By Abhik Dutta
Part 1: Reaching Cambodia.
April, they say, is the worst month to travel to Cambodia because of the heat. So, I being me, against all sane advice that I downloaded from the internet, decided to go to Siem Reap from Bangkok by road. The journey from Bangkok started on time. 8am to be precise. The road to the Thai border Aranyaprathet (also known as Poipet) was like a smooth runway. In 4 hrs I was there. Shortly thereafter all hell broke loose. Our group of five was made to sit outside a small eatery on the Thai side of the border. The agent’s agent (I shall call him ‘Bon’ as a local in these parts would pronounce the International super-agent) at the border initially gave all five of us in the van the Cambodia visa forms. The other four, I learnt later, were all on a ‘visa run’, where they’d do a small ritual of crossing the Thai border, getting a Cambodia visa and then exit Cambodia immediately to re-enter Thailand. A process that takes 2 hrs and 200meters to complete. It’s generally done by those who are working for a long time in Thailand and need to renew their visas after 30 days or 90 days. Bon came back in a while saying contemptuously, ‘You Indian’? (The emphasis on the second word was not lost on me). I said,’Yep’. ’No visa for Indian at border. Okay?’ I gave him my as-nasty-as-I-can-get look (eyes narrowed down, lips curled in a snarl) and croaked ‘And why not?’. He looked right through me and said ‘You pay me 2700 baht. I try for you. Ok?’ I would have none of his nonsense and said (in my suddenly acquired Thai accent), ‘No ok. I go wih you to immigration. No pay more than foreigner’. (Meaning the other 4). Bon looked at me for a very long time (that usually means bad news at the border) and said slowly, ‘then you sit heah, mistah. Ok?’ He threw my passport and visa money on the table and disappeared from the restaurant.
Half an hour passed. I gulped 2 bottles of water and some tasty fried vegetables in Oyster sauce and made some conversation with Bon’s dog (I shall call him Bon-Bon), just to show that we Indians are a friendly lot and there’s no harm in letting a dog-loving-Indian cross the border into Cambodia. Soon Bon came back with the visas of the other 4 travellers and asked me ‘Wha hab you decided?’ I said, ‘No pay more than foreigner’. He was disgusted with me and disappeared again. I drank a little more and made more conversation with Bon Bon. An hour passed. Bon returned and with his hands on his hips said, ‘Ok, you follow me’. Bon, me and Bon-Bon walked single file towards the border. We went past the market and took a left turn to reach the Thai immigration counter. After a 30min wait in the queue, the Thai official issued an exit stamp and I was on my way to the Cambodia immigration counter, 50 meters away. A huge gate with the slogan “Welcome to the Kingdom of Cambodia” stood out like a sore thumb. I prayed that this should not be the first and last glimpse of Cambodia. Bon caught up with me at the counter and asked me for the passport and 1500baht (actual visa fee is 20US$). I duly obliged and sat for another 30mins. It was hot and humid. The gun toting border guards were smoking and chatting away. I saw Bon-Bon crossing over to Cambodia. What a dog’s life, I thought. Strange thoughts cross one’s mind during times of border crisis. I wondered whether Bon-Bon was born Thai or Cambodian. He looked quite Indian as well. Sullen and morose. Just like me. But at least he could cross. Bon came back to me and said, ‘here your pahport. Visa ok. Ok? Now you go to immigration and wait for me on the other side.’
At the Cambodia immigration counter, there was this crazy Japanese tourist (you can make them out by the large floppy hats, knee-length shorts, the omnipresent camera with a mile-long telescopic lens dangling around the chest) hugging all the border guards one by one and shouting ‘Better than sex, better than sex’. He looked ecstatic. I wondered what could have induced a well-dressed Japanese backpacker to hug the Cambodian border guards at two in the afternoon on a hot April afternoon and think of sex. His story unfolded. He had arrived 3 hrs earlier and realised that he had lost his passport (the ultimate nightmare for a tourist). He searched for it on the Cambodian side, on the Thai side and on No man’s land in between. He searched for it inside his backpack, inside his T-shirt and shorts, inside his pouch. Inside his camera bag. Inside Thai and Cambodian loos. Everywhere. Soon, he came to believe that he would be required to spend the rest of his miserable life in No man’s land just like Tom Hanks in The Terminal. 3 hrs later he found his passport on his head underneath his cap! I understood why that moment felt ‘better than sex’.
In another 30mins (everything in Cambodia takes at least 30mins or 1 ‘dolaar,’ I learnt later), I was giving an angelic smile at the immigration camera and thanking the officer in bowed reverence. ‘Enjoy your stay in Cambodia’, he said. ‘Not many Indians cross this way’. And he stamped and handed me the passport. It was that simple. Indians do get Cambodia visas on arrival at the border. Later, when Bon and I became friends for five minutes, he said that his stern gaze and the act of ‘throwing’ the passport on the table usually makes ‘third-world-country-travellers’ pay up whatever he demands! Bon and Bon-Bon were both waiting on the Cambodian side. The former on a motorcycle. I bid a fond farewell to Bon-Bon (who couldn’t care less and trotted off to Thailand). I sat behind Bon and he whizzed off. Turning, he said, ‘Wehcome to Cambodia, Ok?’ In the same breath he asked, ‘You tip me mistah, Ok?’ He seemed to know every second person we zipped past. Five minutes later he stopped outside a small tin-roofed building and said, ‘Your bus will come here and take you to Siem Reap’. ’Its air-con, right?’ I shouted after Bon as his small frame vanished into the dust of Cambodia. I faintly heard two words drifting out of the red haze, ‘Yeah, yeah’.
There were fifteen of us inside the tin-shelter. All of us bound for Siem Reap. An hour ticked by. Soon the bus came chugging along and halted outside the shelter. There was a mad scramble as we tore, kicked, stamped, gouged each other apart to get the desired seat. We Indians were raised for moments like these. Second row, left window seat. The 3rd world passengers (Thai, Cambodian and me, Lone Indian ranger) all occupied the first few seats. First world tourists brought up the rear. It was 40degrees outside. And 40 degrees inside with the Air-con on. It took at least an hour for the bus to start. We were packed like sardines in it. It was like a boiling cauldron inside. We left at 3pm. In half an hour, the AC stopped functioning. Within the next half hour, the road disappeared giving way to a red-coloured, dusty, potholed path, I am ashamed to call a road. In another 30minutes, the diesel finished. And it took another 30minutes for the driver and his comrades to get a barrel of diesel from the undergrowth and fill up the tank. I settled down for the inevitable. I opened the window to let the hot air from outside cool the interiors of the bus. In the distance I heard the thunder. It looked like rain. We were all smiling.
I was en route to what has been described as one of the Wonders of the World…the temples of Angkor Wat.
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