Sunday, July 17, 2005

Overland Travel

The only trouble in Thailand came when we tried to leave.
or, Don't Travel on Sundays


N usually goes overland to Siem Riep becuase the airline ticket is expensive and you have to pay extra airport fees. But after what happened, she might change her mind.
6:50 AM checked out of the ASHA Guest House and hired a taxi to take us to the bus station. N had a ton of luggage (she was loading up on American product). I had to hold stuff on my lap.
Taxi driver accidentally took us to the wrong entrance, so he had to get out and get special permission from the armed guards to enter a gate so we could be at the correct level.
the Bus station is a zoo, vendors everywhere, people running in all directions. Nearly all the signage is in Thai and instead of having automatic ticket machines, you have to chose your destination and then find the correct booth. N homed in on the right one, bought the tickets and then we had to find the bus. Somehow she located the right bus, the bus for Aranya Prathat, the border town. In the meantime, I had to use the WC, so I went to find it. There was a 3 baht charge and a special turnstile. i went in, expecting something clean and modern, au contrair. It looked like it was under construction, with dust and mops and stuff everywhere. I went inside, and I saw for the first time, the fabled squatty!! And No TP! And I was already feeling a bit unwell. But they did have the power sprayer. I left damp, but clean.
The bus trip was uneventful. BKK goes on for a long time, an impressive sprawl. We finally got into the country. Things were so green and lush. We saw villages and stupa factories, and ceramic factories. The land was flat, and coupled with the humidity gave me the impression of being in the central valley. The bus was staffed by three people, and it had a potty. The thais were very quiet (as they generally are in public places) except for an obnoxious chinese lady who talked on her cell insessantly. We all took turns giving her dirty looks. The bus played a movie for us, a thai thriller, with steamy sex scenes, lots of gore and suprisingly bad claymation. I didn't understand a word, but the director did such a good job of communicating the story, I felt I really didn't need to.
As we approached the border, the bus pulled over at a police station. N told me they were looking for Cambodians. As we don't look anything like cambodians, we weren't harassed, but one poor chap was pulled off the bus. Thailand starts to reveal its dark underbelly.
We finally pulled into the station at Aranya Prathat. We disembarked and at once were accosted by tuk tuk drivers offering to take us to the border. N agreed to pay a gentleman 50 baht. We nearly didn't fit in it, I only had enough room for one cheek. A tuk tuk is a scooter-driven rickshaw, with three wheels, and top speed is about 25 mph. We sped down the highway, narrowly missing pedestrians, motorists, and busses. It was crazy. When we arrived at the border, all sense of order fell away. Children, sellers, carts, huge trucks all competed for the road. The heat was nearly unbearable. As we pulled up to the tuk tuk stop, we were mobbed by porters. Our Tuk Tuk driver was now demanding 100 baht. Sadly that was the smallest denomination we had. Nikki dogged him until he gave us 10 baht in change, all while the porters were trying to get our attention. N then promised a porter 50 baht to carry our luggage. There was too much for us to get ourselves. I almost freaked when I saw him take our stuff away. I was pretty convinced we'd never see our luggage again.
We found an enormous crowd of Thais and tourists at the crossing. YOu have to depart officially before you can enter Cambodia. The line didn't move for nearly a half hour. It was noon, and everyone was pouring sweat. The line started to get impatient, and the people behind us started pushing. We were in a corral, so there was no where to go. n and I were shoved up against a really creepy man with long nails and a toothy grin. he talked endlessly at the top of his lungs, I never loathed a person so completely. On my left was another creepy gentleman, he asked the dumbest questions about us, and Cambodia. I lied about everything. I didn't want him to know where we were going, and where we were from, the man was so gross and shifty. We waited like cattle for nearly three hours. Every 45 minutes, the line would surge forward about three feet. N was beyond mad, and I couldn't think of anything to say, except to curse the evil beaurocracy that was forcing us to stand in the heat.
Once we got out of that, we reconnected with our porter. I was so thrilled to see him, but we weren't done. we crossed the border, and then I had to apply for a visa. The border was nuts, squatters camped in the ditches, the smell of human excrement, dust and heat and irrate tourists. The entrance to the county was flanked by casinos. it was like some gnarly third-world Las Vegas. With uniformed doormen, mafioso, beggars. The cambodian visa people were behind tinted glass. That only took ten minutes. Then we had to enter the country. Another wait in line, this time there were fans. When we finally got everything stamped and double checked, we entered the town of Poipet (rhymes with toilet and the resemblance doesn't end there).

