Lindsey Danis | Longreads | December 2019 | 16 minutes (4,081 words)
Since the new road is open, the bus ride to Siem Reap will only take eight hours. We spend an hour at the border, then an hour on the highway, then the driver kicks us all off the bus at a stucco house on what passes for a suburban street. From here, minivans leave for Phnom Penh, Kratie, and Siem Reap.
We slide against the stucco wall of the makeshift bus station, defeated. First we were overcharged for visas at the border. Then our bus was oversold, and the driver packed the aisle with plastic stools to accommodate 20 more people. Now, two hours into our journey, the bus is gone and we’re waiting on a minivan to take us the rest of the way. I wonder whether the new road exists, or if everything in Cambodia is a lie.
At last a van pulls up, but it’s bound for Kratie. A handful of passengers depart and the rest of us grumble. The crowd thins out as minivans come and go, until a dozen of us stand around waiting to go to Siem Reap. We’ve been waiting for over an hour when a rusted minivan with a cracked windshield appears. The driver shoves our bags under the seats then, out of space, tosses luggage to the roof where a second guy ties everything down.
My wife and I hurl ourselves into the van, claiming good spots. Sliding down the bench seat, she scrapes her thigh on a rusty spring that pokes through the vinyl upholstery. Our first-aid supplies are strapped to the roof. And my window doesn’t open. Off we go!
There’s no traffic on the new road. There’s nothing to see other than blazing fields as farmers burn the remnants of rice stalks, a practice that controls pests and nourishes the soil. Such dry-season agricultural fires occur elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but this is the first we’ve seen. The dirt is loose and red, except for where the land is on fire, where it’s a shocking black. The flames are so close I can feel the heat through the minivan window. My thighs glue themselves to the ripped vinyl seat, while my sweaty arm sticks to my wife’s skin.
Ten hours later, we reach the Siem Reap bus station. Guys on motorbikes circle the parking lot, calling out the price of a ride into town. Tired and pissed, we are not in the mood to bargain. We will walk to town, however long it takes. “Okay,” one guy says, once he sees we’re serious. “I will take you.”