…and welcome to the Third World.
Yesterday I made the border crossing at Poipet, then took the bus to Siem Reap. It’s about 325 miles total, 14 hours with a two-hour stop at the border. The Thai side (250 miles) took 4 hours. Covering the 75 miles in Cambodia, well, that took 8 hours. Roads in Cambodia, well…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I should start by explaining that I got massively overcharged for the trip. I paid 1200 baht ($30) at a travel agent on Sukumvit Road, near where I was staying. The other ten passengers paid anywhere from 150 baht to, well, 1200. I’ve pretty much given up on being angry about people trying to rip me off; it’s nothing personal, just a fact of life. If you stop being paranoid for one instant, it happens. So why be upset about it; it’s going to happen, you just can’t do anything about it. (See previous commentary about “normalcy”.) Fortunately, it’s not generally for a large sum, by Western standards.
(What annoys me far more than the money, I think, is the idea of being treated “unfairly”. The Western idea that all people should be treated equally is the real issue–after all, all tourist areas massively overcharge tourists; it’s just comforting to know that everyone else is in the same boat as you are.)
At any rate, after four uneventful hours on the Thai side, we reached the border town of Poipet.
Poipet: dusty, unmechanized, full of boxes and crates being moved across the border. almost all carts are human-powered–imagine a pony-cart with a crossbar nailed across the hitches, and a man standing inside the “traces”, pushing the cart along. Women and girls ride in the carts sometimes, hair and mouths covered against the dust, protecting themselves from the sun with umbrellas as their “driver” plods along.
More often, the carts are filled with boxes, since it’s a border town; in fact, I saw one impressively massive cart being hauled by a team of five men. Amazing sight: about 300 boxes about the size of an orange crate, rising up like a giant mushroom from this little cart, with the men pulling and straining inside the “harness”. Much to my surprise, they were actually able to move it; I even took a few photos.
Poipet is a pretty rough town; my guess is that it’s a major clearinghouse for smuggling, among other things. At any rate, there is a great deal of poverty and a fairly aggressive set of locals: on the Thai side, it’s beggars, and on the Cambodian side, it’s thieves. Ten seconds after our group arrived at the rest stop and sat down, the inevitable swarm of vendors appeared, and a slew of child-beggars. One of them, a little boy of about six or seven, just wouldn’t go away–he circled the group for thirty minutes, watching us like hawks, constantly moving into our field of view, hand outstretched. If any of us moved our hands towards our pockets, he was there instantly. Looking at him, I decided not to take any more photos; I didn’t want to call any more atention to my digital camera than I already had.
Which was a pity, as the crossover arch to Cambodia was quite beautiful. It had the triple towers of Angkor Wat rising up out of the arch–every Cambodian government has flown Angkor Wat on their flag, even the Khmer Rouge, which says something about the magnificent architecture. (The Khmer Rouge, in fact, actually called themselves “the Angkar” for most of their reign.) And Poipet itself has many sights worth snapping: for example, I really wish I’d gotten a photo of the guy who rode by on a motorcycle, two live chickens dangling by their feet from the handlebars. (Insert mandatory rubber-chicken joke here. 😉 They really do look like rubber chickens, hanging like that–I thought they were dead, until I saw one blink.)
At any rate, hiding the digital turned out to be a good idea, because the Cambodian side is populated by some very bold thieves. (See previous comments about “rough town”.) Five minutes into Cambodia, they struck our group–we were sitting in the pickup-taxi, a German woman had her backpack next to her, and in an instant when she wasn’t looking, a passing Cambodian reached in, lightning-quick, and got his hand inside the back pocket of her backpack. She yelped and told the driver to stop, but he was already sauntering off, and vanished behind a crate. Just that fast, with all of us there in the taxi.
(Fortunately she didn’t lose anything–she wasn’t keeping any valuables in outside pockets. Neither am I; my pack and daypack are locked with little combination locks that I bought before leaving. I felt really stupidly paranoid in Thailand, traveling like that; I don’t now. I’m also very glad I had my pants made with pockets that zip shut; near the Thai border, we met a man who had had his wallet stolen one minute (literally!) into Cambodia, and was returning to Bangkok to get his traveler’s checks reissued.)
Anyway, after the border crossing, we got on the main highway to Siem Reap. 4 hours got us 250 miles into Thailand; it took 8 hours to travel 75 miles in Cambodia. Welcome to the Third World.
Cambodia is indeed very poor. In Thailand, the poor live in corrugated tin shacks; in Cambodia, corrugated tin means wealth. Most people live in wooden huts/houses raised up off the ground on stilts; the poor live in thatched huts, with thin bamboo-lath frames holding the thatched walls together. They look like they might fall down at any moment. Pigs, dogs, and chickens run around with sporadically naked kids; people travel by foot or bicycle, or sometimes by pony-cart (I saw two on the way).
Roads in Cambodia also come in many varieties, most of them poor. The road we were on is one of the main highways, and is in substantially better shape than most because of the tourist trade: the Thai underwrote most of the paved sections. Nonetheless we averaged under 10 miles an hour for the trip, which tells you something about the other portions.
