Stumble Into Indonesia's Unseen Places
Submitted by viravira on 11 February 2015 • Abroad
It is the week of reminiscence. Mumun had just reminisced about her road trip with Puspita the Volkswagen one blog post ago, and now I’m taking you back to our Indochine trip a few years back. It was the time when I realized how comfortable I felt on the road. To some extent, I felt like that’s where I belonged.
Mumun, Renny and I were on our 14-day trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, with quick transits in Kuala Lumpur. As middle class workers in Indonesia, having a 14-day trip is a luxury. Mumun was working on roster that let her have 2-3 weeks straight off, I was out of job recently with a good amount of golden handshake, and Renny was lucky to have a nice enough boss. It was our longest trip by that time, with the route: Jakarta – Kuala Lumpur – Hanoi – Hue – HCMC – Siem Reap – Phnom Penh – Kuala Lumpur – Jakarta.
Hanoi was windy and cooler than I expected, which triggered the diarrhea that I had to deal with on the first two days. City strolling was a bit uncomfortable because I had to look for clean toilets to do my ‘duty’. The fact that many women’s public restroom in Hanoi had squat toilets that were partitioned from each other with only minimum separators, which means no privacy, only made it excruciating for me. Add to that, the irritation I had toward the guy who manipulated us into staying at the hotel we didn’t book, and the tour agent that lied to us about biking on Tam Coc tour which cost us unnecessary US$8/person. Nonetheless, we had laughs. Mumun and Renny helped hot-tempered me to loosen up upon mishap after mishap.
In the next cities, Hue and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), things went as we (un)planned. The overnight train ride to Hue saved us a night of hostel budget, though we had to rest on the hard bunk bed for the night. The city of Hue itself was laid-back with a long dated history, which we found out only when we arrived and checked the Wikitravel page at the hotel’s computer. As for HCMC, I loved it. It was modern and clean enough for my liking, with pretty French-styled architecture dispersed in some of the districts. Our Cu Chi Tunnel tour was a lot of fun, thanks to the funny tour guide who consistently hit on Renny, and the fancy tour bus! The only thing I could complain about was that we had to walk up to the 4th floor of our hostel, no elevator. It was so tiring that we could only laugh it off!
Then it was time for us to head to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Booking our bus ticket just around the corner at the backpacker district of HCMC, we assumed the bus was going to be at least as fancy as the one to Cu Chi Tunnel. Turns out, nuh-uh. The bus that was taking us 6 hours to Phnom Penh, to then change vehicle to Siem Reap, was like something that came from twenty years ago. The seats were smaller, kind of hard, weren’t reclining, and the AC wasn’t cold enough to counter the heat from outside.
Various kinds of passengers were on the ride. Among them, Cambodian monks in ochre robes and women in matching bright-colored floral suits that looked a lot like the majority Indonesians with their brown skin and small eyes, and Caucasian backpackers that were probably on their banana pancake trail. When the bus was stopping for red light or on a queue, street vendors came swarming, offered food through the bus window, such as very oily fried chicken and fried crickets. That felt a lot like home, minus the crickets.
The driver loved honking so much, one of the backpackers at the back seat finally went up to him and ask him to take it easy on the honking. Predictably, he kept on honking. Having used to the blaring calling for prayers and slightly less honking noise on the streets of Jakarta, I managed to sleep on and off on the bus. On my waking segments, I noticed how similar Cambodia was with my country, Indonesia, in many things. On the country side, there were stilt houses and modern houses built far from each other, with green grass and bushes surrounding them, sometimes a very dry with dirt spilling over the road. Electric wires were transecting with tree branches, which was also a common sight in Vietnam.
To my surprise, I wasn’t disappointed to see such similarity while I was thousands of miles away from home. In fact, I found it funny. Later I even thought it was natural when I heard from our guide at Angkor Wat that the Khmer kingdom actually had a close association with the Syailendra dynasty that built Borobudur in –now- Central Java.
Six hours later we had to get off the bus at Phnom Penh bus station. We had to wait about half an hour for the connecting bus to Siem Reap with no smartphone, and couldn’t roam about because it was raining. The waiting area was packed with people. Our only entertainment was the advertisement bilboards, which looked like something from the 1980’s, from the wardrobe styling to the whole design. The only thing missing was Cindy Lauper with her shocking pink hair.
Another six hours we needed to get our butts in the most touristy town of Cambodia. I was suddenly awake when the bus stopped, only to see darkness. I had read that Siem Reap was the most expensive city in the country but they couldn’t even afford a light bulb? Our confusion was broken by the sound of a man calling my name in a funny accent. He was the designated tuktuk driver from the hotel we’d booked. When we finally walked out of the station and got on the tuktuk, I don’t know which made me happier: to finally see something in light or the thought that I was going to lie on a real bed in just a couple of minutes!
Siem Reap was great. Angkor Wat was marvelous though we couldn’t help not comparing it with Borobudur at first. Now I conclude that the two are really incomparable, they’re both awesome in their own way. The town was convenient enough for a bike ride around, and our hotel was the best for providing hammocks and free massage. I was sad to have to leave Siem Reap, but our flight from Phnom Penh back to Jakarta was just a few days away. Off we went with a bus for another six hours.
This time I was mostly awake. I was enjoying the view when suddenly the bus pulled over in front of a gas station. It was broken. We waited outside, on such a hot and humid day, because it would even be hotter inside the bus with the engine off. It was the kind of moment where I would usually get upset and grumble.
But I didn’t grumble and didn’t get upset. I waited patiently, doing silly things and taking photos with Mumun and Renny. I couldn’t hold the temptation to try some local snack from a street vendor. It tasted almost like a snack we have in Indonesia, made of sticky rice and red beans, wrapped in pandanus leaves, but there it’s wrapped in bamboo. It was delicious.
About an hour later the bus was still being fixed, and a minibus came to the rescue. We were crammed in the car to get to Pnom Penh. Strangely, all I felt was relief and happiness. Something hit me. I thought, this was the kind of life I wanted. Being on the road. A lot. Seeing things I haven’t seen before, things I did not expect to acknowledge. I felt more freedom when I’m on the road.
I surprised myself with how comfortable I was with this trip. Some things did not go the way I wanted, but at the end none of that mattered. I’ve been on much better buses before, but it was on that ugly one I realized how much I loved to travel.
As time went by, I’ve honestly changed a bit. I enjoy comfy beds and suitcases more than I used to, due to a bad knee and, well, a bit of aging, I guess. But still, the love for traveling hasn’t died down. It’s still growing and lurking for more and longer trips!