Monday, February 9, 2009

From Bangkok to Siem Reap

February 3, 2009:

After a fitful night in which I had left the tv on cnn, volume down, so I won't sleep through, I woke with a start at 5:40am. The driver was supposed to come at 6:45, and I had asked the front desk to give me a wake up call at 5am. There was no wake up call.

I rushed to the shower, quickly packed, and sat down to send a last email, then the phone rang. The driver was here. 10 min, I said.
I was out the door in 10 minutes more. Then I realized that I had left my watch hands an unknown amount of time.
I leave my big bag at the front desk while a young fellow tries to take it from there and bring it down to the taxi. I try to explain but in vain. At last the front desk tells him to keep it there--they will put it in the storage.

It was a scary drive, at over 130 km/h in 80 km/h speed zones, no seat belt. The driver is impressed I am off to 'Kampuchea'!

He leaves me at the North Station. The Information desk asks me to go down to number 30 stall. I purchase a one way A/C ticket to Aranyer Prathet and ask for a window seat. The woman smiles and tells me to go to dock 30. The bus is loading. I cram my backpack into the hold and climb up. Some people are on my seat, so I show them my ticket. An Irish man in his late twenties and a young NZ lass of hardly 18; I would be surprised if she is even that. They realize now the markings are on the back of the previous seats, not on their own seats. I settle down and watch whether the backpack remains in the hold.

We start in a few minutes. Nondescript urban sprawl of the megalopolis yawns and stretches under the dusty morning sky. Soon there is a lollypop red sunrise. I have no one beside me so I tuck my legs in and relax.

Leaving Bangkok on the eastern highway, crawling towards the border, the bus stops at various points on the way. A woman with a cute faced baby comes in a sits down beside me. I tickle the baby and he laughs and shrieks ecstatically. The whole family, with a toddler brother takes part in the melee.

My seat becomes vacant. After some three hours through the countryside, with waterways laden with pink lotus and white lilies, rows of trees denuded of foliage but overflowing with beautiful golden flowers, the soil slowly turns a ruddy red. The bus enters the border town and evacuates us in the middle of a bustling market. I try to pull the backpack on myself, but a crowd of tuk-tuk wallahs tries to get a business. I spy that the Irish-nz couple takes a tuk-tuk, so I jump on one--80 bhats, he says and points to the board on the road. That seems fine. The tuk-tuk speeds along for ~2 km, then suddenly takes a left turn. I know something is up, because the irish-nz couple went straight. At the turn is a little resting place and a travel agency, where the tuk-tuk stops and a man tries to sell me Cambodian visa for $30. I say that it costs only $20 at the border, but he pushes me, saying in the border it is only a stamp. I remain unmoved. I see three girls and a young man already in the shed, filling out forms. Then the tuk-tuk wallah takes me to a building labeled "Cambodian Consulate", where I go in and two people hand me a visa application form and assist me fill it. I take it to the counter, where an official looking man asks for $30. I refuse. He says $20 if I get it at the embassy in the US. I then ask for a receipt, and he says he does not give a receipt. So I walk out, and ask the tuk-tuk to take me to the border. He smiles and takes me this time to the border.

At the border, after a short walk from the tuk-tuk stop, I see a brief line for foreigners and a huge long line for Thai nationals. Just ahead of me are the three girls and the young man. I ask them about whether they purchased the visa already. They had, and had paid $30 each plus they got a taxi that will pick them up beyond the border for $50 each. I confess that I had not got the visa, so might have to return after all. They wanted to know where was my information, and I show them my Lonely Planet 2007 edition. They appear to have an older edition, 2004, which did not tell them that they issue visa at the border itself and did not warn them of a scam. Let's see what happens next.

A woman came out and started shouting in a shrill voice, and some 40 Thai nationals surged through into Thai departure area. This happened some five times before the time of the foreigners came. The room was air conditioned, which was a welcome relief. I learned that the young man has just graduated from college and is now traveling throughout Asia for seven months before going to job. I tell him good idea, with the job market in this way. He says he already has a job...a graduate fellowship to do PhD in philosophy. He asked me what I do, and upon learning he brightened up. He apparently did an undergraduate in molecular biology, then did a two year MS in philosophy. He asked me to explain my research, which I did standing in the line. He was reading the new Dawkins book on the God hypothesis, and we began to discuss agnosticism versus atheism...he was being cautious earlier but now after reading Dawkins he confessed to having become an atheist. He would do his thesis on "trans-human"---when mechanical technology interfaces with human biologically, where does a human being end and a machine begin? Of course it does not exist yet, but the time will come, and he wants to explore those issues and ethical questions surrounding them.

Passage through Thai departure area was a breeze because of the conversations. As I emerged in the heat, I see a dusty, seedy border town, run amok with cattle, goats, street urchins, push carts, tuk-tuks, taxis and shop stalls. I walk determinedly ahead, knowing nothing where to go yet giving the impression that I have been through this all many times before. I soon pass the three girls and the man, trying to board a taxi that apparently was waiting for them. I see from a distance a little office labeled, "visa". I go in there, fill up a short form, and give them a passport photo and $20. Two minutes and done. I take it down another 300 meters, where I fill in another form, and get the visa stamped in the passport. As I stand in the line I see the same Irish-nz couple ahead of me. I ask whether they are going to Siem Reap. They say no, they will return to Bangkok today. I do not ask what the hell they were doing here, out of politeness. They ask whether I booked my taxi, and say it will be a bumpy ride to Siem Reap. I confess that I haven't figured that part yet. A woman in late fifties, obviously cockney, who is on the parallel line tells me that that's where she is going too, and whether I would like to share. I am relieved. She says her boyfriend is a Cambodian, who is going with her, and the three of us can share the fare. Sure thing. The boyfriend arrives. Pierre is a polite Cambodian (do they make a rude Cambodian? Not yet. Who knows) with a young face, hardly 35. We stuff our packs/bags in. I move to the front, they take the back. I ask whether shops here take small bhats because I lost my water bottle. The woman offers a bottle that she has extra. We pay $10 each to the middleman who had arranged the taxi and we will pay $14 each to the driver when we reach Siem Reap. Considering that the book says it should cost $40-50 to Siem Reap this sounds like a really good deal. The toyota has a very comfy front seat. We bump along violently and relentlessly through the dusty straight as an arrow road where every km or so there is small bridge being built so we take a little diversion around it.

The terrain changes from rice paddies to the horizon, to palm groves. In three hours we reach Siem Reap and my "guest house". A wonderfully kept garden house overflowing with bougainvillea, low wicker chairs, a very polite young man who explained to me about visiting Angkor and other temples. He shows me to the room. Neat and simple, no frill but comfy. I take a quick shower. The man brings me a glass of welcome drink: a banana shake. I drink, read a book about Angkor that I find in the drawer and dose off to sleep.

It is dark when I awake. Nearly 7PM. I go out of my room, and against the lobby is an internet access place. 1000r per hour, which comes to some $0.25. So here I am, hammering away at my laptop.

Tomorrow at 7:30 I go to Angkor. Per day it is ~$12 by tuk-tuk, plus a three day pass of Angkor for $20.
I am hungry. I will now go out see what gives.

1 comment:

  1. A live description, as if I am myself seeing the place. Debasish SD