Sunday, December 28, 2008

Cambodian Adventure Day One - getting there

Oh Dear Lord! When I said I wanted more adventure in my life, I think I should have been a bit more specific. Getting from Rayong, Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia involved no less than:

2 Songthaews (we missed our stop and had to get back on going the opposite direction)

See how happy Bunny is... we have no idea what we're getting into!

a mini-van to Bangkok (zooming along at something close to light speed)

the BTS sky train

an opalescent nail-polish pink meter taxi

a 'good god why doesn't my air conditioning work I may actually die of heat stroke' bus to Aranyapatet (Thai side of the border)

the nastiest ever bus toilet - the door wouldn't shut & the overly full flushing bucket kept splashing on the floor

while we're at it - two squat toilets too horrid to describe

an over priced tuk tuk to the Cambodian Embassy (for an overpriced visa)

Thai passport control

a walk across the 'friendship bridge' over not a river but oceans of plastic bags & garbage

Cambodian passport control

A taxi. The taxi from hell.

Another tuk tuk

Walking into Poipet, Cambodia was overwhelming. It was the dirtiest and dustiest place I've ever been. There were tons of people crossing from one side to the other (we were the only tourists there) and another ton waiting on the other side, and we were immediately set upon by people offering us a taxi into Siem Reap. We'd read in the guidebook that we should expect to pay around $40 US* for the 3 hour ride. The first few taxi drivers offered us a ride for $45 & up. We kept saying "no thanks, no thanks, we want to walk"* but they simply didn't leave us alone. One guy followed us the entire way across the bridge and even waited while we went through passport control. It was annoying in the extreme. We were eager to get someplace where we could see a few different taxis so we could pick the least aggressive one... no such luck. They kept telling us they had the 'last taxi'... which was odd because there were about five of them saying this.

A short way into the city there was an old dusty bus and it felt like everyone in the vicinity was ushering us onto it. There was a sign that said "Bus to transportation terminal" or something like that, and really we didn't know what else to do, so we got on. So did like four of the taxi drivers. It was one of those moments where we just looked at each other like "What just happened?" We don't know these people, we don't know where this bus is going, what the hell is going on here? They were making friendly small talk in English and we tried to just go along with it. A few miles down the dirt road (absolute clouds of brown dust everywhere) they pulled over into the parking lot of a large new-looking building. There was nothing else in the immediate area, and the sign said "Transportation Terminal".

We might have relaxed at this point... after all we had wanted to get to the transportation hub. The problem was, the hub wasn't exactly humming. It was empty, no people, no furniture, no signs, no nothing, no garbage even. There was *one* taxi in the gravel parking lot and aside from a few people outside huddled around it, no one, NO ONE in the building. I asked where the toilet was, eager for just five minutes away from these guys so we could get our collective heads together. Naturally, there were only squat toilets available. =/ We kind of freaked out for a while but eventually realized there wasn't much we could do... we needed to take a taxi into Siem Reap and they really did have the only taxi available.

Back outside, they told us the taxi ride would be $60... nice change up from the $45 they'd been offering back at the border. The three of us just turned around and walked. It was too much. We'd been harassed from the border, taken to an abandoned building and more or less bullied into a taxi. But then, where exactly were we going to walk to? Dusk was falling at this time and it was a good couple of miles back to the border. So when the taxi guys started chasing us again offering us a 'discount' we turned around and took it. We even talked them back down to $40. Of course then half the guys started asking for a tip... which, obviously, we did not give. We all climbed into the back, refusing the offer to have our belongings put in the trunk, or to let one of us sit in the back. I wasn't about to trust these people any farther than I had to. Which was still much farther than I would have liked.

On this three hour taxi ride from hell, I had a lot of time to ponder the nature of fear. I was terrified... absolutely terrified. The road was only partially paved. At times it was at least a pressed & smoothed dirt/gravel road that was merely bumpy and uncomfortable to ride on, but at times it was incredibly rough and we were tossed about like a rowboat in the middle of the ocean. I huddled close to Bobby and tried not to freak out. Because up to this point nothing bad had actually happened to us. I mean, from another perspective, you could say these guys eagerly greeted us at the boarder and ushered us effortlessly to the last taxi available, saving us from having to spend the night in town. But in my mind, their aggressiveness, our unfamiliarity with the situation, the strangeness of being in a new country (a country with a horrifyingly gruesome recent past), the deep deep darkness, and our inability to choose among different options just had my guard all the way up.

