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Travels with Pavel: 9 February 2005

The bus to Kratie advertised as leaving at 10:30 in the morning, left at 10:20. Fortunately, we’d gotten to the bust station early ourselves. On the way we took in Kompong Cham’s small-scale celebrations in town for the New Year of the Rooster – dragon dances in front of each house or shop and children throwing fire-crackers at each other.

It was more of the same flat landscapes for much of the route, except this time we caught sight of rubber and tobacco plantations as well. Getting to Kratie and finding the mini-bus to Stung Treng full, we braced for the first “real” ride of the entire trip. So far every long distance trip had been inside a/c buses donated by South Korea or whoever. Now we would have a nearly 10-hour long trip on the back of a pick-up truck, sitting on an open tailgate.

There were about 20 souls in the back of the pick-up including a Frenchman named Laurent Jeanneau with whom we sat at the tailgate for the entire bumpy, dusty road. After a while, we were reduced to 16 people including three small boys. The Khmer farmers kept up a steady chatter through most of the trip commenting on Pavel’s one-glass shades that he’d managed to break before the trip had even begun.

The ride was exhilarating as far as I was concerned, the first time I truly felt alive, lurching about at the back, having a few close calls in the beginning. During a particularly murderous stretch after dinner break, I often had my butt floating up to a foot above our tarpaulin covered seat. Or maybe it was just the driver driving faster after a good meal… and in the dark. Pavel and I had been on empty stomachs throughout except for a baguette each for breakfast. But I loved the trip and was glad to have done it before this route was black-topped and a/c buses (from South Korea, naturally) came to dominate.

Laurent was an interesting guy, a professional musician – electronic music was his specialty (listen) – he’d recorded tribal music from all parts of the world, including India. He was returning to Cambodia after some nine months following an earlier nine-month stint in Ratnakiri. He spoke Khmer and was returning to take a local tribal artist to perform in France. We spoke quite a lot of the politics, history and societies of the peoples of the region of which he was extremely well-informed.

Finally at about 11 in the night, we landed up in a Banlung that had gone to sleep but still produced two moto drivers out of nowhere. In the event we just walked to a smart little place nearby that offered a striking contrast to the Bopear. Banlung Guest House offered a TV and attached bath plus dusty white sheets at US$5 for doubles. It was two in the morning before I fell asleep – there was Michael Corleone carrying out his first hits, Santino getting killed at the checkpoint and Michael marrying a beautiful Sicilian only to have her blown up in a car bomb. The music of The Godfather (listen) is just so hauntingly beautiful, apt in a strange sort of way for the inky darkness and night sounds outside our windows.

