After an eventful night with our friend Klaus in Bangkok, Tim and I decided to return to Cambodia. We had fallen madly in love with Thailand's neighbor to the east, and once the decision to return was made, it felt like it was always meant to be. To do this day, Cambodia remains our favorite country in the world.
We would spend another two weeks or so traveling in Cambodia. During that time we re-visited Phnom Penh, we spent more time with Sam and the monk in Kratie, and we traveled to the remote northeast to a little village still fairly off the beaten path called Ban Lung. There are, of course, many stories to share from our return trip.
The story I share below happened the few days before it was time for us to cross the border back into Thailand once again. It is a story we deliberately did not tell while we were traveling in order not to worry our families unnecessarily.
It was another sunny day in Phnom Penh. Tim and I had spent the past few hours walking around the friendly, chaotic, and exciting streets of Cambodia's capitol. Our time in Cambodia was coming to a close and both of us were reminiscent and sad. We were nearing the end of our entire trip around-the-world, and we knew we wouldn't have another chance to return to this beautiful country for quite some time.
We had just returned from a walk to three of the city's bus stations. None of them, it seemed, did the route we needed to take from Phnom Penh to Krong Koh Kong, the little town we enjoyed so much with Klaus located on the border with Thailand. We needed to get there preferably by the next day, and at most two days later. But the road to Krong Koh Kong over the mountains involved 5 river crossings. Currently there were no bridges, so the crossings were done by tiny bamboo ferries. Buses weren't scheduled to go that way until the bridges were completed sometime in the distant future.
As such, we had two choices in front of us. One choice meant going south via Sihanoukville and then via boat to Krong Koh Kong before heading to our next destination in Thailand. It would take two very long days, and would mean a very busy (and possibly improbable) travel schedule on the second day, including a border crossing. It would also mean spending more time in Sihanoukville (something we did the first time in Cambodia, and something we didn't really feel the need to repeat), and no time in Krong Koh Kong (something we were very much looking forward to again).
The second choice meant hiring a private car to take us on the route we needed to go on. It would cost more than the first choice, but it was direct and we'd get to spend more time in Krong Koh Kong. It would also mean we'd be able to cross the border as soon as it opened in the morning (as opposed to the afternoon/evening with the first choice), and there'd still be plenty of time to get to our next destination in Thailand (requiring no less than 4 modes of transportation). An additional bonus was this schedule meant we could find lodging before dark.
Making our decision, we checked with a few of the local hotels and guesthouses for ballpark prices. And then we booked a private car through the brand spanking new (and adorable) guesthouse we were staying at, The Townview Guesthouse.
It was 8am and Tim and I had loaded ourselves and our packs into the backseat of the car that would take us from Phnom Penh to Krong Koh Kong. Our driver, Hak, was friendly and talkative and was busy chatting away about the different people he drives around the capitol.
"I have one man who comes from Texas. He is very nice. When he comes to Phnom Penh on business, he always asks for me. On his last visit, he gave me a very big hat."
The banter was light and we enjoyed listening to him tell stories. As the world passed outside our window, he told us about the drive to Krong Koh Kong.
"There are many ferry crossings. Sometimes we get there in time [for the ferry], sometimes we don't. Sometimes we need to wait to cross. One day they will have bridges to cross and then it will be a quick drive. This time, I don't know. Maybe 3 hours. Maybe 6 hours."
Reassuring him we weren't in a rush to get there quick and that we enjoyed seeing the Cambodian countryside, he continued.
"The drive is through the mountains. Ohhhh, they are very big mountains. I think the highest point is 1700 meters. The road is not finished. It goes up and down, up and down. Many turns. The last time I drive this way, the road is very bad. But I think they work on it more since then because of the bridges. But I don't know. It will be very bad if I have to drive through it at night. It will be very dark, and the road is bad."
We had left Phnom Penh at 8am. The drive to Krong Koh Kong was estimated to take 3-6 hours depending on the road and the five river crossings. At the latest, we would be dropped off around 2pm. The driver would then need to make the return trip to the capitol. Depending on the hour he dropped us off, though, he might have to do some of the return trip in the dark.
"We think maybe it'll be ok though. If we make all the ferries and the road isn't that bad, we will probably arrive in Krong Koh Kong by twelve or one. You'll be able to do the return drive in daylight. It will be ok. You don't have to drive so fast," we reassured him.
