Christmas in Cambodia
The following article forms part of the unpublished (and may never be) 'The Itinerant Zookeeper' a continuing personal journal of travels through Europe, Turkey, India and Asia. It has been edited slightly and some names changed for inclusion in HubPages.
This describes a 'Visa Run' to Cambodia from Thailand.
Wednesday 22nd December 2010
I was up at 06.00. I had been awake for an hour or so. The alarm went off on my phone but not my PDA. I am going to have to investigate.
Out to buy a paper, have a coffee and a Brandts Chicken Essence. Makes me feel half alive.
The minibus not due till between 07.30-08.00 but I like to be ready. It eventually turned up at 10 past 8. There were three Russians en route to Siem Reap on board and then we picked a family of five Thais.
I fell asleep about an hour into the journey. I woke myself up with a loud snore and heard the Thai's giggling to themselves. Snores in such circumstances are amusing and I would have laughed myself. Other bodily noises such as impromptu burps or farts can also amuse but
sometimes disgust as well. The snore though is never a companion of disgust. Sometimes annoyance perhaps.
We reached a motel cum service area close to the border at a little before noon. Right now I don't know where I am. I have never been in this part of Thailand before and all the route here was an unfamiliar one. I had sort of guessed it may be Poipet. I had sort of hoped it may be somewhere else.
Here we were decanted for something to eat and for paperwork completion before crossing the border. Here I was a bit pissed off to be told "Merry Christmas in Cambodia". I told the guy I was coming back on the 24th and he said a double entry visa normally took three days. "Did they not tell you that?" 'No', I replied and he said he would see what he could do. Not that I am really that bothered but...
So I lunched at the stop on chicken fried rice. There were about 20 Western backpackers there in several groups. All trying to outdo each other in adventures and advice. I would have joined in if I had had a few beers inside me. They don't really want to hear from an old man.
My passport was taken away from me here for around half an hour. When it was returned it contained a Cambodian visa valid for a three months. Stamped by the consul in Poipet. Now I I was certain as to where I was.
We were then put into minibuses and headed to the border proper. For Thailand it was surprisingly dirty.
The queue to leave Thailand was way too long but there was no choice. I was stood next to a 6'6" black Polish girl. Very nice. She had been to university in Birmingham and just finished a voluntary stint in Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand. She was now doing a three week aimless backpack wander. Nice girl.
Under My Umbrella
Walking to border I was joined by a small beggar girl with a huge umbrella and an even bigger smile who just walked alongside me shading me and my bald head from the burning sun. I was very thankful for it. She never spoke at all. I gave her 15 Baht when we reached the shade
of a building. She was very happy. Very enterprising of her I thought.
My mobile phone beeped and there was a message. 'Did I want to change to a different time zone?' Do I? To be honest I am none too sure. It always seems to make less sense when travelling overland.
Naturally there was an equally (actually longer) queue to get into Cambodia. Here there was a choice and I paid out a total of three hundred baht to a 'fixer'. Actually half of this was essential for a copy of my passport plus notification as now my passport leaves me for Phnom Penh to get my new visa from the Thai embassy there.
The Cambodian side of the border was all chaos, dirt and dust. All except, that is, for the huge and very plush casinos. Every Cambodian border post I have crossed (thinking back it is five up to now) is the same. Dirt and a casino. Gambling is illegal in Thailand. These casinos are for Thai people. The Cambodians are, for the most part, dirt poor and could never afford it.
Now I know where I am for certain. In the Good Luck Hotel in Poipet. The motorcycle taxi driver offered me a tour and women. I declined. They will find me or me them and if not, so be it.
Arrived about a quarter to two so it was not too bad a run.
The hotel rooms are spotlessly clean, though the corridors are shabby. Clean sheets. Big triple bed. (Why did I think of Lucy and Gul?) 'No prostitutes allowed' the sign on the door informed. I notice though that the hotel provides 'reasonably priced' in house private massage
in your room. Could be kosher I suppose. I wondered if the massage book was available in Khmer too.
After a shower and a shave I took an hours walk. Poipet is, as I expected, one of those Cambodian armpit towns. Other than the filthy dirty main road running through the place there is next to no streetage. It is more mix of crapage, muddage and dirtage. A truly awful little place. Still, I never knew where I would be coming to and it is always interesting to come somewhere new.
