Overland into Cambodia. Part III
We travelled for only five minutes, slowly making our way through the chaos of Piopet, a congested space thick with people, livestock, pull carts and dilapidated Russian built trucks. We made our way only a few hundred yards then pulled up to a small shanty. From the door emerged a young man. Apparently he was also to go to Siam Reap. His look prompted closer examination. He was young, strong and approached with purpose. Over his face and nose was a bandana pulled tight. He wore a baseball cap turned backward on his head, dark sunglasses and jeans. A wiry strong kid, skinny and taut. He sported a fully automatic machine gun casually slung over his shoulder. Wow!! That left an impression. Robbery? Kidnapping? Extortion? It all seemed plausible. Without hesitation he bounded over the side and into the back with us.
The driver shouted something over his shoulder, out the window. The kid answered appropriately and the truck lurched forward. He was settled and ready. Immediately, it was apparent that this was not a robbery or kidnapping. The heavily armed youngster sitting against the tailgate, his legs jumbled in the mix with ours, was our protection. The tourist lady in Bangkok never said anything about "protection". Maybe that is why she was reluctant to book us overland. I came to the conclusion that if we needed protection I was glad we had it. My awareness of Poipet diminished as I focused on the extremely large menacing looking fire-arm cradled in the young-mans arms. I had only seen guns like that in movies. "So this is how they do things in Cambodia" I thought to myself. Oh well, who were we to argue.
Traveling away from Poipet was slow going. The road was dirt and laden with huge pot-holes, most of which were overflowing with mud. It was an open landscape of mud and dust. Anything within 50 yards of the road was dirty, filthy really. Trees, people, ramshackle buildings, all of it painted brown with road dust. The ambient air stunk of diesel and earth, but I was still glad to be in the open truck bed. Looking through the slider window into the cab, the insiders looked uncomfortable, too hot, too tight.
We moved slow for the road was barely a road. The Vietnam war had taken its toll. The allies had repeatedly bombed it knowing the North Vietnamese were transporting war supplies along it. Cambodia had bigger problems than road repair. No worries we were going somewhere, albeit rather slowly. Those of us in the back made the necessary adjustments to make the ride more comfortable. Cargo was redistributed and sit bones adjusted. I packed my rain jacket between the hard steel bed and my back. It was obviously going to be a rough ride. The afternoon started sliding by. We passed tiny villages and naked little children ran toward the road cheering and smiling. Often-times they could keep up with us for a short distance. They raised their hands to us, reaching out to touch a stranger. Our guardian was unmoved. It was not the children he was protecting us against.
After a few hours, the truck slowed almost to a stop as we approached two uniformed men in the road. They stood blocking our way. Our heavily armed escort was, all of a sudden, intensely interested. This made us intensely nervous. The truck slowed and before it stopped our man was over the side and striding out front. There were two guns standing there and one gun fast approaching. A scenario that seemed likely to get out of control. A conversation ensued. The tone wasn't friendly. It sounded more like demands and accusations. I noticed the engine was never shut off and our escort kept himself squarely planted between us and the uniforms. My instincts told me to lay low, maybe the truck would offer protection from flying bullets, my imagination was running amok. I couldn't help but observe. There seemed to be a lot of posturing, and gesturing between them. Our man stood strong, his voice firm. Finally, a wad of money was produced from our guy's pocket, handed over. The tension lifted and was all over. The uniforms moved to the side of the road and we drove past. What went on in that conversation I'll never really know. I assume a tax, a bribe, a toll was paid. Normal for Cambodia? Probably. Normal for me? Not really.
We drove and the day wore on. We stopped twice more to pay our way across two bridges. What spanned the gap could hardly be called a bridge. Bombed out, broken down steel beams were all that were left, another casualty of the war. With the sound of an approaching vehicle the bridge-keeper scrambled into the sun from the shadows underneath, clutching the one board necessary to make the remnant pieces become passable. Money was exchanged, the board then deftly slid into its spot and we would carefully navigate our way across. Always relieved to reach the other side. One errant tire turn and plunging over the side was inevitable. Those of us in the back would wave goodbye to the little man as he pulled the board out again and retreated back into the shade. A curious way to make a living, I thought to myself.
As the day wore on the clouds thickened and rain started to fall. Now, the back of the truck wasn't looking like the best choice, too late now. Jim, the Englishman, tempered the darkening mood by busting out a bottle of cheap Thai whiskey. He offered it around. Why not? Seemed like a good idea. It rained a tropical humid rain while we sipped the bottle dry.
Seven hours later, wet, buzzed, and starting to feel hungover we pulled into Siam Reap. It was late evening. The truck ride had been almost seven hours. Seven slow hours of bobbing and weaving through the Cambodian countryside. We were dirty, tired and ready to get out. Siam Reap was dark, no streetlights. It was a bit disorienting. Our guard simply jumped out at a street crossing and said goodbye to the driver. He and his machine gun faded into the dark. He never once took off his bandana. We were dropped at a pre-determined guesthouse. It didn't matter to us which one. We didn't care. That night Chris tried to persuade me to loan him money so we could fly back to Bangkok. No way, I told him. The adventure had just begun and there was only one way out. The way we had come. We would be leaving just like we had shown up. Overland.