countin' the days

Friday, June 12, 2009

No No No No No... NO!

Immediately upon our arrival in Cambodia, we were confronted with what would become one of the many themes of the next 2 months: how to say "NO," over and over and over again. This is, of course, thanks to the plentiful touts & other characters, endlessly offering up whatever possible item or service you just might fork over some cash for.

It began, in a bad way, in Poipet. After getting our passports stamped, we found ourselves surrounded by a varitable sh*tstorm of touts. All were wearing suits (madness in this heat!), wielding "official badges" (ha!), and offering insanely overpriced transport (do I LOOK like a moron, or are YOU just one?). After the whole thermometer incident, I'd had it. I looked at Tim with utter despair, at one point covering my ears with my hands and shaking my head. I couldn't do much but walk away. Tim handled things well, laughing at people and joking around, but eventually the only thing either of us wanted to do was walk away. So we did. Amazingly, one tout followed us a half kilometer down the road, first on foot, then on a motorbike, then in a taxi! Fool. By that point, we were resolved not to spend one thin dime with those bastards. Graciously, an honest taxi driver came by and took us on to Battambang for the RIGHT price, we left that little mongrel in our dust, and in a speedy two hours, we were far from Poipet in lovely Battambang.

I purposely came to Battambang to experience a "real" Cambodian city, and it was a good call. We didn't do anything all too exciting in our time there (being burned out on the whole journey), but had a nice time strolling around its streets and getting a real, and much better, feel for Cambodia. What we found were delightful people, full of smiles & cheer & grace, who were nothing but friendly and helpful. Sure, we had to say "no" plenty of times, but it wasn't so bad.

The real "no" game began in Siem Reap. I knew it was coming, Siem Reap being a huge tourist town, and it wasn't even quite as bad as I'm imagined. But more or less every few feet, you had to say no to some tuk-tuk driver, massage parlor lady, or kid selling postcards. I wouldn't have minded so much, except that these people began to come up to our tables, while we were eating, offering us random crap as we chewed away. My "nos" became a tad more firm at these times. Eventually, we did have to say "yes" to a tuk-tuk driver, when it was finally time to go see the legendary Angkor Wat.

Journey Into Cambodia

After leaving Vang Vieng, we had our eyes on the prize: Cambodia. But we were way up in Northern Laos. Originally, we thought about heading into Cambodia via Southern Laos, bussing it all the way to Siem Reap. Then we started looking at maps, and realizing the actual distance required to travel this route, and it wasn't looking good. Plus, knowing full well the realities of bus travel in Laos -- meaning that a few hundred kilometers that should take mere hours take over half a day, if you're lucky -- we just weren't feeling it. But flying was a financial non-option. The Thailand trains were calling our name.

So back to Thailand we went. We skipped over Vientiane, not wanting to waste any time rambling about in a random city (with no climbing in sight). We spent an entire day sitting on several different buses to make it from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, then from there over and across the Thai border. I knew we'd only be spending a couple quick days there, but as always, it was a tremendous delight to be back in Thailand. Within seconds of crossing the border, I could smell the fish sauce frying with garlic, chili, and sweetness wafting through the air -- the distinctly Thai aroma -- and my empty belly was rumbling away. We killed the next 24 hours in Nong Khai, eating our way around the city, until it was time to catch the train.

Out of sheer excess and a hefty dose of curiosity, we opted for the first class cabin on the train. It was certainly a first for me (First Class?! Usually an unheard of travel term!), and my, what fun it was. We had a whole air-conditioned cabin to ourselves, a plush little room with loads of space and even free bottled water. Fortunately I remembered to bring a couple beers along so we could celebrate properly.

Early the next morning, we arrived in Bangkok. The Hualamphong station always amazes me ... for a huge train station in the middle of a huge city, you'd think it would be a crazy nightmare, but really it's a chill place and not entirely all too bad to spend a few hours in. We decided to keep the train a-movin' (literally) and bought an onward ticket to the Cambodian border. After feasting on Thai food one last time at a street vendor's stall in the sweaty mid-day heat, off we went.

The second train was decidedly worse. In fact, it was pretty awful. A 6 hour ride on hard plastic seats, crammed in with loads of other people, no A/C, and some serious train-chug-a-luggin' noise. My main mode of distraction came in the form of an ancient, pug-faced old man sitting in front of me, who between bouts of staring absent-mindedly at his hands & drinking from a Pepsi can rolling around on the floor, would whip out a comb and try to smooth down the few grey hairs left on his head that, inevitably, would get whipped around by the wind every time he put the thing down.

The next morning, it was time for the border. We had heard loads of nightmare stories about this particular border, Poipet, and fortunately had the insight to read up on all the scams at beforehand. We made it through the tuk-tuk driver who tried to take us to a travel agent to get our visas beforehand (scam!), the guy at the Thai border who tried to get us to buy a visa beforehand (scam!), the guys on the Cambodian side trying to get us to buy a visa beforehand (scam!), the "official" border agent saying he must charge us a 100 baht fee to process our visas (scam!), and almost thought we'd made it scot-free. Then came the "Health Quarantine." We filled out a bullshit form, no problem, and then they wanted to take our temperatures... big problem. We thought it was a clear scam (suspisciously high temperature leads to bribe), but what was worse, we didn't want that disgusting, unclean ear thermometer anywhere near us. We bitched to high hell for about 15 minutes, yelling at people, wondering why the Cambodians weren't being tested but we were, refusing to acknowledge these so-called doctors' explanations, until finally a border "official" told Tim that if he wouldn't have his temperature taken then they'd have to go "have a talk" in a private room. Well, that did it. We cringed at the ear thermometer, but that was that. Naturally, we whippped out the hand sanitizer immediately (for the soiled ear), but before we knew it we were stamped into Cambodia.