We visited Thailand once before; over chuseok in 2003, from Korea. We weren't here for long enough to do much more than learn to say 'sawatdee' and visit an angkorean temple up near the Cambodian border.
Bangkok is much as I remember it - big, noisy, dirty, full of fast and dirty livin'.
We managed without too much trouble to find Ben and Jen and Ossie and promptly went out for beer sna dinner to catch up.
Cut to the morning; Ossie and Deb and I have almost decided to abort our trip in mid-July to return to Korea for a month or so - summer camps in korea will earn us enough money to actually make it to Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, as is the Official Plan. Jojo, put the kettle on. Tim, you'd better be gone by the time we get there; we'll catch you in England towards the end of the year. We're all entirely resolved that it will only be for the summer camp period; come mid-august we'll head back to China and onwards west. We're now waiting on Lao visas and on a reply from Sarah, who (and whose Thai family) we're supposed to go and visit while we're here. We'll wait another week or so in Thailand and then head out to Laos, after which we'll return to Thailand to fly out. Or so goes the plan.
This afternoon we (excluding Deb, who seems to have a crook guts) went to Panthip Plaza - six huge floors chock-full of electronic gear and computers and such. Ossie bought a laptop here the other day; I bought some speakers for my iKillah, a headlamp to replace the one I gave Khoa in Sai Gon, and - best invention ever - an electric tennis racquet for killing mosquitoes and other noisome insects. It's awesome. Turn it on and hold the button, and if it hits anything, it crackles and arcs blue. Haven't tried it on Ossie yet; looks like it might hurt. Have great plans for electro-tennis-racquet fights.
Ben and Jen had to go to the Sony shop to replace a lead which was in Jen's pack; apparently it was just around the corner so we waited for them. Got talking to an old Thai geezer who lived in Patong, on Phuket island, before and during the tsunami, talked at some length about the effects of the economy and such. He's betting 30,000 baht - about $1000 - on Brazil winning the World Cup, which I think is a good bet. Last time he bet on Argentina, who were knocked out in the group stages, and his wife forbade him from betting on football again. This time he's going to make it all better, he reckons. Also talked to a tuktuk driver who claims to be from Laos - he explained the way tuktuk prices work in bangkok, and why tuktuks always seem more expensive than meter taxis - if you don't play the game, the tuktuk drivers charge you the 'not playing the game' price. What game, you ask? Tuktuks work almost entirely on kickbacks - they run you by an associated shop - gems, jewelry, clothes, etc - and you look around. They get a 5 litre fuel voucher worth about 150b just for bringing you in, whether you buy or not. If you don't stop and look, you get charged full rate. If you do, you get charged some minimal amount like 10b. Yes; from 100 down to 10b just by going and looking at some silk.
Ben and Jen didn't turn up, so we agreed to go with Mr Lao to his gem shop on the way back. It's a curious circumstance; in Vietnam or China or back home you'd be charged to take a tour of a gemstone and jewelry workshop, but here they basically pay you to do so. It was indeed interesting; we feigned interest and asked lots of silly questions, watched the jewelers at work, and left without buying anything. Mr Lao was happy because he got his fuel ticket, we got a look around the shop - the only people not happy were the ones selling overpriced costume jewelry. On the ride back to the hotel, another tuktuk driver, while we were stopped at a light, offered us a small bag of ganja for 1000b - about $25. Bollocks to that, we said. He shrugged and rolled himself a spliff then and there, and asked if we wanted any heroin, only 5000b. Not this life-cycle, thanks anyway. About 5 minutes later we saw him stopped on the side of the road, still smoking his spliff, explaining to a police officer why he was smoking a spliff while driving his tuktuk. Mr Lao reckons he'd be fined about 5000b.
Nothing much else to report from the day. Tomorrow evening we should get our Lao visas, hopefully a response from Sarah, and then we'll know what we're up to.
