Tuesday, 27 February 2007

The Journey from Bangkok to Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

This was a piece I wrote for a Creative Writing class I did at Wolves Uni, I hope it makes you smile. I did do the journey but embellished it slightly. If anyone has done the journey lately I would like to hear whether it has improved:


You may think that a bus trip from Bangkok to Cambodia an easy journey. After all what is difficult about getting in a min-bus at one end and getting out the other end? It is not as if I had to drive the viciously vibrating van. I just had to sit on the porridge with rocks that was the seat as my body turned into Niagara Falls in the sweltering heat.

The difficulty for me was that at 43, divorced and a student on summer vacation, it would be my first time backpacking. I say backpacking, but I didn’t have a backpack I had an aircraft hangar with wheels. My Thai ex-wife, Sriprai, never travelled lightly and I seemed to have inherited this bad habit from her. (The wheels eventually collapsed in Vietnam as I got off a train at 6am; luckily they had an elephant on standby to carry it to the guesthouse). While 18 yr old backpackers had 3 pairs of pants, a shirt or two and worried about that, I had a kitchen sink and the whole of the Officer’s Club (the clothes shop, not the military association) in mine, along with most of Pantip Plaza (Bangkok’s wonderful computer mall).

However, after three weeks living/dying on the originally fascinating, yet now predictable Khao San Road it was time to move on. So there I was on my emu of a seat careering/dawdling along in the early morning pollution. What they call air conditioning but is really a fan on full blast sucking in the exhaust gases of the snail hour of the unbeautiful metropolis of the City of Angels, or Krungthep as the locals know it.

The first part of my journey of self-discovery was to Trat. Once out of the congested confusion of the capital, the roads opened up and it was time for my fellow travellers to open up; and fall asleep. With just twelve of us on the first leg things were not too bad comfort wise. Trat was not a bad town, at least not to spend about fifteen minutes in. Most of my fellow travellers were going to Koh Chang (the island that still has malaria, hence my lack of interest in visiting). So after a quick bite it was time to scoop up my belongings with a fork lift, then onto another van and off towards the Thai/Kampuchean border.

By this time it was about 1pm and my fellow travellers were starting to arouse themselves after their slumbers. We were a disparate band of mixed nationalities on this minivan. However the roads throughout Thailand are very good, so the journey was uneventful and pleasant enough. The views were much better now we were on the coast and things seemed light and relaxed. As the driver spoke very little English and my Thai doesn’t stretch to much beyond ta rai khrap? (how much is this please?) we were not too clear how long to the border. But after a couple of hours we arrived.

The border guards are the witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth so have to be dealt with carefully. With five windows to visit it is an arduous task. The heat is cauldron like as I try to fight my way to the first window. Eventually I give in to temptation and accept the offer of a guide to take my bag. These guides are less trustworthy than the witches. However, with a JCB he hauls it onto his trolley and disappears off through customs. As I still had five windows to go, the paranoia started to set in. But I needn’t have worried: once I had handed over most of my life savings to the witches, showed them I definitely did not have SARS or AIDS by buying a yellow piece of paper for 50 baht, I was reunited with my kitchen sink, etc. Tup showed me to his most prized possession: a Toyota Camry with all leather interior and glacial air conditioning. I no longer cared about money so I didn’t even ask him how much he was charging for this wonderful trip. I was just elated to be off that camel of a minivan. “If you not like the hotel I take you to I will take you somewhere else, says Tup. So I relaxed into the leather and enjoyed my first sights of Cambodia.

Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world and has been through some brutal times. Yet now it has become a democracy and it was a month before the next election. So there are signs out, in English, surprisingly, in this former French outpost, advertising the Sam Rainsey Party or the Funcinpec party (National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia).

As a first view there is not much to report, just the occasional wooden hut and a few fields of rice the only signs of human intervention. But mostly it was a primeval emerald expanse of environment-friendly ecosystem. The town of Koh Kong was a dump: the road was more potholes than pot, the buildings mainly wooden, and apart from an occasional dog and the odd naked potbellied, snot nosed child, no signs of life. I expected to see Lee van Cleef or Clint Eastwood walk out of a saloon but they never did. According to Tup, it was built on brothels and cheap drugs but I had use for neither, so I just stayed in the hotel.

