When traveling alone in a foreign land, especially when you’re a woman, you must always be careful. Never give your passport or money to a total stranger and expect it all back. But, that’s what I did exactly.
I celebrated my 28th birthday by traveling Vietnam and Cambodia for 10 days on my own. After spending two days in Ho Chi Minh City, I took a bus to Siem Reap, Cambodia. And that’s how I met the best bus conductor in Cambodia.
His name was Chantal. He spoke very good English. There were less than 10 passengers on the big Mekong Express bus going to Phnom Penh that day. When he saw that I was the only foreign woman, and alone at that, he came up to me for what was supposed to be a quick chat but ended in a long conversation. It started with the basic questions – where are you from, how long are you staying here, where do you plan to go? After a while, he had to excuse himself because he had to go back to work.
Before the bus left Ho Chi Minh City, we have to give the passport to Chantal. It alarmed me at first because I never give my passport to anybody. But, since everybody submitted their passport, I stopped worrying.
When Chantal left to get back to work, I allowed myself to doze off.
I woke up to a feeling that something was different. The bus was at a complete stop, I was the only passenger left, and out my window was a huge building were people with their bags are hurriedly going in and out. I freaked out. I didn’t know where I was. Then it registered on me, “Oh, we’re probably at the border already. Oh my god, where’s my passport?!”
I went down and saw the bus driver. I asked him if I needed to go to immigration. He barely spoke English but made a gesture it’s okay, go back to your seat. I asked him if he’s sure because then, why am I the only passenger left on the bus. He smiled and gestured to go back to my seat. I did. I looked out my window and I saw Chantal coming from immigration building. He saw me, smiled, waved, and gave a thumbs up.
After we passed the Cambodian immigration, Chantal sat beside me again and we continued our conversation. I asked him about his work, Cambodia and the Khmers, history, other tourists, and where to exchange currency. He answered all my questions patiently. And as for where to exchange money, he offered to take me there on his motorbike. I was a little bit alarmed but I didn’t show it.
When we got to Phnom Penh, where I had to transfer to another bus for Siem Reap, it was raining really hard. All passengers going to Siem Reap had to wait for an hour at the Mekong Express office. Because of the rain, Chantal couldn’t take me to have my money exchanged. He said he will ask somebody to exchange it for me instead. Normally, people would refuse the offer but since I only have one 100USD bill with me, I didn’t really have any choice. I asked him to have it changed to smaller dollar bills but he suggested to have 10USD exchanged to Cambodian riel, just in case I needed to spend a small amount on food. I assented.
I will not deny that there were no horrible thoughts swimming in my head that time. After all, I just gave 100USD to a total stranger. He had to come back. He must come back. And after 15 minutes, he did and Chantal came back and gave me the money. He made sure the complete amount was there. He waited for me to finish counting the money.
The entire experience was overwhelming. I trusted a complete stranger with my passport and money and he did not expect anything in return. I have been on many buses, local and international, and I have never met anyone as helpful and accommodating as him. Chantal is indeed the best bus conductor in Cambodia, and probably the world.