Notes On An Overland Bus Trip from Laos to Cambodia: Or, My 38th Birthday

August 8, 2012 in Asia, Cambodia, Laos, Travelogue

Whoever said, “The joy is in the journey,” clearly has not traveled overland through Southeast Asia.

My birthday breakfast was lovely, sitting on the dock above the Mekong on Don Khong island, sipping my tea, tearing up over Hannah’s gift (a song she’d written) and giggling at Ezra’s: he’d scalped every hotel sized container of shampoo or body lotion for a week before my birthday, evidently; saving up so I wouldn’t have to use bar soap on my hair, as we sometimes have to. The boys chattered excitedly about Cambodia, wondering aloud what would be the same, and what would be different.

Little did we know that it would take 14 hours to traverse the 500 km (about 300 miles).

Here’s the kicker: Nothing went wrong.

The hour long shuttle by mini-van to the border involved a 30 minute “stop and wait” (for nothing we could see) which allowed us to sit in the shade and begin to explain the finer points of euchre to the kids.


Walking across the border

The border crossing was open (there had been some discussion on this point among other travelers). In fact, Cambodia appears to be making an attempt at building a proper border crossing (years away from completion by the looks of it). For now it’s a series of picnic tables under blue tarps (for the quarantine and “health check”… we had our temperatures taken) and a ramshackle blue shack with two sweaty guys weilding rubber stamps and an old noodle cup full of ball point pens.

We filled out the redundant, requisite, forms (times six, which meant a total of 24 forms for our family) paid the two dollar fine, for forgetting our envelope of passport sized photos at home in Thailand, and were stamped through with relatively little drama. All the while trying to separate ourselves as much as possible from the slightly desperate looking French young people who’d shown up at the border without a dollar between the four of them. Apparently they thought the border fairy would arrive and pay for their visas and the “tip” for the exit control guards. “Don’t they know you gotta pay off some people?!” Ez hissed sideways at me while they were trying to explain to the guard that they had some Euro coins and nothing more (there are no coins in either the Lao or Cambodian currencies.)

“Well, this is way better than Vietnam,” Gabe sagely pointed out, “At least here, with no electricity, the power can’t go out three times before we get checked through!” We all agreed. 

Once checked into Cambodia on foot there was nothing to do but huddle under the blue tarps with the other travelers, foreign and local, as the monsoon rains turned the sky a steel grey and washed away whatever sins the border guards had committed this week.

Our bus driver was asleep.

So we waited:

  • Hannah played her guitar.
  • Ezra ate the instant noodle cup he’s been saving since Pakse, after miming to a lady, with a hotpot, until she gave him the hot water he needed to cook it.
  • Gabe watched our bags like the body guard he’s fast becoming.
  • Tony changed a little money on the black market.
  • I whacked my head on a coconut shell that was hung just high enough for the locals to pass under.
  • Elisha wandered around.
  • There was nothing to do but wait.

The idea of a “bus schedule” (or any sort of schedule, really) is a western affectation. There are even countries in Europe that struggle with the convention: France comes to mind… but I digress.

Buses leave when the time seems right.

Who determines the right time? Who knows? Does it really matter?

The key thing is to keep one eye on your gear and your kids, and one eye on the bus driver. There will be a slight shift to his lazy demeanor: he might flick his cigarette and look at the sky, instead of the dirt. Or, he might quietly start circling the bus and kicking the tires. It could be as subtle as him shifting his seemingly sleeping self from completely reclined to feet on the steering wheel. You have to watch for it. When it happens, everybody moves. Instantly gear is loaded, stinky backpackers jockey for position and you hope like crazy that there will be seats for everyone and the one that you get will actually remain upright (I did not win this lottery this time, my seat back was broken.)

The bus ride went exactly as expected:

  • Alternately varying from dangerously fast to achingly slow
  • Crappy roads (the infrastructure in Cambodia is the worst yet, although they get high marks for the seeming attempt at improvement, there were men with shovels filling holes at every turn.)
  • Stops to load and unload people and boxes and bags in the most random of places
  • Food and bathroom stops that also serve to fleece the travelers of a few extra bucks
  • A breakdown (involving everyone filing off of the bus in the rain, standing around, smoking, talking in at least eight languages and “helping” to get us rolling again… you’re familiar with the “too many cooks….” adage? Yes, that.)


The children, I should mention, are overland and bus travel professionals.

They played cards, ate their potatoe chips, talked to the German girls about how they could possibly not be schooled and yet still be educated (this is a fascination to just about every German we encounter) listened to some music, napped and read their books (Ezra’s on his fourth pass through the King Arthur stories and needs me to tape the cover for him).

The teenagers took turns sitting on the bus at stops and guarding our stuff so I could get off and take a walk around to stretch. They hopped off the bus in the middle of the jungle and peed by the roadside with the drivers (to the mass amusement of the other travelers) and they ate their unidentifiable veggie soup stuff with sticky rice without batting an eyelash. “Taste’s a bit like green curry, Mom… but what is this potatoey thing?” Elisha enquired, of the taro root floating in his bowl.

Rolling into Phnom Penh, renowned for it’s dangerous streets, especially at night, with our four kids and everything we own, including our mobile offices on our backs was not Plan A.

(Tony inserts here that it wasn’t Plan B or C either).

Daddy gave the kids a stern “watch your back, and your mother’s too!” speech and we descended into the fray.

It’s a sad fact that in the middle of the night, at a bus station miles from your lodging, as an obvious foreigner, with a huge family, you have no posture whatsoever with the all too savvy tuk-tuk pirates. The best we could manage was insisting that all six of us (and our gear) would ride in ONE tuk-tuk (they started by insisting we’d need three) and that we would not pay the fare for the two youngest children. It was the midnight ride of the Valkyries through the black streets of the capital.

On a scale of birthdays from 1-38… this one was a 38.

Happily for me, Tony always celebrates me by the week, so it will be my birthday again tomorrow. In the meantime, we’re glad to be sleeping somewhere other than on the bus.