We’re standing at a counter in a small, dirty office lined with folding chairs, filling out our multi-page Cambodian visa applications. I can see they’re lovers of red tape here—it reminds me very much of Mexico. Once we’ve finished filling out our applications, we stand in an obedient line, then go up to the window one by one to have our pictures taken and our forms stamped and sealed with a flourish, and at last, we are granted access to the (drum roll) **Kingdom of Cambodia!**
We pass under an elaborate stone archway bearing the name “Kingdom of Cambodia” in gold lettering, and find ourselves in Poipet, a small, dusty border town very similar to the one we just left. The difference is that here the abject poverty is relieved every couple of blocks by huge, opulent casinos with English names.
Given the barren surroundings, I find it hard to imagine Poipet as a popular tourist destination, but maybe I’m wrong, because these enormous casinos must be here for a reason.
We’re not here to gamble, though, but to continue our seemingly never-ending journey to Siem Reap, the town next to Angkor Wat, the vast and ancient temple complex that’s one of the Seven Wonders of the World and needs no introduction (unlike Poipet). We trudge down the main street, hauling our suitcases, looking for a taxi or shared van to take us the final two hours to our ultimate destination.
In addition to being exhausted from the train trip, I’m feeling nervous because of everything I’ve heard about Cambodia. It’s arguably the poorest country in Southeast Asia, and historically, has witnessed some pretty unspeakable atrocities. I felt safe in Thailand, but here I feel (perhaps unjustifiably) that all bets are off. My fears are not allayed when Nick tells us that for a relatively small amount of money you can shoot a cow with a bazooka here. Now that’s a scary thought.
We eventually flag down a taxi driver who’s willing to take us to Siem Reap for $40.00. That’s American dollars. Cambodia’s national currency is the riel (4,000 riel = one dollar), but dollars are used everywhere.
We pile in. There are only two working seatbelts in the car, but hey, two’s better than none. Now we’ve left Poipet behind and we’re on the four-lane highway leading to Siem Reap. They have an interesting way of driving in Cambodia. It’s not two lanes going in one direction and two in the other as you would expect. Instead, it’s like this: ↑↓↑↓. I can see you all rolling your eyes, but I swear IT’S TRUE.
Our driver whips in and out of traffic, passing enormous trucks and buses with abandon. He’s going about ninety miles an hour, texting on his cell phone at the same time. Nick speaks severely to him several times, telling him that if he doesn’t stop texting, he can just drop us off. Each time he nods sagely and answers, “I understand. No problem.” The texting continues unabated. We soon realize this is his stock response to whatever complaint his troublesome passengers come up with, and that there’s really very little we can do. If Nick, who’s in the front seat, attempts to grab the steering wheel, we’ll almost certainly get into a fiery crash. So we grip the back of the seat with white knuckles and pray.
There’s something MUCH scarier in store for us, though. In our heatstroke-induced stupor, we’re not very observant, but we finally begin to notice something strange. Every time our driver tries to pass, he leans w-a-a-a-y over to the left in front of Nick. Why is he doing this? Then the aha moment arrives. Okay, first a little background: in Cambodia, people drive on the right side of the road, as we do in the U.S., and the cars have the steering wheel on the left (as they do in all decent, God-fearing countries. Just kidding! : ). In Thailand, people drive on the left side of the road, as they do in England, and cars have the steering wheel on the right. Horror freezes us into immobility as we all realize the same thing at the same time: the steering wheel is on the right! Our driver is driving a Thai car in Cambodia! This means it’s physically impossible for him to see around the car (or truck or bus) in front of us when he wants to pass, which is every thirty seconds or so, because he’s in the passenger seat!
Nick and I, who are on the left side, immediately become copilots, telling him when he can pass and yelling at him when NO, ABSOLUTELY NOT, DO NOT PASS RIGHT NOW! He listens to us. . .sometimes. Numerous times we avoid head-on collisions by a hair because the oncoming vehicles have the grace to veer off into the ditch on their side of the road just in time. Throughout all this our driver is affable and unruffled, the hand not on the steering wheel busy on the keys of his cell phone. Nick has told me Buddhist drivers have a simple mantra: Buddha will protect them. If they get into an accident anyway, it was predestined. So all the bases are covered.
My life begins to pass before my eyes. I’m in a real-life video game!