Travels with Pavel: 8 February 2005
The ladies might have beaten the men in the battle between the sexes, but it is the wat at Phnom Pros – on the hill built by the men – that looks grander and more interesting. Meanwhile, the climb to the wat on Phnom Srei – the higher hill built by the women – must be at least 200 steps long, but it has good views of the surrounding country. Between the two hills is a Buddhist theme park of statues and a library run by a French-speaking gentleman.
Pavel and I were in Kompong Cham, a dusty old place in the centre of the country. Reputedly Cambodia’s third-largest city, it was practically deserted when we got there. We passed through “Spiderville” again but once again didn’t muster enough courage to try our eight-legged relations, especially with Pavel’s queasy stomach. The Chinese New Year is on and has been drilling holes in our budget with bus fares increasing from the 6th to the 13th.
The Bojear Guest House is running to seed but it was the cheapest possible with US$2 for doubles without a bathroom. It did however, have much-washed sheets and towels. We hit it up with a 24-year old moto driver whose name, as I heard it, sounded like Ttea. He was a talkative chap and we soon engaged him to take us to the three major sights around town.
Wat Nokor was quite impressive, maybe because it’d been quite a few days since we’d left Angkor and had lived the city life for the last few days. In any case, it is unique because it is a Mahayana Buddhist shrine as opposed to the dominant Theravada strand in these parts. It also had the most obvious depiction of Hindu gods and goddesses that I’d seen in Cambodia. Opposite the shrine housing a reclining Buddha – where sat a monk smoking a cheroot – is a hall with statues of the Buddha as well as Shiva and Kali, as one monk helpfully pointed out to me.
This monk first asked me whether I was American, which was a bit like Taiwan, where the default nationality of every foreigner on the island was American until proven not guilty. Once he knew I was Indian, though the monk opened up and reading out the Khmer script, pointed out besides the statutes also the paintings on the walls of Krishna. There was also a mural of Rama and Sita. Not very old paintings but it’s not often that I get to see the two avatars side by side with the rest. There might’ve been similar depictions elsewhere but they weren’t very obvious to me, with the exception of Angkor Wat.
In the late afternoon, we were back in town for a walk across a bridge of bamboo planks to an island that charged 500Riel per person for each entry and each exit. Somebody was making a killing here. And since the bridge was strong enough for motos and bicycles, these got charged higher.
The Mekong is one of the great rivers of Asia, originating in the Tibetan plateau. Here, many thousands of miles away from its origins, the river was a slow, muddy ribbon in a slow, brown country. It’s hard to imagine the conflict and violence that raged in this region for decades sitting in front of the Mekong on a quiet, late afternoon. But below the quiet, the region is once again regaining its strategic importance. Only this time, I hope the people of these lands have more control over their destinies and will be well-served by their rulers.
The waters of the Mekong felt warm to the touch and after some hesitation I followed Pavel into the river for a dip banishing thoughts of whatever protozoan dangers lurked in it.
As we walked back to our rooms Pavel suggested that we check out an exhibition that was being held in the town grounds on the occasion of the Chinese New Year. Despite being extremely tired, I trudged along, unwilling to let him go off on his own. And I was amply rewarded. We knew now where the whole town was. The place was packed with people enjoying the market stalls and Ferris wheels and all sorts of other fairground rides. Pavel and I were soon on nostalgia trips into our respective childhoods. The bone-jarring electric car rides I remembered last from Al Ain’s Al-Hili Fun City in the UAE.
Cathay and Arabia meet in me.

Travels with Pavel: 7 February 2005

So Laos didn’t happen. All the polite pleading, trying to say I’m the ‘good guy’ – ie, an Indian with a valid passport and a good education – didn’t work. Proceeded next to the Indian embassy nearby, in high fury and ready to give my Ambassador an earful. The guard at the gate made me fill out a form, first.

I went in first and only then could I get Pavel in. Watched Zee News in silent mode for a while before a staffer with a pepper-coloured French beard – Mallu/Tamil it seemed to me – turned up to speak to me. We spoke in English, I explained my problem and got another one in return – I can’t leave Cambodia either, it seems. Except by air. There’s a good reason, I think, why Indian missions abroad have a nasty reputation among citizens and foreigners alike – no news is good news.

Cambodia-India Friendship-NIIT

Pavel and me made our way disconsolately back to Boeng Kak, decided to have a sumptuous Indian lunch at a South Indian restaurant. The restaurant is run by Sreenivas from Hyderabad, who’s also lived in Nagpur for many years. Language of communication this time, is Hindi. Sreenivas is the Indian chef in the only genuine “Indian” restaurant in the area – the other two are Pakistani and the rest are Cambodian. Sreenivas hasn’t been home in nearly four years. Why? “Arre yaar, behenchod phas gaya na!” (“Well man, sister-fucker, I got screwed.” – is the translation most approximating the feeling and content). He was cheated by an agent in Mumbai of several hundreds of thousands of rupees. After being promised a job as a chef in a Tokyo 5-star hotel, he was left stranded in Ho Chi Minh City instead, as the agent skipped town. Srinivas then spent two years in Vietnam working at a Pakistani (Indo-Pak war, anybody?) restaurant and another one named “Urvashi,” before arriving in Cambodia to improve his fortunes.

His clientele today included another Indian, from Tamil Nadu who said he was just traveling around Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Cambodia and back. We fell to talking in Tamil about the miseries of being an Indian national trying to obtain a visa for traveling in the region. Another of Sreenivas’ guests spoke shudh Hindi, was basically from Nizamabad in Andhra Pradesh but had lived a long time in Uttar Pradesh, taught Sanskrit and Philosophy at the Sihanouk University for Buddhist Studies. Had been here for six years and spoke Khmer well as well read and wrote the language.

