I booked a bus to Phnom Penh from the sunny deck by the river. Not a bus exactly, but a minivan which drove around the town of Kampot in a random fashion, eventually picking up a French couple, driving a short distance and stopping. The driver got out and disappeared into a, I don't know, laundry?
I spoke to the French couple. "Are you going to Vietnam?" they asked, in the manner of people who knew the answer but were breaking ice.
"No, Phnom Penh, actually," I said, smashing the ice into confusing shards. We all looked worried and consulted maps in case it was possible that the bus would go to both places. It didn't look feasible and now the driver had vanished.
The solution came in the form of another bus with Vietnam on the front, and soon I was alone in the minivan. I got out.
Some time elapsed with me sitting on a cement-covered plastic chair amid chatting Cambodians and then a girl arrived from (I later discovered) Israel. She was given a slightly cleaner chair.
Eventually a car arrived and both me and the Israeli girl wondered why she was being directed to it and my bag was being hauled out of the minivan. A mere 20 minutes of discussion showed that the minivan wouldn't go to Phnom Penh because it was New Year, and so we would go by car with several other people. Too many other people for a car that size but hey, it was New Year. We were apparently lucky we'd get there at all.
In the city we shared a Tuk-Tuk to the river and from there I scouted out a hotel. My stay included an evening with an Australian sex tourist and a day visiting the killing fields.
Why did I just gloss over those two contrasting but fascinating events? Because I have decided to start a blog on wordpress, which seems to be easier than doing it here. I'm going to shift over to that blog, but during the transition period, I'll write more on there and less on here. If you want to read more about the killing fields (and life according to Bruce the Australian Sex Tourist), head on over to:
Phnom Penh was a good city, actually. What little I saw of it. And then I caught a very bumpy plane ride to Kuala Lumpur, where I shall remain until I fly back to London. This trip is coming to an end.
A mere 7km from one of the world’s great attractions, Siem Reap is yet another physical assault. Crossing the street is almost impossible, and walking along the street is no easier. Food, massage parlours, ugly dogs and broken cats, mobile phone stalls and South East Asian madness is everywhere you step. It is all amplified by the heat. Indiana Jones in a pit full of snakes is me trying to get down a road in Siem Reap.
Potential harm does not lurk here, it runs up, drives up, collects around you and insists by sheer weight of numbers. Anyone who owns a set of wheels wants to drive you somewhere, and if you say no (if I say no) they instead offer you the delights of Cambodian women. On my second day, I walked down the main street and discovered that the massage girls will actually stand in front of you, three abreast, and put their hands on your chest to physically stop you from going any further. This isn’t a sensuous experience, but like the prelude to a mugging. Shouting at them merely results in them shouting back. This is no different to anywhere else in South East Asia, and I think I was disappointed because I went there to see Angkor Wat. Silly me.
On the Thursday I booked a guided tour of the temple for Saturday morning, 5am, sunrise. On Friday morning, while still asleep, the phone by my hotel bed began ringing at 4:45am. I ignored it. Surely a dozy night porter had dropped a sleepy forehead on the button to my room.
When I was actually awake some five hours later, I realised that it was probably the tour people trying to pick me up on the wrong day. I went to check. No, they have the right day, Saturday. It’s here, look, see? Okay.
Friday night I lay awake all night. I tend not to get to sleep until about 3am and I was told to be ready by 4:30am, so why bother sleeping? At 4:30am I was outside the hotel encouraging mosquitoes to bite me. They bit me until 5:15am, when I decided that the tour was not coming, had in fact arrived a day early, and I might as well take my bleeding lumpy ankles back to bed. I went back to the tour company. Oh, they said. They must have made a mistake.
On Sunday, after two nights without sleep, the bus arrived and drove me and six others off to see the sun rise behind the world’s largest temple complex. The tour guide was young, funny, and the least politically correct person currently working outside of the White House. Seven kilometres away, after hearing about how all white people look the same to him and he didn’t understand why Hindus had to break everything and he was pleased to say that the Muslims he knows stick to chickens when they have a desire to kill something, we saw the pine-cone towers of Angkor Wat in the slowly brightening dawn sky. Pre-dawn was the nicest part of the morning actually, because the sun came up behind cloud and the thronging masses, there to see a marvel of architecture but excited to see a daily event that happens no matter where you are, seemed cheated.
