Friday, March 18, 2005

I do the Harrison Ford thing.

The temples of Angkor in the northwest of Cambodia are without a doubt the most impressive sight I have seen to date. However, the road to get there is one of the worst on the planet, and I still have reasonably vivid memories of displaced vertabrae years after visiting the first time ...

I think I was actually still drunk when the bus picked me up at 7 am from my guesthouse in Bangkok. Already on my second litre of water and wishing I had forgone those last three Singha beers, I was first into the aircon minibus and fast asleep by the time we picked up the next and my only other co-traveller. After that we were speeding along the Bangkok highways and out of the city in no time at all, we reached the border crossing in only a few small hours. With eyes still half-closed, I didn't recognise this place, and yet it's only five years since my last visit. Eyes wide open, I realised we were at a different border crossing. Which was fine with me, since Poipet, the most common border post between Thailand and Cambodia, is, in my opinion, a place that needs to be fire-bombed. A complete shithole of a town, whereas this, Duang, looked cosy and almost clean. After dealing with the friendly Thai customs officials, it was just a brief walk across the rickety wooden bridge and voici, Cambodia.

Here the fun started ... my co-traveller, who I will call Katia because I never asked her name over the following three days (well, she never asked for mine either), well Katia, she carried a Hungarian passport and had paid for, but not received, a Cambodian visa, the money now safely in the hands of a Bangkok tour company. She produced a receipt which the customs officials all proceeded to look at, and in turn they moved to a small concrete building a few metres from where we were seated. When the building couldn't contain any more government employees, they called Katia over and proceeded to show her a list of countries sorted into various groups. Hungary was obviously in a more interesting group than most, as each time a custom official pointed to it, there were impressive affirmative noises to be heard and a lot of furrowed brows to be seen.

Eventually Katia was called over ... and I should break here to mention Katia's appearance. This woman was glamourous. Totally. Dressed in a short sky blue skirt, white blouse and semi high-heels, a lot of gold jewellery and even some make-up completed the picture. And she had a diamond on her finger that, if sold, would fund the entire Cambodian Customs and Excise department for numerous years, possibly with a salary increase for all staff and increased operating costs for all divisions. The ring was huge and I was sensing a possible grab for money as Katia went over to face the furrowed brows. I was wrong. Well, sort of.

After giggling like men seeing a woman for the very first time (and in all probability they probably hadn't seen legs like hers in high heels for a while), they attempted to stick a hot sweaty and limp visa into her already damp passort (it was recovered after the tsunami hit Phuket). Customs sorted, we were off.

You know those movies where a foul hot wind blows down the dusty street and tumbleweed moves slowly across the screen, well, this was one of those towns. Feckin' dust! Loaded with my backpack, daypack and bottle of water, I was dripping in my own sweat and already smelt like an Indian bathroom. Katia looked quietly glamorous and her blouse remained white the whole time. How this was done will forever remain a mystery to me, as will how she managed to navigate the street in her white shoes. We were getting plenty of stares, and I was lovin' it. I decided that they would think I was her husband and they would think me a nice guy because I bought her so much gold jewellery.

When I returned to reality, we were seated in a tiled room with a fan at least six metres above our heads. All Cambodian rooms are decorated in wall-to-wall tiles. Keeps the place cooler. As would a goddamn fan if it wasn't so friggin' far away from us. Katia didn't like the fact that I lay down on the cooler floor (obviously she was developing a concern for my personal hygiene), so I took my place on a brightly coloured plastic chair and we sat and waited.

The bus company representative, let's call him Mr Unsmiling, came over to us. With a face like a slapped arse he proceeded to tell Katia she would have to pay US$40 for the visa. Strange .. considering the customs officals had not asked for a cent. After a discussion in broken English that must be repeated around the world a thousand times daily, she handed over the cash and Mr Unsmiling proffered a receipt. He then left the building. Katia was pretty cool about the whole thing, and no wonder, she produced a mobile phone and called her tour company back in Bangkok (and no, this is still not a good reason to own one). They agreed that she should not have paid for the visa ...

