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Siem Reap to Bangkok by Taxi
A Wild Journey on the Road to Bangkok
Over the public address system, first in Khmer, then in English - Bangkok Airways flight delayed due to late arriving incoming flight. And then, a few minutes later, yet another delay. So, finally, they just pull out another aircraft to use. Well, the plane rolls onto the tarmac of Siem Reap International - and I use tarmac very loosely here - and it's a dinky little prop plane, the exact kind I spent extra time and money to ensure I did not have to take.
Now, I don't like flying as is, much less on small airplanes, but a slim-bodied propeller plane? The thing is literally 10 feet off the ground, with just a ramp to climb up. I thought I'd taken my tranquilizers well in advance and figured they'd kick in with time to spare, but looking out there, I'm queasy already. They announce the boarding of this miniature airplane. I'm pacing. Finally, I'm the last passenger out the door and into the hot, humid Cambodian air, across the half asphalt/half dirt runway. I get to the ramp, start heading up and... nope, not gonna happen. My head goes all dizzy and I just turn back around, down the ramp and head back across the tarmac in a complete fugue state.
I'm quickly absconded by the confused and now highly-concerned ground crew asking what the problem is. I'm not feeling well at all, I tell them. Okay, you have any checked luggage? Nope. They verify this and then escort me into the infirmary. The doctors take my blood pressure, temperature, et cetera. As the blood returns to my ashen complexion and my head clears a bit, I explain to them that I have extreme anxiety about flying and there's no way I'm squeezing onto that little toy airplane sitting out there on that patch of dirt. Mind you, this is all going back and forth in some broken English, with much Khmer translation/discussion going on between the two doctors and two airport officials who've now squeezed into this little infirmary the size of a walk-in closet.
So, they say, well, what do you plan to do, wait for the next flight?
No, no, I tell them, I'm not getting on one of those little airplanes. I can take a bus or hire a car to the border, right?
Well, yes, but maybe 4 hours to border, then 5 hours to Bangkok, instead of a 55 minute plane trip?
Yes, I tell them insistently, yes, whatever it takes.
Okay, well, you'll have to talk to the police chief and explain why you can't fly. Just tell him you have terrible stomach ache and cannot fly. You have better chance then. Otherwise, they make you board the next flight.
Okay, not a problem.
So, I wait for about 20 minutes until this airport official, who was a very empathic fellow, comes back and escorts me to the police chief. Of course, the police chief doesn't actually speak English, so this official plays interlocutor and pleads my case to him. I'm starting to feel like I've stepped into a mini-trial. I suddenly have horrible visions of the killing fields and the Khmer Rouge. The chief takes my passport in a very stern manner, without so much as looking up at me, and I'm escorted to another area to await his judgment. Now I'm a bit nervous.
Luckily, the official returns shortly with my passport. He says the chief assumed I am, in reality, afraid of the floods in Bangkok, which he could understand. This kind of goes along with a general, though subtle, attitude I've witnessed from Cambodians regarding Thailand, which seems to be one where envy leads to a front of feigned disgust. It's much like a bitchy girl who can't escape from being the also-ran to her older, hotter sister, and every time she answers the door, yet another hunky football player is standing there asking for her sister, to which she can only roll her eyes and let out an exasperated "oh, her."
So, anyway, I'm escorted out to the official taxi stand, where a fellow explains he can arrange a taxi into town and then maybe I can book a bus to the border town of Poipet. I suddenly recall the buses I'd seen on the road earlier, looking like they were made in the 1960s, windows all rolled down for air conditioning, and then I realize I had taken a business card from Mr. Chun, my faithful driver for the past three days, and ask if he will call and see if Mr. Chun can pick me up.
Sure enough, Mr. Chun shows up about 5 minutes later, surprised to see me again. To save time explaining, since he doesn't speak too much English, I just say the flight was delayed because of floods and I need to get to the border. Can you do it? I ask him. Yes, he can. Okay, great, let's do it. Road trip across Cambodia.
So, we first have to stop for gas - petrol. Basically, there are these places on the side of the road that have racks of petrol in 3-liter glass bottles. It looks like a backwoods homebrew beer stand, really. Mr. Chun inspects the bottles, confers with the cashier and then they come out with a funnel and pour in the petrol. Not how we do it back home, but as long as it gets the job done.