Move over, Redding, I found a new favorite town to detest

We ransommed our luggage, our porter wanted 100 baht! The nerve! I didn't mind, I would have given him a lot more. Da was waiting for us, I looked away while they exchanged their greetings. We got on a dusty tourist shuttle and I thought we were home free. But to my horror, we drove for about 5 minutes through the garbage-filled streets of Poipet to stop at the Official Tourist Lounge. I thought I was in the movie casablanca. Desperate tourists and stubborn drivers and a horde of men whose only purpose in life seemed to be to make things difficult. N stationed me with the mountain of luggage while she and Da went to arrange our ride. I didn't know where she went. A frantic pair of brits approached me and wanted to know where I was going. I automatically went into the non-cooperative mode. Besides there was nothing on earth I could do. I waited alone for nearly an hour. It turns out that Da was being interrogated in a neighboring office about HIV and N was learning that while she was away the PM took over the border taxi service. not that I would malign any foreign govt official, but in the past, the Taxi Mafia controlled the border, and N knew how to work them (she had a special driver who always took her for $25), but now the TM had been replaced by a more official and organized government racket who charged $40. After endless negotiations with various drivers, and finally "our" driver arrived, but we couldn't use him, because he was too far back in the official queue. We were forced to go with one driver, who wouldn't let us take the brit couple (I had tried to help them out when I found out that we couldn't go unless we got two more riders) but then the driver refused to leave with so many riders. Go figure. Then the useless crowd of men directed the loading of the trunk. They did a crappy job of it, too. we finally got into the car, then our driver disappeared and came back in a rage. we owed him more money. I coughed up a 20. he ran back to the office and got a receipt. After an hour and a half, we were on the road.

about 30 seconds later, our driver pulled into a dusty parking lot. we screeched to a halt at a table with some beer cans on it. He jumped out and ran to the table, then he ran back, carrying another piece of paper.

we were on the road again. poipet is beyond description. people living in shacks in piles of mud and garbage. dirt and filth everywhere. a little outside of town, a posse approached the car, they were all carrying batons and dressed in rags. I thought they were bandits. The driver rolled down the window and gave the men his paper. These were official representatives of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

thankfully the rest of the trip was uneventful. The countryside was breathtakingly beautiful. N apologized about the nasty border experience. I tried to withold judgement. The trip was four hours over a road so bumpy that it can barely be called a "road." Imagine the traffic and length and straightness of I-5 without the nice smooth pavement and you can sort of imagine what it was like. Our driver was constantly avoiding potholes, big enough to swollow a semi, an crawling with bicycles, bikes, carts, and children.

we stopped to get gas. At first I said, "what a cute lemonade stand" because there were these cute little girls selling a yellow liquid. N turnd to me and said, "that's gasoline."

the little girls whipped out a handmade funnel and filled us up.

the country side was very green. villages lined the road. the cows were tall and elegant, more like big white deer than the big steers that I am used to seeing. hours and hours of unmitigated green. saw every sort of hut, from nice big mansions to thatch and bamboo. children, dogs, cats, chickens...

when we finally arrived in SR, the road suddenly got smooth, and all of a sudden, out of the jungle reared MASSIVE HOTELS, one after the other. Again, i was reminded of Vegas. Huge fountains, no expense spared. This seemed to go on for miles. we meandered through little streets, the sun had been down a while. We arrived at a corrugated tin gate. N hopped out, we were home. Her front yard was dominated by the two story thatch and brick hut of her landlady and in the back, was N's house. Like a free standing studio-- big main room and tiny bathroom and tiny tiny kitched (rates .5 buttcheek on C's Kitchen size rating system). N was in the mood for pizza and as soon as we dropped off our luggage, we wandered a block and found ourselves in the heart of SR. We ate our pizza, and babaganoush, and curry and ate til we were gorged. then we limped back to her place, showered (it was cold, but oh so nice) and I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

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