set their bags down until the rest of the gang arrived in the city that afternoon, they attempted to sleep on some park benches by the Chao Praya riverbank, soaked in mosquito repellent that was equally noxious and ineffectual. Once the humidity and traffic rendered sleep impossible they began what would be a day-long quest for air conditioned areas. After a groggy four miles through Chinatown and the Buddha Statue Manufacturing District, they entered the commercial hub of the city two hours too early to enjoy the interior of Bangkok’s new shiny malls, so they did what any white person would do at 8 AM, and patronized a Starbucks. With terrifying accuracy, the branch was identical to any and every Starbucks back home, with paper snowflakes, Coldplay CD’s, pumpkin cake, ugly furniture, and ambient jazzed-up Christmas music completing the cloning operation.

The remainder of the day was a backpack-burdened blur of malls, getting sick of malls, food courts in malls, self-consciousness about being unwashed in malls and thus bathing with cologne samples in malls, and making a mess of multiple bathrooms in multiple malls. One mall had an aquarium. Another was opening Bangkok’s first Krispy Kreme store to a frenzied mob of locals eager to embrace Western standards of cholesterol. Then there was the actual mob – of Red Shirt political protesters, who six months earlier had been fired on by government troops while trying to occupy the capital’s airport – rallying through the center of town.

Big ol' political rally in BangkokNot eager to join the ranks of the martyrs, they skirted the outside of the protest and sought asylum in the fifth mall of the day, for between one and three more hours.

Devon, Logan, and Steve: Bangkok to Siem Reap; 12 hours; Public Transport

Barely a day after the great Mall Wanderings, we found themselves killing time in Bangkok once again, awaiting the departure of their overnight bus to the Cambodian border. Fortuitously, the night was actually fairly exciting, beginning with Logan suavely negotiating a sizeable refund from the bus company responsible for the Phuket disaster, and ending with an unexpected (especially if you don’t read the guidebook or take an active interest in the local culture) and sweaty citywide celebration of Loi Krathong, a Thai festival that ingeniously combines the Buddhist principles of humility, respect for nature, and nearly getting blown up by fireworks.

The next day was more visceral than spiritual, however, with the mere experience of entering Cambodia akin to an Ironman Triathlon of scams, horrific poverty, and synapse-withering humidity. While ready for and cognizant of the notorious Thai-Khmer border weirdness, we could never have anticipated, for example, our bus driver abandoning Devon two miles from the border, a fully furnished fake “Cambodian Consulate” dedicated to stealing tourist’s credit card information, the Cambodian border guards brazenly yet slyly trying to bilk us out of $60 (and being unslyly told, “Bullshit. You’re lying to us”), posters politely pleading with tourists to abstain as best they could from raping Cambodian children, immense No-Man’s-Land casinos, and joining forces/cab fares (except not really because he never paid us back) with a fellow Californian who’d been banned from entering Thailand for reasons he wouldn’t disclose. After all that, it was no surprise when our taxi driver from the border took us to a back road in Siem Reap and shoved us into some tuk tuks with no stated destination.

Next time we'll just jump on one of these

So all in all, a journey to be measured in its emotional and logical demands rather than its actual mileage.

Devon, Logan, and Steve: Siem Reap to Phnomh Penh; 5 hours; Public Transport

Our sunburned and rash-riddled flesh now acclimated to Cambodia’s deadening heat, we weren’t expecting much out of this midday trek to the capital. In fact, the only thing we were expecting – after our street-purchased Thanksgiving meal in Siem Reap and a morning spent frantically downing anti-diarrheals – was intense intestinal discomfort compounded by five hours of unpaved roads. Thankfully, a few surprises were thrown our way, and from our somewhat decrepit and compact seats we were fortunate to gain some unfiltered (apart from the thick filter of our own cynicism and post-Thanksgiving American pride) views of daily Cambodian life.

Much like those in America, Cambodian fields are good for pee breaks

If our bus ride was anything to judge an entire society by, Cambodian days largely revolve around eating large amounts of greasy arachnids. Each stop we found ourselves at, our skin crawled beneath its thick layers of sweat at the sight of teeming barrels of deep-fried, spiced tarantulas. Had we not played gastrointestinal roulette with the previous evening’s victuals, our fellow travelers would assuredly been witness to several spirited spider munch-offs. Instead, we just gulped deeply, gawked, and waited for the ride to start again.

Inside the bus, we noted a couple things about Cambodians. In order of importance, these were a) when their young men wear almost exclusively flannel shirts, jeans, and trucker hats, they have the appearance of Mexican gardeners, and b) everyone really has a thing for melodramatic karaoke/music videos. Of our five hours on the road, a total of one fourth of one was spent in awe of the epic “I Am Sorry” saga, which, like every single other music video we unwillingly viewed in Cambodia, had something to do with over-emotional, wealthy, and stylish teenagers arguing, sobbing, singing parts of the chorus in English, then meeting or narrowly avoiding violent, tragic ends. Don’t know why. Cambodians must have a rough past or something…

(With the lightning bolt went our entire special effects budget)

But, hey, you can watch ’em yourself! To enjoy the songs as we did, wrap yourself in a bed-bug infested blanket, turn your thermostat to 100, put some rotting fruit in the corner of your room, and strap your seat to a diesel generator to simulate the ceaseless noise, jolting, and toxic fumes of third world bus ride. And if that doesn’t suit you, well, I am sorry.

Devon, Logan, and Steve: Phnom Penh to Chiang Mai; 24 hours; Public Transport

In terms of quantifiable doozyness, this schlep landed firmly in the “Quite A” category. So much so that our brains, like on many of the Chinese train rides and endless Ladahki drives, cried “uncle” and refused to process any of the massive input regarding sitting, cramping, and shifting in seats they were being bombarded with. So, in brief:

Beginning in a large private bus in Phnom Penh at 7am…

And ending in the back of a pickup truck in Chiang Mai the next day, we went through four forms of transport, a book about the Israeli Defense Forces, countless hectic roadside stops, and a dozen mosquito coils while sleeping in the Bangkok bus station at 3AM, before finally reaching our double bed made for three in Annie’s guesthouse.

The nice big funny bow around this slog was Steve’s long-overdue visit to a dermatologist regarding the incessant itching and pain within his smelly, tattered trousers. He discovered with the doctor’s help that it was a friendly, very aggravated case of skin fungus, rendering him incapable of a) enjoying a drink with his friends for the next two weeks, b) skipping the four antibiotics per day he would now have to take, and c) not dousing himself in cold water twice daily while scrubbing vigorously with an antibiotic soap, every day for the foreseeable future. A grand conclusion to a grand day, and an appropriately gross end to a series of trips that either weren’t as gross as we thought, or at this point in our trip couldn’t scratch our impervious, heavily jaded shells.

The lesson, if there was one to be learned from Southeast Asian travel, and all the previous land travel previously examined on this great continent, is that for all their hellish aspects, Greyhound and Amtrak are fucking great.

Furthermore, being able to space out for long periods of time is a tremendous skill to nurture if you ever hope to survive on a 2nd or 3rd world vacation.

Or… if you want to survive one of our articles.

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About Steve and Devon

Yeah! We're the best!
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