I am trying to find a good thing about not being able to travel to Laos. I’m still pretty disgusted and feel sorry that Pavel’s stuck with me as well. Finally, got to reading one of the writers in The Road to Damascus. She writes several things more clearly than I understand them in my head. I sense the truth in her writings but as a part-time Christian, I am still too attached to the world to let things go or be. Else why would I not be more at peace with myself, despite the setback? Instead, I’m composing a mighty missive in my head to the Indian Foreign Minister, which I doubt he’ll ever read, even if I put it down in bits and bytes, let alone act upon.

So now, no Laos and trouble expected ahead. “For truly, I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” Faith.

Travels with Pavel: 6 February 2005

In a dusty corner of Phnom Penh, along a street where a rather elaborate function with lots of security personnel and Buddhist chanting was going on was the huge sign that announced “Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crime” or S-21. Also at the corner stood “Tuol Sleng Internet” and almost bang opposite the barbed wire walls of the museum along an unpaved track, the “Tuol Sleng Guest House.”

Pavel didn’t want to see the inside of the museum. I did. And at the end of it, I wondered what I’d gained. In about 40 minutes, I’d lost all the pleasantness I’d associated with Cambodia – the grandeur of the Angkor Wat and the temples around it paled into insignificance, nothingness, the beautiful paintings on the roof of the Throne Hall in the Royal Palace, the thousands of silver tiles of the Silver Pagoda and its priceless Buddhas, all nothing, nothing against the recounting of the evil, that I’d just seen.

It was children, teenagers that carried out the tortures of grown men and women in S-21 during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Children and teenagers, who were employed to engage in cruel and barbaric torture in the service of the state. Evil, somehow is too short a word to describe this.

Duch, the chief of S-21 is depicted in a smiling pose in his photograph at the entrance to S-21, as also are some of the child perpetrators of the crimes. And in the photographs of the victims with numbers pinned to their clothes, and in one case, on to his bare chest, a variety of expressions – of powerlessness of disbelief. The face crumples up and it is hard to stop the tears from flowing, it is hard to pretend any longer that you are brave. And yet, amidst the sheer terror, also stood out expressions of defiance. Men can despite everything die with dignity no matter the manner of their death.

Pavel told me that when his sister, went to Auschwitz, apart from the facts on view, the weeping of the Jewish visitors made it all the more terrible an experience. At S-21itself, the photographs, the interrogation chambers, the cells with their instruments of torture on display, the skulls piled up in showcases were not in any way more bearable for the lack of weeping visitors. In a tropical climate, the chill of that place seemed to seep into my very bones, to constrict my breathing. The guidebooks uniformly call the people of Cambodia “warm hearted” and indeed, they were. Where does evil come from then?

And the graffiti on the wall under a staircase in one of the building blocks says it all: “This is socialism”, “Don’t forget Abu Ghraib…”, “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children” by Bobby Sands who died on a hunger strike in a British prison to which somebody had written not very complementarily about the IRA. And “Blair, Bush. Bollocks!”

The world goes round and round, Khmer Rouge, IRA, Bosnia, Rwanda, Abu Ghraib. Who learns anything at all? The movie, “The Killing Fields” is a must-watch for every tourist in Cambodia. We too watched it later in the evening.

To the Lao embassy tomorrow. The travel agencies won’t help procure visas for Indians, Nepalis, Pakistanis and Afghans among a few others unless they produce flight tickets. I’d already asked Pavel yesterday, “Who the fuck gives a damn about Laos, anyway?” My Indian pride is pricked, Pavel can obtain a visa and enter the country overland. What MEA fuck-up produced this “respect” for Indians, I wonder? And funnily enough among the photos outside the Lao embassy we passed by today is one of former Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and company meeting with their Laos counterparts. Mekong-Ganga Initiative, my foot! We’ll see about this tomorrow.

Travels with Pavel: 5 February 2005

0805hrs

For a 7:40 bus we were picked up at 7:35 and with three stops in a space of 150 metres, we are transported to the bus station not a kilometre away where we are left to our own devices by the driver who does nothing but point at a bus with a line of tourists already in front of it. And so comparing Khmer character for Khmer character on the bus with our ticket, we figure out that it’s the bus we’re supposed to board but it’s too crowded and we switch to another bus of the same company which the driver tells Pavel is departing in 10 minutes. Well, as soon as the first one leaves, the time increases to about an hour. Mystified, Pavel leaves his seat to find out from the driver what’s happening but returns soon enough with the acquired wisdom “nobody wants to talk to me.” Meanwhile, we hope nobody will evict us from our seats which we’ve comfortably occupied towards the middle the bus instead of our original numbers at the back. Phnom Penh is six hours away, or so they say.

