Our air conditioned minibus, carrying ten people, most of whom were fast asleep, was speeding through the narrow roads of Bavet. With miles of rice fields on both sides, occasionally dotted with small ponds where few people would be sitting with makeshift fishing poles, the journey can get pretty boring within minutes. Having crossed into Cambodia from Saigon around an hour back, we resigned to the fact that the land border crossing process at the Bavet border may well be the most exciting thing to happen that day.
The strange stone carved monster bird statues outside every establishment to scare off evil spirits, the curves at the corners of the roofs that give a touch of royalty to even the most humble homes, the incomprehensible dialect, the dusty roads and the seemingly endless green fields, screamed out the fact that we have finally entered Cambodia.
It was late-afternoon and like most of my fellow passengers, I was drifting in and out of sleep, not out of tiredness, but out of boredom. Every now and then, I would check my watch to see how much longer do we have to travel. We were heading to Phnom Penh and as per my calculations, we were a good four hours away. And that’s not counting the time we would waste on the unscheduled stops at the local markets and tour desks, which were clearly aimed at scamming us. There have been a couple of stops already on the Vietnamese side, and it was only a matter of time before it happens again on this side of the border.
The silence in the minibus was broken by the irritating sound of a plastic bag being opened from the seats in front of mine.
“Onion Rings?” The man seating in front of me said to his mate seated next to him, in his heavily accented English. If I had to guess, I would say he was from one of the small European countries, like Lativa or Estonia.
“Naa! I’m not feeling well.” His friend said. He sounded like a native English speaker. Maybe British. His voice seemed tired and heavy. “I need to get some sleep.”
“Yeah, Vietnam is tough.”
“It’s not ‘Nam. It’s the fish I had last night.”
“Ooh..Yeah… Fish!… Mad spices! Didn’t you get it out of your system?”
“Yeah, I did. I almost passed out puking last night. Woke up today to find the whole room smelling like half digested rotten fish… Man, I was lucky to get my security deposit back.”
Soon, the second man dozed off again, the first man finished off his onion rings and the bus was silent again.
An hour or so later, the bus stopped. We woke up to realize that there was a restaurant outside. Clearly, it was another pathetic attempt to scam us. Few of the passengers got out for some fresh air and to stretch their legs. The rest continued sleeping.
The restaurant was located in the middle of nowhere. The restaurant was basically a temporary structure supported by iron poles and had a large aluminum sheet for roof. Inside, there were four tables with six plastic chairs each. It was located on the highway that led to Phnom Penh. There was nothing on either side of the highway except trees, shrubs and vast open fields.
“Do you have Coke?” I asked the waitress.
She brought out a chilled can of Coke and handed it to be with a big smile on her face.
“Malaysia?” She asked.
“No, India” I replied, handing her a $1 bill. It’s weird that Cambodians prefer to use American Dollars than their own Riels.
She brought the palms of her hands together, bowed a bit and greeted me, “Namaste”
Back on the bus, everyone seemed a lot more refreshed. People were eating, chatting and taking pictures. Overall, it seemed that we really needed this break. As I went back to my seat with my can of coke, I heard the sick guy telling his friend to bring him some chewing gum.
“Dude, all they have is spiders, cockroaches and bugs.. Chewing on those won’t make you feel any better. Trust me on that!”
“Gosh… Do they really eat those things?”
This question made me think. I haven’t actually seen Cambodians, or Thais eating these bugs and cockroaches. Never. It is always tourists trying out these insects, with scary expressions on their faces, under the illusion that they are immersing in the local culture.
What if it is just another tourist scam!
What if the Cambodians are like “Eww… Can’t believe they paid us to eat that. Let’s see what else we can feed these idiots.”
Few minutes later, the bus started moving and soon, we were speeding down the highway. Every now and then we would see sign boards telling us how far we were from the capital.
We passed this small village where we saw children playing football, and riding bicycles. The adults were working on the fields or just sitting around on plastic chairs outside their huts. They seemed normal in every way.
It is hard to imagine that Pol Pot was also from this country. He is the guy who thought killing millions of his fellow countrymen, many of them doctors, teachers etc. and starting a new Cambodia from year zero was a good idea. Did he confuse real life and real people with some video game where he can just start all over again by pressing the reset button? Who the hell put him in-charge?
Every now and then the bus would stop and some villager would get up. A teenager wearing a shabby AC-DC t-shirt sat beside me. He gave me a wide smile as he put his bag in the overhead space and took his seat. I wanted to ask him about the Khmer Rouge and the Angkor Wat, but I didn’t think he would understand me.
