Monday, June 8, 2020

Eighteen Hours on the Road

Sunrise at Angkor Wat Temple

The longest flight that I took so far was almost sixteen hours. It was last year when I flew nonstop from Manila to Toronto, and it was a dreadful experience. Don't get me wrong, the inflight services were top-notched, and the inflight entertainment system was up-to-date, but sitting for sixteen straight hours can be tough. I have exhausted all the possible things inside the cabin to keep me preoccupied–slept for six hours, watched The Greatest Showman and Crazy Rich Asians twice, and had a skincare routine while everyone's asleep. In a nutshell, I survived, and I think I won't be doing it again for a while. However, I just realized that this experience was nothing compared to what I've gone through when I rode a bus from Saigon to Siem Reap for eighteen hours!

September 2014

The night before our scheduled trip, we went back to our hotel in Saigon. We asked the front desk officer to reserve us one-way bus tickets to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Moments after he heard us uttering the words 'Siem Reap', he panicked. But, just low-key panic.

"I'm sorry, but there are no seats available for tomorrow. I'll call another agency if they still have available one-way bus tickets for Siem Reap.", he said in pidgin English.

Our hearts skipped a beat. The only option remaining was to book a flight to  Siem Reap, but obviously, it'll require us to break a bank because it's just way too expensive and way out of our budget. We waited for at least three minutes, one of the longest three minutes of my life. Also, we can't afford to ditch our Siem Reap leg because our return flight to Manila was from that city. Either way, canceling our Siem Reap would mean buying a new one-way ticket from Saigon to Manila, and it's also expensive. There's no other way but to proceed with that trip. The front desk officer went back with a piece of good news. Thank God, there are still a few seats left.

"You are all lucky because we still have seats for you. Tomorrow is a national holiday in Cambodia, and many people are coming home.", he chimed. We went back to our rooms with a big smile on our faces. We packed our things and slept early that night because we have to leave Saigon at around 6:30 the following morning. Luck was on our side, or so we thought.

We woke up early. It was a struggle to be up in the wee hours of the morning, but I have no choice. I forced myself to move, and not to be a spoiled brat to my friends. Anyway, I could always catch up with my sleep during the trip. We checked-out the hotel and walked at least a block to our rendezvous point. When in Saigon, you have to be brave enough to cross the streets. At six-thirty in the morning, it was almost gridlock. A swarm of motorcycles choked the main street of Saigon, with street vendors expertly weaving through the traffic. Just right in the middle of the chaotic sea was our bus bound for Siem Reap. We immediately boarded the bus and found our seats. Handmade curtains haphazardly decorated the interiors of the bus, as if it was a gift from your aunt. Just as we were preparing to leave, a slim, tall guy wearing neatly pressed long sleeves started to give us briefing instructions about the safety procedures, much like what we always see inside the aircraft before departure. He delivered it in both English, albeit with his heavy local accent, and in Vietnamese.

The trip will take at least 12 hours, with a stopover at Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. The landscape quickly changed as we traveled towards the border of Vietnam and Cambodia. From a 6-lane highway surrounded by tall skyscrapers, it became a narrow two-lane highway. The bus attendant then collected our passports, and we stayed at one corner of the border control and waited for our turn. The immigration procedures were fast, and we were back on our bus. We had a brief stopover 30 minutes after traveling from the border.

We crossed several bridges, brown and muddy rivers, and a few towns and cities in between. I caught up with my sleep while listening to my travel playlist. At around noon, my friend woke me up because we were nearing the central bus station of Phnom Penh. According to the bus attendant, everyone has to disembark the bus at Phnom Penh and wait for another one onwards Siem Reap. I don't see the point of doing it, but we just obeyed.

I think this is Mekong River.

View from the bus terminal

The central bus station of Phnom Penh was a complete mess–it was a seething mass of humanity. Everyone from different walks of life was shoulder to shoulder, in each other's faces, and no personal spaces. But, this is how things work here, and we don't have the right to complain. I walked around looking for some food but ended up eating at a convenience store. It was a hot and humid day, and while waiting at a dilapidated bench, I watched the locals do their everyday life. With a whine and a displacement of air, the bus bound for Siem Reap had finally arrived. It was completely different from what we rode earlier–it was smaller, less comfortable, but at least the only consolation was the bus's air-conditioning system. We left Phnom Penh at around two in the afternoon.

