It was 3:30pm at the Cambodian-Thai border when I realised.
It was 3:30pm when I realised I was still four hours away from Bangkok; it was 3:30pm when I realised my flight to Sydney was in less than eight hours, and it was 3:30pm when I realised I had been waiting two hours for a bus that had absolutely no intention of showing.
Now, anyone with even a smidge of travel experience will tell you you’re a dead-set fool to book a long-distance bus for the day you’re expected to fly. I am that idiot.
I don’t even have a good excuse. In fact, over the past two months I’d most certainly had my fair share of long-distance bus rides. I’d travelled from Vang Vieng to Hanoi via an unexpected four-hour stopover in Vientiane; I’d gotten an overnight bus from Sapa to Hanoi which arrived at 4am (two hours earlier than the estimated time); and I’d sat on the shittiest excuse for a ‘seat’, literally a cushion an inch from the driver’s gearstick, on a painstakingly air-con-less minibus from Dalat to Mui Ne. I guess for the last leg of my trip I was subconsciously looking for one last anecdote to add to my collection of travel stories.
I’d booked the bus from Siem Reap to Bangkok the day before. The lady at the travel agency said it would take about seven hours with an arrival time of 2pm, give or take a few hours.
“Cool, okay, good,” I thought. “My flight isn’t ’til 11pm. Even if I arrive at Bangkok by 5pm, I’ll still have plenty of time to get a taxi to the airport, check-in, and go through security.”
Fast forward to 3:30pm the day of my flight, sitting at the Cambodian-Thai border. By now, I’ve spent the last two hours at a makeshift bus stop in front of a KFC, furiously doing travel mathematics in my head. My calculations tell me that if I want to make my flight back to Sydney, I need to be on my way to Bangkok — pronto.
Now, I’ve never hitchhiked in my life. My parents’ persistent ‘stranger danger’ warnings must have left their mark on me — but desperate times call for desperate measures. And these desperate measures looked a lot like sitting in the backseat of a van full of non-English speakers, without a clue as to where I was going, and the realisation I had instilled my entire trust in a bunch of complete and utter strangers.
Truth be told, the strangers who picked me up did seem nice enough and, if I could pick anyone to be a Thai serial-killer who preyed on Aussie backpackers, it certainly wouldn’t have been any one of these six middle-aged to elderly men. These guys had, after all, stopped their van for a panic-stricken girl on the side of the road; they’d nodded their heads in semi-understanding when I zoomed into ‘Don Muang International Airport’ on Google Maps; and they’d made multiple stops along the way for toilet and food breaks (they obviously had a high regard for basic human needs).
Honestly, most of my fellow passengers seemed completely nonchalant to the fact I was even in the van, and I ended up spending the majority of the journey checking my phone’s GPS whilst ruminating over the best and worst possible scenarios I could find myself in.
I kept thinking a) how lucky and grateful I would be if this whole thing went smoothly, b) whether I had enough money for a taxi to Bangkok if they were to drop me off in the middle of nowhere, and c) how in the world people were going to find me if something did go wrong.
As it turned out, the ride to Bangkok was smoother than I ever could’ve imagined. I got dropped off at 8:30pm, just 15km from Don Muang airport. One of the men hailed a taxi for me while another wrote down their contact details, just in case I ran into any more trouble. By now, I’d travelled with these men for nearly five hours, covering over 200km from Poi Pet, Cambodia to Bangkok, Thailand.
To this day, I don’t know any of names of the men in the van; I don’t know where the van was headed or if it was even on its way to Bangkok when I hailed them over. But what I do know is that I’ll never see them again in my life. What I do know is that it was the pure kindness of these strangers that allowed me to make my flight home to Australia, and that I’ve never felt more gratitude for a bunch of people than when I waved goodbye to them from the taxi.
I left South East Asia with the world’s biggest smile on my face, all thanks to those kind strangers.