1224hrs

Lunch break. Mashed meat with a complicated name that as usual I didn’t even attempt to remember. Instead, I ask the girl again, “chicken?” which promptly sends her into hysterics against the nearest pole.

This place also sells deep-fried spiders as a culinary delicacy. Sukhon in the Lonely Planet, Suk Heng is this place. 一樣嗎?

2248hrs

We arrived at Phnom Penh sooner than expected and quickly found ourselves a room at Same Same But Different which the Lonely Planet describes as “same same and the same.” It’s an ok place, so far and overlooking the Boeng Kak, Pavel and me stretched our legs and talked about various things through a long walk through the city and dinner. Saw the Wat Phnom and Wat Koh and the confluence of the Mekong, Sap and Barsac rivers – the Quatre Bras.

Pavel at the Same Same But Different guest house

Saw an Indian couple at Wat Phnom and a very bored looking Indian youngster apparently waiting for somebody by the Indian flag on the promenade at the Quatre Bras. Contrary to the common impression that Indians are outgoing – the come-up-to-you-curious-and-smiling-all-the-time types – Indians out of India can’t wait to get away from other Indians soon enough. Or maybe that’s an attitude of city-slickers generally.

Today’s topics for conversation between Pavel and me included the attitude of “these southern peoples” particularly the Greeks with their siesta times, and that consequently they were likely to be left behind in economic development even by the newly-joined EU members from Eastern Europe as they had been already, by Ireland. Hmmm… us Malayalees/Keralites, we are a “southern people,” too. And I’d quite agree that we’ve been more or less left behind by the rest of India as far as industrialization and economic development were concerned but on the bright side, we got lots of greenery to show for it. And Mallus like Greek shipping tycoons have always made their fortunes under any flag but their own.

Travels with Pavel: 4 February 2005

“I’m not so dangerous!” said the pretty young thing to me. I was trying to recover my wits after just crashing into two of her compatriots also pretty, also young. The two had just taken off on their motorcycle without looking and were now sprawled on the ground in the middle of the bustling Old Market. And me, poor me with my rickety bicycle, stranger in a strange land, expecting to get lynched. In the event, I escaped with just some sweet sarcasm and several shy smiles aimed at me (yes really… … Coz, I’m tellin’ you so, that’s why). I’ve been in a lot worse and Pavel the Philosopher seemed now to have completely recovered from his own near-death experience with his cycle a couple of days ago.

The Roluos group of the earliest Angkor temples – Preah Ko, Bakong and Lolei – are in pretty much good shape considering their age. Also interesting was the script on the doors in these temples which had many characters that looked similar to those in Tamil or Malayalam. But otherwise, the Thai script much simpler looking than the Khmer script, looks more like Oriya or Sinhala or even modern Hebrew.

The trip to Phnom Krohm was special too, the temple overlooking the fantastic Tonle Sap – the flow changes direction twice a year! – in the far distance is a beautiful spot, so much quieter than the other tourist hangouts. Pavel and me were also treated to some palm toddy or panna kallu as we say in Malayalam – red ants and all – was a lot less stronger and a more sweeter than I’d imagined.

On the way it was beer and soya milk in hammocks at a roadside place, where Pavel expounded on the merits of Czech beer and the art of beer drinking – “Americans can’t drink beer” he declared. And a beer fact – Pilsner is from Pilsen in the Czech Republic (but naturally) – all Czech beers are Pilsners ergo, its good stuff. Yes, sir.

Soon we shifted to the subject of films and how he and his sister used to visit Karlovy-Vary. The style of the festival sounds very much like that at JNU. Now every Mallu worth his salt knows about Karlovy-Vary and the ‘art film’ – it sort of runs in our blood you know. And Mallus being Mallus, we can take it to an extreme. Inside every Mallu, in fact, is a romantic waiting to turn into a tragic hero, a lemming waiting to jump off a cliff, by making a completely unwatchable and commercially catastrophic ‘art movie.’

