The Meanderthals

Smiling through the breakdown

Our bus broke down 10 hours into Sunday’s six-hour bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh.

The tortured vehicle wheezed, sputtered and finally quit after mostly idling for nearly five hours amid the remnants of a crowd gathered to celebrate the last day of Pchum Benh and thousands of cars all vying for a spot on the sole ferry that would carry us across the river and on the way to Phnom Penh. It was bumper to bumper chaos, as we exchanged grins with soaked Cambodian guys sitting on tops of vans crammed to their roofs and beyond with people, luggage and enormous bags of vegetables and fruit.

As if to add to the fun, driving rain had been pelting the bus for nearly an hour, and rainwater had found its inside via an escape hatch on the bus’s roof – directly over Gabi’s head. At first I caught the drips in an empty Pringles can – lunch, as it had turned out to be – then with the help of a friendly guy behind us we fashioned a plastic bag to catch the drips. It hung, like a makeshift colostomy, slowing filling with rainwater and swinging ominously about when the bus would move a few feet forward.

What’s weird about this whole thing is the fact that it felt completely normal – almost predictable and to be expected. If we’ve learned anything about living in Southeast Asia, it’s to expect the unexpected and always show up with a flexible schedule and attitude. Oh, and be sure to bring snackfood for the bus.

We might have known the day was going to be intriguing, as we nearly forgot our passports at the hotel in backpacker alley where we stayed Saturday night in Ho Chi Minh City. Originally scheduled to head back to Phnom Penh on Saturday, we decided to stay in HCMC Saturday night and grab an early bus back on Sunday. It was a great decision, as we saw a couple of incredible outdoor theatrical productions presented as part of Hanoi’s 1000-year celebration and a great jazz singer at our new favorite club, Jazz ‘N Art Cafe.

We were a bit foggy around the brain when we left the hotel Sunday morning, and the receptionist saved our tails when she scrambled down the stairs, passports in hand, as we prepared to walk to the bus station and board for Phnom Penh. We made our way to the bus – which the guy who sold us the tickets said was a beautiful “new bus” – and were happy to see we’d had the last two seats reserved for us, in the front row, facing a dusty Christmas tree and the TV screen. (See
the vision in the photo above.)
Powering up the iPods, opening books and settling in, we got ready to blast across the Vietnam
countryside and back into Cambodia.
Not so fast.
First, we hit the Vietnam border slowdown, which is as much a function of antiquated systems (manual) and disinterested and dispirited border officials (the term “dour-faced” doesn’t come close to doing them justice) as it is the volume of those simply trying to cross the border. Stacks of passports and visas surrounded the booth-enclosed officials, who scowled at passports then
enthusiastically stamped them, tossing them on the counter for bus operators to figure out, distribute and usher the owners through the customs gates.
“Ummmmmm,” said our ultra-slim bus guide, staring at a familiar blue passport of These United States: “Frank Catlin?” Hey. That’s me. Grabbed the passport and dragged my suitcase behind me, as we’d be instructed to offload our luggage for scanning then waved past the scanner without so much as a glimpse.

Go figure.
Back onto the bus, only to drive 200 yards and repeat procedure at the Cambodiancrossing, albeit minus the luggage this time. Atter bouncing our way past the bizarred Vegas-style casino complex located just inside the Cambodian border – no casinos in Vietnam, so the Cambodians quickly figured the best way to tap into the Vietnamese cash till was to build a gambling side as close as possible.

Think: “If you build it, they will come.” They do, and apparently in droves. We didn’t, however, because we had other bets to wager.
Like this one: How far will we drive till we stop for lunch?. It was just after 11 (having departed Ho Chi Minh City slightly before 8), so the answer was made clear enough: Now.
It was too early for pig entrails, bony chicken or rice, so I scooped up the aforementioned Pringles in a moment of hunger-satisfying prescience and piled back on board to make the final sprint into Phnom Penh. We decided to wait to eat, mostly because of the noxious stuff swimming in the enormous vats at the roadside restaurant, and also because we figured to be in Phnom Penh by 2, surely.
Just in time for a cozy late lunch.
Everything we booming along nicely until we hit the festival crowd. And as things go on the road here, when one vehicle stops, the others merely go around them, backing up the roads and packed solid, much like the arteries of people who eat the stuff at those roadside cafes. Nobody moves more than a few feet. So we all sat there, grinning at each other, trying not to drink anything so we could avoid using the bathroom, and telling ourselves it was far better to be
hungry than to inflict a Spam sandwich on our poor digestive systems.
When the rain started it was greeted with something vaguely resembling enthusiasm by the guys who before then had been roasting atop the step-vans idling next to us. When it began to pelt them violently they dropped the leafy branches they’d been using to shade themselves from the sun and looked for anything to duck under and escape the rain. I spied one kid on the side of
the road holding a broken piece of styrofoam over his head, accomplishing little by way of keeping dry but giving it a shot nonetheless.
Then the bus broke down.
With lots of excited jabbering and running to and fro from the bus, returning every time soaked a bit deeper to the skin, the operators tried to get the engine to turn and actually pushed the bus to the side of the road so others could get by. We sat and watched while others streamed by to freedom.
After 20 minutes and zero information, someone showed up with a cable and hitched us to the back of a truck that happened to be there. A tug or two along with a massive jolt and the driver popped the clutch, jump-starting the engine. Now I’ve done that with the old ’54 Chevvy, but never have I seen it done with a bus.
Anyway, we were on the ferry then back on the road in short order, and another hour and a half later we pulled up on the side of the road literally six blocks from our house and well away from the bus station. It was a fittingly bizarre ending to a megaweird bus ride.
Truth is, it’s all part of the package. I must be getting used to it, too. Of all the smiles on board the beleaguered bus, I think mine had to be one of the biggest and most persistent.


  • Wes Snapp

    Skip, if there was ever an epifiny,(sp?0, your variety of experiences herein is/are one. I remember when any one of the episodes you so blithely describe would have sent you into a tirade of Etna-like perportions. . But now … must be Gabi’s influence.Love and enjoy ya, U.W.

  • fbk

    Oh lordy, this is SO familiar!! Throughout travels in Latin American, this happened regularly to us, so that the usual three hours would turn into six! And then there was the time we hit the donkey …. anyway, this was hilarious … you guys are great to remain FLEXIBLE!!!fbk

  • Iris Bray

    OMG you have me mesmerized with your stories!!! Keep writing, I feel like I’m there. You two are incredible!!!!!!

  • Myke Gilman

    Your stories are fabulous and fascinating and I am enjoying them along with other of "Mom’s Friends" Love, Myke

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