Down the road: crossing at Poipet

I got to Mo Chit bus depot exactly at 3am. The cabbie had offered to take me for a flat 200 baht but I insisted on the meter. 97 baht, plus a 45-baht toll, plus a 50-baht tip for the guy, so I saved 8 baht, almost almost a quarter US.

The depot is very quiet at 3 in the morning. There were a dozen drowsy or sleeping passengers in a huge waiting area ringed by walls of darkened ticket windows. Three or four were lit, manned by depressed-looking clerks, no doubt wondering what they did wrong to deserve this shift. There were signs posted everywhere but few in Latin characters and none that mentioned any place I recognized. In my jet-lagged state, I couldn’t remember the name of the Thai border town I needed to go to (it’s Aranya Pratet, by the way) nor the Thai word for “Cambodia” (it’s “Kampucha” of course) and the clerk I tried didn’t know where “Poipet” is. “Cambodia” I tried. The clerk was still dubious but pointed down.

I found a dodgy set of stairs and went down two flights to a food court I wouldn’t have eaten at even if it had been open and I hadn’t had food for two days. Through a hallway there was another waiting room. The only clerk was under a sign with a vaguely familiar-looking word beginning with “A”. She knew “Cambodia” and either told me that the fare was 212 baht and the bus was in bay 121, or the other way around. I didn’t count my change, but the bus was in bay 121 so I was 89 baht poorer. The cheerful bus driver took my pack and I got on the empty bus, sat down, and closed my eyes. When I opened them, the bus was full, it was daylight, and we were rolling through rural Thailand.

We stopped frequently, for no reason I could see. No one got on or off. At one point, uniformed soldiers boarded the bus and led away a resigned-looking Khmer.

We arrived at the final station. I had been hoping to meet some fellow travelers on the bus, so as to split expenses for the rest of the trip, but I was the only farang aboard. As we were getting off the bus, I spotted some other tourists, Malaysians as it turned out, but they were in a group of three — already the ideal size for a cab without me — so I decided to keep looking.

A tuk-tuk driver offered to take me to the border for 60 baht — too much, I was sure, but I was too sleepy to haggle over a matter of two dollars. It turned out it was far too much, the border was perhaps 10 minutes walk from the bus station, past the border market I would have like to have visited, and the tuk-tuk, inevitably, dropped me off not at the border but at an unofficial “visa office”, whose actual function, if any (besides scamming unwary tourists), I didn’t bother to experience.

For I was not completely unprepared. I had gone through the Cambodian e-visa process, which I highly recommend. I had uploaded a photo of myself, given my credit card number, and been emailed a PDF containing the image of an official-looking visa sticker. The efficiency and ease of the process gave me unrealistically sunny expectations for the crossing.

I had a visa printout in my pack, so I just sauntered out of the scam station and went the last 500 meters down the road to Thai passport control, where the arrival card was ripped from my passport and much paperwork was done by brusque policewoman who never ceased talking to the next official over. Even in Thai, I could tell they were just gossiping and maybe even complaining about the civilians in front of them.

(Incidentally, why does the Kingdom of Thailand consistently put its rudest subject to the task of guarding its border? Most Thais are gregarious or at least polite, but the cops manning the immigration desk are, without exception in my experience, abrupt and surly. Americans have no reputation for politesse but our Customs and Border Protection guys are at least courteous, in their lethargic way. Maybe they are just nicer to fellow American. We have Congressmen to complain to, after all. Nobody at the SFO office of CBP wants to hear from anybody at Nancy Pelosi’s office asking why her constituent was asked all those unnecessary questions.)

I walked into Cambodia. There didn’t seem to be any official presence at all. Casinos, touts, nightclubs, massage parlors, but nobody who looked like a border guard. I found the visa office, a reassuringly official-looking building, but when I asked for passport control, they just pointed me down the road. There was a row of four desks, just sitting by the side of the road, each sheltered by a big parasol and manned by one or two Khmers in complicated, shabby, green uniforms, but they too just pointed me down the road. More casinos, more nightclubs, more touts. The touts kept asking me questions and offering me rides, but I wasn’t going anywhere without the right stamp. The last thing I needed was a hassle from some Cambodian cop and having to decide if a bribe would make things better or worse.

