Everyone has travel moments they’re not proud of. Sometimes things get stolen, other times you step on a sea urchin and wind up in the hospital, and every once and a while you have an incredible meltdown on a Cambodian night bus. What can I say? I can’t always be a glamorous travel goddess.
Getting Down South
I needed to get from Siem Reap down to Sihanoukville, which is a hell of a lot easier than it sounds. With only two weeks in Cambodia and a round-trip flight in and out of Phnom Penh, I wanted to get from the north to the south as quickly as possible. There’s no good way to get from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville except by way of Phnom Penh, and most busses stop here for a layover.
Since I didn’t really feel like wasting a full day on busses, I opted for a night bus. I usually book busses directly through the bus company because I don’t want to pay extra, but I was convinced by a friend to check out the prices at some of the tourist agencies in the backpacker area of Siem Reap.
So Many Promises…
The first place I stopped in was a tourist agency combined with a hostel. He was able to find me a company that had a direct bus from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville, which I wasn’t able to find online. The price of this hotel bus was less than what I was planning to pay for a bus that stopped in Phnom Penh. Score!
I was promised a single bed with wifi, an outlet and a curtain for privacy on a “hotel bus” that would take me all the way to Sihanoukville without stopping. I was willing to pay the extra few dollars for a good night’s sleep, and was excited to get to Sihanoukville without a layover in Phnom Penh. Plus, I’d have the hotel bus the entire 12 hour trip, rather than switching to a bus with seats halfway.
I stood by as the owner called the company and made arrangements. We agreed to a hostel pickup. I paid for my ticket and was on my way.
Where’s My Pickup Service?
The next night I sat patiently outside my hostel with my backpack waiting for the bus to arrive. I waited, and waited and waited. The pickup didn’t come.
Finally I went in my hostel and asked them to call the company. We called three times but they never answered the phone.
Thankfully, the bus station was walking distance, so rather than miss my bus, I set out to the bus station.
When I arrived and handed over my ticket, the man checking us in told me to go inside the station. “What? What’s the problem??” I inquired. I was simply ushered inside with no explanation.
A Double-Booked Seat
For the next 15 minutes I stood there as the man behind the counter made multiple panicked phone calls. I interjected whenever possible, demanding to know what the issue was. Apparently, my seat had been double booked!
Every time I asked what was being done about the problem, the man behind the counter told me he was “checking”. “Checking what??” I finally yelled. “What exactly are you checking??” I received no answer. The other employees then proceeded to laugh at my exasperation. I literally almost punched one girl in the face I was so angry.
This bus company was a huge mess. They didn’t have a phone line, just five different flip phones constantly buzzing on the counter, which they never answered. No wonder no one picked up my three phone calls!
At first I was told that this was the bus company’s fault. They had forgotten to input my reservation into their schedule. Then I was told that the tour company I booked with had forgotten to confirm my reservation. I’m honestly still not sure what happened. Was this an honest mistake by the bus company or the tour agency? Or did the tour agency purposefully not book my ticket, pocketing the money instead?
Eventually my bus, which was over fifteen minutes late at this point, pulled away without me on it. I immediately freaked out. “That’s my bus!!” I exclaimed. “I bought a ticket!!”
“Don’t worry” the incompetent twenty-year old boy behind the counter consoled me “We have another one. They have an empty bed.”
I was relived. “Is it the same as the other bus?” I asked
“Yes, same. Same”
“and I get a single bed?”
“No. We don’t have single beds here. The tour agency lied to you. None of our busses have single beds”
Of course he lied to me.
In a whirlwind of commotion I grabbed my things and was rushed across traffic to my new bus. As I entered the bus I was shown my bed… if you can call it that.
I Want a Discount
While the rest of the bus had the beds shown in the advertisement, I was given a small single-sized bed with no curtain, no blankets or pillows, and no outlet or light.
“What is this??” I asked.
“It’s the drivers bed. For you!”
“No. That’s not what I paid for. It doesn’t have anything I paid for. I want a discount”
“I paid full price for this ticket. I didn’t get on the bus I paid for. Now you’re giving me the driver’s bed which doesn’t have anything I paid for. I want a discount”
“No discount!” He laughed as he hopped off the bus. “You either take it or you have no bed.”
As he said this, I stood there like a dumbass not knowing what to do.
The bus driver and the few men working on the bus then started pointing and laughing at me as I struggled to get my things onto my bunk while fighting back tears. None of them spoke any English and found my outburst hilarious.
Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore and I started sobbing in my little half-bunk. Here I am, alone with no one. Harassed and made fun of by the bus company, angry and frustrated. I was confused and upset. I had no idea who’s fault my predicament was, with no curtain to protect me from the men laughing at me below.
I found a thick blanket at the bottom of my bed, which I curled up in, facing the window. Immediately I felt a tap on my back.
Through sign language and a few basic English words, I learned that this blanket belonged to one of the men below.
Nothing. I literally had nothing. Not even a blanket.
I could have gotten my sarong, a pair of socks and a thick sweater out of my luggage, but we were already driving at this point. I didn’t even have anything to ball up to make a pillow. All my stuff was below the bus.
