The Two Backpacks


This blog entry about the events of Tuesday, January 25, 2005 was originally posted on January 30, 2005.

DAY 465:  It was advised by numerous parties to travel overland from Bangkok, Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia with a transport service set up by a tour agency, in order to ease the transition at the border crossing.  What I did not hear until after the fact that it was probably best to go via boat, but alas, the road trip that was supposed to be twelve hours ended up being close to twenty.

By 7:30 Noelle and I were in a minivan with our two Cambodian visas and two big backpacks headed eastbound for the Thai/Cambodian border.  The Thai roads were smoothly paved and made it easy for me to take a nap.  By midday we arrived at a restaurant that looked like the designated place for all the backpacker minibuses to stop in for lunch, and afterwards we were back in the same minivan.  Noelle and I sat with the cast of others, a guide, and a driver for the ten-minute ride to the Thai immigration office at the border.  We were dropped off and all set to walk over with our bags until, “Hey, where are our bags?” Noelle said.

Everyone else had his/her bags present and accounted for — except for ours.  The tour guide apologized for the mix-up — they were possibly just shifted to the other transport van — and left us with a fellow guide to wait at a nearby restaurant.  Waiting for our two backpacks to arrive took a lot longer than we thought; it was only a ten-minute drive from the restaurant and the bags took a whole 90 minutes to show up.  In the interim, we simply sat around and watched the happenings of a bustling little border town.  Vendors lugged their goods on big rickshaws.  Huge cargo trucks of corrugated cardboard went back and forth the road.  Kids were playing in the area, running around and playfully hitting each other, some with little babies strapped to their backs.

All of the kids’ antics would temporarily stop whenever a foreigner was around, when they’d demand money.  “You give me ten baht.”


Our two backpacks finally arrived in a big truck with a whole new group of backpackers we hadn’t seen before.  No matter, the bags were there and untampered with.  Our guide led us to the Thai exit office, across the bridge and the casinos of No Man’s Land, and into Cambodia.  Like with Thai exit formalities, the Cambodian entry involved waiting more on long lines.

With that said, we were perhaps two and a half hours behind our original group once we got to our tour agency’s bus office in town.  Another bus was waiting for the next batch of travelers to Siem Reap, and it was then that our unanticipated trip extension really began.

In the bus with us was a group of French, an Italian, three Korean girls, a Finnish guy, an Englishman named James reading Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, and an old Swedish freelance writer who had been living in southeast Asia for quite a while and was merely doing another trip to Siem Reap for the hell of it.  “Usually I fly, but this time I take the bus because I forget,” he told us.

What he forgot was the fact that driving on Cambodia’s roads, particularly the one we were on, was just about as smooth riding on a flight of stairs.  Seriously, you would not want to perform a bris in a moving vehicle on this road.  At least there was air conditioning to cool us from the hot and dusty conditions; most of the surrounding grasslands were scorched from grassfires. 

Our Cambodian guide took us to another pre-determined road stop with a restaurant for dinner where we sat around without bumping around for a change.

“You see how slow the bus is going?” the old Swedish guy said to us.  “[It’s so we can get there at a later time, so our guide can bring us to a guest house and get commission on all of us.  For us, it will be too late and we will be too tired to walk around to check out other guesthouses,]” he said.  “This [restaurant] here.  We are not here by chance,” he continued, explaining the whole operation was run by a sort of mafia. 

DUSK TURNED TO EVENING as I overheard the Old Swede talking to the Finnish guy about his conspiracy theories of the operation, when we were back on the bus headed eastbound.  Our Cambodian guide, who seemed to be a friendly upstanding guy, told Noelle and I that we’d stop one more time for a break 90 minutes from then to stretch our legs.  We’d arrive in Siem Reap by nine and he’d show us a guesthouse but not force it upon us, and leave it up to us if we wanted to go elsewhere.

The second planned stop came in a village in seemingly the middle of nowhere, under the pale moonlight.  We were inundated with many more touts, mostly little girls who would first try and get on our good side by asking “What is your name?” and “Where are you from?”

“Doug,” I answered, as I often do when I don’t feel like giving my real name.  (“Doug” was a name I was often called at my last job when our office technician Doug set up my phone but forgot to put my name on the outgoing interoffice caller ID.  It defaulted to his name, and every time I’d call someone, it’d come up as “Doug” and then became an on-going gag between me and the writers I worked with.)

“He’s from Mars,” Noelle (a.k.a. Alice) said.  The little girl didn’t believe us, but got me back by pointing to my shirt and saying “What’s that?”  When I looked down, she’d run her finger up my chest and to my nose.  I fell for it about three times.

The 10-minute stretching stop turned out to be much longer than anticipated as the driver had to go to the local garage to change one of our bus tires.  Whether or not there was an actual problem with the tire I don’t know, but the Old Swede continued spreading rumors that it was all a part of the scam to get us in Siem Reap too late to shop for our own place to stay.  “[He probably told his friend in Siem Reap that we are running early.  We are not supposed to arrive until eleven.]”

Eventually we were back on the bus headed for Siem Reap on the bumpy dirt road under the illumination of the full moon.  In less than twenty minutes, the bus broke down again in the middle of nowhere.  “Of course,” Old Swede said.  “What next?”  The Finnish guy wholeheartedly shared the same opinion.

The bus staff was back under the bus again, jacking it up and moving rubber around.  Ten minutes turned into thirty and we had nothing to do but just wait around in the headlights (picture above).  Most people were getting impatient, especially the Finnish guy.

“[This is a scam!]” he blew up, accusing our guide in a tantrum.  “[You’re doing this for the commission!]”  He started a small scene.

