Michael Batson

Travel Writer

Vietnam

Cambodia

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Travelogue

The Wonder of the Wander - Phnom Penh to Bangkok and Beyond - 29 July 2016

The Wonder of Wander: From Cambodia to Thailand By Tuk-Tuk, Plane, Bus, Train, Bus and Baht (shared) Taxi or Songthaew.


Yesterday I travelled between Phnom Penh to the beaches south of the Thai capital Bangkok in a morning and was there by mid-afternoon. On other occassions I’ve done this entirely by road from Cambodia and it’s taken up to 12 hours. For the uninitiated, for those wanting to give it a go and those wondering what wandering about in countries where you’re alone, here is how you can spend your time – it’s the wonder of the wander. I have to confess to not being a novice at wandering about countries filled with millions of souls I do not know, whose language I do not speak, in climates at odds with my norm and yet, amongst all that I can still feel at home.


At 4:30am Phnom Penh is dark but not dead. I walked from my hotel to Riverside along Street 130. The doors to my hotel were wide open, the night security guard fast asleep on the couch. A barang (foreigner) backpacker slept with one eye wide open and watched me leave. A Khmer woman carrying two infants stood at an intersection two blocks down. Her face revealed a recent severe beating; her eyes blackened, her cheek gashed and a large white plaster covered her entire forehead. Ice merchants transferred the first of the day’s product between vehicles. Others about were finishing their night, like a group of bar girls still heavily made-up tottering on impossibly high heels, giggling.


On Riverside, the premier tourist spot in town, occasional locals engaged in some form of fitness fad. At the corner of Street 130 and Riverside sits the derelict Kiwi Bakery, once a thriving business. The owners survived the Khmer Rouge, through the violent and fetid refugee camps on the Thai border to make a new life in New Zealand. There, as bakers they prospered, eventually returning to the country of their birth to thrive again, also as bakers. Their entire wealth was lost to gambling debts of one family member, eventually owing Naga World Casino a hefty six-figure sum not repayable.


When I walked back to the hotel the beaten mother was carefully sweeping the footpath adjoining her patch of street corner. The children, one naked the other barely half-dressed, played in the gutter. Street kids nearby smoked ice – the drug; or a version of it; and the delivery men engaged in ice fights; that being frozen water. Tuk-tuk drivers slept in their vehicles. Some slept upright or, if small and light enough, in hammocks, strung across and above the seats. Some had two men in one vehicle. Others, slightly awake sensed my presence and offered the first service of the day. Many lived this way for years, a daily financial struggle to make it through to tomorrow.


I entered a local coffee shop full of single men either finishing work or about to begin what are invariably for most here, very long days. Judging by the wall decorations, the owners were Chinese Khmers. The coffee on offer is hot or cold. Hot coffee can come with sweetened milk in a pint glass found in any bar complete with handle. The contents so strong the elongated spoon can almost literally stand upright. There is tea also. Of an amazing fragrance I can only compare to a form of fabric softener. The cost was 3,000 riel in Cambodian currency or US$0.75.


Not long ago the journey from the Phnom Penh Riverside to the airport had taken barely 20 minutes to cover the 7-9 kilometres; now it’s an hour. Phnom Penh is a city awash with SUVs and, for an impoverished country, some of the most luxurious vehicles made by man. My tuk-tuk driver I first met 10 years ago. Pleasant, thoughtful and articulate he explained much to me on the journey to Pochentong, though some I already knew. Cambodia was now beholding to China he said. The overwhelming government buildings on Russian Boulevard were paid for by China. The gates of the Council of Administrative Reform, the country’s parliament, are three times the size of those at the royal palace. In a country where signs of wealth matter, that’s a statement of where the real power now lies. That is, no longer with the monarchy but with the man dubbed the Peasant King, Hun Sen.


By 6am Phnom Penh roads begin to fill. The heat of the day also begins in earnest. I was conscious of being the foreigner alone in a tuk-tuk with baggage. The same space occupied by up to 10 or so Cambodians eating breakfast on their way to work, likely for low wages in appalling conditions unacceptable to anyone in economically richer nations.


My driver pointed out the significance of vehicle number plates with those reserved for “special people”. Those with the prefix ‘2AM’ and others the suffix of the four threes. Usually black SUVs and accompanying bodyguards, these vehicles in a country blighted with gross disparities of income and graft; here it is on naked display. There too, the luxury SUVs of the high-ranking military with their distinctive red and blue plates. How does an official earning five grand a year buy a BMW? These vehicles of the rich and powerful seemed determined to take as much of the road as they have the country’s once rich resources.


You see many sights on Cambodia's roads the likes of which you’d never see at home. I was instantly struck by the driver of a Toyota Camry travelling in the opposite direction, asleep. That is until I realised she wasn’t the driver, but a passenger. Half the driver’s seat is given over to a paying passenger, sometimes two. I’ve travelled in vehicles where this has occurred. This is how Cambodians get 12 people or more into a four-door family car.


The roads of Phnom Penh are once again falling into disrepair. A lack of maintenance and the increase in heavy vehicle traffic the obvious culprits. The main route to Pochentong Airport, Russian Confederation Boulevard, is no exception. They have built two flyovers which only temporarily ease congestion. The pavements have all but disappeared and there is dust everywhere. A swarm of vehicles of all description competes for limited space along with the usual Third World roadside furniture.