Inside Angkor Wat our tour began. To be honest, I would rather have just been there myself and not had the distraction of a tour guide, but it was good. It was good the way the Sistine Chapel was good – very busy, glad to have been there, but feeling very little in the way of emotional contact because of tourists, and guides, and where to put your feet. There was no wow moment. That would have to come later, when at some dinner party I could say I’ve been to Angkor Wat.
The sunrise trip was followed by hours of plodding through Siem Reap because I had checked out of the hotel at noon and the bus was going at 7:45pm. At 7:45pm I was still in the hotel lobby waiting to be picked up and decided that it was the wrong date all over again. But no! I was picked up a mere 10 minutes after the bus should have left and a group of us, all convinced we’d missed the fastest moving bedroom in the world, were driven to the bus station, climbed aboard the bus and got into bed.
Before getting into the bus I asked a man if this was the bus to Sihanoukville, and he didn’t answer me. I asked if I should shove my enormous bag into the hold myself, and he didn’t answer me. This communication technique was employed by all members of the bus staff for the entire journey and presented a problem when suffering from a full bladder. There was no toilet. Getting out of a top bunk in the dark when hammocks were slung in aisle was a challenge, and wanting to know if the bus would be stopping long enough to pee was greeted with silence. I peed against an ATM for the first time in my life, needing to be close enough to the bus to prevent it from simply driving away and leaving me without luggage in the middle of Cambodia. I was not the only person to do such things.
Was it a good way to travel? Yes. And No. I don’t want to do it again so I think no wins.
Sihanoukville is by the sea and the sea is warm and the sand golden and, at the time, was covered in half of Cambodia. It was Buddha’s birthday I think. Or a holiday of some kind. I got this information from the manager of the restaurant at the hotel by the sea, who engaged me in long conversations in completely incomprehensible English. At one point, recognising only such words as “Love,” and “Poison,” I wondered if I was being introduced to a cult. This uneasy feeling was compounded by his insistence on staring at me while I ate, his hooded eyes and grim voodoo countenance not wavering while I worked my way through something with rice, or something with noodles. I think at one point I upset him. Walking into the restaurant one evening I noticed that the cook lady and the cook’s assistant lady and the five waitress girls were lined up on small blue plastic chairs watching an Asian film on the TV. They were transfixed by it, but THE MAN IN CHARGE got up from his voodoo sitting position and changed the channel to something Hollywood, and the spell was broken. He did it because I walked in, though he knew I had a book and wouldn’t be watching it anyway. The next night the same thing happened but I said no, please, don’t change the channel just for me, everyone seems to be really into this badly acted saga of moustaches and polyester suits. And he looked annoyed while the girls said (I gathered) “He said no need to change the channel!” and so his supremacy was challenged by the only person who could do such a thing. A paying guest. He then glared at me with greater intensity and I suspect the mutineers would pay later with longer hours and less pay.
But now I write from a sunny deck beside a calm Cambodian river, the kind of river one might expect to see a young Martin Sheen boating his way to find a mad Marlon Brando lording it up in a jungle of lampshade hats. I have taken a wicker hut with a fan and a mattress on the floor, an outside loo with a frog on the cold-water shower head, a wicker window held up with a bamboo stick, and a mosquito net. There’s a small fan – the first room I’ve taken without AC during this unusually hot period. But I like it. The place is run by a French couple and he makes the best food I’ve had since arriving in Cambodia. Maybe the best food since January. The river is home to longboats that head out to sea in the evening to catch shrimp in the waters that border Cambodia and Vietnam, and return at 4 in the morning. They are incredibly loud, long and functional and I asked if they ever take passengers to spend a night catching shrimp, but my French host says no. They invade another country’s waters, as the Vietnamese invade Cambodian waters, and having white passengers just isn’t a thing they can do. A shame. I watch them go as the moon rises and I want to be on one.
