Our hospital visit has gone well, over by lunchtime. My supervisor is staying for training, my other two colleagues heading back tonight. Why not join them? Five hour ride – should just scrape in before the after-dark travel curfew. We grab lunch and settle in at the bus station, our three days working together having built a strange cross-cultural deference but little connection. Their older age and our gender difference would make it more formal anyway, without the murky traumatic past that haunts so many in this country.
The midday heat beats down on us and the kids in front stare. I use my plastic folder to fan myself, still dressed for meetings in business skirt and shirt. Our fellow passengers loll, their heads wrapped in checked cloth and woven hats.
In due course, we start to load up. My roller case seems big here – under the bus it goes. Boxes of soft drink, sacks of rambutans and motorbike tyres follow. It's durian season, and I'm thankful they go into cargo also. Find our seats, open my novel and we're on our way.
I glance up occasionally at the rice paddies and wooden houses. My seat companion droops, surgical mask firmly in place as he snores through the kung fu comedy on screen. The kids behind me wiggle and giggle and fight.
Stop one: two hours later. Buy some banana chips and back on the bus. I churn through my novel. Stop two: another two hours. The sun starts to sink behind the palm trees and my colleagues estimate a "Six. And thirty" arrival.
Which, of course, was the big mistake.
Ten minutes later, it's strangely silent. The engine has stopped, but we coast for another half kilometre or so. We climb out, conveniently right next to a sign proclaiming "Phnom Penh, 40km."
There seems to be an overheating problem – at least, multiple bottles of water are being tipped into somewhere- mostly all over the engine as far as I can tell. Fifteen minutes, and the driver gets it going again – just as another bus pulls up to offer assistance. We wave them on and head back to our seats.
Another few kilometres, and the engine cuts out again. This time it's immediately restarted and we cruise at 30 ks, internal lights, TV and aircon all off. Those around me start to complain about how hot and airless it is; I give up on my novel and give thanks we're at least moving.
Another five minutes, and we're not.
I rise from my seat, and as I stand in the aisle, there's a sudden rush. People race back in and out again, panicked Khmer hitting my ears. I get off as fast as I can as smoke (steam?) pours from the back. We're not going any further.
We're in the dark, outside closed up houses on the side of the highway. Thirty or so people mill about, bubbling with aimless frustration at being stuck so close to home. I follow my colleagues to a bamboo platform, conscious of how conspicuous I am as young guys on motorbikes circle back to stare. We sit and eat longan fruit and wait for the replacement bus from Phnom Penh.
One of my colleagues fidgets. I recall his seven year-old son waiting for him, his determination to get back. His polite smile starts to wane and he paces.
After several attempts, he flags down a taxi driver. I'm unsure; I've been warned against private cars, especially after dark. But my colleagues reassure me, the tyres at least seem ok and we've only got 30ks to go. I get into the front seat, smile to see a seat belt, balk to discover it's only got one cross strap not two, and can't put on anyway as there's no clip for the buckle. Cross my fingers, instinctively (and no doubt highly effectively) brace myself against the dash, and we're moving again. The radio blares and LED decos light up the bonnet.
Until 200m down the road, when the taxi breaks down.
I start to giggle. My agitated colleague is not impressed. My desperate attempts to smother it fail spectacularly, and I try to at least look the other way.
The taxi driver gets us going again – another 200 metres, another breakdown. Still in sight of the bus. My colleagues attempt a push start and the car bumps up off the road with no flicker of life from the engine. The driver tinkers for a good while until another taxi pulls up.
My colleague negotiates and it appears we have another ride. But the two drivers yell at each other, and he starts to join in. I contemplate seeing if there's a guest house nearby and waiting until daylight as a full shouting match ensues. It's only when my colleague pulls out his wallet and the first driver opens the boot that I realise my bag's been held to ransom.
A brief walk up the dark roadside, the tension hanging in the air. We reach the second taxi, a small rusty sedan, and I realise it's already got four people in it.
I say, No.
It's hot, and we're stranded in the dark at the side of the road. I have to work with the man standing in front of me for the next four weeks. He's just fought and paid for the release of my bag, found us a ride and now the silly white girl is refusing. But she's also a doctor - can he yell at me and keep his job? He swears in Khmer, puts on a nervous grin and explains, "OK, four people in back, no problem."
But my gut tells me not to get into this car, and I'm bloody well going to listen.
I ask, Is there a guest house nearby? I stay. You go, no problem.
- No, no guesthouse. We go.
- No. Too many people. You go.
More swearing. The taxi driver starts to yell again, my colleague working up to it. Headlights flash past in the night.
And another bus pulls up, a beacon of light and plush seats and safety.
I buy three tickets and send up thanks.