Friends On The Road: Cambodia

January 16, 2016 

l’ll have you know, the universe is a friendly place. 

The train ride from Bangkok to the Thai/Cambodian border was a humorous one. Humorous in the why the hell am I here, what the hell have I done kind of way. I was pretty unsure of everything at this stage: where I was, where I was meant to get off, any kind of notion of train-etiquette, why people were staring at me and my fellow westerner’s in the carriage around me, and so on. Luckily they’d thrown all of us travelers in together. Now instead of just one 18 year old girl who didn’t know what she was doing, there was a whole carriage of us. Excellent!!! This would be the real beginning of my solo trip, the first time I was venturing off into the unknown, totally alone - or so I had thought. 

Up until this point I’d been away from home for a mere week. A week spent in the comfort of an old home of mine, in a country where I could speak the language enough to get by, or at least communicate with people using the right kind of hand gestures I had come to know were relatively fool-proof. Things were smooth sailing until I boarded that train and almost instantly, everything I’d ever known about this fun little world of traveling went out the carriage window. 

A six hour train ride, a sketchy border-crossing (so hectic), several narrowly missed-scams and a very unexpected friendship later and I’ve arrived in Siem Reap. The whole shebang took 10 hours, and it was really nothing short of mental. Fortunately I managed to spend the entire train ride staring out at the passing scenery, kilometers of alternating between nothing and villages and more nothing, and still I couldn’t help but fixate on the curious landscape and stare into the gleaming sun. Time sped by much faster than the actual train did, and soon I was woken from my daydreams by a strange looking man who stood towering over me. 

“C’est la fin, nous sommes arrivés”, he said. I was nervous, because French people are scary. But I was also relieved, because his sudden verbal outburst sounded a lot like a sentence Madame Parker forced us all to memorize in grade 8, and based on that uninspiring lesson I learnt 6 years ago, I was pretty certain we had arrived. I don’t know how this man expected anyone who didn’t take compulsory middle school language classes to understand, though, I guess most people would actually be aware of the fact that the train had come to a stop and everyone else was getting off. 

Now came the time to cross the border by foot, and I soon realized how lucky I was to have met (loose use of the term ‘met’, I definitely just followed them until they noticed me) this french man, Didier. He and his wife, Pascale, a french couple in their mid-50s, kept me company and out of trouble from there on in. 

Funnily enough I assumed they were even more clueless about the border-crossing protocol than I was after observing them from a far on the train and piecing together fragments of conversation I could understand. I had done some [basic] research about how to approach the crossing and how to avoid the pesky touts who roamed the no-man’s land in between both immigration points. Based on Pascale’s inability to use the camera application on her circa 2010 model samsung, I assumed her infrequent use of technology probably meant she hadn’t found the same, if any, information online like I had. 

Well I was wrong, very wrong, in fact, and I was glad I was too. Turns out the couple had been to Cambodia countless times, a number of these instances being month-long stints in the ‘land-locked paradise’ to escape the European winter. They lived in Cambodia, they taught there, they have friends who still work there, hell, Pascale could even speak Khmer (and quality english, too). They took me under their wing, navigating the way and leading me through the border and even suggesting we share a taxi from Poipet to Siem Reap. 

Of course with Pascale able to negotiate in the local language, this taxi fare was already $10 USD less ($45 USD in total) than most drivers were charging. I was stoked, and even more so once we dropped them off to their friend’s home - they had paid for the full fare themselves. They were the first people I met this trip and I was already buzzing at what an experience meeting people on the road can be. Pascale gave me her and Didier’s business cards and I said goodbye to two people I quickly realized emdodied that effortless thing french people always seem to have going on. 

What a duo. One an interior designer, the other involved in the antiques scene. Windows down, cigarettes hanging out their mouths, chatting with a young Australian girl 30-something years their junior the whole ride. I instantly made plans in my mind to meet them in their home-town of Auxerre when I make it to France later in the year. And if those plans were to fall through, I had snuck some cash into Pascale’s bag after they refused to take the $20 I was offering for my share, so this, instead, would be my thank you.

Words by Elli Webb

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