The bus arrived at the Cambodian border at around 3.30am, and we had to wait until the damn thing opened (at 7am) before we could proceed. Bit of an odd way of doing things, but the idea is that you sleep on the coach so you’re first over the border in the morning. The problem is that Saigon is only three hours away from the border. Maybe if Saigon was seven hours away it would be somehow more sensible, or maybe if the border was open 24 hours, but I guess it beats the bus leaving at 3am.
By 8am we were in Cambodia and flying along on the way to the capital, Phnom Penh. The annoying couple nattered annoyingly for the next few hours, and I was tremendously concerned that my iPod might run out of batteries before they did.
Cambodia will for a long time be stained with the memory of what happened when pint-sized tin-pot dictator/serial killer Pol Pot and his bunch of thicko thugs they called the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975. In the space of just a few years, they had decimated the population, destroyed the economy and enforced starvation on untold numbers of men, women and children.
All in the name of, not progress…, but ANTI-progress. Yup. Pol Pot, being a bit of a Luddite, wanted to take Cambodia back to some mythical time in the past when everyone was a happy subsistence farmer. So anyone who wore glasses or spoke a foreign language was bludgeoned to death with the butt of a rifle.
Now I’ve met one or two people on this trip who share Pol Pot’s romanticised ideal of subsistence farming. Apparently, it’s what we should all do. Live in harmony with nature! Dig for victory! Save the planet!
I hate to say that these people stupid and deluded: but they’re stupid and deluded. Subsistence farming is the most wretched way of living in the modern age, because (whisper it loudly) sometimes crops FAIL.
And if the crop fails, what have you got, farm-boy? A whole heap of nuthin’. And what can you buy or trade with nuthin’? Nuthin’. Now it might be alright if you’re part of a loving, giving community and they give you some free food to keep you going for a year, but what if their crops have failed too? What if the rains don’t come for an entire region? You think Dharma is going to do a supply drop on Hurley’s head?
And, excuse me, but what if you don’t want to be a farmer? I certainly don’t, and neither (obviously) does anyone who chooses to live in a city, which is now most of us humans. I can’t even keep a pot plant alive for more than a few weeks.
China in the 50s, Biafra in the 60s, Cambodia in the 70s, Ethiopia in the 80s. Subsistence farming is a great idea. If you’re a pint-sized sadist who likes to watch children with skeletal legs and swollen bellies collapse face down in the dust. But why are the simple farmers in Africa always so damn happy, eh? What’s with those big African smiles? I just think they are damn happy just to be alive, since there’s a good chance that their parents and many of their brothers and sisters are not.
But I digress. Cambodia is getting back on it’s feet and although Pol Pot escaped justice by inconveniently dying in the late 90s, some of his cronies are now languishing in jail for their crimes against humanity. With a influx of tourism and the Chinese keen to develop the area and build new roads, the future could be exceedingly bright for little ol’ Cambodia – as soon as they tackle the child prostitution and endemic corruption. But that aside, I love Cambodia: the people are warm and inquisitive and the food is a cracking fusion of Chinese and SE Asian dishes. It’s cheap and cheerful and I could happy spend weeks rampaging around the magnificent Angkor Temples: one of my existing seven wonders of the world.
Before too long we were herded off the bus and stood at the side of the road in a little market cowering under plastic sheeting from the torrents of rain that was pouring from the sky. Groovily enough, as I was about to buy a can of Coke that was floating in the icy water of a coolbox, a British guy offered to buy it for me. When I asked why I was the recipient of this remarkable act of charity, the guy, James, told me that he had been watching my TV show in Phnom Penh where he worked as a teacher.
Thanking James and making a mental note that if this level of recognition continues I’m going to have to stop getting so delightfully drunk every time I’m stuck somewhere for the night, I climbed aboard a connecting bus: this one would be heading to Siem Reap, Cambodia’s second city and home to the remarkable Angkor Temple Complex. The last time I travelled this way, the road was in such a state that it was (perversely) much quicker to take a boat along Tonté Sap River. Not now though: the road had been sorted out and the journey time between the two cities had been cut in half.
