You may recall that on our last day in Siem Reap, we were plotting how to get the ferry down the Mekong River to Phnom Penh. We thought we’d succeeded, but it turns out that “yes, we’ll pick you up from your hotel at 0630” actually means “yes, we might pick you up from your hotel at 0630”. A subtle but important difference.
So at 7am, 30 minutes before the ferry’s scheduled departure from a port 45 minutes away, we started to consider other options. After a brief chat with a friendly driver, we contemplated a high-speed tuk-tuk chase to the port, but opted for a mad spin through the morning streets of Siem Reap to catch the bus instead. It was a third of the price of the ferry, and timetabled an hour quicker at 6.5 hours, so it seemed a fine alternative. Particularly since we’d heard that the ferry “occasionally” gets beached in March, as the river levels are low. It doesn’t run from April.
So after consulting with a local tour operator (who we’re pretty sure was our driver’s mate, as we went right across town past numerous other outlets, only to return back the way we came to the bus station), we had bus tickets and a phone call was made to let the bus know we were on our way. Our driver pushed the tuk-tuk to the limit (by which I mean some tight corners and a slightly-less-gentle-purr from the moped, rather than the growl from a racing engine that you might be imagining) and we made a mad dash to the bus. Phew we made it. Only the bus then waited another 20 minutes for various other passengers. Turns out we needn’t have worried.
And so our planned boat-ride turned into a bus ride. On potholed “roads”. For 11 long hours. This was definitely not glampacking, but it was an experience worth having (once).
The bus was around 30 years old, and with the exception of one Australian couple, we were the only Western faces. Every seat was taken, but it turns out this didn’t mean it was completely full. Halfway through the journey we picked up half a dozen more passengers who were offered red plastic child stools to sit in the aisle. We travelled at an average speed of 25km/h (according to Joe’s GPS), rarely on tarmac, and regularly bouncing over crevices in the road. I was quietly quite impressed that the bus’s suspension survived the journey.
We stopped at two service stations en route, each with a kitchen offering hot rice dishes and a row of cubicles. We had anticipated that this would be a hole-in-the-floor jobby, but we weren’t expecting the water trough and saucepan which (we assume) served as a primitive “wipe and flush” system. Thank heavens for Kleenex and anti-bacterial handgel.
Almost five hours after our scheduled arrival, and 11 hours after our departure, we rolled into Phnom Penh, and it turns out it’s pronounced P-nom Pen, for those still guessing.
Along the road we got a small glimpse of ordinary life in Cambodia. Plush brick houses often sit next door to small wooden homes on stilts. We didn’t see the type of desperate poverty I only know from TV news, but we did see a lot of families living in one- or two-roomed homes, where the front serves as a grocery/automobile shop, with living space out back or upstairs. This generation of adult Cambodians has endured a lot, and you have the impression they have emerged hugely determined, working closely as a family to make the best of what they have and create a livelihood from their homes.
Phnom Penh is a major, busy, dirty city. Visitors primarily come to learn about the Khmer Rouge, and this depressing history seems to cloud the tourist experience of the city. The enduring impact of Pol Pot is hard to fathom. An American teacher we met recounted asking her class how their school lessons differed from their parents’ generation, and the normally bubbly classroom offered no response. Eventually one student raised their hand and explained, “Our parents didn’t go to school. Pol Pot happened.” In Cambodia, all the teachers are foreign.
Phnom Penh has none of the charm of Siem Reap, but is worth a visit if only to learn about its important but horrifying history. If anyone is considering a trip, we’d definitely recommend spending more time in Siem Reap, and perhaps just 36 hours in the Cambodian capital.
I hear it’s a just a quick hop by plane between the two cities, if you don’t fancy the bus.