I don’t know how long I shall stay on this sunny breezy deck with the good people of France. The only logical place to go from here is Phnom Penh, where I already have a ticket to Kuala Lumpur and the last stage of the journey. I want to see Phnom Penh for only two reasons. Firstly, there’s an airport that will get me back to where my flight home will take me back on May 2nd. The other reason is to see the Killing Fields Memorial and museum and a whole lot of tragedy. I don't want to see it, don't want those images in my brain, but it's important I think. The trouble is, it’s the Cambodian New Year in a few days’ time and it is the worst time to be going to Phnom Penh. Everything is closed and all the prices double. Everything, including the museum, will be unavailable for another five days and so, stranded with excellent food, I have just been working out how long I should stay.
I shall keep you posted
Hands up anyone who’s been on a bus with no seats. Anyone? Me! I have. There are no seats because they have all been replaced by beds. As you walk down the bus, double beds are on the right and single beds on the left, stacked two high. I was in a single bed, top bunk, half way down. It’s called a Hotel Bus and it’s either a really brilliant way to make an overnight trip, or a really bad way, depending on your bladder, the road surface, the technique employed by the driver and how many hammocks have been hastily slung in the gangway.
This travelling collection of beds went from Siem Reap in the north of Cambodia all the way down to Sihanoukville on the southern coast, taking about 13 hours and 10 years of your life. It was wonderful. No, it was awful. No, it was…I have no idea. I still can’t decide.
Where was I last time I wrote? Oh yes, floating dreamily in the warm clear waters of Thailand with mermaids. Tired of having a wonderful time, I caught a normal bus to Bangkok which took all night, dumping me in the middle of the busiest bus station in the world at 5 in the morning. Tired and wondering where all my worldly possessions were, I fended off a plague of taxi drivers and found a miserable noisy dirty space to collect myself and my belongings. The taxi rash thinned out because buses were arriving and I was beginning to look like a bad bet.
Eventually a fairly quiet taxi driver engaged me in conversation and talked my ancient atrophied brain into a trip to a good hotel. I hadn’t booked a place, more confident of finding one ad hoc than actually arriving in Bangkok at all. And so, he took me to a nice hotel.
The nice manager of the nice hotel carried my bags to the room, which wasn’t nice, and then he gave me the price for a prostitute. When I said no he said…"Did I say 3000? I meant 2000." When I said no again it went to 1500 and a list of all the things my new "love me short time" friend would do. I then explained, in as calm a voice as I could muster, that there is only one woman in the world for me and all I want is a shower and a sleep. I shall convert his facial expression into words. The contours of his entire being said…” So, why are you in this hotel? A man of your age alone in Bangkok coming to this hotel? This one. Where you don’t even have to leave your room to get all the things you are obviously here for? I don’t understand, but perhaps you are suffering from a mental or hormonal imbalance of some kind.”
He left, I bolted the door, and slept on top of the bed for fear that I was sleeping where so many had paid 3000, or 2000, or 1500 before. The only good point was that it was 7 in the morning and hotels don’t normally let you in until noon. After a long night on a bus, I slipped into a coma.
On reading this back, I realise I sound like a prude, or someone who really does want to meet a new 1500 baht friend and is protesting too much. I've actually had time to reflect on such things and really, it's just how I am. I do not judge. There are men in the world who don't have a relationship, can't get a relationship or simply don't want a relationship. There are men in the world who like prostitutes in the same way they like brunettes or a sense of humour. There are women in the world who have to sell themselves or starve to death, or who chose it as a perfectly reasonable job. Get them together and everyone is happy. But I don't like the assumption that I'm travelling here for one simple reason. Even someone in Slovenia said it was obvious why I wanted to go to Thailand. With that kind of negative reinforcement, the only lone men who dare travel to this part of the world will be sex tourists and it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The next day I booked a hotel with good reviews and tackled the Bangkok skytrain to find myself in a land less determined to make my ending a happy one. The hotel was a walk from Sukhumvit road where the red light district is, but that road is long and varied and the area was described as a village in the city. I got a junior suite of 3 rooms, it was cheap, and comfortable, and friendly. I stayed there for 10 nights. I had work to do and this was a good place to do it.
