Now that’s a title you don’t see too often! Despite the tales and stories of incredible once in a lifetime experiences and the wanderlust-inspiring Instagram photos – you CAN actually have bad travel experiences. Actually, it’s usually the norm – shit happens on a regular occurrence.
It’s usually nothing major, just the typical pitfalls of long term travel – bad accommodation, unfriendly people, being ripped off, eating something a little dodgy – but every once in a while, you experience something bad. Something downright terrifying. An experience where you legitimately fear for your life.
Ours happened on our first major backpacking adventure in 2012, when we went on a six week tour with Intrepid Travel (Disclaimer: the bad experience had nothing to do with Intrepid!) through South East Asia – Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.
Cambodia was the first country we explored on our tour, and we’d had a few tough days to start with – I’d been struck down with food poisoning not once but twice within the first week. It had finally started to subside when we arrived in Sihanoukville, on Cambodia’s southern coast where we were stopping for a few days. The timing couldn’t have been any better – nothing but sun, surf and sand for several days of bliss.
Six of us – Mike and myself, Clare and Meredith, Sarah and Brandon – caught up for dinner and decided that we would take a trip the following day to the nearby island of Koh Rong. Koh Rong was a hotspot for diving in Cambodia, and Mike, Clare and Brandon being keen divers wanted to give it a go. Meredith, Sarah and myself thought we’d tag along to spend the day at the beach. We found a dive operator, locked in the ferry and dive package for the following day and got to bed nice and early – excited for our island adventures.
Picked up by the tour operator the following morning, we were taken to the ferry terminal outside of town and jumped on board the two storey vessel along with a number of other keen divers and beachgoers. The weather was glorious – the sky was blue and the sun was shining – we couldn’t have asked for a better day!
Dropping us off at the jetty on the Koh Rong side, we split up – the divers jumping aboard their boat for the day, and Meredith, Sarah and myself headed for the beach. We were told to meet back at the jetty at 4.30PM so we could get back on the 5PM ferry to the mainland. Easy done.
Walking past the bars and the small beach huts, we found ourselves a quiet beach on the far side of the island near a little restaurant and settled in for the day – sunscreen, hats, a good book and a sun-bed overlooking the ocean. Whilst the setting was postcard-perfect, upon closer inspection, we were pretty disgusted at how filthy the ocean was – the amount of rubbish floating in it was appalling. Meredith even found certain feminine sanitary items washed up on the beach. It was disgusting, so much so we didn’t even swim. I just hope they’ve cleaned it up since then.
After a somewhat disappointing day of dirty oceans, bad sunburn and expensive, mediocre food, the three of us made our way back to the jetty to wait for the other half of the group, hoping that they’d at least had a better day than us.
4.30 PM came and went and there was no sign of the diving boat. People had started to line up for the ferry back to Sihanoukville. Then the ferry showed up at 5.00 PM and people started to climb on. We started to worry, asking the ticket office how long the ferry would be here for. They told us not to worry. 5.10, 5.15, 5.20 PM…. no sign. At 5.30 PM, the ferry boat sounded, about to take off – but the rest of group was nowhere in sight. It took off, back across the ocean into the fading light of day and that’s when we started to worry.
Just after 6.00 PM, the dive boat pulled up alongside the jetty. As the majority of the divers headed towards the mainland, staying the night on the island, the six of us headed straight for the ticket office.
“No worry!” they told us. “Stay on island. Next ferry 10 AM tomorrow!” was their instruction. Except there was one problem with that – our tour group was due to depart from Sihanoukville back to Phnom Penh at 6AM the following morning. None of us had any way to contact our tour group leader to tell him that we were stranded on Koh Rong. Speaking with the dive company, we told them to find us a way back, and fast – as it wasn’t our fault that we had missed the ferry but because they were late.
First they offered us a ride back to the mainland in a tiny boat not dissimilar to a canoe – we laughed, and then told them to get serious. It was 6.30PM before a small, semi-enclosed fishing boat pulled up alongside the jetty and told us to jump in as they were heading back to the mainland. As it pulled away from Koh Rong, the purple and pink skies getting ever darker, we laughed together – glad that it was over, shared our crappy stories from the day (turns out the diving group had an awful day diving) and relaxed, knowing we’d be home in an hour or so.
Then it got dark.
Really dark. The sun disappeared, and we were surrounded by blackness, bar the tiny little light swaying from the roof of the boat above us. As we were miles and miles from land in any direction, there were no lights to be seen, no sign of life anywhere.
Then it got rough.
Really rough. Perhaps in a larger vessel, we would not have felt the swell so much, but in a tiny fishing boat, in the middle of the ocean – oh boy, you could feel it. As the waves crashed and splashed around us, flooding the deck, we all simultaneously gravitated to the bench in the middle of the floor, away from the sides of the boat, pulling life jackets over our heads and securing them tightly.
Then it got scary.
Really scary. The captain of the boat was steering the boat side on into the swell, guided only by the torch light his assistant was shining out onto the ocean in front of him. As the waves crashed, so would the boat, hitting the ocean with a thud before bouncing back up again. Lacking the power of a larger boat, he couldn’t seem to steer it any other way.
Did I mentioned that I can’t swim? That I’m scared of the ocean? And that I get sea-sick?
Well, I can’t swim, I am petrified of the ocean and boy oh boy did I get sea-sick. We managed to find one black garbage back lining a trash can, which I stole, and proceeded to stick my head in to vomit. Over and over again. The whole time, I kept saying to Mike “We’re going to die! Oh my god we’re going to die!” Even Mike – with years of State Emergency Service training, flood boat rescue courses under his belt and a strong swimmer – was pale, not opening his mouth to respond for fear of also being sick (there was only one bag), and also genuinely concerned.
The six of us huddled around each other for three hours. THREE HOURS. The ferry that morning had taken 45 minutes to reach Koh Rong, and this boat had been chugging along for over three hours – and I spent that entire time with my head in a bag, vomiting, and practically shitting myself that we were going to die.
Finally – and it couldn’t have come any sooner – we saw light in the distance. One single, lonely light – even the Captain’s assistant pointed it out excitedly. It took another twenty odd minutes to reach but finally, after 3.5 long hours at sea (where I’m pretty sure all six of us weren’t entirely sure whether we’d make it back or not), we abandoned ship and stepped onto dry land. I may or may not have kissed the ground…
However, once again – we were left stranded. It was now 10PM at night and the ferry terminal and port area was completely deserted. Without a map, we had no idea which way was town. Thankfully Brandon had a phone that he was able to set to roaming and he was able to pick up a signal, and he called the dive shop in Sihanoukville that we’d booked the tour with. Asking them to come pick us up and take us back to our accommodation, we waited on the side of the road for another 45 minutes before the headlights of a pickup truck came around the corner and pulled up to collect us.
What a day! We finally began to laugh again about it all, but there was no denying how tense we’d been – first the horrendous boat trip and then being stranded in the middle of nowhere. It was close to midnight before we all said goodnight to each other and collapsed into bed – thankful that we’d made it back in one piece.
So there you have it – travel is not always fun! We’ve heard of so many tales worse than hours, where serious injuries have happened in accidents, and even fatalities. Our experience was nothing in comparison to that, but it was still one where we were genuinely concerned. As everything was out of our control, we felt helpless. Being unable to swim, with a genuine fear of the ocean and being so horrendously sick did nothing to make the experience any less frightening. Needless to say, we haven’t been on a boat trip like that since….
What’s your worst travel experience? Have you ever been in a scary situation whilst travelling? Tell us in the comments – we know we’re definitely not alone!