After a beautiful sunset over the virgin forest, I relaxed and waited for the minivan. It arrived an hour early at 7:30 am. Luckily I was up, so I just chucked my toothbrush into the sarcophagus that was my bag, picked up my passport from the desk where the 16 year old boy had insisted I left it. Almost everyone you meet in Cambodia is young as an enormous percentage of the population were eradicated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who controlled Cambodia from 1975-79 and persuaded the children of the nation to become the torturers and guards in places such as S21, the shocking school, now a grisly museum, in Phnom Penh where anyone considered intelligent were incarcerated and tortured to confession before being taken to the ‘killing fields’ camps outside of the capital. All done in an attempt to get back to a time before Capitalism.

After waiting an hour for my fellow backpackers to move themselves out of their beds and respective flea-ridden guesthouses we eventually set off on the penultimate leg of the journey to Sihanoukville. There are two ways of getting from Koh Kong to KampangSom (the Cambodian name for ‘Snookers’). One involved a converted river ferry battling against the Indian Ocean for four hours. The other seemed a better idea as a new road had recently been completed and now took only six hours on a good day. It was not a good day.

The window of the Mercedes minivan had a crack across the whole of its width. There were the obligatory flowers and Buddha statue hanging in the centre like a Cambodian pair of dice. It must have been cleaned recently, because there was only a one inch layer of crud on its exterior. But at least we were moving. Away from Clint and Soggy Gulch and onto the peanut butter textured road that would take us to our destination. Initially there were only six of us and the driver, but after a few miles he stopped and in got six Cambodians, along with their luggage, three chickens, and bags of flowers. Complaining to the driver was useless as he spoke no English and between us we spoke little Cambodian. Soon the road started to deteriorate and we were being thrown around as the bus skated around like Torville and Dean in Bolero, although not as elegantly. Often it would lurch sideways as the driver lost control again. The mud was as thick as wet Moon dust and came up to our axles gripping the wheels and making steering an arbitrary proposition. We all seemed to be steering with him, petrified as on The Big One at Blackpool, but just like the rollercoaster, the rails seemed to be taking us the other way.

By 9am we had somehow made it to the first river crossing. Hoards of children ran towards us wanting us to buy their sweets, crisps, hard-boiled eggs. We were trapped as the ferry was on the other side of the river. But it’s great to stretch the legs and use the toilet. Well it would have been if the toilet had not been a hole over a dry tributary with everyone’s excretions on show, fly and mosquito paradise and a queue for that.

After a quick authentic breakfast of crisps, eggs and sweets we were rolling off the ferry on the other side, back into the ubiquitous red mud. By this time as our sweat was mingling all the ‘Barang’ were becoming friendly and chatting. A girl who’s name I cannot remember was telling the bus about her last time in Cambodia, “I was working at a kindergarten.” She explained, when asked how she could have caught the worm that could only be passed on by eating faeces. After getting back to Britain she had felt unwell, her GP had sent her to the Hospital of Tropical Diseases in London. To remove the worm they made her swallow a pill with a string attached. She was told to come back in five hours. She had to spend five hours in London with a string hanging from her mouth while her bodily functions pulled the string in and out. Apparently she got a few stares on the Tube. Pulling the worm out on the end of the string by the doctor was not pleasant either.

After three more of these crossings, some with pigs and chickens running loose and a delicious pork curry lunch and hours of skating through mud we eventually got to wonderful tarmac (something I will never take for granted again) and Sre Amble. “All off” said the man who opened the side door. With nothing but a junction, a couple of other vehicles, and us, to be seen, it seemed odd, but with some grumbling we got off and our bags (including the elephant size one some idiot had brought) were chucked off. No need to panic, we were not being kidnapped. Just another change of bus as ours had turned into the planet Mars. Two hours later we were in Sihanoukville: a lawless, sprawling, yet largely unpopulated town, with some great beaches, motorbikes for rent at $3 a day and guesthouses at $4. I stayed three weeks and loved every minute of the all-night beach parties, the irrepressible Mrs Mango and her bar and the feeling of seeing a place before the hoards arrived made it worth the drive through hell. Next time I will go by boat.

3 comments:

Sim Sam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sim Sam said...

Ha ha! Great story Graham! Our trip from Thailand into Cambodia was equally as eventful but we came from Bangkok to Siem Riep. You can read our accounts on www.getjealolus.com/sim.mal. Go to 19th October and read Mal's "I will never complain about Greyhound Again" and my "The Road to Somewhere" entries. As hellish as they are, trips like these make for great stories huh?

ManinVietnam said...

Thanks Simone. glad you liked it. The link still doesn't seem to work.

http://www.getjealous.com/getjealous.php?go=sim.mal

Should work.

Your blog is a great read, I will go and check out those links.

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