We were traversing the vast rice fields through a narrow 2-lane national highway. The seats and windows shook as we drove over the small bumps of the main thoroughfare. However, I noticed that we were slowing down. I peered from the window, and there was nothing ahead or even behind us. I closed it back and heightened my senses. Then, it started to feel warmer. Right at the moment, I know we were doomed, but I stayed optimistic. It became hotter and hotter as the minutes went by, and the bus started to go slower. It didn't take for a while before the bus completely halted right in the middle of the Cambodian nowhere. Everyone was clueless. I didn't know what to do. I can't even check Google Maps because the mobile signal was close to non-existent. We opened the window to get some fresh air. At 3 in the afternoon, the sun was still high, and beads of sweat trickled down my forehead. Most of us went outside and found a quick respite on the other side of the bus. We opened the luggage compartment and got our bags. I gritted my teeth in annoyance and frustration because no one from the bus company can even talk in English to at least explain our situation.

Removing all of our luggage

We agonizingly waited for another hour before our rescue bus came. So, we loaded our luggage again at the compartment, went inside, and found our preferred seats. While I cannot adjust the aircon because it's broken, the cold air was a brief comfort from the scorching heat from the outside.

The sun was quickly setting. The sky turned pink, and we were driving at an unpaved highway. The dust was reddish-brown, all thanks to the clay soil. The countryside passes like a bad movie I've seen too many times before. I can't think how long I've been on this bus. We left the monotony of the highway behind a long time ago, and now the heat and the bumps of these unmade roads are lulling me into an uneasy sleep. We had a brief stop for a bathroom break. I decided to eat something–just a rice porridge similar to the Philippines's goto. I ate quickly and drank lots of cold coke zero before we continued our journey.

Dusk quickly settled, and soon after, darkness prevailed as we drove the long stretch of Cambodia's uneven highway. The paths that were illuminated by the yellow orb just hours before become lost in a blackness that even moonlight cannot help. The trip seemed forbidding as we passed by the dimly-lit towns and streets. Suddenly, it rained. The dark sky was menacing as it showed off its light show, lighting up our surroundings momentarily. Softly splashing water droplets hit the bus window as we drive onwards. I watched these raindrops race down to the windows. Minutes later, we were shivering. I can't even put my jacket because everything was inside my backpack, which was in the luggage compartment. I was only wearing my flipflops, a shirt, and shorts. I tried to find a warm spot on my seat, but to no avail, I just closed my eyes and silently prayed that this ordeal would end.

The thunderstorm had finally passed, yet it was as cold as ice inside the bus. The journey went on like this for the next three hours. We have been traveling for more than 16 hours, and it seemed that it wouldn't end soon. I felt thirsty and needed to go to the bathroom. My stomach was grumbling, but I had nothing to eat. I felt cold and helpless. I tried my best to absorb myself in music. Others drifted into a deep slumber.

It was almost midnight when the bus started to slow down. I woke up with the glaring lights from the outside. Everyone was finally awake. Their eyes are bleary, reactions were slow, and tiredness running in their veins just the same as their blood. As we trundled towards the station, a group of tuk-tuk drivers flocked the front door of the bus. My friend and I were both exhausted from a bus trip that we thought would last for eternity. As we gathered our luggage, a young, gaunt man wearing red plaid long sleeves approached us and offered a ride to our hotel at a reasonable price.

It did not take us more than 25 minutes to reach our hotel. The warm, humid air of Siem Reap was a quick respite from what we've been through over the last several hours. All was quiet except for the occasional cars passing by, and the jeers of drunk tourists. To break the monotony, our driver introduced himself to us. His name is Tiger, and he's been driving the tuk-tuk for years.

"Where are you from?" he asked.
"We are from the Philippines.", I sheepishly answered.
"What is 'I love you' in Tagalog?"
"Mahal kita.", my friend said.
"Ma-haaaal keeeta!" Tiger said with enthusiasm.
"How about, it's so nice to meet you?"
There was a long pause.
"Ikinagagalak kitang makilala", my companion said.
"Ikigaga...ahhh! So difficult!"

We finally arrived at our hotel at half-past midnight and accepted Tiger's offer to tour us around Angkor Wat Temple complex for only $20. We were blessed to have someone like him. After our late check-in and settling our things, we immediately dozed off.

Dawn is breaking.

It is the wanderlust that always consumes us. We crave new adventures, to meander the unknown, and to create new paths. A trailblazer, they say. But, as we encounter speedbumps along the way, we often fail to realize the true essence of traveling. It was never about the things we see on social media, but it will always be about making you realize how blessed you are. Not everyone has the privilege to see the world. It was supposed to be a mundane 12-hr land trip that became a harrowing but a life-changing 18-hr trip. 

The roads don't care about the terrain, and I have to deal with it. Whatever comes, I have to keep moving forward. When I get knocked down, I have to get up because there's no other way. I have to keep going until I get to the end of the line, even if the journey makes me bleed. Sometimes, I just want to stay put, lie on the ground, and feel the cold. And then, I remember why I started this journey. Traveling will never promise to give us the utmost comfort we desire, but there are plenty of reasons to kindle our souls and bring out the best smiles that we could give that we once thought belonged to the stars.

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