Tuk-Tuk? NO. Now now, not later, not EVER. Go away. (Phnom Penh to Siem Reap to Bangkok)

Long title, I know. Sorry, not sorry.

When we left off, Ellen and I had just reached Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. We disembarked from the boat and were immediately met with a swarm of drivers. In Cambodia, the predominant form of tourist transport is a tuk-tuk, which roughly translates to “extremely annoying driver of a box attached to a motorbike. Tuk Tuk drivers are, to put it mildly, everywhere and insanely irritating. No matter where you are or where you go, there’s sure to be a gang of tuk tuk drivers hanging out outside, just waiting to pounce on you as you exit. (“Tuk tuk? You need tuk tuk ride?” NO I HAVE TWO LEGS, LEAVE ME ALONE.) One of the highlights of this trip has been the relative non-pushiness of the people in the tourism business here; tuk tuk drivers were the notable exception.

(“Tuk-tuk?” I JUST GOT OUT OF ONE YOU MORON.)

As Ellen and I had become attached to the far more entertaining travel method of “hop on someone’s actual motorbike and hold on for dear life,” tuk tuk travel seemed pedestrian in comparison. So we walked to our hostel, Velkommen Guesthouse, which was conveniently located only about 500 yards from the pier itself.

We were shown to a fifth-story room on the seventh floor (don’t ask) of the building. The building had no elevator, so we hiked the flights of stairs and ended up collapsing in a pool of our own sweat when we got there.

(“Tuk-tuk? Tuk-tuk?” I’M BOARDING A BUS LITERALLY RIGHT THIS SECOND, CAN’T YOU SEE?)

We only stayed in Phnom Penh one night. In about twenty-four hours, Ellen and I:

  • Did the main PP monuments – the Royal Palace, where there was a lot of Buddhas (major theme of this trip, by the way), the National Museum, and the Silver Pagoda, which was another Buddhist temple that had 5000 tiles of silver making up the floor. Very cool
  • Saw the famous Tuol Sleng prison, where the Khmer Rouge kept and tortured all their dissidents. According to the video we watched, “dissidents” appeared to be a loose definition including “everyone who didn’t wear a scarf.”
  • Walked through the Cheung Elk (silent L?) Killing Fields, where the prisoners from Tuol Sleng and other prisons were taken to be killed. The Khmer Rouge wanted to save bullets, so they’d usually use farming tools to do the deed. Charming.

At the end of this whirlwind, we caught a bus to Siem Reap, a 5-hour doomsday ride on a under-cooled bus. About forty miles of this trip was on a dirt road behind another bus, which meant the inside of the bus got so dusty that you felt trapped in a sandstorm. It was truly miserable and only let up when it started to rain after an hour. Not my favorite travel leg.

Upon arrival to Siem Reap, we caught a tuk tuk to the Golden Temple Villa, a guesthouse we had found the previous night online. When we got there, I realized that my camera had not come along for the ride. Damn. I went to reception and asked them to call the bus depot to see if they had picked anything up, but no one picked up the phone – it was 11:30 at night, after all.

(“Tuk tuk? Tuk tuk? Tuk tuk? Tuk Tuk?” Sigh. Don’t these people ever sleep?)

So in desperation, I decided to go to the bus station by myself in hopes of maybe finding the bus parked there, and unlocked, for the night. This would prove to be a very, very bad idea, and sour me on the concept of tuk-tuks for all time (hence the title of this post).

I found a tuk-tuk driver (not the most difficult thing in the world of Cambodia) and asked him to take me to the bus station. He nodded and started driving off. After about ten minutes (it took 5 to get the station) he realized he was going the wrong way and pulled over to study my address-less bus ticket. After about thirty minutes, we finally arrive to the station – a totally shut-down, dark place on the edge of town. This is where, in the movies, the kidnapper takes his captive to have his kidneys removed without anesthesia.

But I needed my camera. As the driver waited, I poked around the station, looking for my bus. I had about given up hope when the last bus I checked happened to be mine! I was maybe saved. I gave the door a little push and it magically opened.

That was unexpected. I had thought they’d lock the bus.

I called my driver over, whom at this point I still liked, and asked him if he had a flashlight. He looked extremely uncomfortable, but I had no idea why – until I turned back to the bus. In the doorway, staring at me, was a half-naked Cambodian man I suppose had been my bus driver. And he looked extremely unhappy to see me. I have never seen such pure rage.

But again. My camera was on that bus. I asked the driver to translate “can I please get on the bus and look for my camera?” What ensued was a ten-minute conversation with a lot of Khmer and occasional begging from me in the form of hand signals. Eventually the man threw open the bus, popped on a light, and let me on. Victory!

Or so I thought.I went straight to my seat – no camera. Above my seat? No camera. Slowly it dawned on me that the fruit I had bought at a bus stop and left on the bus was also no longer there – they had cleaned it already.

Dejected, I got off the busy and climbed back into the tuk tuk. At this point I just wanted to go back to the hostel and be depressed for awhile before falling asleep, since it was midnight and we had to wake up at 4:30 to go to Angkor Wat. It occurred to me that if the bus driver had cleaned the bus, he would have found my camera and probably taken it. No wonder he wasn’t pleased to see me.

On the way back to town, my chatty driver tried to ask questions over the roar of his motorbike.Tired and disinterested, I wasn’t paying much attention besides smiling and nodding every once in awhile. This proved to be a bad strategy. Over the next hour, my smiling tuk tuk driver took me everywhere but to my hostel. He showed me:

  • Where his parents lived
  • Where he liked to pull over when he had to take a pee, which he then demonstrated
  • The lake near Siem Reap
  • The lake near Siem Reap a second time, because of a “detour”
  • The Night Market in Siem Reap

…And a couple other disturbing places I won’t mention. Eventually, I stopped being nice and just demanded he take me back to the hostel. When he finally did, he goes, “You need driver for tomorrow? Also you pay me fifteen dollars.”

The going rate for a tuk-tuk ride was about two dollars. I was furious. I gave him five, four more than he deserved simply because I didn’t have change, and stalked off.

That was not a good day. Thankfully, it got better after that – Angkor Wat was amazing. Again, I’d have pictures, but… you know. No such luck.

The day after Angkor Wat, we caught a morning minivan to Bangkok. This seven-hour trip actually took nine, because the bus driver stopped every hour for reasons unknown. At the border between Cambodia and Thailand, we were instructed to disembark and walk about a half-mile to the border, another half-mile through no-man’s-land, and a final half-mile from the Thai border to the next bus. It was a very odd system that felt like a prisoner’s exchange.

All that said, we (well, at least I) are having a great time. It’s just that the bad stories tend to be funnier.

Bangkok and the beach, where we are now, will have to wait until I’m home, but as a teaser: running into a pair of old Capital Camps Brits, crazy hostel owner who danced, the taxi ride from hell in the wrong direction, phone lost, scramble to make the plane, dengue fever scare thanks to a jackass pharmacist, scuba diving trip sacrificed. Until next time!

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