Five weary Germans walked though the door and joined us on the less-than-comfortable plastic chairs. They looked buggered. But two and five is seven, enough for a minibus and our wait was nearly over. When Mr Unsmiling returned Katia broke the news. If it is possible for a miserable person to unsmile even more, then this is what happened. I grinned like that twat I can be and waited while Katia called the company, and handed over the phone. We all listened to the argument of which we understood not a word, but she got her cash back. I have a new respect for Hungarian woman, especially glamorous ones having matching mobile phone and high heels.
The ramshackle piece of crap masquerading as a transport vehicle belched out a welcome greeting in pure carbon monoxide and we boarded. My gut instinct told me the air conditioning probably wouldn't be functioning on today's journey. I foolishly took a seat at the back of the bus and we slowly moved out of town and onto a highway that rightly deserves a place among the worst roads in the world. It is beyond description. Thank Christ it was the dry season, so that we could drive through some poor bastard's rice field when the bridges were missing or when we needed to avoid potholes the size of an American woman's butt.

It is hard to describe the sensation your body has when every pore and orifice is invaded by dust and burnt fuel, the temperature is beyond even the upper ranges of a Sydney summer, you receive instant chiropratic manipulations over each bump and you can't find that packet of sugary dry biscuits you packed before leaving Bangkok. At last the sun set and brought some relief - my body was now only sweating a litre and a half each hour.

But trouble lay ahead. As we navigated the 486th bridge since departure, the headlights gave us full view of a car accident. The vehicle had hit one of the bridge pylons and about twenty metres away sat two bodies, partly shielding a third that was prostrate. We stopped the bus and got out. I grabbed my torch and first aid kit and went over to see. The body laying on the ground was that of a forty year old woman; she had a severe laceration on her forehead at least three inches in length. While the men rubbed her stomach in a hopeful gesture of comfort, I felt a pulse in neither neck nor wrist. She was no longer with us but I unable (in all senses) to communicate this to the men. Instead I did my best to clean them up - both needed profssional medical attention but only a few stiches and a good pair of tweezers to remove the shards of broken glass. The companion of our bus driver held the torch for me while I mopped up as much dried blood as possible. Their wounds were reasonably superficial apart from each having one cut; one above his left eye and the other under his chin. From no-where a red flashing light appeared and the paramedics were left to convey the news.

We left the scene and moved silently to the bus. Not much conversation until we arrived in Siem Reap, the closest town to the Angkor temples. All a bit shell-shocked, we were moved out of this state by a young guy who boarded the bus, and, in another story repeated across the planet a thousand times daily, we listened half-heartedly to the we-just-going-to-show-you-good-hotel spiel, which of course works well after travelling sixteen hours in crap conditions. At this point you are desperate and would gladly pay $300 for a straw mattress. But this guy was right and I loved him for it. He took us to a decent place away from the busier part of town, and as I lay my head down on my comfortable matress in my wall-to-wall tiled room with bamboo features, I fell into a coma.

The following morning it was time to discover the temples and to forget that I should really have been making an emergency appointment with an osteopath. And time for negotiations. A bike, a driver, a good price. The pros and cons of bartering have long been the bugbear of my travels. I hate doing it. It is not fun and it is not a game. But this is not India so it is a lot easier. In SE Asia the practice of bargaining for farang is still bearable. In India it makes my buttocks clench involuntarily while I resist the urge to remove one in a billion permanently from the planet. Negotiations completed in a few minutes, I was beaming from ear to ear as we approached the ticket office and I got my three day multipass (well, it looked like one). Super green.

Then it was time for a three day adventure play in the world's most magical site. Wiser, smarter and more cultured people have already written amply about the temples, I have neither the skills nor the desire to sit any longer at this computer. I'll leave you with the photos.
See you back in Bangkok. Shit, I have to cross that border again ...

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