But still, I was uninjured, no one had threatened me, I was just in a really really uncomfortable situation. I tried to comfort myself with the mantra "At this moment I am safe." which at least for a few seconds would distract me from my terror. But in addition to the road being inconsistently paved, there were several small bridges under construction along the way. Each bridge-in-progress involved a backwards 'C' shaped detour*, off the road into a gully, and back steeply up and out of the gully & back onto the road. The first time he veered off the road, I made peace with my maker because I was certain he was going to pull off the road and kill us all. Of course he didn't, but once that thought entered my mind, I simply couldn't get it out. He made a couple cell phone calls, and at each one I was sure he was telling his accomplices to meet him at location X with shot guns & shovels to hide our bodies.

Again, I was aware that the fear was only mental... but it was real nonetheless. I kept my mantra going, and when Bunny started chattering inanely I joined in fully, even playing her favorite game - 20 questions (both general & Harry Potter versions) - a few times. The road was sporadically populated and when I saw other people walking or biking around I felt minutely better... if they were unafraid, maybe it really was safe. Of course as we passed one woman running down a lane with a flash light Bunny suggested she might be a ghost thus negating any comfort she'd provided with her babbling.

After the first hour I did try to convince myself that if he'd wanted to rob & kill us it would have been more efficient to do so closer to town (you know, why waste all that gas)... but it just didn't stop the terror. The problem was, the ride was too long. About 2 hours and 50 minutes too long in my mind. And every time he pulled off the road onto a detour, I was sure again that we'd be dead at worst, or at best robbed and stranded. I took some of my cash out of my wallet and stuck it deep in my backpack.... just in case. But nothing, nothing was shaking the terror from my little brain.

Finally, FINALLY we pulled into Siem Reap and I started to relax, just a bit. As we drove we passed huge shiny-new high end tourist resorts that made the city look more like LA than Cambodia. It was really unbelievable. Once we got to a fairly busy road, the taxi driver just pulled over. We paid him the $40 and started hiking away. Naturally, he'd dropped us off near his 'buddy' the tuk-tuk driver... but we were having none of it. Comforted by urban lights and noise and busyness we headed for the nearest well lit restaurant.

Interestingly it was a Japanese place, and although we weren't in the mood for dinner, they let us sit down and have some Iced Tea while we sorted ourselves out and tried to call our hostel. They even brought us nice cool handiwipes to clean the dirt and stress of the day off of us. It was the first time since we'd gotten off the bus in Aranyapatet some 4 or 5 hours earlier that I felt like we had any sort of control over what was happening. In a few minutes a tuk tuk from the hostel arrived to transport us to our temporary home. It was only after we were safely locked in our room that I could finally relax. Our room was clean, the beds were comfy and the bathroom had not only a western toilet but a HOT shower as well. I enjoyed my first hot shower since September and collapsed into bed, relieved to be done with Day One of this crazy Cambodian adventure.

*Cambodia was a surreal blend of third world poverty and American style comforts. The people involved in the tourist industry speak English remarkably well (especially considering it was in my lifetime that people were murdered for speaking a foreign language) and signs are in a mix of Khmer, English and occasionally French. They also drive on the right side of the road, and use the dollar for all but the smallest of transactions. The ATM gives you US dollars, and you'll might change back in a mix of dollars and riel (4,000 riel to the dollar)... the math was most disturbing. The main streets of both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh were overrun with foreign restaurants, Italian, American, Japanese, Indian, Korean, Spanish, even Mexican. But it was always evident that the wealth and western style comforts were a mix of foreign investments and foreign colonization.... I saw no sign of true Cambodian wealth, or even a thriving middle class. But I'll have more to say about that later.

Cambodian Advisory Guide for the day - Code Durian... this day made me want to go back to the US more than anything I've experienced thus far.


gl. said...

as soon as i saw where this post was headed, i jumped to the end to see what the TAG was. if you're going to use Durian, this sounds like the time to do it! happier new year...

Rebel said...

Yeah... I'm still hanging out in stage 2 of culture shock and this ride just pushed me over the edge. I feel better now though, and don't plan on leaving any time soon.

Michael5000 said...

You're my hero.

Rebel said...

M5K - I still fail to see how being terrified of a taxi ride makes someone a hero. You should read up on Rosa Parks & Sally Ride. =)