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 There are no seats because they have all been replaced by beds.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…
[ps...Have you tried the Armchair Detective Challenge yet?]
Slovenia, writing, other things