This guest post is written by Noah Lederman, the man behind the travel blog Somewhere Or Bust. Having had a similar experience crossing the border from Cambodia to Thailand, we had a good chuckle reading about Noah’s “all too common” travel experience crossing the border from Vietnam to Cambodia. Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!
This Motorbike is NOT my Air-Conditioned Van?!
“It’s eighteen dollars to Kep,” the hotel receptionist told me and my wife, Marissa.
The woman placed her hand on the phone, ready to book our transportation from Chau Dac, Vietnam to Kep, Cambodia. “After you get off local bus at border, a man with sign that has your name on it will bring you to air condition van. Then you go to Kep. No problem.
The motobike pick you up here at eight thirty in morning and take you to bus station.”
“What do you mean motobike?” I asked.
There hadn’t been many things I avoided on my trip to Southeast Asia — I’d played with full-grown tigers, eaten a variety of bugs, snorkeled with sharks, hopped a flaming jumprope, and crossed the mad streets of both Hanoi and Saigon — but riding motorbikes was out of the question.
I was scared of motorbikes.
“Motobike come and take you to bus station.”
“How far is the bus station?” I asked.
“Only three kilometers.”
“I want to take a taxi.”
“No. No. Motobike,” she said slowly as though I was the one who couldn’t speak English all that well. “Taxi more expensive.”
“Babe, it’s okay. We’ll just take–”
“How much more?” I demanded, interrupting my wife.
“Two dollars more each,” the lady said, crossing her arms as if she were waiting for me to cave after learning of the four dollar leap in costs.
“Book the taxi to the bus. I’ll gladly pay four more dollars.”
The woman shrugged. I went over the itinerary again with her, reiterating the part about the cab picking us up instead of two little motorbikes. “Yes, yes. Cab pick you up and take to local bus. The man will meet you for air-conditioned van to Kep. No worry.”
But I was worried. I was worried because all I ever seemed to do in Vietnam was battle my way through scams. I better see a taxi, I told her with the same gaze Larry David flashes those he’s skeptical of during a standard episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
The next morning, to my delight, the cab arrived and brought us to the bus station. The local bus was packed. Four kids had to cram onto two-person bench seats and adults either stood or sat on plastic stools in the aisle. (The man occupying the stool beside me nodded out and rested his head on my shoulder.)
The Mekong Delta bustled all around us as we moved between flooded rice fields, over the muddy river, and down roads that were taken over by farmers drying out rice.
Three hours later, we reached the bridge just before the border at Ha Tien. The driver pointed at me and said, “You,” which meant that this was our stop. Marissa and I got off the bus and collected our packs.
A man (without a sign) said, “To Kep?”
I showed him my ticket and he nodded that we were in the right place. We followed him to where he had parked his motorbike.
“Wait here five minute,” he told us. “I send two motobike to bring you to Kep.”
“What do you mean you’ll send two motorbikes? We paid for a van with air conditioning. We’re not taking motorbikes.” My body went into survival mode–sweats, rage, adrenaline discharge.
“No van. Motobike only,” he said calmly as if telling me about the weather.
You don’t understand, I wanted to shout. I paid two dollars more so a fucking taxi would take me three kilometers instead of a motorbike. What makes you think I’m going to jump onto a motorbike and travel to Kep?
“How far is Kep?” Marissa asked.
“One hour. No problem.”
“No. Many problems. We paid for a van,” I said.
“How much you pay?” he asked.
He winced at the price as if he had just witnessed a motorbike got plowed over by a speeding truck.
“Ten minutes,” he said and revved off.
Somehow five minutes had become ten minutes. I paced and fumed. Ten minutes became twenty minutes. How does an air-conditioned van become two motorbikes?
“What should we do?” Marissa wondered, quietly elated that motorbikes were coming to transport us over the border. “Maybe we’ll just take the motorbikes. There’s not much we can do.”
“We’re not taking motorbikes one hour into Cambodia. We’re just not.”
Marissa and I split our fears. She is scared of everything except for stray dogs, motorcycles, and crossing streets in Vietnam. I am scared of nothing except for stray dogs, motorcycles, and crossing streets in Vietnam.