Nodding in agreement, Hak continued the journey. But his speedometer, from time to time, would keep going up to speeds that indicated he felt otherwise.
It didn't take long for our day's journey to take us out of Phnom Penh and into the countryside. Three, four, and five story buildings were quickly replaced with tiny huts. The capitol city's hectic traffic fell away – soon we were the only car on the road headed through the middle of nowhere. And eventually we turned off the main paved road and onto one of the country's many unpaved, red dirt roads. This was the road that would take us over the Cardamom Mountains.
I've mentioned before how much I love the Cambodian countryside, but it's worth repeating. If ever there is a more beautiful landscape, I have yet to see it. I love driving through rice paddies and around water buffalos, between houses on stilts and old schools, and past local kids riding bicycles slowly along the red dirt roads. Even when the sky is cloudy, everything is beautiful.
"You have to be very careful on this road. It is good luck if a pig crosses in front of the car. But sometimes there are tigers in the way. That is not good," Hak said, pointing to the right side of the road.
Surprised at the mention of tigers, Tim and I looked to the right. Seeing a small herd of animals, we quickly realized Hak's tigers were, in fact, dairy cows.
About 30 minutes down this new road, we came to the first of five river crossings. This first crossing would be on a small, but reliable looking boat. (Most likely because it was the least remote of all the crossings.) The rest of the river crossings, though, would be on things generously described as rafts consisting of nothing more than several bamboo poles tightly woven together on top of a metal buoy of sorts, with some scrap metal thrown on top and nailed down relatively flat. Add a huge motor of sorts to the back of it, and you were ready to go. They were a bit wobbly and very slow, and they could only handle two or three cars at a time. (However, being industrious folk, the Cambodians would make sure to pile on an extra car and a few dozen extra people for good measure.)
Our timing for the first river crossing was perfect: we were the last car to arrive and as a result, as soon as we navigated our way onto the boat, we started sailing over to the other side.
Sometime after the first river crossing, Hak started talking about going to school in Cambodia.
"I had to stop school when I was twelve. Pol Pot got rid of all schools. But when the Khmer Rouge were gone, people could go to school again. I had a family and could not go back yet. But later, I went to school to finish my studies. I felt like an old man. Everyone in my class was younger than me."
Aside from the emotional visit we had to the Tuol Sleng Museum and a few roundabout comments made by our friend the Monk, we had never heard a Cambodian mention Pol Pot or the Khmer Rouge during our time in Cambodia. That's not surprising of course: why would they talk about it with anyone, especially with a barang (foreigner). According to an expat friend who lives there, the schools didn't even teach that part of their history until the final year in school. For the most part, it seemed like people wanted to forget and to move on from that dark period. And, really, who can blame them for it.
While our car slowly snaked its way up the side of the mountain range, Hak continued to tell us a story.
"One day after class, my teacher said he wanted to speak with me. I waited, and then he told me he was worried about my grades. He said I was 13th in the class and that I needed to do better. I promised him I would."
Surprised by what he had just said, I replied, "But 13th sounds like a very good rank. I think maybe your teacher was silly."
Nodding, Hak responded, "But there was only 15 students in the class."
Thinking for a moment, I answered, "Well, 13 is better than 14, right?"
Smiling at my response in the rearview mirror, he repeated what I had said. "Yes, 13 is better than 14."
Throughout the drive, our timing for each ferry was perfect. We had already completed 4 of the 5 river crossings, and were only about 60 minutes away from our destination. Our arrival time was going to be around noon.
The road was nowhere near finished, but it was certainly better than some of the roads we had seen in northeastern Cambodia. It was clear the construction crews must have worked hard to create the road, carving a place for it amidst the jungle, slowly making a path up one mountain and down the next. And everywhere there was the traditional red dirt found throughout Cambodia. But this dirt was loose and not compacted down yet. In some places, it was almost like gravel.
Hak had been silent for a little while, focusing instead on the road in front of him. It was demanding more attention. But over the course of the past few miles, he had slowly started increasing his speed, undoubtedly because we were nearing our destination. And at times, the car was beginning to lose just the slightest bit of traction on the loose red dirt. It was barely noticeable, but when you're in the middle of nowhere you tend to notice the smallest things.