Of Bangkok, I can only say that I spent 10 days walking up and down one road, grabbing food at a Chinese restaurant and Oreo biscuits from the 7-11 and scuttling back to the safety and comfort of my rooms. Just before leaving I thought I should see the city so I took the skytrain to the river, established that it was brown and busy, then caught the skytrain back again. I also thought that I would try, for the first time ever, a Thai massage. I mean, if you’re going to have one, wouldn’t it be good to say you had one in Bangkok? TripAdvisor gave good reviews of one that was just down the road. I wanted the real thing, not a half-hearted prod and then demands for extra, and what could be more comforting to a man trying to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings than TripAdvisor? I went to see what was what.
I shall tell you what was what.
Behind the glass front door was a small man behind a large brown desk. I asked how much a Thai massage was, and he said it’s 400. That’s what, 10 euros? Aha! I don’t mind paying 400 so I can say I had a Thai massage in Bangkok. Then he said it was 1900.
What? I thought you said 400?
It is 400.
So what’s the 1900?
It is 400 for the massage and 1500 for the girl. At which point he pointed to my right and inside a room just off the lobby was a line of women sitting on a long bench seat, all vying for my attention. They looked like animate carnival balloons -- boobing, squashy, brightly coloured. The small man behind the large brown desk casually explained what I would get for the 1500 and all I had to do was pick the one I wanted.
I tried not to look startled. I wanted say that that I didn’t really want them to do anything at all, including sitting next to me on a bus, and after explaining that I didn’t have any money on me and was just checking the price to compare it to my usual brothel, I beat a hasty retreat. Well done TripAdvisor. If you recommend a restaurant and I shall assume the waiter will say it’s 400 for the meal and 1500 for the waitress.
I left Bangkok on a bus that promised to take me to Siem Reap in Cambodia, the place to go if you want to see Angkor Wat. I decided that I did want to see Angkor Wat way back in Malaysia and it felt pretty good to be achieving my one and only solid goal.
I had read that getting into Cambodia (or Scambodia, as the internet calls it) is a nightmare gauntlet of thieves and tricksters, and that certainly seemed to be the case. As we approached the border the bus guy came around with forms to complete and a demand for money and our passports. I said no. Think about it. You leave a country for free, and you pay for a visa in the next country, not on a bus 10 miles before you get there. He gave an inflated price for the visa and wouldn’t stop asking until several people also said no, and he gave up. I felt quite proud of myself for starting a revolution and imagined myself a champion of the people and defender of the oppressed. Actually, my motives were a little more selfish. When travelling for an extended period in parts unknown, you develop a Gollum-like devotion to your passport and wallet. All other things can be lost, but those become my precious and I wasn’t going to give my precious to a stranger on a bus.
When we got to the border we were told that those sensible people who had taken advantage of buying the visa on the bus only had to check out of Thailand and then go through passport control in Cambodia. Those of us foolish enough to try it ourselves had to perform the extra, time-consuming, degrading step of begging for a visa from evil officials who would take advantage of our white and foolish bodies.
The extra degrading time-consuming personal assault that would be getting a visa actually involved going to a small office on the Cambodian side, paying 8 dollars less than on the bus, and getting our visa in a matter of minutes. It was the easiest step rather than the hardest. The hard parts were finding the offices to check out of Thailand, to check into Cambodia, and to fight off the thousands of beggars, con-artists, passport photo scams and bag-grabbing children. The Thai-Cambodian border is a con-artists’ convention where they climb over each other like breeding frogs to out-scam their rivals.
We made it to the other side, where the bus had broken down and were told we’d be put on another. The other bus never happened and we drove all the way to Siem Reap in first gear and with no ability to stop. This was demonstrated when people tried to get off.
That was Bangkok, getting out of Bangkok, and arriving in a town that nestles up to the largest temple complex in the world. I thought Siem Reap might be calm. Indeed, an Englishman on the bus told me it would be a good place to relax. If he thinks the place is relaxing he must be related to Gordo Cooper, the early Mercury astronaut who fell asleep waiting for his rocket to take off. There is nothing calming about Siem Reap.
I feel another post coming on…
Slovenia, writing, other things