Traveling from Cambodia to Vietnam by bus is like going from Three Oaks, Michigan directly to Times Square without everything between. The minibus is packed with a mix of foreigners with their legs crammed against the seats in front of them and locals. We pick up and drop off several people along the way as the bus swims through a sea of motorbikes like a shark through a school of minnows, honking the whole way.
Some of their faces show contempt or rage, others fear or an obvious resignation, while other faces are sadly innocent – a few even have smiles. I look at all the photographs they have of former prisoners at the Toul Sleng S21 Prison in Phnom Penh. Every photograph shows a little bit of humanity: the blind emotions of the children that were taken there, the rage of mothers that have just had their child taken from them, the dread of the old men that know they are doomed. All the heinous acts of torture and murder that were committed at this prison under the Khmer Rouge regime are documented.
It’s pitch black outside but it’s easy to find my way. There’s only one way to go: the same way as the tour buses, vans, and tuk-tuks. It’s before sunrise and we’re headed to Angkor Wat. I arrive by bicycle to the biggest attraction at the Angkor ruins in Cambodia. I had read of people that had seen the sunrise from another ruin so I keep pedaling. After a hundred feet I can’t see my handlebars. I turn back and get a really expensive coffee from the cart out front.
I know they’re talking about me, but it doesn’t really matter as long as this is the place for the ferry across the river. I’ve got my mountain bike that I rented from Cambodia Rural Development Team (CRDT – a local non-profit) and after backtracking for a few minutes, I think I’ve found the town of Thom where I can take the ferry across the Mekong river and continue my trip. A group of people is standing around with motorbikes parked on the bank, so I figure this is probably the right place. After a while I become boring as a topic of conversation and people go back to chatting about something else unknown to me.
My skin is red, not from sun, but from dirt. I’m riding through clouds of dust as motorbikes and the occasional truck passes me by, while kids wave to me from the side of the road. I’m on a mountain bike rented from my guesthouse and I’ve been told there are waterfalls around here. With my skin caked in red dirt and the sun beating down I’m having a hard time imagining that there is any water at all in eastern Cambodia.
This is my first experience with the “sleeper bus.” These are double-decker buses with beds intended for sleeping on long rides, like the one I’m taking from Vientiane to Pakse, Laos. The dimensions seem to be designed for your average-sized Asian person, while most of the actual passengers are Westerners. I’m traveling alone and am hoping not to have to share this tiny space with a stranger. The ticket agent must be having a good day, because I am in fact alone in this tiny space curled into a ball so my legs will fit, bumping around and thanking every higher power there is that I’m not spooning with a stranger.