So at 3pm we pulled into the bus station to the south of Siem Reap (meaning “Thailand Defeated” – a reference to an ancient battle on this site) and I was picked up by a kid on a motorbike tuk-tuk who worked for the tour agency I had bought my ticket off. He gave me some unhappy news: that the connecting bus to Bangkok wouldn’t be leaving until midnight.
What what? That’s madness… the border is just a few hours away! It would mean another night sleeping on a bus and I wouldn’t get into Bangkok until 11am the next day.
This was an unacceptable turn of events. He told me to get some food and he’d see if he could get me on an earlier bus. So I found a restaurant with wi-fi and set about stuffing my face with tasty seafood fried rice while hurriedly stuffing some blogs up on the website. After 20 minutes the kid came back – the news was not good. The last bus to the border left at 3pm.
The stupidity of the situation was quite gobsmacking – why didn’t they just delay the 3pm bus for half an hour and make it connect with the bus from Phnom Penh? Weird. Anyway: there’s always a plan B, and despite the kid’s protestations that I’d never make it to the border in time, I secured a shared taxi ride to the frontier.
I made it over the border with the minimum of fuss and found that, contrary to what I’d been told, the border was going to be open for another couple of hours at least. So I got stamped out of Cambodia (a little miffed about the lack of a transit visa option – $25 for a full tourist visa for just a day was a little OTT) and marched into country 175 – Thailand.
Ah, to be back in Thailand: backpacker HQ. As far as I’m concerned, if you haven’t been to Thailand you’re not a real backpacker and if you don’t like Thailand you’re not a real backpacker either. That’s my prejudice and I’m sticking to it. I love the place – the original Land of Smiles™, cheap accommodation, white sand beaches and go-go girls (if they do actually turn out to be girls).
Sadly, the days of the three month entry stamp are now over and I only got two weeks. But I’m buzzing through on this trip anyway, so it doesn’t make too much of a difference. I found a few buses heading to Bangkok, but none of them were going to get in before 11pm.
I had the crazy notion that if I got to Bangkok’s Northern Bus Station quick enough that there would be a late bus heading north to Chiang Mai, or, even better, Chiang Rai – from where I could spring my surprise attack on Laos and Burma.
While I was still negotiating with the bus guys at the side of the road, a coach was departing.
“Bangkok?” I shouted.
The middle aged lady hanging out of the doorway nodded her head frantically.
“Yes, yes – come aboard.”
So I did. It would have been easier if the bus wasn’t still moving, but this driver was gung-ho for getting to Bangkok. He sped along the road, gunned it around corners and possibly ran a few red lights. Must have been late for his dinner.
Which was good for me: it meant that by 9.30pm I was in Bangkok. However, a lady that spoke English informed me that the last bus to the north left at 8pm and that I’d have to spend the night in Bangkok.
This was not what I wanted to hear and after getting off the bus in West Bangkok I thought about it for a bit: if someone asked me when the last bus or train ran from Liverpool to London I’d have a vague idea, but I wouldn’t know for definite. There have been more than a few times on this Odyssey in which I’ve been told one thing by the locals only to find the reality is something very different.
Sod it – I’ll take a taxi to the northern bus station. Even if the last bus up north has gone, I can at least find out what time the first one goes in the morning.
I arrived at the bus station at 9.55pm.
“Where you go?” asked the guy hanging around at the front of the ticket desks.
The guy pointed at a nearby desk.
“Ten o’clock. Last bus. Hurry.”
I couldn’t believe my luck. I bought the ticket and legged it over to the bus platform, grabbing a bag of crisps and a Coke on the way – I had had nothing to eat since Siem Reap. The bus was pulling out and again I jumped on board while it was moving.
“Chiang Rai. Ticket?”
I handed over my ticket, monopolised the five back seats and got my head down for the night. With a mixture of luck, quick thinking and bull-headed determination I had saved myself an entire day of travel: tomorrow I would knock another two countries off the list. HELL YEAH!