When Alex and I reluctantly re-packed our backpacks to exchange Bangkok for the countryside of Cambodia, we weren’t prepared. Here in Korea, we usually know what to expect. Sure, there’s toilet paper at the dinner table, pocket-less billiards, and McDonald’s delivers, but outside of the obvious, I find day-to-day life fairly straightforward. Not so in Southeast Asia.
This became all too clear when we arrived at the Morchit (Northern) Bus Terminal for the first of our many bus trips across the region. We were there early — ungodly early — because Alex read that crossing the border after noon means long lines and lots of waiting. We bought our tickets for Poipet, handed over around $20 worth of baht, and went in search of our bus. That’s where it got interesting.
In Florida, land of suburbs and sprawl, driving is the only efficient way to get around. I’ve never used my hometown bus system, although I do ride the bus in my new Korean city of Daegu a few times a week. It’s fast, efficient and easy. It’s the polar opposite of our Southeast Asian bus experiences.
After finding our gate and walking cautiously out into the parking lot, we found that none of the buses were numbered. There were several marked as heading for Poipet — which one was ours was anybody’s guess. We soon learned that this is when folks lacking official uniforms approach and urge you to get into the nearest unmarked, unofficial van or bus, sometimes without even bothering to look at your ticket to check your intended destination. Learning when to trust strangers was more valuable than all the treasures we picked up a Chutachak Market.
Bleary-eyed and barely conscious, we settled in for the four-hour-long ride. Watching the skyscraper-studded cityscape fade into fields proved too exciting to fall asleep, even though it was still only 6 a.m.
Right on schedule, we saw casinos cropping up — the telltale sign that we were nearing a border town. It was only after the bus dropped us off in a parking lot — which held little more than a few fruit vendors, aggressive tuk-tuk drivers, and a pay-to-use bathroom carefully guarded by a few local women — that we began to realize we weren’t in the comfort zone of Thailand anymore. This was Cambodia, the sometimes-rival, sometimes-friend of neighboring countries. It’s unpredictable, it’s at once devastating and heartwarming, and red dust covers the glossy-safe sheen of everything we’d seen before.
I wasn’t ready.