There is a funeral in the next street. Ornate coffin under an awning Music and monks chanting. This may well go on for a week or more. A very Chinese affair.
Back in my room I slumbered and listened to the TV (better reception than my room in Thailand) till near on 18.00. I felt absolutely shattered and exhausted. The idea of going out did not exactly fill me with joy but I was very hungry.
I then decided to make a few phone calls back to Thailand. I couldn't. Even the dialing codes did not work. So it would seem that I have to get a new phone card to dial from here. I am not going to buy one for the sake of a couple of days. It is just not worth it.
Poipet I understand is one of the easiest place in the world to disappear. Having been through the system today I can easily believe it. Once you go through Thai immigration you end up in a sort of lawless pocket. You could choose not to go through Cambodian immigration and just be 'lost'. So with two passports you could really disappear.
Cambodia is of course the most 'armed' country in the world. Practically everyone has a pistol or Uzi somewhere. I don't know how it figures in the murder top ten but Thailand has the fourth highest murder rate in the world and yet I have seen no evidence of it. At the same time Thailand is the most accident prone country in the world and I have actually only seen very few accidents.
I figured out why the Thai visa obtained in Cambodia takes two days as against one day in Laos. In Laos you go to Vientiane and the embassy is there. In Poipet your passport has to go all the way to Phomh Penh and back. Knowing that will let me plan it cheaper next time.
Upcoming movie 'The Tourist'. I bought this on DVD a week ago.
I decided not to go out. I felt a little snuffly and my right nostril running. I bought I couple of Tiger beers and drank those whilst watching CSI Miami.
Hawaii Five 0...I didn't know it was still on TV or back or whatever. Cookie, Burns Banion. Confusion figures highly. No immediate or obvious connection. Mixed memories but most prominent, Karen Dixon my babysitter with her pearl handled flick knife in her stocking top.
Babysitters. Durham as a boy. My cousin Pat, yes and her blonde haired boyfriend but then there were the borstal girls too. They took care of me. Funny what a couple of cans of Tiger will do.
Where do I go from here? Life is short.
Thursday 23rd December 2010
I was woken this morning at a little before 05.00 as the funeral chanting and music in the next street started once again. The odd thing is I don't actually remember it stopping.
The girl who served me at breakfast looked at me with an awe like expression. I wondered for a moment if my nose or an eye had come loose. I then remembered I was off the regular tourist trail here and so to some at least an object of both some interest and amusement.
I don't usually eat breakfast. The menu this morning was exactly the same as it was last night. Starting the day with Eel Soup of Deep Fried Frog did not really appeal first thing in the morning so I went for scrambled egg with lettuce and a huge pot of green tea. (I may have the soup tonight)
The tea was delicious but the eggs done in the same way as Dao prepares them and so swimming in grease.
After breakfast I walked around for a few hours. As far as the border where I came in. Through two local markets and up and down several streets.
It is easy to wander around Poipet and look for the centre of the place and not find it. That's because there isn't one. It more or less fans out with the border post as the start.
Poverty, dirt, filth mixed in with dozens of mobile phone and gold shops. Kids at school and dirty little kids scrabbling in the dirt for rags and bits of plastic. Tiny kids pulling loads much bigger and heavier than themselves.
A big sign. Photograph of a young girl. "Protect our national treasure from child sex tourists". Although I don't hold with the term 'sex tourist' I am 100% for protecting kids against any sort of pervert regardless of their nationality. I probably have a greater hatred of paedophiles than most people and would lock them all away for their natural lives.
Poipet is a very dirty place. A poor place. Here, like all of Cambodia I am a very old man. Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge killed so many people (2.5 million) that practically a whole generation disappeared. Killed for wearing glasses, for being a teacher, for being able to speak a foreign language. It doesn't bear thinking about. Only we should. We should think about it, and often. It isn't as if this took place a long time ago. This was recent! I have a friend who watched both her parents killed in front of her by the Khmer Rouge.
I really don't know why we have a United Nations when they just sit back and do nothing and let such slaughter and abuse take place be it in Cambodia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Belarus or wherever.
I did meet a guy in Bangkok some time ago who was part of Khmer Rouge. He had left the country and was hidden away there. Not really hidden though because everybody knew who he was and what he had done. In fact they joked about it every time he appeared. I suppose there must be thousands like him.