Cambodia's government has boasted of providing political stability and fostering economic growth. Critics argue these have come at great cost and are not universally shared. Yes, you can now go to a Ducati showroom to buy a motorbike capable of speeds far in excess of anything the country’s roads can allow. But the vast majority of people spend their lives trying to earn enough just to eat.  I saw one idiot in a bright yellow Ferrari. He’d be lucky to get out of first gear, though a Khmer friend said if they took the vehicle on the road to Koh Kong through the Cardamom Mountains they might just get their money’s worth.


Air Asia specialise in slow service. Checking in is slow, boarding takes an age. The plane never moves until the pre-flight safety instructions are completed in Thai and BBC-English. At Don Meaung airport in Bangkok there is more danger of a plane being hit by a golf ball than of bird strike. It must be the only airport with a golf course between runways. When taxiing you can witness Thais with enough leisure time to chase a white ball dressed in ridiculous golfing apparel.


It is amazing to think that Don Meaung once handled nearly all the tourists arriving in Thailand. It now so and is not built for the infirm or the elderly. Thai immigration now requires arrival information on hotel names, addresses and even phone numbers. Scores were turned away from immigration to search smart phones for such hotel details. I keep cards from previous stays for reference, or you can just make stuff up as they’re unlikely to even check.


Don Meaung has been reactivated to ease the pressure on its successor, Suvarnabhumi, which has burst at the seams less than 10 years after its rushed completion under previous prime minster Thaksin Sinawatra. Too rushed as it turned out, the requisite groundwork for the runways was not thoroughly completed leaving the concrete to crack. There also weren’t enough toilets in Bangkok’s shining new light, so these had to be constructed retrospectively. Don Meaung now handles domestic and international budget carriers and freight while the majority of the major airlines use the new facility.


Taxis at either Bangkok airport should be avoided. Those at Don Meaung are even more notoriously crooked than at Suvarnabhumi. It’s a wonder how they now make a living as even the Thais refuse to use them. Uber, which has commenced operating in the Thai capital, looks like it will do very well. At Don Meaung take the A1 or A2 buses outside the terminal to Mo Chit train station. There you can take the underground or MRT, or the BTS, the sky train. Tickets on the buses cost a flat 30 baht (less than US$1) and from Mo Chit you can get a train for less than US$2. There is an A1 bus every five minutes, and an A2 every 30 minutes; both have air-con.


Extensions to Bangkok’s public train network continue at a snail’s pace. A joint Italian -Thai (IT) venture granted the contract,  has been hampered by, amongst other things, endemic corruption. One Minister of Transport was found to have siphoned off millions from the project’s budget, money he had in cash at home. Politics and power in Thailand is about the traditional moneyed elites keeping control of both. Anybody stepping out of line gets stepped on, which includes prime ministers, despite having secured a majority at national elections.


I took the BTS to Ekkamai, Bangkok’s eastern bus terminal. Looking for my exit an elegantly dressed Thai woman asked in good English if I needed help. I said yes; always good to foster international relations if the offer of assistance has no strings. My bus ticket cost about US$4. An elderly Thai woman who spoke no English struck up a conversation with me. Undeterred that I spoke very little Thai, I deduced she was tired and hot; her and me both. At Ekkamai I came across that most unusual sight in Thailand in 2016; Russians, President Putin and the plummeting Russian Ruble conspiring to keep most at home. Russians have now been replaced by low-spending Chinese in their millions which, despite these numbers, may see the end of some tourism in Thailand.


Thailand has the most dangerous roads in the world bar Libya. A strange thought given you think of Libya as this vast desert country with a relatively small population. I was concerned, or maybe not,  to see the Thai bus driver on liquid amphetamines at lunchtime, but then thought he’d be good for at least the next two hours, by which time I’d arrive at my destination.


A Bangkok-based mate of mine once said it was amazing how weather shapes your impression of a place. On a grey overcast day Bangkok could be Glasgow he said. It’s true there’s a lot of ugly concrete in Thailand. If you are “in concrete” or connected to those who are, there’s a lot of money to be made as much of Thailand’s roading infrastructure is made of the stuff.


The journey two hours southeast of Bangkok was almost entirely on elevated concrete expressways. Thais drive as fast as possible as close as they can to other vehicles in any and all conditions. Many vehicles are powered by liquid petroleum gas, including nearly all heavy vehicles, taxis and passenger-carrying minivans. LPG in Thailand is highly volatile. A mate at the Bangkok Post tells me the paper has stacks of photos on file of vehicles and people on fire as a result of these cylinders exploding; though never publish for fear of the public backlash.


Perhaps they should as Thais might adjust their often erratic driving habits. Trucks carrying 40-foot containers played a kind of high-speed dodgems, changing lanes with little or no warning, often swerving dangerously across 3-4 lanes at a time. Other vehicles undertake while others overtake seemingly looking for any way forward at the expense of other drivers.

 

There’s lots of sudden breaking but at least Thai public buses seem up to the challenge and the Carabao-fuelled driver was right on the money.
Finally shared baht taxi to my hotel at a cost of 20 baht (US$.060) I shared the taxi, or songthaew with the Russians and some Koreans with hard shell suitcases so large the driver looked at them in sheer dismay. There you are, across one of Asia’s biggest cities and on for 200kms for about US$7 and not a tourist tout in sight.


International airfares were extra.

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