Mekong Express

Mekong Express boards in Phnom Penh

I’m not a bus kind of guy. I mean, that’s why they invented airplanes, right? Quicker, more comfortable, and for a few dollars more you can separate yourself from the riffraff. Now I get the allure of the whole backpacker/do it on the cheap/ mode of travel. For others. But I prefer the ‘pay a few bucks more and avoid all the hassles’ mode of travel. So what in the hell was I doing on a six hour bus ride through the hinter lands of Cambodia?

I blame it on Air Asia. If you’ve ever flown Air Asia, then you know how easy it is to blame any and everything on them. From a karma point of view, they have it coming. But the love part of my love/hate relationship with the carrier is they are so damn cheap. If you sign up on their website, they’ll pepper your email inbox with incredibly cheap deals. So a year ago I bought a round trip ticket BKK/PNH for a measly $34. No, really. And that included all taxes, etc.

Not that I had a grand desire to see Phnom Penh. In fact my total interest in the town was a photo I saw years ago of a pig sitting on the front porch of an old colonial era building, taken, supposedly, right downtown. Kinda cool, but my expectations of Cambodia’s capital city were low. Not a lot to do. Not a lot to see. But, hey, I’d never been there so what the heck, breeze into town for a few days, head somewhere else, and do it all for less than a night’s stay in Bangkok would run me thanks to my cheap plane ticket.

At least that was the plan a year ago when I bought the ticket. But thanks to the still lingering effects of Bush breaking the world, and (yeah I’m stating to believe that whole global warming thing might have some substance) an unusually wet November and December, finances come trip time were in a different, and not positive, state. I’d started looking at the relative cost of the countries I’d originally planned on visiting. And ya know what? Cambodia is dirt cheap. Or maybe that’s Cambodia is dirty and cheap.

So a revised travel schedule put me in Phnom Penh for a week, Siem Reap for another week, and then back to Phnom Penh again for another few days. No problemo. Even if Phnom Penh promised to suck, I ‘m easily entertained by myself. That’s not a mastabatory confession – I travel well on my own and never get bored. But then I’ve never been to Idaho, so stick around.

Phnom Penh turned out to be far more interesting than expected. And I could have easily spent the entire 18 days there. But not knowing that, one of the first things I did upon arrival was to figure out how to get the hell out of there. Siem Reap was calling. I’d been there several years ago on a far too of a short trip and wanted to spend more time on a second go round. Air Asia doesn’t fly to Siem Reap. The only airline offering service between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap was Bangkok Air. And they wanted $100 each way for the quick hop. Not that that’s out of my price range, but my pre-trip investigation turned up what supposedly was a not bad experience bus ride between the two towns for under $20. And I had time to kill. Instead of my natural inclinations I decided to go cheap and bus it.

So as to not totally disappoint you in my decision, I have to tell you there are several bus lines working this route and some of them are much cheaper than others. Like $6.00 each way. But in an old, non air-conditioned bus. Yes, I have my limits. Everything I’d been able to find on the subject on-line convinced me the way to go was the Mekong Express – the Cadillac of the Phnom Penh/Siem Reap travel route. And I easily booked my ticket through my hotel, and uneasily kept asking, “Now you are sure that’s for the Mekong Express?” when I was quoted a one way fare of only $11.00.

There are several departure times each day with the majority being in the morning hours. Not being a morning person I opted for the 12:30 bus that would get me into Siem Reap around 7pm that night. On the day of my trip I kicked back with a double expresso on the veranda of my hotel, waiting for the free shuttle bus that would take me to the Mekong Express. The free shuttle bus turned out to be a small van which promptly crawled its way through the city picking up more and more passengers until we were stuffed into its confines like the proverbial sardines in a can. Hot and uncomfortable. With some concern that this was foretelling what to expect for the 6 hour ride to Siem Reap. So, here’s a little travel tip for you: A tuk tuk to the departure area for the Mekong Express will set you back a buck and you’ll be there in under 5 minutes. The free shuttle bus will take about an hour. You do the math.

On The Road To Siem Reap

Sights Along The Way: Sometimes the livestock isn't.

My concerns were alleviated when we finally got to the bus and I dashed on board for a quick look-see. It actually was, as promised, quite comfortable looking, and clean to boot. The seating gods had been kind to me throughout the trip and they didn’t forsake me just because I’d decided to bus it, either. Which I guess means I should mentioned the ticket you buy includes an assigned seat. Mine was on the aisle and in the front row, opposite the driver. A bit more leg room and a nice unobstructed view out of the front windows.

I’d heard conflicting reports about the road to Siem Reap running the gauntlet between ‘recently paved and a smooth ride’ to ‘ full of kidney pounding pot holes’. The truth was, as usual, somewhere in the middle. Starting out, the first hour was through the city and outskirts of Phnom Penh. Heavily congested roads, slow moving traffic, and a plethora of the aforementioned pot holes. During which the English speaking tour guide rattled off an obviously memorized pre-written welcome / advertisement speech. First in Khmer and then in English, though the two sounded about the same. Then the crew passed out cold bottles of water and a small boxed snack containing two croissant thingies, one a pastry and the other filled with a unknown meat. Five 1/2 hours to go, I packed the snack away for mid trip entertainment as did the majority of my fellow travellers.