It was getting dark and it seemed we were driving through a forest. The road was narrow and uneven. It was dark inside the bus and all we could hear was the chatter of the other passengers.
Yes, it was frustrating and I couldn’t wait to get to my hotel, have a nice cold shower and a change of clothes. I thought about the time when I booked the hotel online. Dara Reang Sey was one of the premier hotels in the sea front area and according to the website, it had French décor, air conditioning, LCD TV, mini bar, a private balcony and a restaurant downstairs. I thought about the food that I will order once I was done with my shower. Chicken noodles, french fries, and a coke. Or maybe some beer. And some chicken nuggets.
Yes, definitely chicken nuggets.
I day dreamed about sitting on a road side table at the restaurant, as motorbikes and cars zoomed around. The waiter bringing me my food and finally, me stretching my legs and being comfortable. And then maybe calling it an early night, and heading to my room and falling asleep watching a movie.
I closed my eyes and thought about all the places I will be visiting the next day. The Killing Fields, the Genocide Museum, the National Museum, Wat Phnom, The Central Market, Phnom Penh night market. They all looked so interesting on the web.
“Stop the bus. Please stop the bus!” The European guy called out to the driver. The bus screeched to a halt. Everyone looked around. The sick guy hurriedly got off the bus. I looked out the window and saw him puke. The European guy handed him a bottle of water which he splashed on his face repeatedly. We were in the middle of the forest and apart from us, there was no sign of life anywhere close. It was dark and creepy. I looked at my watch. Damn, we should have been there by now.
The sick guy slowly made his way back to his seat.
“Are you okay? Do you need some medicine?” The elderly Chinese man sitting in the front seat enquired in his low nasal voice. He could have been Japanese or Korean.
The sick guy shook his head, probably too sick to speak.
“He had some. Didn’t help.” His European friend replied.
As the bus started moving again, I asked the Cambodian sitting next to me how long will it take to reach Phnom Penh. He shook his head and smiled. Clearly he didn’t understand a word. I looked around for anything that symbolized Phnom Penh.
I showed him the bus ticket. It was bilingual. English and Khmer. He smiled again when he saw the ticket. I waited for a response but he still had a blank smile on his face. I showed him the ticket again and pointed to the Khmer alphabets written underneath the destination column. Still nothing. Nothing except that smile.
It seemed hopeless, so I plugged in my iPod and decided to just wait it out. The darkness outside took the shapes of silhouettes of the trees and hills. Inside the bus, it seemed the air conditioner was turned all the way up.
“How much longer till we get there?” The sick man asked in his weak voice.
“Won’t be long. It is about 15 kilometers from the village. Last time around we managed Phnom Penh in half an hour. But, we were on our bikes.” His friend said.
I looked at my watch and did the maths in my head.
“We must be just round the corner to Phnom Penh.” I thought. It had been about 25 minutes since we left the village.
I looked in the back seat where few of the Cambodians were sitting. There was a big guy who had a thunderous laugh. Every time he laughed, the sound echoed around the bus thanks to the sealed windows. He was sitting with a man half his size, talking loudly in Khmer.
“Can you please keep it down.” The sick guy asked the big guy.
The big guy didn’t notice, partially because it was dark and partially because he was in the midst of some very entertaining conversation with his partner.
“Sir! Keep it down please. My friend isn’t feeling well and he needs to rest.” The European guy called out to the big guy.
Still, the big guy didn’t notice.
The Cambodian guy sitting to my side said something to the big guy in Khmer. The big guy looked at him and then shifted his gaze to the European.
“What?” The Big guy said. He had a deep, heavy, and loud voice.
“Keep it down please. He is not well.” The European guy said, pointing at his friend.
“Then take him to the doctor.” Clearly the big guy wasn’t happy about being asked to keep it down. “We are not being loud!” Ironically the last bit was said pretty loudly. I wondered if the guy was drunk.
The European guy was about to reply when the sick guy tapped on his arm and he sat back down.
The lights of the bus were turned on and the bus conductor rushed in from the front, sat beside the big guy, and talked to him. Few minutes later he came to the seat where the sick guy and his friend were sitting and told them that we will be arriving in Phnom Penh in a couple of minutes.
The lights went off again, and the “couple of minutes” turned into ten minutes. Then fifteen. We were on the outskirts of the city. Along the highway we passed gas stations, small huts and shops. There were a lot more people around.
I got off my seat, and carefully made my way to the front where the conductor was sitting.
“How do I get to the sea front?”
“Huh?” I guess I caught him off guard. He was busy with his cell phone.
“My hotel is in the sea front area. How do I get there?”
