10 minutes into the ride the music began. At jackhammer decibels, the pulsating beat of local Cam-pop shook our skulls to nauseating levels. On this bus, vomiting was not an option. There just wasn’t enough space. The 15-seat mini bus was rammed to the tits with twelve weary travelers, luggage pouring from the “trunk” and covering two back seats, and a driver pleasantly grooving along to sound waves that could have moved a freight-train. Arienne sat pressed beside the right rear speaker. Desperately she reached for her iPod, only moments later to look at me in desperation, “the headphones, they do nothing!” Asking the driver for reprieve was futile. “Could you turn it down please!” were simply not words in his English repertoire. This was just the beginning.
The bus company had told us that a small yellow bus would be picking us up, and that the bus would be adhering to a “1 person, 1 seat” policy (meaning only 1 person can sit in 1 seat, i.e. no overloading). While back home this seems to go without saying, in Cambodia this is considered something of a luxury. When a small grey mini-van “bus” arrived 15 minutes late, not the yellow one promised, we couldn’t help but be a little concerned. The bus looked pretty full as it was, and there were three more of us needing to get in, including Arienne and I. It was a bit of a game of Tetris getting us all in with luggage, but when we all managed to fit the music began and the bus headed on its way.
The first order of business for the bus (beyond blasting the sonic diarrhea) was to head toward the port district of town; not the highway bound for Kampot as we had all expected. Making it’s way from shop to shop in the port, the bus driver made repeated stops picking up packages and taking money as compensation. In an already cramped mini-bus, space was at a premium, and the packages kept on coming. Considering the sleaziness of the town we were leaving, many of us couldn’t help but wonder about the contents of the packages and jokingly hoped that we would all get a “cut” of the private delivery service our bus had become. After 45 minutes of extra-curricular activities, the bus made its way back to where we had originally come from, and thankfully turned onto the highway.
Though now on the road to our destination, the stop-and-go parade wasn’t over yet. The bus driver continued to make random stops, dropping off packages, picking up packages, and always getting paid. The air-conditioning was so utterly useless that only those beside the window had any hope of relief from the heat. Fortunately, the most recent driver pick-up of dried fish in a box masked any concerns of smelling anything, or anyone else. We did our best to keep the atmosphere humorous and light, but it was becoming clear that the stop and go nature of our “direct” bus was starting to get to the passengers.
As history has repeatedly shown, if you push people to their limits, they will unite and overthrow a system that is not working for their benefit. It may take a matter of time, but in the end the people will always unite. For the complete strangers on the bus from Sihanoukville to Kampot, it took about 90 minutes for the frustration to set our resolve.
At the first (unannounced) rest stop, with the driver off in the loo, the passenger in the front seat committed the initial revolutionary act by turning off the music. This singular act of rebellion gave inspiration to us all. With the lack of aural pollution inhibiting our ability to communicate, the masses immediately expressed our displeasure with the sonic oppression. Upon the driver’s return, we banded together to petition the driver to put a permanent end to the music. Faced with the unified front of the entire bus, the driver conceded and kept the music off before heading back onto the road. We had won a small victory, but the delivery service continued and the bus was now more than an hour late without even getting close to Kampot.
Further down the road, the bus crawled to a stop again, and the now revolutionary brothers and sisters of the bus sat bracing ourselves for another loading of packages. We had done our best to temper our displeasure, only speaking up when faced with something completely unreasonable. If this stop had only been another small package or two, loaded quickly so we could keep on moving, everything would have been fine. But this time, it wasn’t packages the driver wanted to load. This time the driver went too far.
When the bus driver exited the vehicle, he did the usual of meeting his customers, taking their money, and sliding open the van door. But something was different this time. There were no packages waiting to be loaded. The driver looked at us, all of us revolutionary sardines packed together in that cramped overloaded bus and said… “two more.” We all knew what he was getting at. He wanted two more people on the bus and there simply wasn’t anywhere else to put them. Without even hesitating, the revolutionary mass spoke with one voice, “no!” The driver insisted, motioning to Arienne in the back and the 2cm between her and the wall of luggage. We all cried again, “no, no more!” The driver wouldn’t have any of it. He crossed his arms and simply said, “two more.” All together we began explaining how ridiculous this was, how we were guaranteed a 2-hour trip of “1 person, 1 seat.” How we had already stopped so much and just wanted to get to Kampot to get on with our day. The driver waited for us to finish, and then looked at us and shrugged, “two more.”
That was it. A Frenchman it the first row reached up to the ignition and turned the engine off. Taking the keys, he exited the van and approached the driver. “Sir, if you don’t get back into this bus and drive us to Kampot immediately, with no more nonsense and bullshit stops, then I will drive the van myself and leave you here on the side of the road. Do you understand me?” It was harsh, I know, but I couldn’t help but feel that someone had to put their foot down and say enough was enough. Sheepishly, the driver looked to us all in the van and said, “two more?” The answer was swift and united “No!” followed by cries of “let’s go to Kampot!” and “just get back in and drive.” Shrugging his shoulders one last time, the driver returned the money to the women and got back into the van. He didn’t make anymore stops, and got us to Kampot in three-and-a-half hours, for what should have been a two-hour trip.
What You Need to Know: In Cambodia, bus trips will never be what they are sold to you as. There is no such thing as a “direct bus”, and what you are told when you purchase the ticket very likely won’t be what you experience on the bus (multiple stops, delayed arrival time). Keep this in mind when booking bus transportation in the country, as it can be very easy to become disenchanted with the system. However, there does come a point when you do need to put your foot down and speak up if a situation is getting out of hand or unreasonable. Your personal safety is paramount, and companies do need to be held accountable for the level of service they provide in relation to the money they charge.