A taxi beeped its horn at us and I was ready to accept my losses and wave down the cab. “Maybe we should just take a taxi to Kep.”
But before we could discuss that possibility, two men in button-down shirts pulled up on their crotch rockets. They explained that they were from the company, that the van was broken (of course), and that we should hop on their motorbikes.
“I think we should,” Marissa said, taking the side of these two strangers.
“We don’t have helmets,” I rebutted, noticing that there was not a second helmet dangling from either bike.
Each rider lifted up his saddle, revealing an extra helmet in the compartment below the seat.
“We have these huge packs,” I explained.
“No problem,” one of the men said.
“Of course. More no problem,” I mumbled, pacing around the bikes.
It was already afternoon and the border would be closing in the next few hours. I looked at the arching road that led toward Cambodia and then in the other direction to see if any more cabs were approaching. They were not. I realized that my options were few.
How bad could this be? I conceded.
My driver placed my twenty pound pack between his legs and I wrapped my arms around him, holding tight to his paunch. My hands began to sweat, leaving my prints on his nice shirt. We were off. I looked over at Marissa, who was just one huge smile. I shook my head at her and thought about what I could do to take revenge on the woman from Chau Doc.
The bike coughed its way over the bridge. On the other side, the asphalt road gave way to a muddy, pot-holed mess. We snaked through puddles and I grabbed tighter to my driver’s love handles.
“You must walk through border,” my driver explained when we reached the long threshold into Cambodia. We left our bags on the bike. The motorbike had rattled my good senses and while we were checking out of Vietnam, I expected to see the two men race away with our nice packs and dirty laundry. At least I had kept their helmets as collateral.
We stopped at a half dozen checkpoints. Exit stamps, entrance stamps, visa payments, etc. When confronting the man who issued yellow papers that assured a clean bill of health, I tried my hardest not to cough. (For two weeks, I couldn’t kick my asthmatic cough. I expected I would get something like a T chalked onto my shirt and be barred from Cambodia as if this were Ellis Island and I’d been suspected of having tuberculosis.) I managed to pass the official’s quick scan and thankfully we found our drivers on the other side.
Entering Cambodia had a strange effect on me.
Suddenly, I wasn’t scared of riding the motorbikes. I felt that there was something romantic about riding motorbikes through Cambodia with my new wife, a country that I have held dear to my heart for the last few years, ever since beginning research for my novel about an infant survivor of the Cambodian genocide. The fact that I had been straddling the bike with my crotch quite near to some strange man’s backside had eluded me at that moment. If I had recognized that, I probably wouldn’t have had the romantic notion in my head. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
I was ready to mount the bike and drive into Kep like Che Guevara had when he biked across South America. But our drivers, along with two other motorbike drivers, were congregating around a van and talking to an elderly man.
“Let’s do this,” I said, ready for the longer leg of our journey.
“This man take you,” my guy said, pointing at the old Cambodian man who owned the van. “You no pay. We pay.”
Apparently, our drivers had partnered up with the two other motorbike taxis, who had been transporting a pair of Frenchmen to Kep. It was more economical for the four men to pay the van’s driver to take us to Kep than it would have been to gas up four bikes. So we finished our journey by van, but it wouldn’t be the last entry in our motorbike diaries.
The next morning, I awoke in Kep and wanted to visit the killing caves near Kampong Trach, which the Khmer Rouge had used to commit mass atrocities.
“The best way to get there,” the hotel owner said, “is by motorbike.”
“Okay,” I said. “I can do this.” And we rode off into the dusty landscape.
Note: Marissa, who was still the more eager biker between us, took the first test drive and crashed the bike on the hotel’s property. “I think maybe you should drive,” the owner said to me. My wife said that it is imperative that I conclude this story with this fact: after a second (and third) attempt, she managed to get the hang of riding the bike.
Author Bio: Noah Lederman writes the travel blog Somewhere Or Bust. His travel writing has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, The Economist’s More Intelligent Life, Gadling, and elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter and like him on Facebook.
Photo credits – the 2nd, 3rd and 5th photos were taken from Creative Commons. Click on the image to find the photographer source on Flickr. Given the circumstances, Noah didn’t have time to capture too many photos!
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