Finally got my Cambodia souvenir T-shirts at the Old Market and  tried Shabu Shabu style food for the first time at a roadside restaurant. Also happened to chance upon the Taipei Overseas Peace Service (TOPS) office in the late evening. Nice Taiwanese residents that we were, we went in to ask about the work of the place promptly sending the place into a tizzy. The one Taiwanese volunteer there was out but there was a really nice lady in charge and it sounded like they’re doing pretty good work too.

Add Angkor Wat to Kuttanad and it’d look like Siem Reap I guess.

Travels with Pavel: 3 February 2005

Ta Prohm at 8:20 in the morning – impermanence yes! but the glory of it all! The smell of incense in the cold morning air. And falling leaves blessing us in the golden sun. Not poet laureate stuff sure, but blame the poet not the inspiration.

No. 1966

The day began with our tuk-tuk driver, Naam (No. 1966) telling me at the end of some hard bargaining, “I know, Indians are poor people.” My pride would be assuaged later in the day by the sight of two very obviously Indian ladies (one was in a salwar kameez – ok Pakistani, Indian, whatever) and they looked like the money-throwing-around types too. Some competition to the Chinese, if not in numbers who would hopefully, have redeemed my Indian honour by being paying four times whatever they bought was worth.

Banteay Srei

At East Mebon, we run into Pa, Set and Chan. Pa and Set asked for and got Thai coins from me, Set gave me a drawing of flower and also together with Chan gave me a “star” of palm leaf – beautiful and intricately made – I remembered the sheer misery of craft class in Indian School, Fujairah. I was and am still all thumbs – why on earth won’t my paper flower on its metal twig look like a flower? It always looked like something the cat brought in.

Pa is the Tom Sawyer of the group – he offered me red ant embryos – white in colour – to eat – “It’s no problem, good to eat.” I am often at the receiving end of con jobs, sort of runs in the family, but for 2Baht this wasn’t an experience I was going to miss. And red ants or not, didn’t taste too bad either.

But I refused them the dollar each they asked for “going to school.” They just picked the wrong duo to ask money from, we were as poor as dormice – or backpackers – came. Everybody here from the tour guides to the children want to “go to school” or “study.” At least that’s what they say they want it for and frankly I don’t doubt it much, this is a country that has been ruined and turned inside out by the Pol Pot regime and decades of conflict. Add to that history too. The steps to the library at the Bayon were the steepest of them all. I can understand making the steps steep towards Meru but why make the steps steep towards an abode of learning? The Brahminic influence, I guess.

The food here reminds me a lot of home, especially the fish dishes, probably because they are cooked in coconut milk. And as we sat down for lunch, more kids surrounded us. One Indian and one Czech – we must have an aura around us or something. Before long, despite not offering them anything, I had two more drawings and another star. Pavel in memory of his childhood days parted with his lighter to a boy who seemed to covet it much, in exchange for a few more stars. The kids were amazing, spoke English, French, even a little Japanese and Chinese, knew the capitals of several countries including India’s, and had coins from India, Taiwan and Bahrain. Poor Pavel however, as always has to evoke the memory of the long dead Czechoslovakia to get people to acknowledge an entity known as the Czech Republic.

at the other end of his beloved Praktica for once

Pavel at Ta Prohm

We’re at the Phnom Bakeng for the sunset. There’s a huge crowd up here despite the rather steep climb. People of all nationalities – French and Germans who must have been, within their lifetimes, on opposing sides during World War II; Americans, of course; Japanese aplenty in groups, twos, alone; Chinese usually in groups; the Khmer of course, and perhaps Vietnamese too. People in all states of dress and undress; with heavy camera equipment of the latest technology or ancient Prakticas like Pavel’s; and Buddhist monks.

The sunset is an over-hyped affair but it’s got some special shades of red and magenta, I guess. But maybe we were just recovering from the Bayon which is a truly wonderful piece of work and the Banphon, the Elephant Terrace, the Terrace of the Leper King, too. Like Pavel said, it was a good idea to leave the best for the last day at Angkor.

Of course, there was still a Cambodian horror movie at dinner to top things off.

Travels with Pavel: 2 February 2005

Angkor Wat

At the ruins of Angkor Wat, sitting in front of Mount Meru itself, it is time for reflection. The Wat is crumbling though I guess to restore it to this degree was itself a remarkable feat. The feeling of impermanence is overwhelming. Why do we build? Create such massive monuments? To appease/worship the gods or to satisfy our own egos/selves? Questions that can be asked in a variety of ways for a variety of situations including my own motives for being here.

