Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Laos to Cambodia border crossing adventures!

Crossing into Cambodia was a shock to the senses after leaving the slow-pace of Laos. Every time we enter a new country it’s always a bit of a shock. Traveling as we are, allotting roughly 4 weeks to each country, it feels like the minute we get used to the food, currency, and way of life in one country we thrust ourselves head first into a new place. It can be quite disorienting! But this transition, from Laos to Cambodia, has been the most shocking yet.

Yesterday morning we boarded a small boat, leaving 4000 islands to head for the southern bus station on the mainland. We were told it’s much easier to book transportation across the border in advance, so we had everything set and ready to go.

At 8am our little long boat, full of falang (foreigners) and backpacks, picked us up at our guesthouse and took us to the bus station where we boarded a VIP bus to the border.

Getting through customs was fairly straightforward, and another bus was waiting for us once we crossed into Cambodia. This comfortable, air conditioned bus took us on for about an hour until it was time to make a transfer.

At 1:00pm we were set off at a dismal restaurant and told to wait 2 hours for our connecting bus to take us to Ban Lung in the Ratakiniri province of north eastern Cambodia. The food was questionable at best, but we did manage to find some pineapple to fill our stomachs.
Our first meal in Cambodia… curry flavored liquid with peculiar tasting mystery meat

AND in a completely unexpected turn of events, the bus was early to pick us up! This bus was a considerable down grade from the previous one – old seats, no air conditioning (or windows) and already very full of local passengers. But no worries, we hopped on a 2:00pm.

The trip from was a bumpy one. Although I’m told Cambodia does have some paved roads, that type of infrastructure has not made its way to the far north of the country quite yet. The road was very bumpy and made for quite a slow journey.

After an hour (3:10pm), the bus abruptly stopped, and then made a noise phewwwwwwwwww – like a bullet being shot out of some futuristic gun in Die Hard or Terminator movie. That’s when Nick said “we’re gonna be here a while.” And everyone filed out of the bus to wait alongside the road while the bus driver climbed under the bus and got to work.
Everything along the road was covered in a thick layer of orange-brown dust – so there was really no place to sit and nothing to do but wait.

About an hour after we stopped another bus came by and most of the foreigners paid an extra $5 to hop on. Another ½ hour later, a large group of the local passengers set off on foot, heading to the next village to find food and presumably shelter for the night.

One-by-one the remaining foreigners began to hitch a ride into town until the only people left with the bus were Nick and I and a small group of locals. At 5:00 panic began to set in, the sun was setting, we didn’t have any food or water and I did not want to sleep on the bus that night. Just as I was nearing panic, Nick calmly lifted his hand at a passing pick-up truck and successfully hitched us a ride in a government vehicle.

We both hopped into the air-conditioned cab while the rest of the locals loaded their belongings, luggage, groceries, sacks of rice, and two bicycles into the truck-bed and climbed in. Our driver didn’t say a word to us (although I think he did speak English) and began to speed down the road toward Ban Lung.

Although we were driving on a bumpy dirt road barely big enough for two lanes, the speedometer of our truck remained between 80 – 100 km/hour the entire drive (staying mostly at 90 km/hr until the sun set). At regular intervals a large truck or bus would pass by going in the opposite direction, leaving a dust storm in it's wake. But our driver never even flinched. Even when visibility was limited to a foot or two in front of the truck he kept his lead foot down, wailing on his horn to let the world know that whether or not they could see him, he was coming. I was terrified and I kept looking to the back of the truck to make sure that no one had fallen out. It was a death-defying trip to be sure.

During the two hours it took to get to Ban Lung, Nick and I passed the time by looking out the windows at the passing landscape. While Laos was lush, green, and absolutely gorgeous, driving through Cambodia was like driving through Armageddon.

Everything on the side of the roads was covered in a brown film of dust. But beyond that were entire ''forests'' of burning tree stumps. I know that Laos is also struggling with problems of deforestation, but we never came in close contact with it while we were there. Here in Cambodia, it seems like everyone is just burning the entire country to the ground. For our two-hour journey, the entire length of the road was lined with smoldering charcoal forests and burnt and blackened rice paddies.

Scattered among the burning trees and brush were bamboo huts with thatch roofs, and it is a wonder to me how these people prevent the fires from destroying their homes. I believe the reason for all of the fire is slash and burn agriculture practices, but it didn’t look to us like anyone was farming anything. To be sure it must be a depressing environment to live in – it was quite eerie and unsettling for us even to drive past.

Finally, at 7:30 we arrived in the small town of Ban Lung and stopped in the first guest house we saw. We were exhausted, covered in a film of sweat and dust, and completely spent. Hopefully our introduction to Cambodia is not a foreshadowing of what is to come… because I miss Laos already!

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