Here in Poipet there are 30 motorcycle taxi chasing after every bus in the hope they may get a customer. Here it is the strongest that survive.
Around a corner from a school a small boy of about 5 years of age sat alone, crying, the weight of the world on his shoulders. Why? Bullied at school? Trouble at home? Hungry? Who knows? I felt so sorry for him. I remembered me doing the same thing at the same age. Bullied at school because I spoke differently, because I could already read, because I did not use the word 'fuck' in every sentence.
Returning to my room I showered. The dirt ran off in brown streams. Poipet is a very dirty place.
I looked out the window and watched some frightening Cambodian scaffolders at work.
Not really a great deal to do other than read and watch TV and as the TV is good and I watch so little of it usually that was what I was doing mainly. Besides there is a certain pleasure in relaxing. Normally I am researching, writing and answering mail for ten to twelve hours every day seven days a week in connection with Zoo News Digest.
I thought that as I had eaten breakfast that I would not be hungry till this evening. Quite the opposite though. I was very hungry by noon and ravenous by one o'clock. I went to a restaurant on the corner and ate there. Chicken fried rice. Very tasty but I really can't figure which bit of the chicken the tiny bits of gristle and bone came from. I like chicken feet but this it was not. As I say, I cannot quite figure it. A girl working there came to talk to me. Pretty girl about 17. Trouble is we had no language in common in spite of the fact that I am sure she thought that she was speaking English. It is likely she was and it can all be blamed on who taught her.
I recollected the girl I spoke to a few years back. She was from the 'Karen' hill tribe of Northern Thailand but spoke English with the broad Scottish accent she had picked up from her teacher.
After lunch I went and bought a big bunch of bananas to stave off any future hunger pangs.
Early evening and another long walk, much of it tracing my steps from before. It is difficult not to here. More people about in the cool of the evening. Some places setting themselves up for a party. I hope that does not mean there is some sort of national holiday or I really will be stuck here for longer than I intended.
There is though that feeling I get. If I stay anywhere for more than 24 hours it grows on me. Tonight I feel that with Poipet. I sort of like the place. I am still anxious to get 'home' but...
Here it is a simple life. A hard life, in fact a very hard life for many. One wonders how they make enough money to feed themselves let alone raise a family. What about having fun? The Cambodian people are always ready with a smile or a laugh. I can't begin to imagine the culture shock they would experience in visiting somewhere like Pattaya in Thailand.
Tonight I saw (for the second time today, only now in a new location) some sort of show. It was all in Khmer so I don't know what was being said but it had collected a huge amount of onlookers, mostly half naked and very dirty little street kids. All sitting and chattering away excitedly.
As I watched it struck me that not once has anyone approached me and ask me for money in all my wanderings around. There have been a few I would gladly have given too as well. I was reminded of my Indian Girl, Valla, in one instance and of being mugged by a group of tiny Manila street kids a few years ago. I never dreamed that it would be necessary to punch, kick and then run from kids, but it was.
Walking back I saw a woman pulling a huge cart loaded with around two dozen water containers. Each container was at least twice as heavy as her. Although she was hatted and masked as so many Cambodian women are I could see her eyes and part of her face. She put me in mind of Gloria. My little Gloria. I wonder whatever became of her? Not heard from her in a long while now. Life for Gloria was always tough. They say that everyone has a book in them. There was a library in Gloria.
Back at the hotel one of the concierges whispered something about 'boom boom'. I laughed the suggestion off.
My meal this evening was a bit of a disappointment as every choice I made from the menu was a "no have". In the end I asked the waiter to choose and ended up with fried chicken and rice.
Friday 24th December 2010
Christmas Eve. Who would believe it?
Apart from two girls singing 'we wish you a merry Xmas' last night I have seen and heard nothing of the event.
I slept badly without my lovers golden arms around me. Half watched and half listened to the TV all night.
I haven't really a clue as to what is happening today. At a guess I will be told to head to the border at a little before noon and so head on back into Thailand on one of the minibuses which brought me here. No doubt they will be here on another trip, or perhaps not because of holidays. We will see.
Breakfast I thought to try 'Fried Eggs with bread'. The photograph in the menu book showed something like a grey omelet flecked with green and two slices of soggy bread. When it arrived that is exactly....really exactly what it looked like. Happily it tasted none too bad.