Anlong Veng and Prasat Preah Vihear
The last two places the Khmer Rouge ruled in Cambodia. Until 1997 or so, there was apparently no road into Anlong Veng - it was a border town in a malarial jungle swamp, backed up against a rugged range of mountains which form the border with Thailand. In 1997, Pol Pot, who'd lived thereabouts since 1979 or so, did one last deed which turned even his own men against him, ordering the assassination of Son Sen (formerly in charge of Tuol Sleng) and everyone with him - fourteen people in all. This was the last straw, and Pol Pot's successor (he'd retired from the Central Committee Secretariat in 1989 or so) Ta Mok ordered him to be arrested and tried by the Khmer Rouge. If that wasn't enough, Hun Sen (also a former KR cadre; then and now Prime Minister of Cambodia) ordered government troops to take Anlong Veng, and build a road to it to prevent it falling back into KR hands. The remaining Khmer Rouge militia peppered the area liberally with booby traps and landmines and faded into the jungle, eventually fleeing 100km East to the Angkor-era mountain temple at Prasat Preah Vihear, on the Thai border, where they made their last stand.
Anlong Veng is an awful place. It's still a filthy border town in a malarial jungle swamp, even though there's an average-quality dirt road in there nowadays. It's still under siege from landmines; only areas within 30 metres of a road have been (mostly) cleared. The remnants of the Khmer Rouge apparently still have some influence here. There are a few stone or brick buildings, but mostly it's a dusty street with sagging wooden stilt-houses on either side. The water table is so low that when holes were dug for the stilts, water flowed up, creating a stagnant pool of water which the house's inhabitants immediately proceeded to fill up with polystyrene food containers, plastic bags, food scraps (nothing in this world, <>i>nothing, smells as bad as a scum-filled ditch full of durian rind. Really. Nothing.), shit and piss (I saw people pissing out their windows), anything. The people are cagey and hard-looking; there's only one restaurant which seems safe to eat at, etc. We arrived just before dusk on the 26th, on the only bus, which leaves Anlong Veng early in the morning and returns from Siem Reap in the evening, and were besieged by moto drivers. We worked our normal strategy, which is to immediately sit down somewhere and have a beer, waiting for the eejits and hangers-on to leave, while the serious people stay around. We checked into the most expensive guesthouse in town ($6 per night, woo) because it had cable TV and the super 14 final between the Hurricanes and Canterbury was on the next day - sadly, it wasn't shown, and the Hurricanes lost. Bollocks.
Te 27th was spent arsing around and trying to stay out of the heat - by the time we got opur cat together and negotiated a sane price for a treip to Preah Vihear, it was too late to go, so we called it for 0500 the following day. The plan was ambitious - six hours on bikes, an ancient temple, Pol Pot's house and grave and the border crossing into Thailand, all in one day.
We bought an alarm clock, which failed to wake us up, so we didn't leave until 0530. At about 0630 it started to rain torrentially. The road turned to red slush and we took shelter in the grounds of a school. At about 0800 the rain was mostly over, so we carried on; breakfast in Sa Em at 0945; we reached the town at the base of the mountain at about 1020. At this point we switched to souped-up bikes for the climb - 125cc honda dream, with a home-made water-cooling system added. Apparently bikes without this kit don't make it up the mountain, and I believe it. Much of the road is on a 35% gradient - 35% is about 30 degrees. These parts are relatively good, concrete slab with rebar, but the rest is rocks and mud and holes - not really even a road, just a place which isn't jungle. The trip is 5km, and takes about 30 minutes on a bike. For those foolish enough to walk, it takes about three hours if you can do it without stopping - it would have taken us all day. The real kicker is that this temple is utterly trivial to reach from Thailand - the Thais, in violation of territorial boundaries, bulldozed a sealed road up to the temple stairs from their northern side; the Cambodians accepted it on the grounds that Thais have to pay $10 entry, whereas visitors from the Cambodian side pay $2.50. This is a good earner - aircon buses full of tourists come from Thailand all through the busy season - one bus nets between $500 and $800 in revenue for the temple.