The Cambodian guide got all defensive, saying no scam was involved and that the poor mechanics were out of his control, but the Finn kept pushing the issue further — not a real productive thing to do when you’re stranded in the middle of nowhere.  I stayed out of it and just sat around and admired the full moon and the stars above, recalling the words of wisdom my film professor once said at School of Visual Arts in New York:  “The Golden Rule in filmmaking is never ever loose your cool on the set, or else you bring everybody down.”  Good advice, even off the set too, I thought.

“This sucks,” Noelle said.  “[All this because of] those two fucking bags.”

“Could be worse,” I told her.  “It could be cold or raining.”

“Yeah.”  She had just finished talking with Old Swede, who was filling her with more conspiracy theories.  “He’s an unreal old coot, but he’s funny.”

Eventually we were up and running so that we could not continue to Siem Reap, but go back to the village garage to make more repairs.  Since our previous departure, the entire town shut down from lively place of little girl touts, to a deserted ghost town with no one around.  If the moon wasn’t full, it might have been pitch black. 

We had no choice but to wait even more; it was somewhere close to midnight.  Eventually we were up and running again — only for a big cloud of black smoke to burst out of the side of the bus five minutes later.  I was starting to believe that the bus was legitimately a piece-of-shit and that no scam was really involved. 

One of the Koreans and the Englishman managed to flag down a random guy driving a rather fancy Toyota LandCruiser at the odd hour of the night.  “You want to go with them?” Noelle asked me.

“Yeah, let’s go,” I said, feeling guilt I was going for the ride without putting much effort into acquiring it.  The French and the Italians stayed on the bus while the rest of us packed into the SUV like circus clowns.  I volunteered to just stay in the trunk with the bags (Noelle’s and mine included).  Our bus guide wasn’t too thrilled with the situation; whether it was our safety or his commission in jeopardy we weren’t for sure.  He exchanged a bunch of heated words with the SUV driver and reminded us that he was a complete stranger.  “He’s going to kill you!” he warned.

Kill us?  Suddenly, most of us were having second thoughts, but we put our faith in safety in numbers.  We negotiated a forty-dollar fee for the eight of us (after shutting up the Finnish guy who wouldn’t go higher than twenty) and soon we were on our way to Siem Reap — or were we?

“This isn’t the right way,” James the Englishman said.  We were going the other way on the main road and then turned onto a dark side road.


Suddenly we were pulling into the driveway of a dark house, also seemingly in the middle of nowhere, in the shadows of some nearby trees.  The driver got out and went over to the gate to talk to another guy.  Soon, about five guys arrived on bicycles and they all ended up in some sort of a huddle.

Double fuck.

“I locked the door,” Noelle said, sitting up front on the passenger side.

“What’s going on?” I asked.  I couldn’t see anything from the back.  I sat there wondering how I could escape if needed — being under four bags wasn’t really a good thing.  Everyone was talking, wondering what our fate would be.

“Shhh,” advised the Old Swede.  “The guide wasn’t too happy with us taking the taxi.”

“He’s coming back,” Noelle reported.  She unlocked the door with the power lock and let him in.  He pulled out of the driveway and got back onto the main road, this time going the correct way.  What was in sort for us after that huddle we didn’t know.

Stay awake.  Stay alert, I thought.  Then again, where would I run off to in the dark of night if something happened anyway?  I was dead tired from being up since five a.m. the day before and fell asleep anyway, but I was happy when I awoke when we were in Siem Reap already.  Everyone was still on guard as we pulled into another shady looking place off the main road.

“Where are we?!” the Finnish guy asked the non-English-speaking driver.

“He doesn’t understand,” Old Swede said.  “Siem Reap, Siem Reap, Siem Reap,” he said, knowing that proper names were universal.

We pulled out and eventually made it to one guesthouse that was taking in guests — at a whopping price of $20 (USD) for arriving at 2:30 a.m.  James and the Finn went down further the road and found us a cheaper, very decent place with rooms with private bath, cable TV and fan for only $6, and that’s where Noelle and I ultimately ended up that night.  After a twenty-hour day of adventure, we were finally safe and sound with our two backpacks — and our lives — intact.


Next entry: Red Pills, White Apples, and Blue Pumpkins

Previous entry: Supergirls

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Comments for “The Two Backpacks”

  • HERE’S ONE MORE THE WHMMR…  Sorry, I don’t have more; I’ve been trying to finish up the trailer. 


    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/30  at  04:56 AM

  • I actually didn’t unlock the door - I don’t think that the locks work very well there… I only locked the doors, but the driver was able to open it from the outside…

    Loved that guest house at the end, though!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/30  at  05:14 AM

  • That was just a little too scary! I was getting goose bumps reading it! Geessh, be careful out there! It’s getting too close to the end to make mistakes!  We all want you back safe and sound for Day 503!!!!!  (You too, Noelle!)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/30  at  10:11 AM

  • at least the scandinavians you meet are making us united states citizens look a lot better!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/30  at  12:29 PM

  • The old Swede might not have been too far off the mark. Check this out

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/30  at  12:52 PM

  • Td0t :  Thats a ray of sunshine, isnt it.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/30  at  03:46 PM

  • scamming is a way of life…

    “stay away, stay alert, stay alive”  reminds me of driving back from AC to philly…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/30  at  03:53 PM

  • Guess we’ll never know just what that group of ‘night-bikers’ were talking about…

    Seems there’s enough scams going on in Cam. too, stay safe out there!!

    ‘stay away, stay alert, stay alive’, I’m usually telling myself that on the way TO AC.

    Markyt, I’m in Queens, if there’s any need for help or anything for/on 3/5, let me know. (Live right near LGA too, if anyone coming needs rides)(harryz11358 at

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/01  at  02:55 AM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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