This was English type sliced bread and actually tasted better than its equivalent in Thailand. They do French bread in Cambodia better than anyone else. I met a French guy in Phnom Penh some years ago who told me the French had lost or thrown away the recipe for real French bread but the Cambodians had kept it. It is delicious.
For me, good coffee in the morning is one of the essentials of life. I have not had a coffee since I arrived here because I know from past experiences that they make the worst coffee in the world. In fact it tastes nothing like coffee at all.
Check out time from the hotel is 12 noon and a 100 baht an hour for each hour overstay.
After breakfast I packed and made ready to go. Just in case. I then had a nose bleed. First one in months and from the nostril that was snuffling the other day. Maybe that was it and not a cold at all.
I rang 'La' to ask him what was going to happen today. There was no answer and after five rings it cut off or he cut the call off.
I went out for a walk. I saw a 'falang' striding along the road towards me. He stopped to chat. Scottish and covered in tattoos. Worked in timeshare in Phuket and was here, like me, for visa renewal. He was on his way to collect his bag and get across the border. He was anxious to be back in Phuket for Christmas tomorrow. I doubted that he would do it. It was nearly noon and he would have to get all the way to Bangkok for an as yet unbooked flight. I suggested he check with a travel agent over the border as there may even be an airport close by. He told me that last time he came to Poipet for a visa he was told 2 days but it was 5 days before he had it. Not very reassuring.
My walk through the dirty little town was much the same as yesterday I noted three 'massage' parlours. Very basic rough looking places constructed of corrugated tin with very basic home made beds. Cheap though at 50 baht. Even at that price I doubt they get much custom.
More fighting cocks in evidence in Cambodia than in Thailand though the activity is very popular there. Neither could beat the Philippines though where it is probably the most popular thing to do apart from watching Manny Pacquiou fight. Although very much a 'sport' of the working man I wondered if there was perhaps some sort of Pan Asian competition. A horrible and cruel activity.
Back in the hotel I rang 'La' again. Same thing. No answer. Well, once it goes past the 12 noon time it is not going to be me who is paying for the extra hours.
By 12.30 I had phoned 'La' another couple of times with the same negative results. We were into room stay overtime. I was beginning to become resigned to be stuck here.
At 14.00 I still had not heard anything. Though resigned to another night I was pissed off. When you pay good money, hard earned money for a service you expect to get service and I felt that I was not getting that here. Not a thing I can do. I can't go anywhere because I have not got a passport. I can't telephone anybody apart from 'La' and he isn't answering. To top it all I am getting hungry and a few bananas has not helped too much.
Night fell. 18.00. There is a party at the end of the road and I will investigate after I have showered and shaved. Possibly gatecrash. I may even investigate a casino tonight. It is Christmas Eve. I haven't got any money but I do have enough to buy me and a pretty lady a drink.
At 18.30 my phone rang. Amazing. It was a Thai number. It was Nok. It was great to hear her voice even though she was peeved that I was still in Cambodia and that I had not rung her. I tried to explain and I think maybe she understood.
Because Nok had got through to me I wondered if I could send an SMS to Thailand and so sent one to Dao asking her to ring me. She did in an instant. Unfortunately we were cut off in mid sentence by two text messages in Thai which suggest that the credit has run out on my phone. Dammit.
The party turned out to be a very private affair and everyone a lot more smartly dressed than me. I set out for the casino but my gut instinct told me I had been 'marked'. There were two tall young guys following me. I changed sides of the road and so did they. I changed direction and so did they. I returned to the hotel. I thought it may be quicker, easier and safer to use a motorcycle but in the end gave up on the idea altogether.
In my room I watched 'Four Chrismasses' on the TV. It was very funny and all the moreso after a few cans of Tiger. I dropped off during whatever followed it.
Saturday 25th December 2010
Christmas day. Who would believe I would be stuck somewhere like this on Xmas day? Not a hint of the event around the hotel. Nor should there be I suppose.
It was another fitful night without the golden arms of my lover wrapped about me. I could have slumbered till noon but thought I would get up 'just in case'.
I brought three shirts and three pairs of underwear with me. Now I am into wearing the same twice. This pisses me off, and especially here where the filth and dirt cling to you in the sweating heat. Could be worse though, it could be summer.
