I decided that for my next trick I was going to go Thailand’s troubled neighbour Cambodia to have a look at the effect the massive weapons stockpile it was left lumbered with by decades of devastating upheaval was having on its troubled society. I’d heard that gun crime was endemic and that tourists were prime targets, but also that enterprising Khmers were using their unwanted armoury to generate cash in more creative ways. There was a firing range outside Phnom Penh where it was rumoured that for a price, visitors could fire everything from Bonny and Clyde-style Tommy Guns and Nazi lugers right the way up to Rocket propelled grenades and B2 missiles. To cap it off, those with more macabre tastes could use live animals such as chickens and cows for target practice.
Flights from Bangkok to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh were relatively cheap, but I’d heard you could bus it for the equivalent of just twenty quid. Sadly, the 400 mile Thailand-to-Phnom Penh-by-road trip has become legendary among Southeast Asian travellers for being one of the most scam-infested journeys it’s possible to take. Sadly, this was a piece of information I didn’t come across until I started reading a copy of the Lonely Planet Travel Guide once I’d taken my seat onboard.
I was the fifth passenger to climb into the 6am minibus set first for the border town of Poipet, the others being a pair American girls in their early twenties who had just met five minutes previously and a middle-aged Mexican couple with decent English, the male half of which was blind. After getting visas sorted at Poipet we were due to head onto Siem Reap, a town that serves as a jump off point for people visiting the stunningly impressive Angkar Wat; the sprawling, ruined 12th Century capital of the Khmer Empire which once controlled most of Southeast Asia. After stopping off for a night (or two), another bus would tackle the final 150 miles or so to the capital.
Lone travellers are always eager to strike up conversations and so it proved with one of the Americans who started chatting with me, loudly and apparently for the benefit of the rest of the passengers.
“Where do you caam fraam?” She drawled in a Californian brogue.
“I’m from Ireland,” I said, waiting for the punchline.
“Ahhhh. Cool. I’m gonna call you Ireland from now on,” she beamed.
“OK so. I’m goin to call you L.A.”
“But I’m from San Francisco!”
“I don’t care. Your name is L.A.”
So the bus had a laugh and we quickly became friends, which was just as well because we were to end up being stuck with each other for two more turbulent days.
About a dozen more travellers got onboard but our little group kind of stuck together, and when we start sharing information about how we came to be onboard, some of the stuff I was reading in my guidebook’s section entitled ‘The Scam Bus’ began to sound familiar.
The emboldened passage read: ‘Many unsavoury characters are involved in the travel business and carry on like some sort of mafia, giving Cambodia a bad name. Welcome to the scam bus, notorious throughout Asia for ripping off foreigners.’
It first dawned on me that something untoward might be in the offing when it emerged that some passengers had been charged twice as much me while others had shelled out the equivalent of just two euro for their ticket. It wasn’t possible to make the journey profitable at that sort of price and it set alarm bells ringing. We passed around the book as our bus broke free of the Bangkok traffic and made out across its empty countryside. I settled into my seat and wondered where the two Thais and the driver they sat beside at the front of the bus were going to make up the shortfall.
© Rob Carry. All rights reserved by the author.