Coming to the crest of the next mountain, I whispered to Tim asking if he felt comfortable with the speed we were going given the state of the road. He shook his head no, and I started to lean forward to ask Hak to slow down just the slightest bit.
But before I could even get the first word out, something happened.
At the top of the mountain, where our car was right now, there was a curve in the road. But Hak had approached the curve and the downward slope too fast. And as we started down the other side and around the curve, the car's tires lost all traction.
Our car started spinning out of control.
My voice caught in my throat. And I felt Tim reach across the seat to put his arm across me: the protective arm, we called it. It was something we had always done back in the US when we were driving and had to stop unexpectedly for whatever reason.
I don't remember if I looked at Tim. I think my head was locked into place, staring ahead. My view would change as the car spun. And ahead of us, down the road we were spinning out of control on, the road curved again.
It had to curve again, you see, because straight ahead was an edge of the mountain.
At best we were going to hit a tree and it would stop us from going over. At worst a tree wouldn't stop us, and we were going to go over.
Since we've been back in the US, I've been terrified of being in the car. Some days are better than others, but overall I can't stand it. More often than not, I have my eyes glued shut in the passenger seat. Our adventure in Cambodia was my first car accident ever. And it seems my body is taking a while to get over it.
Last week, safe in our cozy apartment in Washington DC, Tim and I were watching the movie Frida. I've wanted to see it for some time but hadn't had the chance yet.
About ten minutes into the movie, I had to ask Tim to turn it off for a while. There was a scene on the screen that made our living room fall away: Frida was watching as the trolley she is on spins out of control towards the corner of a brick building. And all I could see was our car spinning out of control down that lonely mountain road.
Red dirt, tall trees, the edge.
Red dirt, tall trees, the edge.
Red dirt, tall trees, the edge.
There are many things you can prepare for before a trip around-the-world. But no amount of guidebooks, or travel shots, or places to hide your valuables, or street smarts can prevent those things that just happen. There's very little that can prevent those freak accidents that happen in a split second.
There were a few bus rides during our travels when I was scared we would crash or get into a wreck. But I don't know if I had ever experienced such a strong fear of dying before that day.
I remember while the car was turning, I was worried about our families: they would have no idea what happened to us. And all I could think about was that I wouldn't be with Tim anymore.
And I remember a new worry that crept into my head. If we went over the edge, but didn't die in the fall, how long would it take for someone to find us alongside this lonely road?
It's amazing how slowly a few seconds can take to pass. I never knew how slow time could go until our car started spinning out of control down a red dirt road...in the middle of nowhere...in a jungle...on the side of a mountain…in Cambodia.
I'm sure it must have lasted under thirty seconds. Perhaps under fifteen.
I remember my last glimpse of the edge that was fast approaching. We were only about 15 feet away at that point. The next rotation of the car was going to send us over the side of the mountain. There was no going back.
Suddenly, the car was whipped around even faster than before and came to an immediate, bone-shaking halt at the edge.
I'd be lying if I said I remembered much of the very next part while we were still inside the car. I think I remember a flurry of "Are you alright?" and "Are you ok?" questions being asked between the three of us. I think I remember Hak saying "Oh my god."
Getting out of the car, my legs were shaking. And as I turned to look back at the car, I noticed what had happened: one or more of our tires had gotten caught in a ditch directly between the road and the edge of the mountain. It was a natural ditch, carved out by the torrents of rain that would pound the jungle relentlessly during the raining season. And today, instead of carrying the rain down the side of the mountain, it stopped us from going over it.
The next several hours would pass slowly. My legs would still be shaking. Tim would still be asking if I was ok. And our driver would still be mumbling "Oh my god" repeatedly. But eventually a truck went by who, with the help of about 10 people, pulled the car back onto the road. Instead of taking the remaining one hour to get to our final destination, the next part of the journey would take over two hours. Hak, it seemed, felt safer going slower this time. The car, meanwhile, was struggling to keep any sort of pace on only two good tires.
One of the most distinct memories I have of the car accident on that lonely jungle road was a few minutes after we had stopped spinning. Tim, Hak, and I were standing on the side of the road in shock.
Looking at where the car had stopped only inches from the edge, I thought a moment and asked, "Well, 13 is better than 14, right?"
Nodding together, both Tim and Hak replied, "Yes. Yes, it is."
If you enjoyed this story, you might also like these ones: