It took me all of my willpower to drag myself out of Bangkok. Not because it was a great city – quite the opposite – but I was just slowly and steadily losing the will to continue. I can maybe attribute this to a multitude of things, but the heat certainly wasn’t helping, and trying to hitchhike in this weather while carting your home on your back is enough to make anyone order a strawberry daiquiri by the pool instead. Regardless, the time had come to press on – but at least I was getting out of this shit hole.
Easier said than done. As I’d experienced before, Bangkok is a nightmare to get out of – hitchhiking or otherwise. Having hopefully learned my lesson from the previous debacle, I opted to take a minibus north, and with a bit of luck find myself on the road to Cambodia in an hour or so. Hahahahahaha. Yeah, right.
Already sweating buckets and wedged into the kind of bus you’d usually find burnt out in a car park in Bradford, I eventually manage to persuade a driver that I want dropping on the highway east. Of course, most of them don’t understand a thing, and in spite of my protestations, and anxiously showing the prominent, obvious, large, green, road to Cambodia on my GPS – I’m still met with blank looks. I’m passed from pillar to post in another mini-van – and nobody understands that I don’t want to be taken all the way to Cambodia (although that would be nice) and that I just want to be on the road to it. Sigh. The trials and tribulations of hitchhiking.
It’s extremely late in the day when someone grasps what I mean, and leaves me to walk up a slip road and finally in the right direction. The sun is already showing signs of that ominous afternoon glow – lovely if you’re sipping a beer in the garden, not so much if you’re several hundred miles from your destination. Darkness is around the corner. I press on.
I think my luck has changed when I’m offered a ride in the back of a pick-up, but much to my dismay he only takes me to a bus stop. Bless them, they are doing their best to help – but once again this is simply not what I want. Rather than try to explain, I keep my face as positive and thankful as I possibly can under the circumstances, and cheerily wave them off. Then I turn the air blue with expletives when they’re out of sight. Hey – I’m only human.
Dripping with sweat and making no real progress, I begin to consider other options. The thought crossed my mind that I should turn back, knowing the route somewhat better and with the foresight to start earlier next time. It’s a close call, but as my ever perspiring brow claws at my eyes, all but preventing my ability to see, a battered old box on wheels swings in. Inside, and equally as worn as the car, sit a grinning elderly couple. The lady makes way for me in the front seat, and before I know it, we’re tearing our way towards the border.
Not a word of English was spoken, but somehow a conversation was held. This was in most part due to her insistence on constantly offering food to me from somewhere behind my head. I swear she had a kitchen set up in the back. A few miles down the road and they pull in to buy me bottles of water, and maybe an hour into the drive, they arrive at a bus terminal. As much as I’ve enjoyed the uplifting hospitality of my hosts, here I am, yet again, being dropped at a bus station. But before I can say a word, she drags me out across the road, almost by my ear lobe, and buys me a ticket to the border. I’m not often lost for words – but even so – they wouldn’t let me say any, as she hands me another bottle of water, forces a bag of food into my hand, and presses a bus ticket into my palm. And as quickly as they had arrived – they were gone.
Now, this left me with something of a dilemma. I was about to take a bus. A ticket had been bought, and I was not going to be hitchhiking to the Cambodian border. However, I had not bought the ticket myself, so technically – it wasn’t cheating. With light fading fast and still some distance to go, I reasoned that to refuse such hospitality would just be rude, and I thankfully bundled myself into the mini-van when it arrived. At least, that’s how I justified it to myself at the time.
I attempted to settle back in the knowledge that the next stop would be customs, but it simply wasn’t. The vehicle went all around the houses, picking all manner of people up, shoe-horned into the back, people sitting on people. Consequently, I have no doubt in my mind I could have made the border faster if I’d just stuck at the hitch, but once again – to not accept the kindness of strangers would have done them a disservice. It’s approaching 10 pm when we finally make the Thailand side of the border. The border closes at 10 pm.
Battling the usual offers of taxis, “assistance” and prostitutes, I’m clearly one of the last folk to cross the border today. But it’s not without further complication. I’m one day over my Thailand visa. ONE. FUCKING. DAY. I’m forced to wait for an age as they fill out a bible’s worth of tickets, duplicates and such like, then fine me 500 baht for my trouble. It cost me about 11 quid, but I’m more concerned with what it cost me in time. And yet nothing was to prepare me for what was around the corner.
This isn’t a border crossing – it’s Las Vegas. Expecting a handful of taxis, a couple of exchange booths and maybe a rabid dog, I push through the door that exits Thailand and enters Cambodia. And then I almost go back through to make sure I got it right and the two worlds are actually connected. I’ve somehow stumbled into this gaudy-seedy-dive-bar-casino-karaoke-hotel-resort extravaganza, and it’s all kicking off. There’s live music in the streets, tuk-tuks blazing everywhere, flashing lights, money changing hands, drunks, and rabid dogs. It’s insane – and I’ve never crossed a border like it. A portal to another dimension. And while some would imagine that this bodes well for a Cambodia experience – it fills me with abject dread.
I’m fending off wave after wave of taxi drivers trying to rip me off until I’m at my wit’s end and I accept the services of one guy who doesn’t seem to be as dodgy as the rest of them. We then proceed to wander up and down the concourse as he looks for someone to take me. It appears these lads are given some extra bit of crust to bring the tourists to the actual driver. It takes another hour or so before I’m finally in the back of a cab heading to Siem Reap – sharing the fare with a Russian couple canoodling in the back seat. In driving rain, I pass out and hope to high heaven I end up where I’m meant to be.
Once crossing the border, it became painfully obvious that there was no way I would be able to continue to hitch, and I’d be damned if I was staying anywhere in that den of iniquity. For 10 bucks I ensured I made my bed that night, via a sketchy-ass, rain-soaked, night-drive to Siem Reap, and then a rickety tuk-tuk ride to a darkened hostel. The owner isn’t there, nobody appears to be on duty, but some foul-faced volunteer reluctantly shows me a bunk I can crash in. I duly do and fall asleep to the whir of electric fans, a bear-like snoring, and the unmistakable stench of flip-flop feet. Welcome to Cambodia Stuart. Welcome to Cambodia.