The Long Haul Back to Bangkok

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Sunday, January 23, 2005

I was going to miss Cambodia. I loved it. I loved the people, the food, the amazing things I saw and learned there. It was everything I hoped it would be and so much more. It is for experiences like the ones in Cambodia that I embarked on this journey in the first place. That experience being the antithesis of what my world is all about. I wanted something different and I got it in spades. The good and the bad, the light and the dark Cambodia is a fascinating shadow play and I will cherish my time there and the wonderful people I met. It was time however to move on albeit very slowly and not quite smoothly.

I have learned it is best to ask and ask again as many questions as possible when what you're inquiring about is important to you. I asked the travel agent in Siem Reap several times and then reiterated each response in various ways using different vocabulary words to insure that we completely understood one another. I may as well have been talking to a mangosteen.

"And can you show me a photograph of the bus that I'll be taking to the border of Thailand? Uh, huh so this is the bus that I will ride on to Poipet, which is the last stop in Cambodia? Great. Does it have air conditioning? Yes? So it has air-con and is cold, yes? Great. A toilet, a WC, a restroom is on the bus? Yes? Good. Is there going to be a television blaring Cambodian karaoke tunes all the way to Thailand? Oh God that's dreadful, really? So are there any buses that do not have a television? No? Nothing I can do I guess -- OK, that's fine I have a CD player. Now, can you show me the bus that I'll be taking from the border of Thailand to Bangkok? Oh, this one looks nicer and it's this bus, yes? Excellent. And this bus will be waiting for me after I cross the border into Thailand, yes? Great. So, how long is this going to take? Ten hours? So, if the bus leaves at 8:00a.m. I will be in Bangkok around 6:00p.m. is that correct? I'll be there for cocktail hour, yes? Really? Maybe 7:00 but no later, yes? OK, then. The bus will pick me up at my hotel at 7:20? So that is 20 minutes after 7:00 in the morning, yes? Great then let's book that. Eleven dollars, yes? Great."

It would come to pass that the only kernel of truth in that entire conversation was that the trip would cost 11 bucks. There was one piece of misinformation however that would actually shine in my favour: There was no television on the bus. There was however a tape player that screeched classical Khmer music but mercifully a traveler in front of me begged it be turned down about 20 notches. Once the volume was lowered it was actually very pleasant.

At 7:05 I heard a pounding on my door just as I was brushing my teeth. I opened the door to see a tiny woman frantically pointing to my window and the only thing I could understand was the word, "bus". Sure enough I looked down and there was a little van waiting for me -- early. I spat out the toothpaste, threw my cosmetics bag in the suitcase, snatched up my bag and ran down the stairs. I apologized to everyone waiting and showed them that my sheet said "7:20 pick up" but no one seemed that upset since they'd only been waiting since 6:55. I got on the cramped van and we drove one block over and were then told to get out and wait for the real bus, which would arrive at 8:00. This was already getting off to a great start.

The remnants of a bus pulled up a little after 8:00. I am convinced that Cambodia received all of their forms of transportation from the junkyards of China sometime between the battles of Inchon and Dien Bien Phu. The seats were threadbare but comfortable and once I put my carry-on in the aisle the legroom was fantastic and I was able to stretch out completely. When I pulled the seat belt out roughly two cups of baguette crumbs plumed up between the two seats but though the once-chromed fastener was eaten away with years of rust it actually clicked into place.

The first couple of hours were fine and mercifully the driver was not a maniac with the horn like the driver from Phnom Penh. I was settling into a rather enjoyable ride albeit a bit bumpy at times and was reading my book and with the windows cracked we enjoyed a pleasant breeze -- all seemed to be going well. Then the paved road ended. The "air conditioning" turned on and everyone closed the windows as we entered the ubiquitous red dust clouds of Cambodia. That's when I noticed that the air-con vents were coated in the dust, as well. Our older driver was gentle however and managed to slalom between the major craters as best as he could. It seriously could have been a lot worse in the hands of a cocky young whippersnapper who could have easily snapped our necks in two. Even with our skilled driver however the roads were so awful that the tape player dragged at points and the sound that the speakers cracked out sounded like two Siamese cats being punched in the stomach.

Even though I was almost thrown to the floor twice and only reread the same lines maybe ten times over in my book it wasn't as bad as say slamming my head in a metal door repeatedly. I even commented to the girl next to that it wasn't as bad as I'd heard and she agreed and said she'd been able to sleep. One caveat however, she's been traveling for several months and as acquired a high tolerance. How quickly one's perspectives can change -- suddenly the ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap looked pretty good because at least the roads were great and the air conditioning worked.

