In “For Pete’s Sake”, Barbra Streisand’s character – a white middle-class housewife – asks her black home-help, “Hey, while you’re looking after my kids and doing my cleaning, who’s doing YOUR work?” To which the the woman replies, dryly, “Oh we have a Puerto Rican.”
And I can tell you the same pecking order exists in S.E. Asia. In Vietnam, everyone nurses a secret dream – to one day go to Cambodia and get work and send money back to The Old Country. Meanwhile, Cambodians nurse the SAME dream – about Thailand. While Thais have it about Europe.
Now I have seen Europe, Thailand and Cambodia. Which begs one question – what the HELL must Vietnam be like?
Anyhoo, back to Cambodia…
Driving. To drive in Europe, you need to be around 17 and to have passed a proficiency test. In Thailand, TEN-year-olds drive motorbikes. While in Cambodia, the only qualification you need is ownership of a vehicle.
In Europe, if you are in the correct lane, making the correct signal, nothing bad can happen. In Thailand, lane-markings are considered to be suggestions. In Cambodia – what’s a lane?
In Europe, people look forward and use their rear-view mirrors. In Thailand, AVOIDANCE is the byword. Insurance is marginal and vehicles expensive – so given those vehicles come from ALL directions, the Thais constantly scan 180 degrees and just steer out of trouble. It works.
But in Cambodia, they use tunnel vision. Cross-road junctions are like a scene from the Keystone Cops. There is no priority. They just maintain their speed, look for a gap and head for it. Roundabouts? They treat them like a series of cross-roads.
And traffic lights are a nightmare. Cambodians start off when the green man goes out on their phase and keep going until around ten seconds after the red. This means that during every stage-change, the five-second “intergreen” becomes a minus-fifteen-second one (I used to be a traffic-light engineer). Madness.
Money. We (used to) have hard currency. The Thais have hard-ISH currency. The Cambodians have the Riel. But it is only used as small change. Four thousand of them will buy the REAL currency – the U.S. Dollar. But since they don’t print them, the notes are second-hand, from The States. Which is unfortunate, since nobody will accept one if it has the SLIGHTEST tear in it.
So you end up inspecting all your change like a demented Scrooge.
ATMs. In Europe – plentiful. In Thailand – likewise (ATMs earn MONEY). In Cambodia – what’s an ATM?
Taxis. In Britain, nasty black things. In Europe, mostly entry-level Mercs. In Thailand, locally-made Toyota Corollas. Aircon – efficient – comfortable and cheap. You also have Tuk-tuks. They may be crooks, but a skillful tukky driver will get you round Bangkok faster than anything except the SkyTrain.
In Cambodia, they only have “mototaxis”. Hundred cc Honda horrors with a square seat on the back. Seemingly everyone has one. But no matter how many times you use them, your knuckles will STILL turn white every time your driver approaches a junction.
Trains. Albethey slower, Thailand’s are better than Britain’s. But in Cambodia, they only have ONE. Once a day, it crawls from Phnom Phen to Sihanoukville. Sugarville (I never COULD pronounce Sihanoukville) is a resort. The LAST.
The bus to it takes four hours. The train takes over TWELVE. The 300-kilometre trip costs £4 ($6). Two miles a penny. It is over-priced.
It consists of a diesel shunter, half a kilometre of grain trucks – with a passenger carriage tacked on the back. The carriage makes a Thai third-class carriage look like a Pullman car. It long ago gave up any pretence at having windows, lights, seats or in some places – a floor. The regulars sling hammocks between the luggage racks.
I’d read a guidebook which recommended riding on the roof (there are no bridges – people just walk or drive across the line). Now I’m up for almost anything, but the roof had nothing to hold ON to – and the constant rolling caused by the narrow-gauge rails made it look like I’d end up sailing head-first into a paddy-field. And the idea of chasing AFTER the once-a-day train didn’t enthral me.
Mind you, I’d probably have CAUGHT it, since it only does about 15 m.p.h. Then again, given the state of the track, you wouldn’t want to GO much faster.
My fellow-travellers were an odd bunch (there were no other tourists). The star was a ten-year-old boy who kept bumming fags off me. He had teeth that made Shane MacGowan look like Dale Winton. I put my ghetto-blaster on FM-AutoSearch and watched the numbers go round and round – nothing. So I stuck on my Fifties Rock ‘N’ Roll compilation tape – and the whole carriage gathered round me like I’d just invented FIRE. So I ramp- ed up the volume and stuck the Brixton Briefcase up on the luggage rack.
Hours later, I had one of the most bizarre experiences of my life (and I’ve had a few, I can tell you). We were still two hours out from Sugarville and it was pitch dark, save for the flickering lights of two candles, stuck in upturned plastic water-bottles with the bottoms cut off (very Blue Peter) which were jammed in the luggage racks – one at each end of the carriage.
All of a sudden, a roaring noise came from behind us, accompanied by a bright light, shining in through the gaping hole the rear door had once occupied. The next thing, a ten-foot plank of sawn timber flew through the doorway and slid down the centre-aisle of the carriage. Then another and another. Two blokes began piling them up. During the next hour, this happened two more times – until the pile of timber stood shoulder-high.
Finally we reached Sugarville. We approached it on a curve, thus I could see the platform about half a kilometre distant. But just then, the train drew to a halt and people started getting off. “What the hell do we do now?” I said aloud. Unexpectedly, a voice answered me in good English, “Unless we want to wait six hours while they unload the grain, we walk.”