After breakfast I had a go on the internet and managed to locate the email address of the company which booked me the visa run. I told them I had not planned to spend Christmas in Poipet and I had been unable to contact their agent here in spite of numerous phone calls. I don't expect a reply.
I took a walk and then back for a shower. I thought to myself I will walk to the next town in the early evening. There has to be something more interesting than this dirty dusty road.
Then the phone rang. The receptionist said I was checking out today. She had heard from the agent and he had said this. Interesting.
I returned to my room and sent two text messages to the numbers I had and In minutes I had a phone call from 'La'. All excuses but "check out and go to to departure on border". I walked there and was handed my passport. I left Cambodia and by 12.30 was in the queue to get into Thailand.
I had only a small, light backpack with me but as I leaned over to pick it up I felt something 'click' in my back. Dammit. It was already painful and that was without the minibus journey back to Pattaya. I hoped I was not going to have a repetiton of London. That took weeks to heal.
Points to ponder: How long is the working life of a Cambodian (or for that matter a Thai) welder who relies on dark glasses or squinting for eye protection?
How come there are not masses of accidents on either side of the Thai border as the Thais move over from driving on the left to the right and the Cambodians from the right to the left?
I had to wait on the Thai side of the border whilst other people leaving Cambodia were sent on their way to Bangkok. The smell of rotting fish was gagging.
A small beggar boy came and stood in front of me and indicated he wanted to eat. He was a Downs child. His front teeth were missing. I felt so sorry for him. I sent him away but then called him back when no other kids were in sight. I gave him enough money to eat for a week and indicated that he should not let any of the other kids see. He understood. I wondered though whether he, like Valla, would share.
The minibus to Pattaya was full almost to overflowing. Dao rang me. She was happy I was back in Thailand. She said she was worried about me.
Back in Pattaya the traffic was gridlocked. I asked to be let out and walked 'home'.
Dao was waiting. She hugged me and said "Merry Christmas". First Christmas greeting and it was near 6 in the evening.
I was relieved to be back. I thought a Christmas meal would not go amiss. I had only had my egg breakfast today. I walked down the road. A startingly beautiful girl approached me with a huge smile "Peeturr, Happy Christmas". Difficult one. I could not think who she was and yet I thought I could not seriously forget someone so attractive. I shook her hand rather than hugging and kissing her.
I walked round several restaurants. Some were fully booked and other exhorbitantly priced. I bought a burger and a San Mig Lite and took them home. My Christmas dinner. A burger! Mind you it was good.
Dao said she was going to a party. Did I want to go? I declined.
It WAS Christmas though. I could not really afford it but I needed to enjoy it.
I rang Nok. She asked me to meet her at an address in Pattaya Klang so I made my way there. She was in a room with Bee, Fang and Pon. None of them at work in the Beer Bar? Strange.
I said to Nok that we would head on down to the Coconut Bar and walk on down to Walking Street. The girls would join us later.
As we walked she told me that yesterday the Mamasan had argued with her (I know Nok is fiery) and so she had walked out. The three girls walked out with her...though they may well go back.
We had a drink here and there and then settled in the Rolling Stone Bar 2 and listened to great music. The girls, dolled up to the eyebrows joined us. Me and four beautiful ladies. Now Christmas was happening! I had had half my Chistmas in Cambodia but it was ending in Thailand. Christmas in Pattaya.
Nok and I moved on to GoGo Bar and then made our way to Naklua. Here we ordered food in a restaurant and Nok cooked for me on the table. Delicious.
We then went to her room. We made love. It was exquisite. We talked at length in each others arms. Why Nok? I don't know. Fate brought us together. No doubt fate will part us.
Stopping off on Beach road I started to walk to my room. It was 04.30 in the morning. Turning onto Third Road I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. It was advancing on me quickly. It was Lak. She threw herself at me legs up around my waist and arms around my neck. "Peeturr, I love you". There were three girls asleep on the floor of her beer bar. I had one drink with her and continued.
Noi stepped out of the shadows. "Peter, my boyfriend leave me. You buy me drink?." I declined. "It's Christmas" She said. I replied I would buy her a drink at New Year.
It was after 05.00 (Boxing Day) when I reached my room. I undressed quietly brushed my teeth and climbed into bed. My lover wrapped her golden arms around me. I slept.
Christmas had not turned out too badly after all.