Once we left civilization behind, the road smoothed out, the bus sped up, and I kicked back for a five hour nap. Wrong. The bus company, concerned over bored passengers, opted to play a series of native music DVD’s. At ear-splitting levels. Native Thai singing, if you’ve ever had the pleasure, is close to the noise made by a pair of cats in heat. Khmer singing isn’t quite as bad, but that’s relative. I surely didn’t notice anyone on the bus tapping their toes along with the music. And the visuals were no better. Didn’t matter which song was on, the ‘traditional’ dancing was always the same ( which seemed to consist of a weird hand rolling movement. Period.). I gave it three songs of watching, hoping for at least some pleasing eye candy, but they’d done their damnest to make sure that while all the women were beautiful, the guys all barely qualified as looking human. Kinda like watching straight porn.

Fortunately I travel with my trusty IPod, so earbuds planted deeply and the volume raised to drown out the screeching singing, once again I settled back for a long nap. Wrong again. I’ll expound upon Cambodian driving skills in a different post. Here, all that matters is one of the important rules of Cambodian driving. A fact of life in Cambodia is that where a road exists, all locals flock to it, and transportation options include ancient cow-pulled carts, ancient mopeds buried under a family of five, ancient bicycles loaded with ‘freight’ piled to the sky, and just about any and every (ancient) thing you can think of that may or may not be mounted on a pair of wheels. Lots of slow ‘vehicles’ on the road. It’d be stupid to crawl along behind these impediments, much less slow down for them. The rule of the road is as you come up from behind, blast your horn to convince them to get the hell out of your way. It was a rule our bus driver evidently relished. Big bus = big horn. So while Stevie Ray belting out Texas Flood easily drowned out the Cambodian music DVD, a dead Texas blues guitarist doesn’t stand a chance against a Khmer bus driver and his horn.

Ah, well, so much for the nap. The countryside along the way is of some interest though a bit monotonous. Checking out what the locals have decided to use as a form of transportation adds some variation to the scenery. Ditto for what the locals have decided to use as a form of housing. But in the end, boring drive. Halfway thru you get a 15 minute stop to stretch your legs, grab a smoke, or pile into the restaurant your’s and every other bus stops in front of to give you the opportunity of buying overpriced snacks. Back on the road, the tour guide occasionally made another canned speech in barely recognizable English, including one toward the end of the trip that seemed to be nothing more than the entire time table for the company’s routes throughout SE Asia. Then finally, Siem Reap. Or at least the Mekong Express’ arrival enclave in Siem Reap, which turned out to be about 20 minutes outside of town.

Siem Reap Street Scene

Sights Along The Way: The Cambodian version of UPS

My hotel in Siem Reap offered a free tuk tuk ride into town and I’d reconfirmed early that morning. Twenty minutes after arrival, I was still waiting while everyone else has already been collected or arranged transportation into town. But I’m patient. And have travelled enough to have learned not to sweat the little things. Now the ‘old guy stranded outside of town’ scenario could be met with a who gives a fuck attitude from the locals. But instead, a growing list of people hanging about the depot stopped by to check if I was ok and had some sort of plan. Offers of use of a cell phone were numerous (but I’d already called the hotel on mine). Seriously though, it was a warm fuzzy feeling and a good demonstration of how, beyond the touts and scams, the people of Cambodia are all heart.

One of the tuk tuk drivers, Tony (yup, Americanized name ‘cuz ‘you wouldn’t be able to pronounce my real name’) stopped by to chat often and even offered a free ride into town. Which he quickly explained was a real offer (as there is a well-known scam about free tuk tuk rides into town). I held out for my hotel’s driver who, it later turned out, had gone to the regular stop for the Mekong Express while we were actually at their secondary home. Who knew? Anyway, I got Tony’s cell phone number rather than commit to using him for touring the temples, and I’m sure he figured, “lost that one”.

40 minutes after the time I should have been headed to my hotel, I finally was. My driver wasn’t exactly apologetic about the confusion or his lateness. At the hotel nary a sorry was offered, though the use of the same driver for touring the temples was quickly offered. I’m not one to hold a grudge. So the pick-up screw up didn’t make me change my original plan of using the hotel’s transportation during the trip. Their total lack of showing any kind of remorse over it happening did. Especially when the crowd back at the depot apologized over and over for something they had absolutely no control over. That the driver wasn’t cute barely weighed in on my decision. So by default, Tony got the job, and was excited as well as extremely cute with disbelief when I called him to book him for the following day.

Would I bus it again in the future? Well, yes. It wasn’t really all that bad . . . and I already planned on reversing the route a week later. But, no, taking a bus has not moved up in the least bit on my list of preferred methods of transportation .

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