Today, exactly three weeks after I arrived, I left Cambodia.
It involved an 11 hour journey of which approximately 30 minutes was outside Cambodia, but never the less I left.
The reason for this bizarre adventure was the need to update my visa.
When I arrived in Cambodia I got a visa on arrival as the turnaround from me accepting the post to arrival was too short to arrange my official NGO visa.
With one week remaining on that original visa and the letter from the ministry now in our hands it was time to rectify this and hence at 7am today I found myself setting off on a bus journey that would take me in to Vietnam and back out again for this purpose.
The bus was an ‘executive bus’ and was actually very luxurious. Wide reclining pleather seats, quality air conditioning, free water and wifi and a widescreen TV to boot (the latter would later become the bane of my life unsurprisingly but more on that in a bit).
We set off and it took us a fair while to get out of Phnom Penh itself as we stopped regularly to pick up more passengers. After crossing the river, the city gradually faded away and slowly but surely a countryside vista emerged. For a while I sat gazing happily out of the window as the Cambodian countryside flashed past movie like before my eyes. The soundtrack to this movie was not quite as appealing though as the afore mentioned TV blasted out a dubbed Chinese film whilst the bus driver felt obliged to add in an accompaniment of air horn every minute or so – relaxing it was not.
Most of the passengers on the bus were dozing and a fair few had closed their curtains but all of a sudden there was a flurry of activity and Pichchip (a colleague from the VSO country office who was accompanying me) opened his eyes and explained to me that were crossing the Sky Bridge. This is a modern bridge somewhere between here and the Vietnam border spanning the Mekong River, which I have to admit was quite a spectacular sight with the sun glistening on it.
After the bridge came the loo stop. We all dutifully piled off the bus to head to a bank of loos. If I have only learned one thing from my adventures today it’s that Cambodians cannot or choose not to read the signs which distinguish Male from Female toilets. Every time I used public toilets today I was greeted by a man coming out looking slightly dazed and confused. On the plus side, Cambodia public toilets are significantly more pleasant than their Chinese counterparts. First of all they’re generally western style and even more importantly for me, miss funny bathroom phobia, they don’t stink!
Back on the bus I immersed myself in downloaded radio 4 podcasts for a while, settling on an episode of the Moral Maze discussing the ownership or otherwise of culture with specific reference to the Benin bronzes. Very highbrow eh!?! About half way through the podcast I glanced up at the front of the bus towards the TV screen and was met with a slightly less salubrious element of culture. There on the screen was a woman, pert little breasts a bouncing as she straddled a rather scrawny but pleased looking guy. Not an ounce of pixilation protected their modesty as the bump and grind continued.
I slid slowly back down my seat and turned to my book in the vain hope of erasing the image now permanently tattoed behind my eyeballs and before we knew it we were stopping again – this time for lunch.
As we ate a typical Cambodia pick and mix canteen lunch, Pichchip explained that we were approximately 3 kms from the border (remember this as it’ll become significant again later) and the bus would be taking us through.
Back on the bus and the gateway out of Cambodia loomed into sight.
Once through the gate we were all told to get off the bus which we did. Pichchip held a protracted conversation with the bus conductor guy returning to us looking slightly confused.
As far as we could ascertain, we needed to get back on the bus and go with them to Vietnam whilst Pichchip waited at Cambodian immigration for us to come back.
And so we trotted off (I was with a Phillipino volunteer called Amy) back on to the bus. 2 minutes later we were off the bus again and filing into a large hall which apparently marked the entrance to Vietnam. At the desk there was an immigration officer sat behind piles of passports and a number of slightly dodgy looking Cambodians milling around. One of these dodgy characters picked up a pile of passports and started reading names out one by one and handing the passport to whoever responded. Eventually I heard a faint sara loui and guessed that was me, so went up and collected the passport which thankfully was mine, now complete with a Cambodian exit stamp and a corresponding Vietnam entry one.
We followed the line of people snaking through the building showing our passports to a guy on the door before once again emerging into the sunlight with our bus sitting across the road.
Now Amy and I knew we didn’t have to get back on the bus as that was heading off to Ho Chi Min City but unfortunately, that’s as far as our knowledge went. And so we stood scratching our heads and looking for inspiration (or someone who spoke English) to help us with our next steps.
And here is where part one of this tale ends. This blog is already long and it’s way past my bedtime (up early tomorrow for the International Buddhist Conference) so I’ll leave you now and come back tomorrow to tell you how the story unfolded – it got bonkers in case you hadn’t already guessed!