Traveling from Cambodia to Vietnam by bus is like going from Three Oaks, Michigan directly to Times Square without everything between. The minibus is packed with a mix of foreigners with their legs crammed against the seats in front of them and locals. We pick up and drop off several people along the way as the bus swims through a sea of motorbikes like a shark through a school of minnows, honking the whole way.
Some of their faces show contempt or rage, others fear or an obvious resignation, while other faces are sadly innocent – a few even have smiles. I look at all the photographs they have of former prisoners at the Toul Sleng S21 Prison in Phnom Penh. Every photograph shows a little bit of humanity: the blind emotions of the children that were taken there, the rage of mothers that have just had their child taken from them, the dread of the old men that know they are doomed. All the heinous acts of torture and murder that were committed at this prison under the Khmer Rouge regime are documented.
It’s pitch black outside but it’s easy to find my way. There’s only one way to go: the same way as the tour buses, vans, and tuk-tuks. It’s before sunrise and we’re headed to Angkor Wat. I arrive by bicycle to the biggest attraction at the Angkor ruins in Cambodia. I had read of people that had seen the sunrise from another ruin so I keep pedaling. After a hundred feet I can’t see my handlebars. I turn back and get a really expensive coffee from the cart out front.
I know they’re talking about me, but it doesn’t really matter as long as this is the place for the ferry across the river. I’ve got my mountain bike that I rented from Cambodia Rural Development Team (CRDT – a local non-profit) and after backtracking for a few minutes, I think I’ve found the town of Thom where I can take the ferry across the Mekong river and continue my trip. A group of people is standing around with motorbikes parked on the bank, so I figure this is probably the right place. After a while I become boring as a topic of conversation and people go back to chatting about something else unknown to me.
My skin is red, not from sun, but from dirt. I’m riding through clouds of dust as motorbikes and the occasional truck passes me by, while kids wave to me from the side of the road. I’m on a mountain bike rented from my guesthouse and I’ve been told there are waterfalls around here. With my skin caked in red dirt and the sun beating down I’m having a hard time imagining that there is any water at all in eastern Cambodia.
This is my first experience with the “sleeper bus.” These are double-decker buses with beds intended for sleeping on long rides, like the one I’m taking from Vientiane to Pakse, Laos. The dimensions seem to be designed for your average-sized Asian person, while most of the actual passengers are Westerners. I’m traveling alone and am hoping not to have to share this tiny space with a stranger. The ticket agent must be having a good day, because I am in fact alone in this tiny space curled into a ball so my legs will fit, bumping around and thanking every higher power there is that I’m not spooning with a stranger.
I can think of no better place to show up starving, famished even, than Luang Prabang, Laos. I have been traveling all day, winding up and down green mountains past beautiful scenery, and I’m really hungry. Nighttime in Luang Prabang is a smorgasbord. There are sandwiches on baguettes (the French-colonial vibe), soups, and down an alley of barbeque and buffets one can find anything they desire (of Laotian/Asian cuisine) for less than US$2.
“YOU SEE BIRD” is printed (in English) on a sign next to Inle Lake where there is a bird sanctuary. I laugh to myself but I don’t think anyone else on the boat notices. The five of us have rented a long tail boat for the day, after negotiating with a man who approached us on the streets of Nuangshwe, Myanmar. Hailing from France (2), Australia, Austria, and the USA, we represent three continents as we are driven past fisherman in the middle of the lake, accompanied by tourist snapping photos. Of course, I take a photo, too.
The pre-colonial capital is overflowing with motorbikes, dust, and construction. The old palace, with its huge moat, sits monumental in the middle of a bustling and mostly monochrome cityscape. Temples and Pagodas stand out from the drab landscape. I find something about Mandalay charming. It’s dirty (though not like Yangon), noisy, and most of the buildings are hideous, but I like it.
I’m on top of an old temple, waiting around for the sunset with a bunch of German and French. About 20 minutes before, I am on top of a different temple, with a bunch of German and French. They are digging in early for the sunset views of Bagan. When the sun finally starts to descend below the hills, I hear the continuous clacking of camera shutters. I take out my camera and take a few shots, realizing that neither the camera nor its operator is capable of capturing a world-class shot of Bagan at sunset. I sit and enjoy instead, the sun’s rays reaching over and between the reddish ruins dotted across the plain.
My hotel in Mawlamyine arranges for my overnight bus to Yangon (Rangoon). It’s as easy as a phone call and a motorbike ride to the bus station: which is really just a dirt lot with some buses parked in front of a shop. While I wait I’m asked for my ticket several times and am eventually led to a seat in the front of a full bus. It is new, and a screen in the front is showing music videos. I situate myself with my neck pillow and blanket. Even though the bus is nice and the price seems fairly reasonable considering, I will eventually learn in Myanmar that foreigners get charged significantly more. Like hotels, the government requires companies catering to tourists to have a permit, and to charge them more than locals.
“Nothing to see here,” I’m told by the owner of Jenny’s restaurant in the same alley as my Bangkok hostel. I don’t have high expectations but to hear from a local that I should not spend much time in Bangkok is a bit of a kick. My hostel is near but not too near the infamous Khao San Road. There you will find backpackers walking the streets with beers, men aggressively soliciting tailored suits, bars that serve pizza and margaritas, pad thai served from street carts, and just a large mess in general. It’s hard to believe that anyone would want to stay on this street, let alone spend any more than a few minutes on it.
I am in the Thai border town of Pedang Besar, having crossed over from Pedang Besar, Malaysia. I’ve been directed down the road by a police officer to catch the bus to Hat Yai. As I’m walking past a large covered platform accommodating three large women, one of them asks, “Where you going?” I tell them and am told to sit down. This is the bus stop.
I am offered sliced papaya, which is delicious. They ask me if I speak Thai, and I respond in the negative. But that doesn’t stop them from speaking to me in Thai for the next ten minutes, giving stilted translations of what they’re saying along the way. I take out my phrasebook and pretend to study it.
Just as I’m finishing up my meal on Jalan Alor, a street lined with restaurants – tables and chairs set up in the street – I feel a few drops, and then I see umbrellas being set up around the tables. I finish my beer, pay, and start walking. Within five minutes, it’s pouring. It’s that kind of downpour that you knew would come, that you even hoped would come, when it’s still hot and humid when the sun goes down.
It is so remarkably easy to walk around and see everything that one wonders whether the Hindu founders, the Portuguese conquerors, the Dutch, and then the British built this town as a major fort and trading post adjacent to the Straights of Melaka, or as a future attraction for weekenders with cameras. Large signs alert you to where you are: “Little India,” “Jonker Walk.”
Walking through a mall I realize that one has to walk through a mall to do pretty much anything in Singapore. Not that I mind, the malls all air-conditioned. It is a welcome respite from the harsh weather. One can rest assured that they are always in close range of a Starbucks.