And we're on the road...to where I am not quite sure. I ask if Mr. Chun has ever been to Poipet, the border town we're headed to. No, never. Oh, but you know how to get there? Yes, easy, only highway, follow until end. Okay, easy enough then, I shrug.
I can finally relax a little and take in the stretched horizon of green rice paddies ahead and the deep blue sky surrounding us. Mr. Chun points out some spots he likes to come and fish in his free time. That and volleyball are his hobbies. You see, his wife and son live several hours away, but there was no work. So, he works as a taxi driver in Siem Reap, sends them money, and visits when he can. It's a tough life and, sadly, I've heard this story before in other countries from other hard-working souls doing what they have to do for their families. It reminds me how spoiled I am.
At some point, I ask if he can turn on the radio. I want an authentic Cambodian soundtrack to the sights I'm seeing. He tries to tune in a station, but nothing. So, he puts in the only CD he has, which is some compilation disc of MP3s he must have bought for a few riel at the night market, where they have probably never seen an authentic, factory-produced CD or DVD. What comes out of the speakers is some crazy beats, mixed with a Khmer flute line and kind of occasional rapping in the background.
It's bizarre, and somehow it totally fits. I'm digging it. There are other songs that have taken parts of American rap, hip-hop, and R&B and chopped them all up. A very surreal soundtrack on the road to Poipet.
After about two hours, we hit some town and he says he's hungry, we should eat. Okay. Wherever you want, I tell him. It's not like there's any restaurants I would recognize anyway. Heck, out here, I barely recognize what constitutes a restaurant. So, we stop at a place like so many others I've seen in Cambodia. It looks like a converted mechanic's garage, with plastic red chairs, simple tables, ashtrays. He gets the waiter to go find a menu in English – impressive they even have one.
I stare out at the beautiful wat across the street. They're as common as church steeples in the American heartland, but I will never tire of seeing these grand golden Khmer arches, like fierce dragon tails with a slight curl at the end, pointed toward the sky. I later find out this town is called Sisophon, which is really the only town of note between Siem Reap and Poipet.
Mr. Chun gets up to use the restroom and when he returns, I ask where it is. I go through the kitchen, which is a scary sight. It is poorly-lit, and it appears things are being chopped on the floor and thrown into a big wok. Total disarray, and I'd hate to see their A-B rating. The bathroom is even worse - this dingy little room with some kind of toilet thing. Thankfully, I wasn't doing any sitting. When finished, there is a large tin drum beside the camode from which you scoop out water and throw it into the toilet. It's how you "flush" in these parts.
I return to the table, now kind of dreading what will arrive on my plate. It's just fried rice, egg, veggies and chicken – usually a safe bet anywhere, right? Well, the chicken pieces were obviously just chopped as is. What I mean is that they don't separate the meat from the bone, they just whack it into little pieces and toss it in. It's not necessarily bad, you just have to eat the chicken from the pieces of bone. It was topped off with a fried egg overlaid on top of the whole thing. All I could do was think in my paranoid Western mind that I really should've gotten that Hepatitis B vaccine.
By the time we got in the car and I had used my lone sanitary wipe - cursing myself for not packing more - the tranquilizers I'd taken for that aborted plane flight, coupled with a lack of sleep and full belly…well, I guess I nodded off. When I came to, we had arrived in the hot, dusty, chaotic little town of Poipet. Mr. Chun was on his cell, conferring with someone about how I'm supposed to do this. Several people had already circled the car. Clearly, they saw a white dude in a taxi in this ramshackle little town on the edge of nowhere, they knew the deal.
Finally, Mr. Chun talked to one of them who explained the process. I go through Cambodian passport control. This fellow, my guide, has a pass that allows him to go between the borders, so he will follow me on through the no man's land – the space between the borders, under no official control of anyone - and then I will go through Thai passport control. He will then take me to his office where they will supply a car and driver to take me from the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet to Bangkok. The car and driver to Bangkok will cost me 2,000 THB (about $65).
Sounds fine to me. I thank Mr. Chun profusely and offer him 60 US dollars but I can tell by his face...not enough. So, I take back the 60 and slap a crisp $100 bill in his hands and his face lights up. Okay, thank you, thank you, he says. After all, the man did drive me 3 hours to the border from Siem Reap at the drop of a hat and introduced me to the fine local cuisine, too. And now he had to do the return trip sans passenger. Really, I was indebted to him and probably would've paid him more if he had said that's what it cost.