Of dust we are made and to dust we shall return – those words spoken by the priest at every Christian funeral, never fail to grip me. The Big Guy above (Pavel’s the atheist, not me) who uses the earth as merely “his footstool,” must have laughed long and hard at all the attempts of men through the ages to build him something great and magnificent. “great and magnificent” according to whom? Of men, by men and for men – to both paraphrase and add a twist to Lincoln.

Pavel tells me that the Aztec pyramids were very colourful and covered with minute detail once upon a time, which is no longer the case. At Angkor Wat, itself headless Buddhas abound, alongside apsaras with pouting lips, not to mention heavy wooden scaffolding where the repairs are being carried out. Everything is so like a flash in the pan, I think. What is the worth of collecting – stamps or coins as children would or books and money as grown men would? What is the worth of preserving things without letting modernity have its say – in the form of grafitti or chewing gum? Without letting the ordinary people decide what it is they want out of their heritage, a heritage that they often have less access to than the dollar paying tourist?

2330hrs

There are plenty of things about travelling I am learning from Pavel. I am on the conservative side, he’s on the let’s-do-it side. But I have to thank him for two things today – one, the choice of cycling and two, the dip we took at the Western Baray. After that it was bad luck as Pavel sweated and cursed his way all the way to the road near the airport as his cycle chain gave way. Fortunately, the first pickup truck we flagged down with a young couple on board, took us on, offered us oranges, understood very little of what we said (and vice-versa) and give us a lift all the way to our hotel.

Later we bought a karama each for ourselves – the colour and design are something I wouldn’t go for in India – I was rather taken in by the pretty face that sold it. As we walked through the environs of the Old Market, I thought about the children begging. Always a tough call for me – do I give or do I not? Sometimes, I give in. When I eat a meal for US$2.50, I do not think at all of the kid I just gave 2Baht to, not 15 minutes ago. We are also, i think, solicited by prostitutes on the way back – too dark to see. Maybe it was just Pavel.

This travelling with a white guy has me in both an advantageous position as well as at a disadvantage. The fist because life is a lot easier with the white man among the “natives.” Rooms are easier to get, shopkeepers give you the time of the day and so on. Disadvantageous because I don’t know what the hell an Indian is worth in these parts. Giving them their religion and assorted cultural inputs don’t quite count for much anymore. And whatever we give now, can’t quite match up to what the Chinese provide these days.

The Indian restaurateurs in Siem Reap meanwhile, seem to be from different parts of India not just from the North as I saw in Bangkok. I wonder what misery of existence drove them so far from home in the “wrong” direction – not west to the US or Europe but east to Cambodia of all places.

The French colonial era buildings remind me a bit of Pondicherry, though the are nowhere near similar in scale. Cut to the present, it is the Asian Development Bank andJapanese Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) money that is responsible for development projects in Siem Reap – drinking water for example (from the Western Baray, maybe).

Meanwhile, we are also going nuts here calculating and dealing in three currencies at a time – the US Dollar, the Thai Baht and the last and definitely the least, the Cambodian Riel.

The scenes so far remind me a lot of home in Kuttanad, cows crossing the road at their own sweet pace, calves bolting across in their turn, rice being dried on mats in the front yard. So many things my brother and I saw as kids and took for granted in Kuttanad have simply disappeared over the years. It’s a pity to think that those who come after us will never see what we have seen or do what we have done. Everything is so like a flash in the pan.

Travels with Pavel: 1 February 2005

1500hrs

After an uneventful ride from Bangkok through Thailand’s flat east, we stopped 10km from the Cambodian border at Poipet for a 2-hour wait to catch up with/be caught up by our fellow passengers with the travel agency. Good comfortable ride through areas that remind me of something and nothing. Wasn’t really too hot on botany in college but I think I saw tapioca and teak, eucalyptus, mango, and lemon trees standing alongside the high grasses by the sides of the road.