As I staggered through the mud in pitch darkness, I asked my new friend, “What the HELL was that with the WOOD?” He explained it was illegal logging. The roars I had heard came from custom-built vehicles, consisting of the S.E. Asian standard comedy-motorbike, with a flatbed side-car already loaded with the timber – all fitted with wheels made to fit the railway track.
When the train had passed, four burly guys would lift the contraption onto the track, then two of them would jump on it and take off after the train and when they caught up with it, they and two other guys already aboard would transfer the timber as I’d seen. “But why don’t they use the road?” I asked. “There IS no road,” he replied.
I realised this was true. Earlier in the day, while sitting, legs dangling, in the open doorway at the back, I’d noticed that as soon as the train had passed, people would emerge from the greenery and begin using the track as a thoroughfare.
“But what about the railway people – do they know about this?” “Of course, but they get their cut.” “Don’t the cops get involved?” “Sure, they’re the guys unloading the wood.”
He wasn’t joking.
Eventually I reached Sugarville. The only place to stay was a back-packer “guesthouse”. After the arduous train journey, I was knackered and fell asleep in my room. I awoke to the cool sound of Ray Manzarek’s solo on “Light My Fire” and the aroma of jazz cigarettes. I thought I’d stepped back in time.
Altogether, I spent four days in Sugarville. It PISSED down the whole time, but I had no choice – the ferry to the Cambodia-Thai border-crossing kept getting cancelled due to bad weather. So I settled down to such life as was available there. This consisted of evenings spent in the Street Of A Thousand Delights – I’d take a different Delight back to the guesthouse each night – preceded by afternoons at a nearby posh hotel.
The hotel was mostly about its casino. Rich foreigners would stay at the hotel, just for the gambling. Despite it being on the beach, during their stay they’d never leave the hotel. But in the basement, it had a SAUNA – and I’m a sauna-ist (I have one on my patio, right now). I used it every day – until I burned it down.
Let me qualify that. I was the only person in it when it decided to catch fire. In fact I wasn’t even IN it – I was in the lounge, between visits. It was when I returned to it that I discovered it ablaze. I did everything right. First, I immediately cut the main power switch. However, it was obviously well alight by that time so I, again immediately, informed a member of staff his sauna was on fire.
Once he realized the problem, he ran off screaming for help. It being obvious they wouldn’t have it up and running again anytime soon, I put my clothes on and slipped away. As I walked out, all HELL was breaking loose. Guys with buckets, hoses, smoke all over the place. Pandemonium.
When I returned to the guesthouse, I told my story to the manager, whom by now I’d befriended. He informed me that the local Chief Of Police used the sauna every evening and that he’d probably issued a warrant for my arrest. I said more likely he’d put out a CONTRACT on me.
I wasn’t joking either.
Next day, to my relief, they announced the ferry would run today. I said “ciao” to mine host and headed for the dock. If the previous days had been ROUGHER than when I travelled, the conditions must have been BIBLICAL. Half the passengers were throwing up, but I stood UP in the hundred-footer and being thus able to see out – rather ENJOYED the roller-coaster ride.
Eventually, we reached land and immediately my bag and that of another tourist were grabbed by a local, who proceeded to high-tail it towards a battered Merc. Me and this other guy had no choice but to follow. The driver said, “Border?” We said yes and the three of us set off.
A mere five minutes later, we arrived at the border-crossing, which we knew was CLOSING in ten minutes. The driver, who spoke fair English, demanded a ludicrous amount, while pointedly leaning on the boot of his car, intimating we wouldn’t see our luggage until we’d paid UP. My fellow traveller turned out to be a German who, like me, was not about to pay the vastly inflated fare.
Usually, matters like this are settled by a little haggling, but it quickly became obvious that THIS guy actually wanted the full amount. He claimed it would have been cheaper if we’d had more passengers. We pointed out that it had been HE who had taken off like a jack-rabbit – we would have been happy to have waited a COUPLE more minutes while he had rounded up another two punters.
Time was ticking away and we were getting nowhere. Finally the German guy BANGED his hand on the boot of the car and DEMANDED our luggage. I put my hand on the German’s shoulder and told the driver, “Look, I know this man,” (I’d never seen him until five minutes earlier) “And he can be extremely violent if you upset him – I’d be very careful if I was you.” A more reasonable price was forthcoming.
As I and the German walked off to the border, with our bags, we exchanged grins – having just carried off the finest improvised Mutt And Jeff routine you could ever wish to have seen! We Europeans may have our divisions, but put us up against a common enemy and we RULE!
Thus ended my travels in Cambodia. It was quite an adventure, but I doubt I’ll ever set foot there again – that Police Chief probably put me on their computer as a drug-runner.
Cambodia has been shat upon by the French, the Americans and the Khmer Rouge and anything approaching normalcy is still a long way off. As you look into the eyes of its citizens, you realize that most of them are old enough to remember the killing fields – something we can’t imagine.
Thailand, where I now live, has always been an island of relative peace and prosperity, surrounded by a sea of troubles. Thailand looks upon Cambodia with a mixture of suspicion and disdain. On the Thai side, the road from the border had about six check-points along it. As a bus mainly filled with tourists, we were waved through them. But I suspect a car filled with Cambodians would have fared less well.
However, change is in the air. Having outsourced much of its labour to S.E. Asia, the West is in decline. Shuffling papers does not pay the bills. But the hard-working men, women and sadly, children of the East actually MAKE stuff. And this is their strength. Even though Cambodia lags behind its neighbours, the general shift of wealth from West to East cannot help but benefit it.
Oh, to see Cambodia – a hundred years from now…