The temple itself is spectacular mostly because of its commanding location at the top of the highest mountain in the range. It's built on three layers, each connected by a rough flight of stairs. On the southastern face of the third (top) layer, you have a commanding view of all of Cambodia - pancake-flat and jungly, excepting a few hazy massifs on the horizon; a rocky outcrop allows control of all the roads and rivers of the region. One man with a mortar could defend this position from a far superior force. The northeastern face is even more interesting; on it is the site of the Khmer Rouge's last stand in the middle of 1998. There's a bunker containing a lot of chalked writing in Khmer, left untouched, and a smaller bunker - a sentry post - which now contains an urn with ashes, incense, and a few dry bones. Outside the main bunker is an artillery piece - the wheels and levers have been hacksawed through and welded shut, but it's otherwise intact, and it points down the three-layered staircase which is the only entry point to the temple complex; and directly at the Thai border control buildings which have been set up at the end of the road at the bottom. Some parts of the temple have been demined, but not all. There are signs at the edges of most paths warning people not to stray, and not to pick up strange objects.
Back down the hill, and back to Anlong Veng, leaving at about 1300. We made better time on the way back, getting in at 1500 or so. We abandoned our planned visits to Pol Pot and Ta Mok's houses (apparently there's not much there anyway) and headed up the mountain to the border town, where Pol Pot's show trial for Son Sen's murder was held, where his sentence of life in KR custody was pronounced, and where he was ignominiously cremated in 1998. According to the account in David Chandler's Brother Number One: A political Biography of Pol Pot, he recieved word from Ta Mok that Hun Sen's government was convening a tribunal to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. He took ill, went to rest, and died quietly less than three hours later. On April 17th 1998, the 23rd anniversary of the Khmer Rouge's 'liberation' of Phnom Penh, his body was taken up the mountain and cremated on a pile of rubbish and old tyres. Nobody close to him was present. We visited the site; there's a bed of ashes with a four-post corrugated iron roof over it, the edges trimmed by empty soda bottles. A sign, erected by the Ministry of Tourism, is all that marks whose remains these are; nobody else seems to care.
The border town is much like Anlong Veng, but it does share a direct border with Thailand. We changed $20 into baht because the rate was extortionate. Because it was late in the day, there were no buses. Sareth, speaking english even though he's lived 14km from the thai border his whole life, organised us a gratis ride to Srisaket with a thai medical aid organisation, which we happily accepted. Thus ended our holiday in Cambodia. It's tough, kid, but it's life.
They dropped us off at a hotel not far from the railway station in Srisaket, where we had our first hot shower since ... Hoi An, I think. Sunday is market day in Srisaket, and we wandered down the market, bought tickets, ate chicken on a stick and fed the bones to the cats and dogs which hang around. Thailand is several continents away from Cambodia - people are relaxed and happy, they wear stylish clothes and go out for walks in the market just to be there; fathers and sons sit and eat dinner and joke together, people smile at you for no reason - not trying to sell you anything, just because they're happy. After China and Vietnam and Cambodia, Thailand really is the Kingdom of Smiles. Life is easy here, even in this poorest part of the kingdom. They were fortunate; the French decided to leave Thailand as a buffer between their Indochinese empire and the British empire in Burma, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia which hasn't in recent history been invaded, colonised or annexed by a foreign power, and it shows.
Our major problem in Srisaket was lack of money. We had enough for the train tickets (second class, which gets you a seat and an openable window for the 12 hours to Bangkok), the hotel, dinner, two beers and a roll of toilet paper. When we got on the train at 0800 the next morning, we had 30 baht left - three quarters of a dollar. That, coincidentally, is how much a punnet of rice and meat and egg and chillies costs on the train, and that was what we ate that day. The trip was just as I remember - hurtling on a narrow track through the flat northeast, then up into jungly mountains before descending back into the floodplais of the Chao Praya river. In the mountains we ran through an incredible lightning storm - twice, objects on either side of the train were struck - the sound is deafening and the smell of ozone was in the air. I wasn't sure if the train itself had been hit. Still, we made it.