In the USA and some other developed countries, bus riding is not cool, but that’s how the rest of the world gets around. In Asia, unless you have a motorcycle, the bus is the best transportation option. One of these options is the sleeper bus, with bunk bed type arrangements and seats that almost allow you to get flat. Fares are cheap compared to any other mode, and there is something to be said for the old slogan, ‘Leave the driving to us.’ Of course, the problem quite often is the driver.
Roads in Cambodia, and much of Vietnam, run about 20 feet wide, shoulder to shoulder, if there is one. That narrow stretch of blacktop holds people walking with huge loads, multitudes of bicyclists of all ages, and mind boggling numbers of motorcycles. Some of these are loaded like a Dr. Seuss cartoon- wooden baskets piled ten by eight, four live chickens tied to each handlebar, sometimes a laden fruit tree twelve feet high. Keep looking, and you’ll see some amazing sights. Entire families hop on board, Mom, Dad, Grandma, and two or three kids. If there’s not at least three on a moto, efficiency is surely lacking. Bikes with families tend to go much slower than the 18 year old kid going solo to see his girlfriend.
Added to this road stew are tractors, a sort of land version of the long tailed boat, with the engine a good 6 feet in front of the driver, and nothing in between. His load might be a dozen people crowded onto a small platform of plywood, and maybe a big live pig in a cage on the very back. Throw in a few tuk tuks, the open air jitneys that are taxis in many Asian cities. These tend to have a top speed of around 30, with a load of 3 people. Squeeze 5 onboard and you’re lucky to see half that.
There are also regular cars and trucks, and these tend to be driven very fast, unless there happen to be 14 people squeezed into the bed, or piled up with a metal mass of 200 bikes, as I saw in Siem Reap. I guessed it might take hours to unload the thing. The big trucks are next up on the food chain, although some, loaded or not, can’t exceed 25 mph. Then there are some that go like they’re in a grand prix, only hitting the brakes to prevent a fatality. Finally, there are the busses, connecting every city and town, driven by guys who know this stretch of road like their dog knows his yard. These drivers tend to be a bit hyper, no doubt trying to make it to the destination as quickly as possible, before other road mayhem finds them. So they end up doing some absurd maneuvers, like passing a convoy of slow trucks uphill on a blind corner, with a semi truck coming our direction having to slam on the brakes to avoid a head on. Variations on this theme occurred dozens of times, and some of the near misses are best not witnessed, lest you be getting very agitated and thinking about getting off this thing right now.
Most of the time, the larger vehicles take their ten foot half out of the middle of the road, avoiding the steady stream of bikes, walkers, and motos. Bus drivers also have a propensity to honk at each of these pesky annoyances, so there’s quite often a near constant staccato cacophony. The horn tends to be a button extending from the steering wheel, so it can be operated constantly, even if the driver is deep in an animated phone conversation, which is often. It’s nothing personal, really, he just wants them to know he’s there, 10 inches off their left shoulder. So the horn becomes a factor in terms of where to get your seats if given a choice. The back of the sleeper busses in particular tend to have a bit more room and are as far away as possible from the one note trumpeter. The close calls between the bus, bikes and motos are countless, and I’m sure there’s plenty of carnage at times, but I didn’t see any on seven separate trips.
The revved up bus driver hates to wait, or follow slowpokes, and he will often make passes that would make James Bond grab the seat and brace for impact. Revving the engine flat out, and coming down the middle of the road like a missile, the long distance bus is the top predator in the asphalt jungle. One driver on the stretch between HCMC and Nha Trang, did a series of high speed, high risk, very sketchy passes on the crowded highway, overtaking around two dozen vehicles including some real turtles. Almost immediately after surviving this stress experiment, he pulled over to the side of the road and jumped out. Maybe he needed to check his pants to see if they were brown, or maybe he had to relax and have a smoke, but 5 minutes later we had to do it all over again. I wasn’t a math major, but rolling the dice with catastrophic probabilities is something that is best left to bare minimums. Every multi hour bus trip has at least one leisurely stop, usually at a roadside cafe or truck stop where a half hour break from the wild ride is appreciated by all. Some of these can have some decent food choices and modern conveniences. One stop like this, little over than an hour south out of Siem Reap, featured two large woks piled high with beetles and giant crickets.
Here’s your protein fix
Departure and arrival times are very elastic with some of the bus companies, and one hour delays are not that bad compared to other possibilities. A bus I took from Sihanoukville, through Kampot and Kep, crossing the border at Hat Thien, Vietnam, and then continuing to HCMC, arrived at midnight, 5 hours past the stated ticket time. This stretch was brutal, due to changing busses a couple of times, and a very slow immigration checkpoint at the Vietnam border. Much of the travel reports I heard in Cambodia said that the hassles begin in earnest there, and that was accurate this day for sure. At one point, after waiting for a shuttle to the bus station to get our last leg into Saigon, we were informed that the van we would be loading into had absolutely no room for large packs, whatsoever. This was complete bull, of course, as a similar van from the same company was packed with people and backpacks. Fortunately, on board with us was a Vietnamese woman who now lived in Ohio and spoke good English, and apparently devastating Vietnamese, as she lambasted our driver into biting his lip and loading us all up. Onward through the delta region of Vietnam, a very watery world, and the final 4 1/2 hours of the 14 I spent on the bus that long ass day .
The bus I took from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville had it’s goofy aspects as well. Departing from a make shift station in the heart of town, packed to the gills, it was very difficult to understand any of the announcements coming over the fuzz box PA system. There was much confusion among the foreign travelers as to which bus was which, when it was leaving, and would there be a seat when they got on it. My 12 noon bus quickly became a 1pm departure, and then that the 1pm bus was declared inoperable and we would be getting on a bus that hadn’t arrived yet. There were half a dozen busses in a dense swarm of humanity on a busy street with very little elbow room. Once our bus arrived, I managed to board amidst lots of chaotic ignorance and duplicate tickets. My seat was good, far as I could tell, but two farang girls across the aisle were repeatedly informed that they were being moved to the next bus out as their seats were reserved for other people. To their credit, they held their ground, refusing to move as the flustered bus employees each gave their best shot at persuading them to get off. These girls were tired and worn out from the goofy bus process already and they were staying on this bus until it got to Sihanoukville. At one point the driver himself came back to give it a shot but they weren’t budging. If the actual police had shown up that might not have done it either. So they stayed right where they were, the driver got over it shortly, and in an hour we were finally out of Phnom Penh Then it was five hours of bobbing and weaving and the endless games of Dare and Chicken. A pretty fascinating experience as long as you keep looking out the side window and not the windshield.