SIHANOUKVILLE, 25 July 2016: Russian roulette is not a game I play. Actually, I don’t play games or gamble.
That was true until a climbed aboard a mini-bus for the transfer from Phnom Penh’s sparkling new airport terminal to Sihanoukville, 250 km southeast of the Cambodian capital.
As the mini-bus darted through the tiniest of gaps in the traffic that choked Phnom Penh’s main highway no 4 south I got the uncomfortable feeling surviving the drive was going to be a gamble.
The highway was jammed with container trucks plying between the port and Phnom Penh to feed the insatiable appetite of Cambodia’s expanding economy.
The sun was setting and the last golden rays heightened the reddish, brown hues of the sandy verges of the road and the ribbon of villages cloaked in a heavy layer of dust. Through the gaps in houses, container parks and warehouses, we caught glimpses of an expanse of emerald-green rice fields stretching as far as the eye could see.
It was almost dark and we were far from our destination Sihanoukville where the annual Mekong Tourism Forum was due to open on the following morning.
The guide told us it would take six hours to cover 250 km with a short pit stop at a fuel station somewhere in the middle that boasted a clean toilet.
When I saw the first set of headlights barreling down on our fragile mini-van, I closed my eyes, cursing under my breath that I hadn’t booked one of the three daily domestic flights from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville.
The container truck miraculously dived back into its lane, its draft causing the mini-bus to shudder in its wake.
I noticed the driver of our mini-bus didn’t bat an eyelid. He drove cautiously and appeared to have established contact with a guarding angel who fashioned a path through the chaos of night driving on Cambodia’s busiest highway.
He spent the entire trip replaying the container truck encounter, over and over again. They played Russian roulette leaping out of the darkness headlights blazing and miraculously like phantoms whistled past us with just inches to spare on the narrow pot-holed two-lane highway.
On the very edge of the road motorcyclists, some with two passengers clinging to the driver for dear life, wobbled and weaved through the maze of pot holes. They obviously believed in guarding angels too.
Is there a moral to this tale? Don’t believe the guidebooks a road transfer to Sihanoukville is hell on wheels and definitely not the way to start your chill-out holiday at one of Cambodia’s beach resorts.
Frankly, I don’t think I have ever endured a more scary road trip. When the mini-van drew up at the door of the Moon Julie Hotel in downtown Sihanoukville, at around 2300, I was tempted to kiss the marble floor in appreciation for a life spared. Instead I shook hands with the friendly manager who welcomed us to a surprisingly smart-looking three-star hotel right in the heart of the city.
He handed over a welcome fruit tea, coupons for breakfast and the Mekong Tourism Forum’s, conference programme that I flicked open at a page with the headline; “air connectivity.”
The primetime panel topic would feature three of the region’s airlines – Thai Smile, Bangkok Airways and Air Asia. Not one of them flies to Sihanoukville. They fly lucrative routes to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh and admit they know next to nothing about Cambodia’s southern cluster of beach resorts and islands. So queue up for a private jet charter?
It had been a long day but I pondered on the lack of air connectivity. It consumed my thoughts as fell into a dreamy sleep counting truck headlights and wobbly motorcycles hoping to make it through the night.
It had taken me 12 hours to reach Sihanoukville from my home in Thailand, a distance an airline would have covered in 90 minutes.
Instead, travelling between two Mekong Region tourist destinations involves considerable back tracking, long waits in airports in capital cities and raises the cost of travel for visitors.
Capital city links in the region are fine, but for the traveller who wants to embark on an around the Mekong Region trip, without backtracking via gateway cities, the options are zero.
Airline executives on the panel believed demand for round-the-region fares and circular routes, such as UNESCO World Heritage destinations, was insufficient and impractical.
However if linked to a single multiple visa for Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand and using the 72-seat ATR or 84-seat Bombardier twin-prop aircraft rather than the larger Boeing 737s and Airbus 320s, it might just work?
It would require an airline with a pioneering spirit, deep pockets to go the distance and the support of the five countries to deliver a user-friendly visa to that could go with the fare.
We all know it’s not going to happen. But humour me. If dreams could come true then mine would conjure up a network of direct airline services that linked the beaches, heritage towns and the hill country destinations of the Mekong Region offering a circular tour by air.
No bus transfers, no back tracking, just an efficient flight hopping from one tourist spot to the next and if you missed it, no worries it would pass by at exactly the same time on the morrow and no fare penalties. Hop on and hop off, hassle-free travel makes a comeback?