Exit Thailand, enter the middle world of casinos and gambling dens catering to the Thais and whoever else at Poipet. The casinos all come before the border check-post after which it is like any old Tamil town on the road from Pondicherry to Kumily in Kerala. The wonderland buildings of the casinos form quite a stark contrast with the shacks of the roadside. Meanwhile, the tour operator tries to convince us it is necessary to change our Thai bhat for Cambodian rial at the rate of 10r for 1THB – when Pavel checked the rate on the Internet yesterday, it was 104r. Well, whaddaya know? We were entering Indochina – and scams seem a part of the glorious heritage that the Indians and Chinese left these areas.

Indians apparently have quite a reputation here along with Pakistanis, Iraqis and some others. The Cambodian border official checked every page of my passport before he was convinced it was the Real McCoy. Another thing, I wonder how great an impact ASEAN really is. The Thais drive on the right, the Cambodians on the left. How the drivers on the border manage between the two sets of rules, I don’t know. As we wait for the bus to Siem Reap, there’s water skiing on TV, (actually Arsenal v/s Man United (3-1) in the beginning), porn CDs in the racks and beautiful Cambodian women painted in quite explicit poses.


2230 hrs

Starting about 1530hrs in the afternoon, it was 1930hrs before we hit a tarred road again and nine in the night when we reached Siem Reap. In between scenes that seemed right out of a train ride through Andhra Pradesh, except it was flatter and often had maybe just a single tree standing for miles around, an odd hill or two cropping suddenly out of nowhere. Kerala-like was the red laterite soil that cloaked everything beside the road that was under construction. A bumpy, bone-jarring ride that really wasn’t all that bad – compared to some nasty ones I’ve had in India.

So we are finally in Cambodia – a country whose king is a former ballet dancer and speaks, of all languages, Czech. Pavel is hoping for dinner with His Highness the Dancer. As for me, I watched Michael Clarke on scoring his debut Test century against India in Bangalore in a TV recording in our hotel room. I didn’t see that in India, I see it in Cambodia. Saw Doordarshan National, too. I think I fell asleep to that.

The title for the day comes from a boy who we met at the first break we took from Poipet. At a roadside shack that sold refreshments to tourists, including bananas with tiny rocks for seeds.

Also sighted a billboard, “We Don’t Need Weapons Anymore.” Amen to that.

Travels with Pavel: 31 January 2005

The Chris de Burgh song is not bad but this was something else! The lady in question, spiky-haired and with the winningest smile, almost pushed us into her bus leaving for the Damnoa Saduah Floating Market. Thailand has men bus-drivers and women bus conductors. The red outfit, I later learned was simply their uniform, though they also have long-skirt versions of it. Now, the relationship between driver and conductor it appears is like everywhere else – extremely chatty – the driver’s gotta stay awake – I guess driving as they do at under 30km/hr can be quite soporific. This despite the big wide roads and in good condition mostly – catch an Indian driver driving slowly despite narrow roads, in bad condition mostly. Bangkok’s tuk-tuk drivers by contrast seemed to be on a different diet from their bus-driving counterparts.

We finally saw what a floating market was all about. We reached rather late, about 10ish but there was still action on. The canals, the coconut groves, reminded me a lot of Kuttanad, my Mom’s place in Kerala. I miss home. Quite a place though DS. Built around the canals with their numerous boats plying their wares, are large markets selling all the regular touristy stuff from T-shirts to hats to postcards. Floating markets maybe but solidly grounded in commerce.

Damnoa Saduah Floating Market

Pavel and I carried on to Kanchanaburi – it occurred to me pretty late that at my old school, Our Own English High School in Fujairah, UAE, I was in charge of playing the cassette with the soundtrack from David Lean’s movie “Bridge on the River Kwai” for morning assembly. Dragged an extremely reluctant Pavel along, saw the new bridge built on the site of the old one, touched the waters of the River Khwae, and took a few snaps on Pavel’s crazy Praktika. It was a strange feeling to be reminded of half a lifetime ago and to think that the moment just happened almost without planning. Story of my life, nothing’s ever planned. Or the plans go kaput in short order.

Bridge on the River Kwai

The Burma Railway or the Death Railway as it was known is a testament to the way history is written in this day and age – hopefully something that is also changing even as I write. It is the 10,000-odd white Allied prisoners who died that are the focus of public memory rather than the 100,000 conscripted labour from Thailand and neighbouring countries. And yes, Indian soldiers too, died here. I doubt that any were whistling merry tunes.