Successful travel in Southeast Asia has two main rules – don’t plan too much and don’t get angry. Unless you stick to them, you run the risk of suffering a nervous breakdown. With the story of my last experience in Cambodia, I’d like to show you why planning is a bad idea in Southeast Asia.
My last stop in Cambodia was the beautiful island Koh Rong Samloem. Imagine white sand beaches, clear blue waters, wooden chalets, coconut trees, and pure bliss all-around. The island moves at a slow pace and nobody ever worries – after all, there is nothing to be mad about at the beach.
My Best-Laid Plans
Before I left for Koh Rong Samloem, I left my backpack at the hostel in the mainland city of Sihanoukville. I didn’t feel like lugging all of my stuff around the beach, the bus to my next destination (Bangkok) was going to pick me up from the hostel in Sihanoukville, and I would have 4 hours in between, to relax and book my accommodation in Bangkok. It seemed like a perfect plan and I was pretty proud of myself.
I made some new friends along the way and together we spent a few wonderful days on the island. There is no internet on Koh Rong Samloem, and I had to cure my digital abstinence with some fun in the sun. We kayaked to the most pristine beaches, snorkeled with schools of fish, ate fresh shrimp and coconuts, and swam with glowing (bioluminescent) plankton at night. Paradise found!
Sure enough, though, all good things come to an end – I was rudely awakened from this dream, by the tribulations on the way back.
The Beginning of My Troubles
The boat that was supposed to get us back to Sihanoukville was 30 minutes late. No drama so far – in some parts of Southeast Asia, a half-hour tardiness is actually like being early. Even when the boat left us at the wrong harbor, far from Sihanoukville’s center, we were happy to discover a new, industrial side of the city. Thus far, we had only seen the party spots and this was an interesting change of pace.
The crew was nice enough not to abandon us in the midst of shipping containers and put us on a large tuk-tuk to town. We were so tightly packed in the tuk-tuk that even the local passersby were pretty shocked. If you can surprise people who know how to load their whole business and three kids on a single motorbike, it’s really worth mentioning.
It goes without saying that the sweaty jumble of bodies that we had become, couldn’t break our spirit. Actually, situations like this provide the perfect backdrop for jokes and silliness. Besides, our tuk-tuk featured a German-English guy who spoke Bulgarian. Pretty amazing!
The Roads of Cambodia
Suddenly, our tuk-tuk came to a stop and а peek through the tarpaulin revealed an enormous traffic jam. We were stuck in front of train tracks and on them were the two slowest trains in the world. Once the trains had finally gone, the street was so congested that we could see nothing but steaming exhaust pipes, for miles around. Locals on scooters zipped through the fumes, but everyone else was stuck.
At this point, we were no longer amused. As I figured out that there was just an hour left to my bus, my heart started racing – we were nowhere near town and it didn’t seem like we’d start moving anytime soon.
After a quick phone call to the bus company, I arranged for them to pick up my backpack from the hostel near Sihanoukville and I would get on at the bus station. The only way to be in my seat to Bangkok that night, was to hitch a ride with a local on a scooter but they all kept shaking their heads and ignoring my pleas, in contrast to the usual friendliness in Southeast Asia. Finally, with the help of some friends from the tuk-tuk, I was able to convince one man to give me ride. As he shouted something in Cambodian and gestured hurriedly, I hugged my friends, not knowing if I’d ever see them again.
Hitchhiking on a Motorbike
I was happy that my newly found Schumacher on a scooter zipped through the traffic but we soon found ourselves in a maze of dark alleys and all the horror stories I had heard from other backpackers flooded my mind. The road to the train station seemed to take forever. Once we finally arrived, I realized that my troubles were far from being over – the hostel had refused to give my backpack to the bus driver.
The main office at the bus station was complete mayhem – hands were poking through, waving bills and tickets, phones were ringing hysterically, and I looked around, fully dazed. When I finally scrambled to the desk, one of the staff members managed to find a cousin to give me a ride to my hostel, so that I could pick up my bag. The bus would wait, they promised.
Without a second thought, I hopped on the motorbike of yet another stranger and carelessly abandoned my laptop at the bus station office. This time, my driver spoke English and kept poking around. He wanted to know if I was traveling alone and suggested that I should put my arms around his waist, instead of holding on to the bike. Just as I started to boast about my solo adventures, some sound backpacker advice for Southeast Asia came to mind: “Always tell the local men that you are with your husband if you don’t want to give them any ideas.” So, in an attempt to smooth things over, I quickly lied that my husband was going to meet me in Bangkok and clutched at the bike. We didn’t exchange another word for the rest of the journey but during those dark, secluded patches of road, I kept coming up with ninja action plans, in case my driver would try something.
Luckily, I was safe, arrived at the bus terminal on time, and even found my laptop waiting where I left it. I had a few moments to grab a bottle of water and hop on the bus, as it was pulling out of the station.
Buses and Borders
Most night buses in Southeast Asia have beds, instead of seats but if you’re a solo traveler you may have to share a bed with a stranger. I few days prior to my trip, I met a girl who told me how she had to sleep with a local grandma a small child. So, I was pretty happy to find a single bed, reserved just for me.
The day’s exhaustion put me into a deep slumber and I missed both food stops that we apparently made during the night. By the time we reached the border with Thailand, I could wolf down the country’s entire supply of vegetarian food. To cross from Cambodia to Thailand, we had to get off the sleeper bus and walk through a market with delicious looking, steamy local dishes. Despite my stomach’s protestations, I couldn’t stop for a bite, because the bus driver had warned us to stick to the group if we didn’t want to be left behind.
Tired and hungry, we ended up at the end of the most monstrous queue I’ve ever seen. Anyone who wants to make people miserable should aspire to be more like the passport control staff at the Cambodia-Thailand border. For 4 hours, we took a tiny step every 10 minutes and shoved our bags around the floor.
If you have to cross from Cambodia to Thailand, make sure that you bring some food and water, to make the siege of the passport control desk a little easier on yourself.
Let It Go and Enjoy
When we finally set foot on Thai soil and managed to find our driver, we got stuffed into a minibus that had 5 seats less than people. Another cramped, sweaty journey took us to Bangkok in the evening, 5 hours later than promised. Because of the traffic jam fiasco, I never got a chance to book my accommodation. I had pictured spending the last days of my trip at some posh place with a pool but this part of the plan went out the door as well. By this point, I was happy that the 5th hostel I asked at had a bed for me. After a 26-hour journey, having a shower, some food, and a clean bed, seemed like a blessing.
Crossing the border between Cambodia and Thailand was the last nail in the coffin – I am now fully convinced that you should never make the mistake of planning too thoroughly in Southeast Asia. It’ a surefire way to get everything you weren’t expecting. Still, this part of the adventure has its silver lining as well. Shared hardship brings people together and, at some point, our bus band became one exhausted and gross, yet tightly-knit family.
Have you ever had your plans go completely wrong while traveling? Was it in Southeast Asia? Share in the comments below 🙂