9 October 2007—2 November 2007
‘A person who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except thought.’
In Southeast Asia all roads lead to Bangkok, and if you can see through the smog you’ll see that even in Thailand’s capital city the Thai live by their maxim ‘chai yen’ or ‘keep a cool heart’ (meaning keep a cool head in English). To show outward signs of anger is considered a great loss of face in Thailand. In any case you must be doing something wrong if you fail to enjoy Thailand—excellent food, beautiful people, great roads and scenery.
In Bangkok I achieved one of my minor aims of the journey without trying: to stay in a 5 star hotel, gratis. After all, five-star living is just another form of culture that should be experienced. The day before I was set to leave I met Karin, a radio presenter and journalist for a local lifestyle magazine. I had spent longer than intended in Bangkok and was keen to get moving but to publish a story of the journey Karin needed to schedule an interview. Her proposition was simple; ‘If I arrange a night for you in a five star hotel will you stay tomorrow?’
It was a no-brainer. The next day I checked into a deluxe suite on the 24th floor of the Japanese owned Pan Pacific Hotel—all expenses paid. Looking beyond the bar, the two plasma televisions, the living area, and out across the vastness of Bangkok, I wondered how on earth I’d managed to transcend my frugal existence and land in the lap of luxury. Life was good. I swam, cleansed myself in the sauna and dined on awesome food. But I was also mindful of impending Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, and that conditions all round were only going to go downhill from here on—that was the catch.
I crossed into Cambodia at the recently opened but relatively unused border at Psah Prom. The bitumen ends at the frontier, replaced by dirt and ruts. In the midst of the shanty housing—despite the poverty—a desperately out of place casino, consuming the pockets of Thai clientele, glitters through the dust like a fake jewel.
It took almost three hours to cover 20 km on rutty, potholed roads to Pailin—once the stronghold of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, and where, following the fall of the regime, many of the genocidal criminals came to retreat. So I was hardly surprised to see one man as old as a grandfather strolling around the market in military fatigues. The area is also known for ruby mining (no prizes for guessing who’s in control) and a further affliction, it is riddled with landmines; a problem in Cambodia so endemic some families live in mine fields with red ribbons around their shacks.
To my delight it rained hard during the night, enough to settle the dust but not enough, I mistakenly thought, to turn the road to impenetrable sludge. Someway out of Pailin the wet hard packed dirt gave way to a complete mud-fest—the wet season flip side to the dust reality. Mud collected and jammed hard between the tires and the guards, ceasing the wheels and requiring frequent stopping and prodding with a length of bamboo to free the workings of the bike.
I was not the only one with problems. The scooters were doing the best, but on one section cars and trucks were backed up hundreds of meters in both directions going nowhere and I was dragging my bike. A truck had slid into a ditch and two tractors were working to pull it free. Oddly enough, there was absolutely no evidence of frustration at all. Obviously in Cambodia when it rains, this type of predicament is routine. I suppose Cambodians don’t have to answer to the boss for why they got their corn delivered three days late. Within 24 hours the mud had dried and it was back to the torturous, bone jarring, dust roads from hell.
From Battambang, a beautiful six hour ferry ride through rivers and wetlands abound with stilted water villages, brought me to Chong Khneas and a short ride to Siem Reap, gateway to the Temples of Angkor—Cambodia’s tourist Mecca.
The Khmer or Angkor Civilization existed from 802 to 1431 A.D. and during its peak it stretched as far as the modern Thailand-Burma Border in the West and Wat Phou of Laos in the North.
I bought a one-day pass and cycled 60kms visiting the main temples of the region, among other ruins: Angkor Wat, the empire headquarters; Bayon, over 200 huge stone heads carved on 54 towers (thought to represent King Jayavarman II); and Ta Prohm, overgrown by huge trees (as featured in the Tomb Raider movie).
Time has left much of the sacred temples in a bad state but in the recent past the Khmer Rouge also played their part in the destruction—beheading most of the Buddha statues simultaneously with the extermination of the Buddhist monks, who, as educated men, were considered an intellectual threat to the ideology of the Khmer Rouge.
‘Once you’ve seen Angkor Wat you can die’, I was told. It’s the sort of expression used when words are inadequate, but it brings to mind the descendants of the people who built this, are also the corrupt leaders of contemporary Cambodia who lack the capacity to seal even the main roads leading to Angkor, thus improving infrastructure, living conditions and quality of life for the Cambodian people, of which the vast majority live under the poverty line.
The World Bank concludes from a 2004 study on poverty in Cambodia: When these (separate poverty lines throughout the country) are averaged, the national poverty line for 2004 is approximately 1,826 Riel per person per day (or 9,130 Riel per day for a family of five). At 2004 exchange rates, this is about $0.45 per person per day (or $2.25 per day for a family of five). About 80 percent of this is food; 20 percent is for non-food basic needs (clothes, housing, etc.)…The percentage of the population living under the poverty line is estimated at 35 percent for 2004.
It costs a hefty $20US for a one-day pass to the temples—$20 goes a long way in Cambodia, as is evident in The World Bank data—and most tourists buy a three-day pass. Considering the immense amount of tourist traffic passing through those stone corridors, one wonders where that money goes.
At the decaying foundations of this Asiatic empire I met Gledrius, an outstanding tattoo artist from Lithuania. Later that day he gave me his address in Vilnius and said, ‘See you in two years. Don’t be late. You get the last bits of the Soviet Union and then it’s gone forever’.