Cambodia: Side in the Dirt / by Tyler Wood

After two days of solid traveling we arrived at Stung Treng, Cambodia. The town you must get to in order to cross into Laos from Cambodia. We were told in Siem Reap that we could get visas at the border, and since they refused to make money on us to inform us of that, we believed them. My friend and I were dropped off at the Riverside Guesthouse (mentioned in Lonely Planet) and asked about visas. We were told that it is not possible at the border, we would have checked by actually getting to the border, but the only boats and buses we could find running to the border are run by people selling visas and won't take you without a visa already. Since they had to run to Phnom Penh to get the visa, it would take three days. We were negotiating a three day visa and, since Stung Treng has nothing to do, a tour into Ratanikiri Province as well. We needed passport photos.

We were taken to another place and took our photos there because Mr. T and the Riverside's camera didn't work. They tried to charge us $6 for 6 pictures. The room for the night was going to be $3, and Mr. T claimed he only made $2.50 on each visa he did (which he had to travel all the way down to Phnom Penh to get) so we called him on that price, expecting to get it lowered. What happened was not expected, Mr. T got really pissed off and threatened to take us to the police. We told him we aren't going to get ripped off after dealing with so much money with this guy. We refused all the business after he was swearing at us and throwing the pictures on the ground. They claimed that EVERYONE, including locals, paid three dollars per person, since this was the only place in town.

Fixing a flat before leaving Stung Treng 

Fixing a flat before leaving Stung Treng 

A block down the street we asked about photos, that man said we could get 8 photos for $1.50. Mr. T (did I mention he is in the Lonely Planet Guidebook) was getting heated while lying to our faces. He was mad we weren't letting him rip us off. We were getting tired of this attitude, which wasn't the first person like this we had dealt with in Cambodia. I know what you're thinking - they are very poor, and understandably get a bit aggressive when trying to sell to tourists, relax. However, the people we had dealt with were in establishments and had more money than we did, so we weren't going to let them deal with us that way. We eventually decided paying a minimum of $150 to get 90 minutes to Laos in three days was not worth it, since we could bus back to Bangkok for less than that, and reassess where we wanted to go. So we purchased bus tickets back to Khompong Cham from Ritchie's Restaurant. We waited another two hours for the rest of the passangers and forty five minutes to fix a flat, then we were on the road. As we left town we passed a third photo place.

We arrived in Kratie (pronounced Krachey) at sunset and dropped three people off there, and pushed on into the night down to Khompong Cham. It seemed to us the driver was driving faster at night, and he would turn his lights on and off when passing people. In so doing we almost hit several cows and people on the road. The roads in Cambodia are just now getting paved in most places, and there is no such thing as traffic police, so they drive as fast as possible most of the time. They are new to the paved road. The roads are just now paved, but they are still used for herds of cattle, water buffalo, and transport for everyone walking and riding bicycles as well as the bigger tour buses.

I decided to try and sleep instead of having a constant, mild panic attack for the whole trip as I watched the scene out of the front window unfold. So, I put my head back against the seat and right when I was drifting off, I was awoken with hard braking.

The post-crash exit/front window

About  twenty minutes from Khompong Cham the seemingly inevitable happened. A black pig with white speckles ran out in front of us. In my head it seemed like it was slow motion. I thought repeatedly, don't turn, hit the pig - hit the pig! We swerved and we heard the squealing as it disappeared under us. The friction and top-heavy-ness of the bus only made us roll onto the side of the bus. There were no seatbelts and we were sitting opposite the door. I fell onto the now broken glass of the doorway window, and my friend fell on top of me. We slide to a stop in the dirt. It was quiet and we stood up and looked around to see if everyone was alright.

We exited where the front windshield used to be and surveyed the surroundings. We were on the front lawns of a few huts on stilts. This was way outside the city and there were no lights. My friend freaked out and pointed at my arm. It was covered in blood. The locals swarmed the bus with a few flashlights and helped us see our injuries so we could clean them up. Luckily we had our own band aides and disinfectant because the tour guide mentioned a pharmacy in town but no way of getting there. That was the extent of his help. 