So, I bid Mr. Chun farewell and head to the passport control line. Of course, the officer behind the counter asks why my Cambodian departure stamp had been cancelled. I tell him I was unable to make the flight. He furrows his brow, scratches his head and then makes a phone call to Siem Reap airport. After a few minutes, and a few chuckles, he stamps my passport and I'm out into the burning, dusty street of no man's land. Even with my guide leading me on, I'm hounded by children begging for a baht. One girl keeps hitting me in the hip bone, as if somehow she might knock something loose from my person. There's a casino of some sort on the right, and from the corner of my eye I spy some hookers in the shadows of an alley trying to catch my gaze, but I'm huffing it as quick as I can, the sweat from my forehead running into my eyes, making no man's land a hot, hazy blur.
By this point, I'm a sweaty, disheveled, and disoriented mess. I go through Thai passport control and then to customs/drug enforcement. Basically, there are four gruff-looking officers at a table, and I assume their job is just to look you over twice and stop you if they think you could be a trafficker or a mule. I was scared that in my state, I might look just the part but my guide just whisks me past them, walking at breakneck speed through the thick, humid air that now clings to me from the Thai side of the border.
We hustle it a couple blocks down the road and I'm shuffled into some storefront office where they tell me I have to pay up front, but just relax a while in the air-conditioning. And then, not five seconds later, I'm being ushered out to the car, where this big, burly Thai man is waiting. I say I want to smoke first and his eyes light up. He speaks zero English but I can tell from his gesturing that he smokes, too, and he's obviously thrilled that he'll be able to smoke on our journey, as well.
We get in his suped-up Toyota sedan with cheaply-tinted windows. He'd apparently opted for the grandfather option – fake wood paneling and such. He cranks some vintage Thai pop music circa 1982 on the cassete deck, lights a cigarette and turns around to smile and show how enthused he is. He guns the engine and we peel out of the dusty little border town, down the highway at 180km an hour. Day and night from Mr. Chun's careful, leisurely pace. Clearly, I'm in for a hell of a ride and I'm desperately searching for the missing seatbelt clasp for the backseat, which I find after digging my whole hand into the seat cushion in a wild fit of panic.
This guy is nuts, it's quite clear. He's careening down the highway, constantly passing any and all vehicles in front by hitting his overdrive notch and then veering into the lane of oncoming traffic to pass people on the right. If that wasn't bad enough, he keeps taking some kind of snuff from his shirt pocket and jamming it up his nose. My psyche is split between the image of my fate in some grisly highway smash up and the pangs of regret for not just forcing myself onto that little propeller plane. How bad could it have been for a 55-minute flight? Even if I had a heart attack, surely they would've gotten to the airport and I would've received medical attention in time. But instead, I'm with the Thai version of a wild redneck – and here I mean redneck in the Aussie sense, this big, crazy, off the rails fellow from the Thai wilderness.
We finally stop so he can use the restroom. I go into a convenience mart and buy water. He enters and grabs a fifth of rum and water. We get in the car, he downs the rum in about four gulps and tosses the bottle in the trash. And with a bang, we're back on the highway at supersonic speed. He searches around for another cassette tape of syrupy Thai pop, and now, apparently loosened up by the rum, he's singing along. About every 20 minutes, he lights a cigarette, turns around with a wide, crazy smile and says "smoke!" – as if we're partners on this highway hellride to insanity.
Mercifully, about 90 minutes into the ride, it becomes a divided highway. And a little further on, there is heavy traffic headed in the opposite direction due to all the people trying to get away from the flood zones. As we get closer to Bangkok, the traffic comes to a crawl and the final two hours of our journey are a slow, uneventful plod through rush hour traffic into the city.
When we finally get to the comforting sight of the hotel on Sukhumvit soi 19 that's become a default home base of sorts, I give him a handsome tip, which he seems very grateful for. After all that, he did get me here in one piece – an outcome I wasn't at all certain of a mere four hours ago. I promptly check in, order room service, scarf down the food and pass out.
It took a lot more time, cost me a lot more money, but I did get to see more of both countries along the way. I just hope that big fella got to wherever he was headed next without doing much damage.
I awake some time in middle of the night, look out at the beautiful Bangkok skyline, and all I can do is shake my head and laugh. It's one crazy ass ride, this road I've chosen, and all I can do is savor these more colorful moments that remind me I'm truly alive.