I passed a cluster of tourists, Germans to judge from their fair hair and their sunburns, but they were already a cab-ful at least, so I kept going.

Eventually, I came to a big shed marked “passport control” and inside, a room perhaps 8 meters by 5 meters, was empty except for a single desk pushed against the front wall and two more uniformed Khmers, one industriously filling out paperwork, and the second watching the first work. As I came close, the second guy opened up a desk drawer and pulled out an arrival card for me. I don’t know why the cards were kept in a drawer, given that the only purpose of the entire office was to distribute and process those cards, but this was the first helpful thing anyone had done for me since the cheerful bus-driver had stowed my pack for me, so I didn’t ask.

I did ask for a pen and the guy did the most incredible thing: he just grabbed the pen away from the other guy. Who had been busy writing with it. Mid-word, it was just snatched away and presented, two-handed in the polite fashion, to some dusty farang who didn’t even have the sense to bring his own. Maybe this was their way of being respectful to a visitor, but it was just bizarre.

I went to the far wall of the shed, where there was a little shelf I could use to write on. Above the shelf there was a small window that opened up to a second, smaller office, where several more officials where chatting among themselves. I filled out my card and waited for attention. Waiting didn’t work, clearing my throat politely didn’t work, so finally I poked my passport and the filled-out card through the open half of the window and waved them about. The nearest official took them, put them down, and then began work on a Vietnamese passport that had just been sitting on the shelf on his side. The actual Vietnamese person the passport belonged to wasn’t there, nobody was there except me and the officials, and since I actually was there, waiting, you’d think he’d do me first. Eventually, he finished or got bored with the Vietnamese passport and went on to mine.

And it was worth the wait, at least from the perspective of the effort the little man put into it. Stamps and initials and staplers. Reams of papers were shuffled. He made notes in binders and checked the exact date and time. I have no idea what all this accomplished, but I must admit, it was impressive.

All this time, a small crowd of touts was gathering at the door, eyeing me. Not a lot of business at what turned out to be about 10 in the morning, so to leave, I had to push my way through a flock of helpful cabbies and scooter-drivers, all chirping “Where you go?” I walked on down the road. Every 15 seconds or so another scooter-driver would offer a ride to the bus station. I apologized to each and kept walking. After about a kilometer, I passed a series of small buildings with signs offering bus tickets to Phnom Penh and Sihanookville. A huge, glossy bus (bearing, as many VIP buses in Third-World Asia do, Korean lettering) pulled out of a driveway. I think this was the bus station, but I kept going.

Finally, a Toyota pulled over and offered me a ride to Siem Reap for $20 plus a $5 bribe for the police; the latter is standard but the former was half the going rate, plus the driver had an honest face, plus it was clear I was not going to find another traveler to split the fare and I didn’t want to face another bus ride, so I got in.

The driver Yoeun Savann (I recommend him wholeheartedly now — his email is after an orphanage he tried to start) turned out in fact to be an honest man and a good driver, we rarely dropped below 100kph on the trip. From the garrulity of the solo traveler, I asked him about himself (44 years old, a born-again Christian, four children including an adopted son, unusual for Cambodia), about Hun Sen (“a very clever man”, but too long in his job, in Savann’s opinion), about the King.

He was funniest about the King. “60-year-old man, no wife, what do you think?” he asked. His face was carefully neutral, but there was no missing the implication. (If it weren’t for British libel laws, I’m sure this article on his coronation would be headlined “Queen Becomes King”. The New York Post would’ve done it.) He theorized that after King Sihamoni dies, the monarchy will lapse and like many post-monarchal countries, Cambodia would have both a prime minister as head of government and a ceremonial president as head of state. I’m not so sure. The country has no succession laws; there is a commission that selects the monarch from among members of the royal family and if, as seems very likely, Sihamoni’s proclivities lead him to die without issue, his father, Sihanook, has thirteen other legitimate children and innumerable grandchildren.

Emboldened, I asked him what he remembered of the Khmer Rouge. In his opinion, Pol Pot sold too much rice to China at low a price in order to fund the military. I thought that an unusually impersonal evaluation coming, as it did, a then-13-year-old living under the regime, and was about to say so but his eyes were welling up, so I apologized and changed the subject and we continued down the road.

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