x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

On a Cambodian bus with a habit of killing things to make its deadline

Around Asia Mind those motorbikes aboard the Mekong Express on Cambodia's roads of death.

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The "Tuk-Tuk Deluxe" can often beat other modes of transportation in crowded Phnom Penh. Effie-Michelle Metallidis for The National

I've been in car crashes in Kathmandu, a four-way collision on the E-7 in Iran, and once, in Greece, some asinine teenager tailgated me on a one-way mountain road where a busload of children had plunged off the cliff the week before.

But I reserve a special place of derision for Cambodian driving, mostly because of its buses.

Don't get me wrong. I love the spectacle of third-world road havoc and, as a country that has the highest rate of road fatalities in the region and ranked 38 on the Failed States Index, Cambodia did not disappoint.

There was the grandmother with a sizzling barbecue mounted to the back of her motorcycle being tailgated by an angry mob of motorbikes; the well-to-do retiree riding along the riverside as her dog, dressed in matching tank top and shorts, steered the bike straight into a crowd of parked bikes; and the man struggling to hold up his one-tonne motorbike atop bags of rice on a delivery truck as an SUV tried to run the vehicle off the road.

And then there was the Ford Minibus Express.

"It's a Ford bus," our hotel lady in Phnom Penh said, as if emphasising the American brand known for producing exploding Pintos in the 1970s would really sell us.

Now the Ford Minibus Express is neither express nor minibus. It's a van that takes just as long as the regular bus to navigate the alleyway - I'm sorry, motorway - that connects the capital to the southern city of Siem Reap and, as we were to find out later, has a habit of killing things to make its deadline.

The driver - "quite a relaxed chap by my reckoning", said an Australian who often travels the 314km route to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh - lurched to a halt just long enough to throw our bags into the back before careering down the Mekong River, swearing and spitting his way through the traffic. Cambodian Top 40 screeched out of the surround-sound system, barely masking the blare of the horn as we charged through scooters, ox carts, diesel trucks and little old ladies carrying farm crops on their backs.

I have this habit of falling asleep on transportation - cars, trains, tuk-tuks and, once, the cargo hold of a freight ship - so despite the calamity, I soon drifted off, lulled by the sound of a whining engine. Soon enough, I jolted awake at the feel of a large bump and horrified gasps.

"What'd we hit?" I croaked.

"A dowg," said the Australian, shrugging. A dowg? Oh, a dog.

It had trotted in front of the van too late for the driver to slow down, apparently. But in the next instant, the Ford suddenly jerked to a stop, then carefully veered around another object. A hat had blown onto the road and, lest it crinkle, the driver gave it wide berth, shoving the car into low gear.

That was the good road experience.

The bad one came days later when we decided to take a large bus from Siem Reap to Vietnam: 12 hours aboard the deluxe Mekong Express Limousine Bus.

The Mekong Express started out great. There were gold-fringed curtains, Manga seat covers, free water and a snack pack. There was even Cambodian karaoke on TV - a must for any trans-border crossing.

But when we stalled for the second time on the shoulder of a road lined with thatched huts that sold gasoline out of Coke bottles, something wasn't right. We had to make a 2pm bus switch in Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City, but we were still 10km away from the capital, with no sign of a replacement bus in sight.

"Should we tuk-tuk it?" said Patty, my travelling companion, with defeat in her voice. I looked at our beleaguered group, hunkered under a roof made out of corn husks, shielding themselves from the searing noonday sun as trucks thundered by. A quick negotiation of payment and soon we were trundling along in a motorbike-powered wagon, leaving the steaming Mekong far behind.

Our Tuk-Tuk Express beat the replacement bus by hours and we managed to collapse aboard the bus bound for Ho Chi Minh City minutes before it left. This one had 1980s American karaoke: women in shoulder pads and red, pouting lips strolling along the New England coastline as Duran Duran played.

"Now this is luxury," I said, singing along to Duran Duran. Patty agreed, opening the complimentary croissant-wrapped hotdog in our snack packs. Water bottles were passed around. Our ordeal, it seemed, was over.

An hour later, Patty shook me awake. "Effie, you're not going to believe this."

We'd stopped along the shoulder of the road again but, this time, no thatched huts or petrol in Coke bottles. Just empty highway and another bus parked alongside ours, waiting. Our hostess screamed something in Cambodian, by which we understood that we had broken down again and this was our replacement.

Between some muttered curses and arguments over where our luggage was, we shuffled aboard the new bus just in time to make the ferry at Kaam Samnor crossing, which shuttles farmers, industrial equipment, cargo and passengers in faux-luxury buses to the Chau Duc checkpoint across the Mekong.

I was never happier to see a communist flag than when we crossed Vietnamese customs just an hour shy of midnight, the golden star atop the brilliant red background waving us into the Socialist Republic. Little did I know that we would nearly die motorbiking through backwater Vietnamese roads days later, but at that moment, all that mattered was that we had left Cambodia's express buses - Ford make and otherwise - for good.

Next week: through Vietcong tunnels and treacherous ruins. Catch up on Effie's adventure at Around Asia.