A brief category of Cambodian roads:
Paved roads. These come in anything from smooth, paved road (a godsend for the 10% of the mileage it covers) to heavily potholed (marginally more common), to this stuff that I swear looked *exactly* like someone had tried to duplicate a washboardy, potholed dirt road in asphalt. I’m not sure who came up with the idea, but it’s, um, memorable. Just like the same version in dirt, only much bumpier. (Fortunately there wasn’t much of it–presumably the paver came to his/her senses eventually and left for a career in modern sculpture.)
Between paved roads and dirt roads is this very special stuff: sharp, ridgy rocks about the size of half-bricks (but more like shattered brick, all edges and bumps) packed into the roadbed. The ride makes cobblestones look smooth, but at least those sections aren’t full of potholes–you can drive through them without breaking an axle or ripping the bottom off your vehicle.
And then there are the dirt roads. Ah, the dirt roads. SOME of them are flat and beautiful; you can travel almost as fast as on a smooth paved road, which is to say thirty to forty miles an hour. And then it gets worse. In the midlevel, there are the ones that look like choppy ocean waves–more a series of potholes punctuated by ridges (the ridges are just to allow more and better potholes 😉 ) than a road. And then there are the bad sections–with “potholes” big enough to swallow an elephant (or a minivan) whole–I honestly wondered if they weren’t landmine craters, but they’re not deep enough, only about a foot deep despite their impressive size. Still plenty big enough to break an axle, or strand a vehicle, and there are LOTS of them.
Driving along these roads is quite simple. You drive along whatever section of road (right, left, center, shoulder) you can negotiate; if you meet another vehicle, the bigger one gets the right of way. Fortunately, you’re not really going to damage anyone else’s vehicle, at least on the worst sections: neither of you can travel faster than a few miles an hour, so you’ll see the other vehicle in plenty of time. It’s *much* more likely that you’ll break an axle.
At any rate, it took about 9 hours of slow, bone-jarring crawl over one of the best roads in Cambodia, to get to Siem Reap. (If I sound like I’m obsessing over road surfaces…well…I had a LOT of time to think about them. and they are, um, highly memorable. I don’t think my back and neck will forget them anytime soon. 😉 )
We did stop twice along the way; the first for a rest stop, where we got mobbed by a swarm of child beggars/vendors. “Sir, give me pen!” “Madam, give me five baht to pay school!” “How old are you?” “What’s your name?” I was accosted by one fifteen-year-old girl (who looked more like eight or ten); she said she had five brothers and sisters *(5,6,7,8, and 10), and wanted a pen. I gave her one, since I had it handy; then she demanded five baht “for school”. She eventually wore me down–I gave her ten baht. Then she demanded $1, or $5–at which point I put my foot down. I felt bad for her, but money wouldn’t have been helpful; I doubt that either the pen or the money were actually going towards school. (With three brothers at home, there’s no way she was going to school–Cambodians, like most Asians, educate boys first. Welcome to the world of male privilege.)
On the other hand, for ten baht and a pen I got the full gamut of beggars’ tactics in Cambodia; which includes remarkable persistence (ten minutes after I fled into conversation with another group she was still outside calling “Madame Tien! Madame Tien!” trying to get my attention) and a wide array of conversational tricks. I don’t think I’ve encountered such shameless manipulativeness and persistence since, hmm, well, never mind.
Anyway, the stop was only supposed to be for ten minutes but stretched to half an hour; almost unbearable, as we couldn’t step outside without being swarmed by begging children, and they were all around the windows, reaching in to try to grab our attention. The only “safe” place was in the very center of the minivan (and you can bet I was watching my bags the entire time). I felt rather like I’d stepped into Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”–seriously under siege.
Still, there was lots of beautiful scenery, lots of surprisingly friendly people waving to us from the road, and lots of children splashing joyfully in the muddy ponds. Not to mention fishermen pulling nets from the shallow ponds by the road, and some very nicely muscled guys out bathing in the ponds (in sarongs, alas 😉 ).
Our second stop, which was much less trying, was at a Cambodian gas station. This is not your shiny clean petrol station with nice clean pumps and a convenient ATM/credit card device on the island; this is a little shack by the side of the road (tin roof; thatched sides, remarkably flammable) stacked with all sorts of makeshift/scavenged containers–everything from plastic jugs to glass soda bottles–full of gasoline. (As an aside, I now know that gasoline is yellow in color, about the same shade as urine left to ferment for three weeks. Sixteen years’ driving and I never actually *saw* gasoline, since it was always pumped into the tank: weird, huh? (If you want to know about the fermented urine part, let’s just say that some of the old-time natural dye recipes are a bit odd…leave it there, and we’ll all be much happier. 😉 ))
Anyway, with Cambodian gas stations, you pull over to the side of the road, buy the appropriate size container, and pour it into your tank with your handy gas funnel. Not smoking while doing this is a nice idea, but (apparently) strictly optional. (!)
At any rate, it’s getting late, and I need to be back at the hotel in fifteen minutes. I’m going to the best restaurant in Siem Reap (at least per the tour guide), which charges $11/head for dinner plus a performance of Cambodian dance. That’s still outrageous by local standards–you can get a room for $4 or less, for example–but sounds pretty good to me. After yesterday’s incredible ride and today’s trying events (more on that later), I could use something easy/fun. Let’s just say, I am now assuming that any Cambodian being nice to you has his/her eyes firmly fixed on your wallet. *sigh*