Asian Opposites: Japan to Cambodia
Dawn breaks as I get on the train to Osaka. Or it would have but for the muffling grey haze. The carriages are filled with sleeping or newspaper-reading white-collar workers, with a sprinkling of other people heading to the metropolis to start their day’s bread making.
Maybe some of them recognise each other from previous mornings, riding the same train at the same time, morning after morning, month after month. But they don’t show it. We pull in to another station, the platform lined with yawning, sullen-faced, solitary, suited people. No one smiles on this trip.
I used to take this train every day, but somehow the scenery looks different this time. Maybe it’s the earlier hour or the later season. Maybe it’s the pale green re-growth on the dull brown, recently harvested rice fields lying under a coating of dew.
Or maybe it’s because of the backpack wedged between my knees.
The Internet spots at Kansai Airport are like waterholes in the East African Savannah, foreigners milling around, like gnu, bewildered beasts in this limbo between their home and their home away from home. Mostly I guess they’re ex-pats on their way back for holidays, or forever, each with a set of feelings that they probably can’t put into words. Nevertheless, they wait their turn at the computer just in case they can find those words, and manage to put them into an email before the boarding call.
What feels new to me is not having a mobile phone in my pocket. Freedom. Anonymity. Incommunicado. What a reliance it has sucked me into. I realise I don’t know my own phone number, my girlfriend’s, no-one’s, without it.
The train here was 80% middle-aged men in business suits (poor bastards), and the plane to Bangkok is 80% middle-aged men on holiday (dirty bastards).
As soon as I get off the airport bus at Sukhummvit in downtown Bangkok, the smell is there, hitting the brain like a drug, triggering the pleasure impulses so long deadened by the monotony of the daily grind. The smell of Asia. The smell of holidays. The smell of something new and exciting.
In reality it’s the smell of open sewerage and humidity.
Nevertheless, it contains within its pungency the ability to bring back memories, vague and distant, of past adventures. Odours are hard to describe, but have an incredible power to stay locked away in the vaults of our brain, awaiting to be recalled and remind us of previous experiences.
I eat with another Australian in the Arab quarter nearby. Next to us a man wearing a white muslim thobe was sampling the aroma of a burning wood, and ends up buying a bag. Strange to think that amongst all the fake designer labels, watches, CDs and t-shirts, other foreign tourists have different shopping lists.
A sleepless night. Not because of the excitement or the smells, but the pneumatic drill that pounds away outside until midnight, and the partygoers returning to the hostel at 3 a.m.
The next day I’m up early and onto the modern “Skytrain”, the elevated railway used for getting around Bangkok, heading to the Mochit Bus Terminal, arriving just in time for the 8 a.m. bus to the Cambodian border at Poipet. Its going to take all day to get to Siem Reap, the tourist centre serving the Temples of Angkor, so an early start is essential.
The bus to the border is fast, bitumen roads all the way. A quick transfer onto a waiting motorbike taxi, and I’m at the border, ready to buy my visa.
And thats when the trouble starts.
The border guard wants 1000 baht, the equivalent of US$25. The visa should cost $20. I refuse. He slams the window. I don’t move. He opens the window and shouts at me. And slams the window again. I demand a receipt and to know his name. He refuses.
The people hanging around the immigration office, whom you can pay to fill out your and get that stamp in your passport, tell me that the visa costs 1000 baht. I know it doesn’t, so I make a show of writing something in my notebook and pretending to call someone on a mobile phone I borrow from another waiting tourist. Finally the boss, a major someone or other, opens the window and takes my passport. A bit later the original guard opens the window and throws my passport onto the counter without a word. I’m through for the proper fee.
Perhaps this seems pedantic or stingy, but border scams really annoys me. The average daily wage in Cambodia is about $2. If I have the equivalent of a couple of days pay to give away, I’d prefer it to be to someone a bit more deserving than a corrupt official, who must be making a killing judging from the scores of tourists passing though and unquestioningly handing over the requested gift. After encountering this kind of rip-off a lot in different places, it seems the best method to overcome it is patience, claims that you’ve contacted the embassy, requesting a receipt, asking the identity of the official you’re dealing with, and possibly his photo (this last one really freaks them out).
Next I’m on the ute ride from Hell, packed together with about 20 other people perched on top of huge bags of unknown produce, or around the wall of the tray, and hanging on for dear life. My mind is occupied with survival, and my legs, jammed between one of these bags and the side of the ute, are aching. The fact that I can’t move them are a mixed blessing. I figure as long as my stomach muscles hold out, this will ensure that I don’t fall backwards off the edge as we go around a corner, or bounce in and out of the huge pot holes. The road is like the surface of the moon, suspension-cracking craters linked by short sections of flat dirt. I try to suppress the feelings of regret that I didn’t take a share taxi instead.
The ute, which is the nearest thing to public transport, arrives a few hours later in Sisophan, a non-descript dusty town at a junction on the main highway. I sit on my backpack at the crossroads, savouring the joy of not being in pain, and contemplating my next move.
Eventually I find the right road out of town and locate another tray-top going in my direction. Its driver is a young man taking his family home, but he agrees to take me the extra distance to Siem Reap, and I sit in the cabin with his bemused grandparents and a startled little girl. We stop along the way to drop them off at a small town, a collection of shabby wooden houses strung out along the highway.
A crowd quickly forms, boys and men in the foreground, girls watching warily from a distance. The driver’s mate indicates that he’s heading out the back to indulge in a smoke of the illicit variety, using a gesture I would come to recognise well over the ensuing couple of months. Despite the temptation I feel strangely obligated to act as a responsible ambassador for all foreigners in front of such an intrigued audience. I dig out my phrasebook and start asking the children their names and ages. The bolder of the young boys come right up, though most are content to sit back and watch what seems to be a sight of extreme rarity. Everyone is smiling and laughing at my mis-pronunciation, and when my driver and his wasted friend take me away, I leave I feel like a presidential candidate on his way to the next rally.
This experience, and the fact that I haven’t seen another foreigner since the border, lull me into an illusion that I’m on a venture into an undiscovered wilderness, an image quickly shattered as soon as we finally get to the outskirts of Siem Reap. We reach the road to the airport, and suddenly the pot holes and dust give way to smooth bitumen, electricity lights up advertising signs, huge hotels and guesthouses line the road, and cars join together to form a slow-moving mass moving into town. I’ve arrived at what looks like an Asian version of Las Vegas.
The temples of Angkor are no secret, and a building boom continues to throw up anything that can benefit from servicing the steady influx of tourists, and the cash they can throw down.
I thrown down some cash of my own ($3) and check into a guesthouse, happy to have finished the 12 hour trip here, to the heart of the ancient Khmer Kingdom of Angkor, which around 1000 years ago covered a vast area including parts of modern day China, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.
If using public transport from Bangkok, you can make the whole trip to Siem Reap for just over 300 Baht, or 7 euros. It is widely recommended to avoid the direct buses running out of the Khao San road area, even though they are a temptingly cheap and apparently convenient option. A large part of the money these companies make is from commissions received from the guesthouses, and they arrive purposefully late at night to make it harder for the passengers to seek out their own accommodation.
Besides, you wanna meet the locals, right?