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June 03, 2005

Walking Into The Past

On the day of our departure from Bangkok, Jeremy and I rose at an unhealthy 5:00am to leave our multi-mirrored hotel room for the North-Eastern bus terminal, Mo-Chit.  In true style we allowed ourselves just enough time to wash our faces, pull on some clothes, haul our packs on our backs and trudge out into the very early morning before hailing a taxi which would arrive at the bus terminal just 3 minutes before our bus was due to leave.  While I paid the taxi driver Jeremy ran inside and bought our tickets to the border town, then collected myself and his pack and hurried us both to the bus which seemed to be waiting for us.  I felt much better when someone got on after us, which excused us from being the last to get on, however I began to feel much worse as the bus began to pull out of the terminal and sway its way through the Bangkok streets.  Jeremy and I had seats directly behind the driver, and whether this helped or hindered me, I proceeded to promptly throw up what could only have been the vegetables and rice I had eaten the night before (is it possible to throw up something which is supposed to have been digesting for the past 10 hours?) into my only long-sleeved shirt, and then into a plastic bag which a Thai passenger kindly offered us.  Much happier to be throwing up into a plastic bag I emptied my stomach and only napped a couple of hours before waking up to do it all over again, only this time my stomach really was empty and I could only manage some grotesque heaving sounds into my trusty 7-11 bag before admitting defeat.  It seems that I had not quite recovered from our asian “cold” and the exertion of running to the bus, together with the lolling motion of the vehicle, were too much for my delicate disposition.  Needless to say I was extremely embarrassed but very grateful when a Thai lady sitting nearby offered me, snot running down my face, a small tin of Tiger Balm.  The rest of the trip was much more pleasant as I sat with my upper lip burning from the salve, my nostrils enjoying the strong smell which was distracting me from the embarrassment of my display.
    When we finally reached the border town, only a three and half hour journey on the early morning bus, we hauled our packs to the side of the road so I could use the bathroom before we continued on.  Unfortunately the other farang on the bus had already arranged to share a taxi to Siem Reap once over the Cambodian border, so Jeremy and I were well and truly on our own.  The bus terminal at this town was seemingly being guarded by either a drunk or insane (or perhaps both?) farang who was in very bad shape.  At first I couldn’t pinpoint what it was about him that revealed he wasn’t, or at least hadn’t always been, in the best of health, until Jeremy pointed out his burn scars.  Of course, which would also explain why he didn’t bend one leg at the knee when he walked.  The man was very tall and was of European descent – his accent sounded German or some such – and as I attempted to pass him to go to the bathrooms he walked in front of me and eventually slurred “Where you from!”  I managed to mumble and slide my way around him, however Jeremy had less luck when he went in search of something to eat.  “From where!” he demanded whilst he poked Jeremy in the chest.  I watched anxiously from across the street with a group of five Thais.  “Farang mou, mai?”  I asked the locals if he was drunk.  They laughed, the Thai response to almost any uncomfortable situation, as it obviously wasn’t funny at all, particularly as Jeremy was being followed by the delirious giant after he had also managed to sidle around him.  “Ba ba bo bo?” I asked, enquiring if he was crazy, this time they all responded enthusiastically.  By the looks of things this crazy foreigner was not new to terrorizing those at the bus terminal, and though the locals didn’t seem afraid of him, they certainly weren’t ignoring him either.  I willed Jeremy to hurry up and get back here before I found myself having to ask the local police to lend assistance – though he wasn’t quick he was huge and it was possible if given the chance he could take an iron grip to anyone for as long as he was awake. 
    Jeremy ended up deciding that the food wasn’t that great anyway, and we were soon trying to make a hasty escape.  While the crazy giant stood across the street shaking his fist at us (I am not exaggerating) we piled ourselves into  a tuk-tuk which buzzed off towards “Kampucha”, the Thai way of saying Cambodia. 
    Inevitably, the tuk-tuk driver pulled up out front some kind of business and leaned on his horn twice, quickly.  A smartly dressed man can running over to the tuk-tuk and flashed a smile at us.  “Here we go” I thought.
    “Hi, where you go?” he asked. 
    “Cambodia” we replied, tired of the exchange already.
    “Ok, this is the Golden Gate Plaza” he gestured toward the sprawling market which spread itself between us and the border, only probably 500m away “so this is tourist stop.  You get off here and walk to the border.”
    “No” we replied firmly, “we would like to go to the border.”  We looked at the driver in the rear-view mirror, who was smiling almost apologetically at us.  He knew that we knew that he had to stop here to give this guy an opportunity to get some business out of us, but we also knew that he had to play along to get whatever grease he was going to make from the whole charade.  So we continued the game as politely as we could.
    “But this is tourist stop” the smiling man said.
    “No” we said again, this time looking directly at the driver, “we are going straight to the border.”  The driver smiled at us, “sorry!” his eyes were laughing at us, and we didn’t really mind because we knew it was just a game.
    “Ok” and our new friend jumped into the front of the tuk-tuk with the driver.  The tuk-tuk buzzed away again and we dodged through the market traffic.  The market was just the same as any Thai market I had seen, sprawling tables piled with clothes, electronic goods or knick-knacks hiding from the sun under a ceiling of umbrellas and plastic tarpaulins.  The only difference was that there were a number of rickshaw type vehicles being pulled by men, something I had never before seen in Thailand.  More like a cart than a rickshaw, they were being used to carry goods or people, and one man offered to carry our luggage for us in his rickshaw.  We declined, paid our tuk-tuk driver, and began to walk to the border.  Our new assistant followed us closely. 
    “Do you have a visa already?”
    “Yes, yes” we replied.  Jeremy was tiring of this man.
    “Where do you go?”
    “We are going to Siem Reap, but we have a ticket already.”  The man decided Jeremy was the decision maker and walked ahead with him, apparently attempting to sell a tour or bus ticket, and I tried to keep up behind them. 
    Border towns are always exciting to me.  They smell of opportunity.  Whose opportunity is a matter for debate, but most of the time it doesn’t really matter.  Those crossing the border in search of opportunity may have found what they seek simply by believing that it exists on the other side.  We picked our way through the pedestrian traffic carrying piles of clothes or fruits, the rickshaw traffic hauling goods and the trucks slowly rolling into Cambodia from Thailand, and found ourselves in the middle of the border hustle and bustle.  Dust filled the air and every step was made with purpose.  Everyone was trying to get somewhere. 
    We passed through immigration on the Thai side and lost our tour tout in the process.  As we walked over the bridge which led us to Cambodia, a stone archway loomed before us, spread across the entire width of the road and covered in intricate decorations carved into its every side.  It was unbelievably beautiful and seemed to be ancient.  I suddenly felt that as I walked beneath it I would be traveling back in time, for though Thailand has an amazing history, everything I could see on the other side just felt so old.  Some children stopped and watched us as we took a picture of each other just before the Cambodian side of the bridge.  When we were done they simply walked away and I was surprised that they didn’t ask us for money.
    We trudged the rest of the way across the bridge and walked to Cambodia.


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