I saw his forehead cringing up as he thought about it. A few seconds later, he looked up and told me that he will drop me a few blocks away from the sea front.
“Which hotel are you staying?” He asked. In the white light of his cell phone, his teeth seemed to sparkle. It looked creepy.
“Dara Reang Sey”
“Oh…Dara! I will drop you off near Street 13. It’s five minutes walk from there.”
As I turned around to go back, I saw him move. I looked closely in the darkness to realize that he was holding out his hand. I shook his hand and thanked him again.
“Did you ask how much longer it’s going to take?” The European guy asked me as I passed him.
“Umm… Soon!”. I wanted to say “Don’t hold your breath” but I didn’t have the energy to be sarcastic.
I quickly put my iPod and my book inside my bag. I was excited because we were in Phnom Penh, finally. Looked out the window to see, bright lights, cars, people, and markets.
The bus stopped near a small market. I looked up from my seat to see if this was my stop. It wasn’t. The Chinese group got off. One of the ladies took a quick picture of the inside of the bus before she descended down the stairs.
The flash brightened up the entire bus for a second.
“Fuck!” The sick guy growled. What a loser!
The bus started again. The Cambodian guy sitting to my side gave me a smile. I guess he could sense my excitement.
“This is my first time in Phnom Penh.” I tried one last time to communicate with him.
He looked at me with an expression that made me assume that he was translating that sentence in Khmer. And then he smiled again.
“Stay away from the tuk tuks!” A deep voice came from the back seat. It was the big guy with the thunderous laugh.
“Okay.” I said and smiled.
“How many days are you planning to stay here” He asked. He didn’t seem unfriendly at all.
The bus stopped all of a sudden, as we all swayed to the front. We were stuck in traffic.
“Five days.” I repeated.
“Okay. You are from India. Yes?”
“Ahhh…. Taj Mahal.. Bollywood… Kamasutra.” And he laughed.
The European guy looked back for a second before returning to whatever it is he was doing on his iPad.
“Where in India do you live?” He asked.
“Aah.. My friend lives in Choonee…”
I wanted to end the conversation and look at the city outside, so I just smiled and nodded.
“Dara…” The conductor called out. He was sitting next to the driver, as the bus slowly made its way through the narrow city streets.
As I quickly picked up my bag, I heard the deep voice again.
“Bye, Shah Rukh Khan!”
I thought for a second, and said.
“Bye, Pol Pot.” I didn’t know any other Cambodian personality. As the bus filled up with that ridiculously loud laughter again, I guiltily passed the sick guy’s seat one last time that evening.
Soon, the bus stopped and I got to my hotel, passing through the narrow streets lined with bars and shops.
After a nice long cold shower and a change of clothes, I made my way downstairs through the elegant marble staircase and took my seat in one of the tables outside, facing the street. It was fifteen minutes past ten at night and the street was getting quieter by the minute.
“Spicy chicken noodles, and a Carlsberg please.”
The waitress took down my order and brought me the drink.
“The noodles will be ready in ten minutes. Do you want something else to eat for now?”
“Do you have chicken nuggets?”
“Sorry, Sir. We don’t have Chicken nuggets. We have fried chicken. Would you like to have some of that?”
“No thanks. I guess I’ll just have the noodles. Can you please make it spicy?”
“Sure. Anything else?”
“No, that’s it. Thanks.”
As I gulped down the magic potion, I realized that all the characters I met during the trip will almost certainly never assemble together again. All of us were brought together by a series of life events, just for a few hours. All of our lives intertwined for a brief while during this bus ride from Saigon to Phnom Penh.
If all of us were to sit down one day and write a book about our lives, what are the chances that this bus ride will even be mentioned?
Even if it is mentioned in a small section somewhere in Chapter 10321, how will each of us be mentioned in our stories? What if the guy whom I referred to as the sick guy, goes on to become the UFC Champion someday? In my book, he will always be the sick guy. What if the Big Cambodian goes on to find a cure for cancer? Will I even recognize him, when I read about his achievements in the newspaper?
In my book, he will always be the guy who called me Shah Rukh Khan and in his book, I will be the Indian jackass who called him Pol Pot.
I ordered some more of that potion to continue this chain of thoughts.
So, what is the point of all these interactions? I mean seriously, what difference it would make if instead of trying to talk to the Cambodian teenager, I just sat quietly the entire trip? What difference would it make if I slept through the entire bus ride?
We have these seemingly pointless interactions every day. In a pub, at work, in a bus…
The truth is, in these line of thoughts, it doesn’t make a difference.
But it will make your book a lot more interesting.