I gave him back his blanket, and tried to ask if there were any spare blankets or pillows. I pulled out my ticket and showed the man, and then typed $20 into my phone. I pantomimed “I paid $20”, trying to explain that I had paid full price for my ticket.
Eventually the man understood, and I think he felt a bit bad for me. I guess they were under the assumption that I had paid less, or was given the bed as a favor. Once they realized I had paid full price and was obviously scammed by the company or someone else, they became a bit more sympathetic. The guy even found a spare blanket for me in the back.
Can I Sleep With You?
Completely exhausted and unable to use my phone or computer due to the lack of outlets to charge them (there were no outlets near my bed at my last hostel), I drifted off to sleep. Once I was just dozing off into dream land, I was jolted awake by the driver.
“I sleep here” He said.
“This is my bed”
“I paid for this bed”, I explained.
“But where will I sleep?” He guilted me.
I looked down to motion to the chairs below my bed, when I noticed that the bus driver had let on about twenty Cambodian passengers, who were all sitting in the space around the driver’s seat and in the isle, crowded towards the front.
I get it. The bus company gave away the driver’s bed due to some sort of mistake or scam. That’s really unfair. I honestly felt bad for him. But I also paid $20 to be on that bus and have a bed, and I didn’t even get all of what I paid for. Besides, it was midnight at this point. If I gave him my bed, where the hell would I sleep? On the floor of the isle??
“Where would I sleep??” I asked. “I paid for this bed. I paid for a ticket”
He then motioned that I could curl up my feet and he could sit at the end of my bed.
No. No way. No way Jose.
I felt really bad, but not bad enough to let a strange man into my bed. It really sucks the company gave his bed to me, but I also paid for that bed. The driver also chose to let a bunch of extra passengers on for money, taking over the only room he had for himself. That was his own choice… I think.
After repeating “no” over and over again, he eventually gave up and sat in the isle, leaning against the back wall of the bus, and promptly fell asleep there. Honestly, it looked more comfortable than attempting to do the same thing on a top bunk. He actually had room to stretch his legs out. This makes me think he was looking for an excuse to get in my bed with me.
Awesome. Let’s add attempted sexual harassment to my list of night bus adventures.
Then we got in an Accident…
As I began to be lulled to sleep by the aggressive driving on the world’s bumpiest dirt road, I was awoken with a BANG. It felt like we had hit a large boulder… or maybe broke an axel in a giant ditch… or maybe we totaled our bus by hitting a cow. Who knows? All I know is that I actually almost fell out of my bed.
The bus continued on slowly for a few minutes until it faded to a stop. There was a wild commotion as the twenty locals hitching a ride broke into a dull roar discussing the situation in Cambodian. Of course, this was all happening directly below my bed, which also didn’t have a curtain. I was even lucky enough to have people leaning on my bed with their elbows. One guy even jabbed me in the back.
Eventually I tightened my eye mask, shoved my ear buds in my ears and turned to face the wall. I was so exhausted; I slept for most of the two-hour ordeal.
The next morning when I awoke, I was dead-tired with puffy eyes from crying the night before. Thankfully, I befriended the couple in the bed across from me. Both of them were shocked by my epically horrible adventure the night before, and agreed it was ridiculous the bus driver tried to get in my bed.
But once I arrived in Sihanoukville I was ready to forget the entire ordeal. I was there, only four hours later than I originally planned, with my body and belongings intact. I guess that’s all that really matters right?
I did some research after I got back and the company I went with, Virak Buntham, is not a good company. They actually have a reputation for having the most accidents due to driver error. After seeing how they treat their drivers (giving away their bed), and seeing how the drivers scam extra money (letting random passengers crowd the front), I’m not surprised.
Also, these busses go fast on dirt roads. While we made good time, we got in an accident that cost two hours. On the way to Siem Reap my Capital Tours bus was 3 hours late, for no reason other than it was driving very, very slow and making a lot of local stops. Virak Buntham was going about twice as fast as Capital Tours at night.
While this bus is the most-direct route to Siem Reap I would NOT recommend this company. Go with Giant Ibis, Capital Tours or Mekong Express. You have a stopover and have to switch busses, but it’s worth not having the experience I did. Here’s an informative post on all the different companies you can use for this long-haul ride.
UPDATE: February 2016
A Virak Buntham driver was accused of attempted rape on a foreign female passenger during a night bus journey. The driver forced her to sleep in the back of a half-empty bus by herself and then proceeded to assault her in the middle of the night. Thankfully other passengers heard the struggle and were able to help her.
When the girl reported the incident in Sihanoukville, Virak Buntham called the police on the victim for trying to defend herself. Both she and the driver were arrested. As she was being interviewed at the station, she saw the driver offer the police a bribe and walk out of the building.
While I think the bus was way too crowded for something like that to happen to me, I’m still really glad I didn’t let that driver in my bed. Ladies, always trust your instincts and don’t let people pressure you into being polite when you know something is off. Also… please do not take Virak Buntham busses at night.