Starting at Siem Reap and ending in a town whose name rhymes with “toilet,” arguably the worst road in Southeast Asia stretches for a mere 155 km. The name is deceptive. Called the Cambodian National Highway, CNH 5 and CNH 6 were nothing more than a potholed dirt track that occasionally had delusions of paving.
For 155 km, CNH 6 between Siem Reap and Sisophon and CNH 5 between Sisophon and Poipet were nothing more than blindingly dusty when dry and maliciously muddy when wet. The general rule for taxis on the route is that they take between two and a half to four hours; buses routinely take between four and seven hours for the traverse.
Being low on funds and long on time, the FMA and I took the bus. It cost US$12 each to do the Siem Reap-Bangkok run in one day, and we were told it would take around 12 hours. But of course, there were complications on both sides of the border.
The bus showed up 25 minutes late for our 7:30 a.m. departure, and we were on the road for five minutes, long enough to get to a gas station. While refueling, the driver noticed that one of the tires was flat, and so we drove straight to a tire repair shop to get that fixed. It was a quarter to nine before we were on the road again.
The road, as promised, was bumpy the way that a rollercoaster has a few twists and turns. Riding the bus was more like riding the inside of a martini shaker. We had air-conditioning, but one woman pried open her window anyway. Why the physics of hot air and cold have proven so hard for people to understand is beyond me. In Japan, a fear of unprocessed air discourages people from opening windows on trains and buses, and the interior turns into a roasting experience.
On the road to Poipet, we were roasting because there was no air circulation, and hot air rushed in from the dirt track making a mockery out of the very concept of roads, forcing the cold air being pushed on us from the ceiling vents to have no colling affect whatsoever.
There weren’t many turns on CNH’s 5 and 6, their one saving grace. Nobody got motion sickness, unlike on the smoothly sealed and winding main roads in Laos. As we pulled over around 11 for a break, though, the driver noticed that the same tire as before was flat. Again.
So we waited, because that’s all we could do. The driver took the bus down the street to a repair shop, with all of our stuff in it, and we waited for nearly an hour for the tire to get fixed again. It passed slowly in the rising heat of the day, our books to distract ourselves with on the bus, along with our belongings and skin from our buttocks.
Eventually, we got on the bus again, and stopped for lunch – the last stop before the border, we were promised. We waited for another forty-five minutes before leaving again. I’d had a baguette and cheese at the last stop, and just couldn’t stomach the thought of eating more crappy overpriced food.
We finally made it to the border, and I was assured by a British guy who lives in Vietnam and regularly makes the Siem Reap to Bangkok run that the crowd vying for their Thai visas was small. It took almost another hour to make it through, but by then the bus conductor, who was to guide us to the Thai bus that was part of our ticket package, had evaporated like the wet remains of a midday storm.
So the FMA and I walked across the border from Poipet, Cambodia, to Aranya Prathet, Thailand, and kept walking. There were tons of touts, and we did our best to ignore them. I had our bus tickets in my hand and just kept showing them to people, who – surprisingly enough – pointed us in what would turn out to be the right direction. I was a bit shocked.
I was not shocked in the least, though, when after being on the road – the beautifully sealed, smooth, paved road – for about 10 minutes, the driver pulled into a small restaurant parking lot. “Bus leaking,” he complained, pointing out the rainstorm dumping on us. “We wait half-hour. New bus.”
About 45 minutes later, a new bus did indeed arrive. Long enough for most people to buy some food from the restaurant. The same British guy from before, who has done this trip many times, told me that the restaurant was owned by or at least in collusion with the bus company.
“Why do you keep using this company,” I asked him, “if they keep trying to scam you into buying food?”
“They’re still the most reliable company around. What other choice do you have?” He smiled, and we both nodded. There’s nothing to be done about the realities of travelling in Asia, except pray you don’t get taken for a ride.
The bus finally showed up, and we finally got underway. It seemed, though, that I’ve seen half-blind octagenarians drive faster and with more confidence than the idiot behind the wheel of our bus. At one point, he got out to buy and change a lightbulb that had gone out on the bus. Where, I couldn’t tell you. I was sitting in the front, and the road visibility looked the same before and after the stop.
The bus eventually made it to Bangkok, pulling in to Banglamphu around 9:30. We’d been on the road for 14 hours. Our last long-distance bus ride of the trip, I, for one, will not be missing those ass-numbing, shuttlecocking trips.