Journal April 3, 2010
As noted in yesterday’s journal, plans inherently seem to adapt themselves to some greater lineage of events which normally end up having the most unexpected results while traveling.
This morning, I awoke on the sleeper train to Bangkok around 6 o’clock to a crimson hewn sun casting the day’s first light. The sunset was particularly lovely last night. But still nothing compared to the break of the new day. And another highlight was this older monk who sat adjascent to me and watched his little radio television all night. It was really funny. Every so often he would adjust the antenna and the static that had been building up minutes before would clear and he would chuckle when it came through. I couldn’t figure out whether he was laughing at the content of what he was seeing or the fact that he only recently realized that he didn’t have to have been sitting watching static. In either case, his pleasant demeanor was a nice thing to watch.
Once in Bangkok, I found that I did not pack my visas that were emailed to me from the Cambodian and Vietnamese embassies. So I had to print off another copy. This proved troublesome and ultimately delayed my travel by about three hours. But, once printed, I was back to moving across the countryside and seeing parts of Thailand that I don’t get to see back in Suratthani. Some were good; some were horrible. But for the most part, there was an all around “new” feel to everything.
Even on the morning train as it approached Bangkok’s inner core, there were signs of such extreme poverty that I was quite baffled. I saw what looked like three families (from grandparents all the way down to newborns) sharing the underside of a pre- or failed-construction bridge. That was sad. But what was amazing was that this scene took place about a block from a mansion where several men washed the high-priced sports cars of the resident owner. Then, on the way out of town, there seemed to be lots of bogs that people had come along and built houses on stilts, connected by a shanty wood bridge. And even in these little cutaway communities, there were still street venders opening up their plastic bags and setting up their stoves to prepare to sell whatever they were making to whoever lived in these propped-up shanty shacks. I kept trying to get pictures of these scenes, but the train was moving a little too fast for my still-drowsy trigger finger.
Back on the bus, though, I did manage to snap off a few good shots. And once at Poi Pet, my whole idea of “border run” changed forever. This place was a complete cesspool. An armpit, really – complete with floating filth from street corner to street corner.
And that really wasn’t the worst of it. I am not sure if it was because of the fact that I had just left the land of smiles, Thailand, where everyone greets you with immediate respect and enthusiasm, or if these people were really just rude, deliberate and aggressive. But I was rushed from before I even hit the border station.
People would come up to you and say, “Hi, man, where are you from?” and offer a hand to shake as if they were your immediate and undying friend. But you knew it was all a shiny coating on some deeper, more sinister ordeal. You knew that they wanted you to buy something, give them money because of their sob-story or worse, to get you into their car and take you somewhere… else.
In any case, this didn’t stop once in Cambodia. It only got worse. And I should have known that this was not a country to be trifled with once I walked into the immigration station and saw no means for checking any of my bags. There were no metal detectors, no guards on duty digging through luggage for contraband, no scanners – there wasn’t even a table on which to look through your things. There was no concern whatsoever as to what you were bringing into their country. I could have had smelly body parts and would have still gotten through based on the grade and level of the stench flowing through that place like a bad omen.
I would later find out that the reason they don’t check luggage is that there is quite literally nothing that you could possibly bring into Cambodia that (A) is not already there, (B) they ultimately don’t want or (C) would loose you any popularity or credibility with the locals. As far as they are concerned, whatever it is that you have, it’s merely a conversation starter. Because, when the cards are down, these people have been savagely oppressed for hundreds of years and have most certainly seen it all. They have nuclear sites, American landmines strewn all over the countryside, missiles, rockets, grenade launchers, prostitutes, all manner of drugs, heaps of nameless bodies as yet undiscovered from all parts of the world, pharmaceuticals, genetic labs, bathtub drug manufacturing stations — and that is just the unregulated, black market stuff. It’s all found here, grown here, made here, brought, bought and sold here. So pretty much anything goes.
I found this out in a conversation that ended with an offer from my driver to blow up a cow with a grenade launcher for $300 in a small village just south of the location that very conversation took place. I had no idea my driver
knew that much English until he started talking shop. And Cambodian “shop” is an interesting thing to talk indeed.
To dot the trail to this night’s accommodations: I left from Bangkok headedfor Poi Pet – the butt-stench border town – and passed through Butchang, Bang Khla, Kabin, Buri, Khok Sau, Khok Sung and Sisiphorn to get to Battambang. The names are strange, I know, and they can almost all be mistaken for the parts of the body that are most likely to emit a very similar smell to that which hovered like a cloud over each one of these polluted, little towns.