Once we had cleaned up we noticed that I sustained a couple deep gashes, but nothing serious. We were all lucky on the bus, no one was seriously hurt;  I think I was the worst of it. My friend had a sprained wrist and bruises, and one girl had a cut on her foot. We were all shaken a bit. There was no help for us, and the gravity of the possible situation of more serious injuries weighed down on us. Something minor in an accident in America could be potentially fatal in Cambodia, especially in the Provinces. The other people on the bus had just arrived in Cambodia that day and it must have been quite the welcome for them. We had at least seen what we wanted to see at that point, so we changed our plans from crossing the country again to leaving ASAP to Saigon, which was our base, and ironically, where we felt safe.

Getting the bus back on it's wheels

After the tour guide paid a local to use his truck to roll the bus back on its wheels the driver reappeared from his absence to try and start the bus, which was leaking something from the back. The gas can that was behind our seat was unaccounted for as well, so we backed off quickly. It started. We were arguing with the tour guide so we could get the bottom compartment open to get our bags out before the guy would leave with the bus. Later, when he tried to tell us to get back on that bus with the same driver to finish, I realized why he didn't want us to get our bags out.  He wanted us to get back on the same bus with a missing windshield, all the windows on the right side missing, glass everywhere and no light to see what you would be sitting on, and god-knows what leaking and broken internally. Not to mention the same driver that just rolled the bus. We actually had to argue to get him to call another minibus for us. There were no police or medics called ever, if in fact they exist anyway.

When we got to Khompong Cham we were still dropped off at their friend's guesthouse and not the one we asked for. He took our tickets, just in case we kept them so we could show anybody I guess, or we snuck on to the minibus during the accident, who knows. My friend and I walked down the street to get a room at a hotel we had seen earlier with UN and UNICEF trucks parked at it. They were all booked up, but after a little pleading and them looking at us, dirty, bloody, and clearly shaken up, he grabbed a key that wasn't on the board. 

Deep-fried spiders in Skoun

We were too tired to do anything but wash up and sleep. The next day we took the first bus to Phnom Penh. We ate deep-fried tarantulas along the way, and made it alright. When we arrived all we wanted to do was get to Vietnam, but the plane was $95 per person and the next day a bus (not another one) was only $3 per person, we decided to save the money and make sure it was daylight out, and a big bus, in order to travel in Cambodia again. So we had to wait out the day in Phnom Penh.

The rest of the day we just wanted to report the incident, since it was apparent that there was none of that happening without us doing it. We went to the U.S. Embassy first, it was closed for lunch. We waited at the Wat Phnom; then got in to talk to someone. They told us there was nothing they could do really, but we understood that. We just wanted it to be documented somewhere. They gave us a form and we told them about it. They told us to talk to the Tourist Police; they might be able to help. We took a Tuk Tuk to the Tourist Police and asked them to just report it. It could have been the language but he continued to say he can't solve our problem. We explained we didn't have a problem anymore, we just wanted to report the accident. He claimed he couldn't do anything without the accident report from Khompong Cham, he was the Tourist Police for Phnom Penh only. He asked to see our Passports and for a second it felt like we were going to be interrogated, then he told us to go to the Ministry of Internal, they could help since they cover the whole country. We left and all he had written on the paper report was our names, passport numbers, visas numbers, and the date the accident happened, but nothing about an accident or where or what happened.

Outside the city, at the Ministry of Internal, we were lead into a room with only a desk. The men there talked amongst themselves for a few minutes, then we were lead to another room, where we sat for more Khmer discussion we had no part in. Then we were led back outside and told to go back to the Tourist Police, they could help us. So after four and a half hours of trying to just get someone to write down and file a report of the incident and getting nowhere we decided to go back to the guesthouse we were staying at. We told them we would just write about this incident on the internet since it seems they don't really care to even keep track of incidents, let alone fix them. We weren't asking for expensive road improvements or anything, just a report that might be added to others and at some point get big enough to tell the tour guides to be more careful - that was it. We couldn't get that from them.

If you are reading this you now know more about this incident than the entirety of the authorities in Cambodia. Traveling in a "developing country" is fairly dangerous, we understood that, but how it was dealt with is a shame for the tourism industry in Cambodia. We couldn't even get a report filed for the betterment of their industry, and for the knowledge for other tourists going to or around Cambodia. This is the extent of our ability to relay this message right here. Cut the risk down and don't travel at night, and get your visa in advance in a major city regardless of what people tell you, that's my advice.