21 July 2008
"$1 For Special Fees. Same Same."
In our infinite wisdom and love for the uncertain, we decided to cross into Cambodia from Laos via the recently opened (and sometimes still closed) land border. That meant we would take a small boat from our island to the mainland followed by a minibus to the border, at which point we would walk the half mile from Cambodia to Laos and pick up another minibus that only runs as far as the first town. There, we would saddle up on a ?big bus? for the longest portion of the journey to Phnom Penh, where we would get a Tuk Tuk to Graham Gardner's house (brother to Andrew Gardner of AU infamy and son to Paul Gardner of First Republic Bank fame - no ATM fees anywhere on earth (thanks Paul!)).
Everything on the Laos side couldn?t have gone more smoothly. After donating an Imodium to a Slovenian woman who had never taken the travel wonder drug and asked us about 50 times "what it would do to her," we were on our way and right on time. Border control on both sides consisted of two tiki huts on stilts and two guards in full "government official" regalia. We already had our Visas per Lonely Planet's suggestion, only to discover that the fee at the border was $20 cheaper than we had paid! Of course, we were still subject to the $1 "admin fee," according to the border agents. This is, of course, not a real or official fee. I can't quite remember the official name, but words like extortion, bribery and scam come to mind. Fortunately, a large Polish man sporting a rather intimidating mullet was first in line and reamed the border folks for a solid five minutes about said fee, eventually getting all of us off the hook.
At the border we (a group of 25 or so) were invited to "eat something and take a rest" (a common Asian phrase) while waiting for our minibuses. Thirty minutes later they arrived. Forty rumbling, A/C-less minutes later we were at the first big town, which consisted of a government building, a EU Commission vehicle and a restaurant. "We will all eat something and take a rest here until the big bus comes," the driver told us. He then hopped out of the car and walked right into the kitchen, where he proceeded to cook our lunch. Apparently he was "Mr. Everything."
Some of the folks in our new-found group were itching to go and egging the rest of us on to hurry. Still, as much as we tried it just didn't seem to be an option - hurrying things along. Our new friend Stacey (wonder woman from London who has been traveling for 10 months and will be one of my first few friends when I arrive at school in September) attempted to pay, only to be told that she had to "wait five minutes." Either way, our bus still hadn't arrived. Tick Tock. Tick Tock.
Another unknown length of time passes and our tin can on wheels pulls up. Imagine the oldest city bus you have ever seen, add ten years, take out some seats, fade the paint, disconnect the A/C, throw in a few wooden shipping palettes and put a short Cambodian man in the diver's seat and you have the next 11 hours of our day. Now, we were told that this whole trip - which began at 8am - would finish in Phnom Penh at 9:30pm. That meant 13 and a half hours to cover 250 kilometers, which seemed ridiculous. Add in all the meals and "rest-taking," as well as a slower than molasses border crossing and this journey time begins to make a lot more sense.
And so it began - 11 hours on an un-air-conditioned bus with no windows traveling on the only road from Laos to capital of Cambodia that, due to a corrupt airline industry paying off government officials, was still nothing more than dirt and mud. Oh, and it was easily 100 degrees outside, 1000% humidity. Fortunately, Stacey and Kansas City (I missed his name) were all ears for a lengthy discussion on health care reform, education reform, the Democratic primary and how British English and American English is completely different. Throw in a few "bathroom stops" where we literally just pulled into the bushes and you?ve got our day.
Fortunately, there were a dozen Tuk Tuks where we got the bus, which meant our cruise to Graham's was quick and painless. Now we're living it up in totally luxury - our own room with A/C and a hot-water bathroom to boot!