No one ever said that independent travel is easy. For the uninitiated, it can be painfully stressful. Piecing together the logistics of getting from point A to B to C and so forth can test the patience of even the most laid-back of individuals.
For most Americans, vacation is the chance to escape from the stress back home, to relax and have everything taken care of. The most difficult decision the typical traveler wants to make is whether to order steak or fish. I’m wired differently. Oddly, my relaxation and recharge comes from making decisions on the fly, from getting out of my element and testing myself. In all of the vacations I’ve taken over the past decade, I’ve eschewed planning in advance, preferring rather to show up and see what happens. Sometimes that means that there are no rooms in your hotel of choice, the plane is full or the bus doesn’t leave until tomorrow – these inconveniences have usually led to my favorite travel memories.
Our experience a few days ago is a great example of the complexity and tribulations that independent travel can entail. After a couple of days on Phu Quoc Island off the coast of Vietnam, we wanted to make it to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. After consulting our guidebook and an online travel forum, we discovered that we could cross the border into Cambodia via boat. I’ve never crossed a border via a river, so it sounded like something I needed to add to my travel checklist.
After checking out of our guesthouse, we caught a bus to the island ferry. Unusually, we had taken the step of reserving a seat on the ferry in advance. Typically, this is unnecessary in Asia since they’ll pretty much let anyone on for the right price. (As becomes important in a second, however, we only had the receipt from the travel agent to prove that we’d already purchased tickets. The agent had assured us that we would be able to exchange the receipt for tickets once we arrived at the ferry dock.)
As we attempted to board the boat, the ticket taker asked for our tickets. We handed him our receipt from the agent; he said this wasn’t valid and that we needed actual tickets. After 20 minutes of conversation in broken English and approximately 13 phone calls with our travel agent, it was clear that we weren’t getting on the boat (the last one of the day) without a ticket. In fact, they refused to even talk to us, physically blocked the ramp to the boat and started to lift up the anchor to set sail. As all hope quickly vanished, I spotted our white night riding a motorbike down the pier. As he dismounted, he flashed 3 shiny boat tickets. Without hesitation, I grabbed them from his hands, brushed the boatman aside and boarded our vessel.
Upon arrival on the Vietnamese mainland, we needed to get to the bus station. The taxi drivers at the boat dock were part of a monopoly that would have made Microsoft and Comcast proud – the price was fixed at exorbitant rates. After some unsuccessful bargaining, we noticed several motorcycle drivers who were standing near the taxis. Within a few seconds, we (and our large backpacks) were each on the back of a Honda. After racing through the city, we were dropped off at a gas station where our bus had stopped for a quick fill-up. The friendly motorcycle drivers helped us carry our bags onto the bus.
Three hours and two buses later, we arrived at the bus station in Chau Doc – a Vietnamese/Cambodian border town. Since it was dark, our border crossing would have to wait until the next morning. Thus, we flagged down some motorcycles and made our way to a guesthouse referenced in our guidebook. Luckily, rooms were available for a hefty $6 a night.
The next morning, I awoke early to my first bout of food poisoning on the trip. It was not one of my greatest moments. As I tried to piece together my food consumption from the prior day in order to locate the vile culprit of my violent regurgitation, I realized that I had not eaten any meat the prior day – only bread, corn and fried rice. Since this was probably the first day in twenty years that I have been completely vegetarian, I swore that I would never forsake meat again.
As I was lying incapacitated on the bed, Alyssa entered the room at 7:26 a.m. and told me and Shanna that our 8:00 a.m. boat to Cambodia was actually leaving at 7:30 a.m. I’ve seen television shows where humans exhibit super-human powers in times of great emotional distress (e.g., lifting a soon-to-explode car off of a trapped passenger), but I never knew that I was capable of such powers. However, within 84 seconds I was off the bed, packed and headed towards the door. We grabbed a cyclo (basically, a guy on a bike with a seat behind him) and were off to the boat dock. Arriving at 7:32 a.m., we sprinted to the dock desperately hoping that the boat driver had also fallen prey to the sickness caused by forsaking meat. Luckily, he had. The boat didn’t leave until around 9:10 a.m.!
The remainder of the journey to Phnom Penh was pleasant – passing simple villages on the banks of the Mekong and leaving Vietnam and entering Cambodia via the river.
They say that getting there is half the fun; for me, it’s more like 73%.