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.

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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