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Does it get any worse???

May 03, 2007

I am typing this in the middle of the worst journey of my life. The overall trip has been great, but this leg, or set of legs, is painfully bad. It started this morning at 6AM at the Le Meridien in Siem Reap in Cambodia. Thats when I checked out of my fairly opulent hotel and got onto the free transport provided by the boat company. The plan was that this van would take me to a small boat. Due to the low water levels, this small boat would take me to a bigger boat that would go all the way to Phnom Penh. But I am already getting ahead of myself.

The van that picked me up had room for maybe 8 people plus a driver. So for the two people already on board plus me, it was a spacious ride. After my hotel we stopped at another to get two more, then two more at another hotel. Two more….two more…two more. Yeah, I know….thats 13 plus luggage and I said there was room for 8. Well, we stopped again to get the last person. Then we drove down a very bumpy road for about 30 minutes to the dock. Now when I say dock, i may be exagerating just a bit. Maybe mosquito-infested sewage dump is a better description. They checked our tickets and we got on board this tiny boat, but as I mentioned, I was expecting this. 

Turns out that some of the van riders were for a different boat, but two other trucks met us there. In all we had about 21 going with us to Phnom Penh. Based on the picture of the boat on the ticket, that wouldn’t be a problem. So we all squeezed onto this small boat which was about 20 feet long by about 4 or 5 feet wide. After about 30 minutes of sitting in these tight quarters, the little shuttle boat started moving. On the trip out, one of the other passengers joked that we would be in this boat for the next four hours. We all nervously laughed it off. But an hour into the ride we started to realize he may be right. Four hours later we wished he were right. But wait, I am getting ahead of myself.

This boat ride was taking us down a massive freshwater lake called the Tonle Sap. The wet season began a couple days ago, so we are basically at the end of 6 months of dry. The lake water levels probably wont get any lower. I was told this would mean that the boat would have to take a longer route to avoid the really shallow parts. It turns out what they meant to tell me was that they would actually use a boat meant for 6 people to carry 21 to Phnom Penh over 200 km south.

In a recent post I mentioned how much better Singapore Airlines is for leg room compared to other airlines. Well even the worst of airline seats (those on American and KLM come to mind) are cavernous compared to what we were stuck with on this boat. Every now and then we would have to stand to stretch our legs…but you couldnt stand upright because the roof was only 4 foot high. You could sit on the gunwhale of the boat, but then the driver would honk the horn to get your attention so that he could wave you off. Sitting on the gunwhale threw off the balance of the boat and it would turn to the left or right.

So three hours into this ride and we started to compare notes. Some had heard that this was a four hour journey, others heard it was closer to 6. Looking at the map of the Tonle Sap we could see that when we transitioned to a river from the lake we reached the half way point. But we seemed to be heading towards open water for the forseeable future, so we were nowhere close to half way. About an hour and a half later, we had reached this river section. This was good and bad. It told us we were half done, but it also said we should expect another four and a half hours. This is becoming the journey that just won’t end.

After  a short while we pulled off into a little floating village. If it weren’t hot as hell, humid like a rain forest, or covered in trash, it might be quaint. But as it was all of those things….hmmm, whats the right word to describe this….ahhh, yes: shithole!!! But I was relieved to see that we were starting to pull in to the shore. I was also puzzled to see the tour bus waiting by the waters edge. It seems that the driver of the boat had given up and arranged for a bus to take us the rest of the way. We got on board at 12 noon. And then the driver told us how much longer we had to go. THREE MORE HOURS!!!

And the first 30 minutes would be traveling down a 10 mile pothole. I am surprised no one threw up. An hour later we reached our first bathroom break of the trip. Based on the looks of what was being sold there, I hope no one had to go. As another hour went by I started to get excited that the trip was almost over. Although we were no longer on the dirt track, the pavement didn’t turn out to be much smoother. But then smoke started to come through the air vents. We pulled over so the driver could take a look at the engine. A few people got off the bus to wander a bit. I stayed on board. Moments later the driver was back, honked the horn, and waited for everyone to board. About a mile or two down the road, someone noticed that one of the seats on the bus was empty. There was definitely someone there before. We found him somewhere between where we stopped and where we figured out what happened. He must have had a momentary burst of energy as he saw his bus pull away and chased after us.

Another hour and we were in Phnom Penh. As we pulled into the parking lot of the dock we werent sure what was happening. We could see our boat…well, the one that was on the ticket so some of us were figuring that we would be transitioning back to the boat for the final few miles. But no, this was it. My first opinions of this town were far from positive.

I wrote much of the above while sitting on the bus, but then the last few paragraphs came from my hotel. I thought a quick mention of that is relevant to this post. The reviews of this hotel were stellar. The guidebook rated this as one of the top 5 places to stay in Phnom Penh. The testimonials on the website were amazing so I was looking forward to my stay at the Foreign Correspondents Club. I must be staying in a different FCC from the one I heard about. I have a bed that is hard as a rock, the noise outside is deafening, the door won’t fully close and it opens almost directly onto the street, the balcony door doesn’t lock, the in-room safe is tiny and required having someone come up to show me how to use it, internet is free but you have to call the front desk and have someone bring up a code every 2 hours. Two massive thumbs down.

If you are thinking about taking the boat from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh or the other way, DON’T!!! I heard that its better than the bus, so the only way I could recommend is to fly. And when you get to Phnom Penh, stay anywhere else besides the Foreign Correspondents Club. WAY OVER RATED!!! The FCC Angkor looked very nice and the next time I am in Siem Reap, I may try it, but this one is a dump.

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