There was a bridge that had collapsed so we had to drive off the road and into a field and go around it. This made me nervous because I met a couple at Angkor who had to do the same thing in the opposite direction at night and their bus got stuck and everyone had to get out and push. We were lucky and got through with no problems. Some of the bridges however seemed only to be holding up by force of habit. There were loud high-pitched creaking sounds as we lumbered across many of them and once during a traffic jam we were stalled on one that just seconds before seemed to let out a metallic wheezing under our weight. Stiff necks turned with raised eyebrows followed by shrugs --there was little we could do but hope for the best. Ten minutes later we were stopping for a lunch break and everyone jumped off thrilled. When we got back on board the bus had been baking in the sun and was scorchingly hot. The driver turned on the "air conditioning" and the red dust poured in through the vents so much that everyone jumped up and opened the windows and while coughing out mouthfuls of dirt grabbed scarves and anything we could find to cover our mouths. I'd just bought a krama (red and white checkered cotton scarf that so many of the locals wear on their heads and necks) thinking that I might need it for the ice cold air conditioning that I'd been promised. Instead I was happy to use us so that I could continue to breathe.

Hours later at the border crossing in Poipet we took our luggage and qued up for Cambodian customs. It was hot and we were so coated in dust that when I unslung my bag the wide strap revealed a clean white mark across my chest. Customs took nearly an hour and then we had to walk several blocks further to the Thai border where we qued up once more for what would be well over an hour. It wouldn't have been quite so long had so many other people not continuously cut in line. The main offenders were the Japanese and the Koreans. One Korean guy went straight to the head of the line and ended up in front of me and I informed him curtly that that was wholly unacceptable and would not be tolerated. The Germans were trying this stunt as well and the arrogance of it all baffled and sickened me. The Asians other than the Thais could slip in and you'd think that maybe though they didn't look Thai were actually Thai and well, it was their country and I'd shrug. Then I'd see a Chinese, Korean or Japanese passport and I was becoming unhinged. It dragged on and on until finally once stamped and ready to find the other bus I was drained.

No one it seemed knew what the hell was going on. Where's the bus? Do you know which one it is? How do we figure this out? Anyone know? The bus people found us and told us to give them our tickets and then 30 minutes later we'd be taken to the bus. They then put a piece of blue duct tape on our shoulders to indicated that we'd paid for passage to Bangkok already in Cambodia. I enjoyed a refreshing frozen mocha beverage and a tuna melt and relaxed a bit. Forty-five minutes passed and we were told to pile into a canvas-topped lorry, which looked like something from M*A*S*H. After about 20 minutes we arrived in a dirt-covered area with roaming chickens while mechanics twiddled about with in the innards of our bus for well over an hour. The sun was beginning to set and it was looking like cocktail hour in Bangkok wasn't going to happen.

Finally, they revved up our hulking piece of virtual luxury and beaming we stepped up into the cool air conditioning and plush seats of a hideously tacky though far superior bus and headed in earnest to Bangkok. Two hours later we were parked in front of a 7-11 and various food stalls for a 30 minute break. It's a wonder my exhale didn't blow the covers off the seat in front me. I begrudgingly got out and bought a piece of cake and a bottle of water. I sat and talked to some really nice French Canadians and a Fin whom I'd met earlier that morning in Cambodia when we were dazed only by lack of coffee and now were dazed by sheer exhaustion.

At 10:15 p.m. we rolled into the Khao San Road area of Bangkok. At a bend in a road by the highway to the left of three lanes of traffic our driver pulled over and instructed us that we were to get out. "Here? In the middle of the road by the highway? Really?" Yes, really. The taxi/hotel touts were as thick as condensed milk on a banana pancake and one even touched my arm to come get in his taxi to "go to nice hotel--you come!" He seriously got me at the wrong time and I jerked back, scowled, jumped into traffic and snagged a passing cab myself. I knew exactly where I was going and how to get there and I made sure to tell my driver so that he knew I was not going to be fleeced. He didn't even try.

At 10:45, fifteen hours and forty minutes since I left my hotel in Siem Reap I walked into SUK11 in Bangkok.

It was like a homecoming. There was Trisha whom I'd shared cocktails with and a dinner a few weeks ago who'd been in Chiang Mai. There was the woman whom I'd met at my dentist on Sukumvit who was planning on going to Cambodia and wanted to know everything about my trip and there were several familiar faces all around and plenty of new ones. I was running into people I had said hello to at breakfast, over a drink, or in passing and they were all over the place. It was great. "Oh hello, how are you?! How was Lao? How'd you enjoy Chiang Mai? Still holding down the fort I see! Hey! You're still here?" After I had dinner I checked my email and Cookie (the owner's dog) was there with her little pups who were born the day I arrived in Bangkok and it was terrific to see everyone there. It felt great to be back in Bangkok. It felt better to wash the grime and dust of off me. Without any hyperbole whatsoever I am certain that in my entire life I have never -- never been as caked in filth as I have after that trip. My white towel was so streaked with dirt when I got out of the shower that I got another towel and then got back in the shower again.

At 11:30 scrubbed clean and in fresh clean white cotton I sat down at my favourite restaurant, Gallery 11, ordered a gin and tonic and a bottle of water and poured out the day's travails to a fellow traveler. God, after all of that I needed to bend an ear and an elbow and since she was planing on heading in that direction who better? She also gave me some valuable information and advice on travel to Lao, which is where I am headed tomorrow TRAIN!


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