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June 03, 2005

Taxi Ride

    Once on the Cambodian side we decided to wait for some other travelers to come through to try to split our taxi fare to Siem Reap.  We had read some advice not to take the bus as it was uncomfortable, took forever and the driver would stop every half hour to try to get you to buy things at random roadside villages.  By the time we had reached the front of the line to pass through Immigration we had found Olaf, a lone German traveller who would share our taxi.  We piled ourselves into a waiting Camry, all of the taxis were Camrys, and our driver started the engine.  Just as we were about to pull away my door was opened and a man in a uniform demanded “How much you pay for taxi?”  “One thousand baht” I replied (in Cambodia you can trade with US Dollars, Thai Baht, Euros or UK Pounds.)  He hesitated for a moment before slamming the door.  As he walked away I noticed his uniform bore a badge reading “Tourist Police”.  I wondered if he was looking out for my interests or his.
    The road to Siem Reap was straight, I don’t believe we took a single turn, though our drive wasn’t.  We weaved from side to side of the road, negotiating a way through the pot-holes, cracks in the road and and the holes so large that it was in fact simply a lack of any road at all.  As we weaved our way out of Siem Reap I figured that the general rule must be to drive on the right hand side, as each time we found ourselves hurtling head-on towards a truck or car, we would each nudge a little to the right so that we hurtled by with only about a metre between each vehicle.  We flew by villagers riding bicycles, god knows where, and motorbikes, so close that I’m sure we would have tipped them over if they had stuck their foot a little to the side.  Our driver was not insane, though he had a strong belief in the steering abilities of the humble car horn, believing the more he sounded it, the sooner a path would show itself before us between the traffic, moving both in the same direction as us, as well as head-on.  I will readily admit I came close to informing him that I did not need to die that day, but it became unnecessary as we soon left all traffic behind, which was both good and bad: good as we had less obstacles to hit but bad as we had exceeded what I figured was a safe speed limit, being over 50km/h.  I prayed to Shiva that she would keep all her cows off the road, and hoped to god that Shiva was in fact the god of cows and that I hadn’t offended the real god of cows by calling on the wrong deity. 
    Suddenly the sky was full of dark ominous clouds, though of course this didn’t happen suddenly, it always just seems that one minute you’re complaining the sun is too bright and the next you are wondering what on earth you did to displease the gods so much they sent the blackest clouds they could muster to hunt you out – must have been the cow thing.  I wondered if we were driving through the monsoon rains, if they were passing to the side, or if they were moving ahead of us.  It seemed to me, however, that the monsoon rains didn’t work like this.  One minute there’s a clear sky, the next you’re surrounded, either a short or long time later you’re soaked and then suddenly – there’s that word again – it’s hot and the air is stickier.  I had imagined the monsoon rains would be an immense display of the awesome power of mother nature unleashing her wrath upon the earth, however its more like a game she plays to amuse herself when the day’s itinerary of “constant blazing sun” becomes too mundane, so she throws in the daily dumping to mix it up a little. 
    And so sure enough we drove through the monsoon rains, and the car was pelted by the best Mother could throw at us.  Raindrops the size of small rats hit the car at terminal velocity and the roar was deafening, though at least it was a change from the awful rattle of the shell trying to bounce off the frame.  Luckily the rain didn’t seem to make the road slippery, only filling the holes in the road with water so that each time we drove through one we sent dark red dusty water shooting in every direction.  Of course this did not slow our driver one bit, and we continued to speed along, as much as we could, throwing mud in every direction, honking our horn and generally disturbing the peace.
    The entire journey took about three and a half hours, passing only one small city, or large town, on the way.  The rains came and went and the traffic seemed to lesson the further from Poi Pet we drove.  As the ride in the car was always deafening, from the rains or the road, we passengers spent the journey either dozing or gazing out the window.  Personally I couldn’t stop gazing out the window, confounded by the nothingness I saw.  Driving through rural areas in Thailand you will pass a mixture of farms, rice fields, jungle and villages.  However on our journey to Siem Reap, we saw almost nothing.  No-thing.  We passed the occasional rice field.  However, I could never spy the village, or at the very least the house, in which the farmer lived.  I didn’t see a single crop other than rice, at least that I recognized as being a crop of anything.  I didn’t even see coconut palms.  The land was flat and endless, dusty, red and lonely.  The “villages” we passed were a few huts huddling together by the side of the “highway”.  I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what these people eat.  There was no “store” in sight, and they were quite far from large cities.  Perhaps they were growing their own vegetables by their homes, though I would have imagined it would be a good idea to use the masses of land surrounding their “village”.  Forgive me for being the ignorant and stupid white traveler, but this really was the first time I felt I had been somewhere I couldn’t see for myself how people got by.  In Thailand and India there are always food stalls by the side of any major road, and driving through villages you can see piles of fruits or vegetables waiting to be bought, but here what fresh foods I saw were few and meager.  I found myself wondering, were we to break down on this road, what would we eat?  There was not even jungle, which sprawls over parts of Thailand and India, ruling the land, in which we could search for plants or animals.  Only flat stretches of dusty land, green though it was, it seemed only green from grass, not any kind of crop.  We passed few cows and I saw no chickens or pigs.  Having eating fried crickets since my arrival in Siem Reap, which are indeed quite tasty – I went back for seconds, I now know of at least one thing besides grass which we could have eaten out there.  But I truly was amazed that people were living, and obviously surviving, in what was to me like a desert.  Cleared land with no crops?  I can only imagine this is a reminder of the Khmer Rouge, but honestly I don’t know.   
    And then, suddenly, we found ourselves on Las Vegas Boulevard.  If you’ve ever been to Vegas and driven through the poorer residential areas, you will know what I mean.  Here we were, driving through the expanse of nothing, peering out the car window at any sign of human habitation we spied, when suddenly – and this time it was suddenly – we passed under a sign informing us we were driving into Siem Reap, and found ourselves passing by massive, elaborate, lavish hotels.  Only moments ago I was wondering what the locals had to eat aside from dust, and now here we were driving by establishments serving imported steak with a cognac-sauce and French wines.  The change in scenery was disturbing.  I remembered all of the trucks lined up at the border, waiting to enter Cambodia from Thailand, and I suddenly realized where they were going.  This city had to have come from somewhere, and by the looks of things it didn’t come from where we had been.  The contrast between poverty and luxury was amazing, not good-amazing, but I-can’t-speak-amazing.  In Thailand you see slum areas beside luxury hotels throughout the country, but at least both show signs of life.  In Cambodia the difference is an absence of anything beside an abundance of everything.  In Thailand you feel pity for those living in the slums.  In Cambodia you are simply puzzled at how this can be. 
    We roused ourselves as we drove down the main drag, which Jeremy said had not existed three years ago.  Our driver, who had promised us he would deliver us to the hotel front door, took us to the area where most of the budget hotels and bars were.  We took a couple of side-streets before he pulled over and yelled at someone on the side of the road, asking the way.  Luckily Jeremy had the guesthouse phone number, and after we called they picked us up only minutes later.  The guesthouse was off the main road and was run by a Cambodian family, which had been our main incentive to stay there.   They were full but promised to work something out for us, when the rains ceased of course, so we sat down to eat and rest, having completed our journey.  Jeremy tried the famous Cambodian dish, Amok, a fish or chicken coconut curry with rice, which was delicious.  When the rains subsided we were shown to a lovely wooden bungalow at the back of the property, by the side of what will become a large pond when the rains fill it up with water.  We showered and lay down on our hard mattress to rest. 
    I was glad we hadn’t taken the bus.

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have really enjoyed these narratives; keep 'em coming

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