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Travels with Pavel: 24 February 2005

The traffic on the roads of Phnom Penh at 7 in the morning was extraordinary and already at that hour there were also students to be seen on the campus of the Royal University of Phnom Penh. The airport is small, well-maintained and almost bereft of passengers – except of course the Indians – of whom I counted at least four more besides me – who have the “privilege” of flying out and to rub salt into the wounds, there is a US$25 departure tax.

The best was however, yet to come. Two turns of the corner away, after I’d paid the outrageous departure tax, I stood in front of the immigration counter. There sat a lady officer in front of me and next to her another male officer. Quite calmly, very matter-of-factly the lady asked for a “souvenir, “Sir, US$5”! If it had not come just a few seconds, after parting with US$25 of hard-earned money, I might have actually considered handing over the US$5 – I am that kind of a numbskull at times. However, she caught me at just the wrong time, still smarting from the first payment. I didn’t give a damn anymore if they detained me but I had just enough wits about to me not to blow my top. Instead, I managed my most winningest smile and said, “Oh no, thanks, I’ve got plenty of souvenirs. I’ve spent over 20 days in Cambodia.” After that, it was merely the motions that had to be gone through.

The flight actually took off five minutes before time. And cruising at low altitude, I got an idea for the first time of anything approaching extensive forests and hills in Cambodia and they were quite beautiful. An hour later, the descent into Bangkok was through dirty brown clouds of pollution.

At the Bangkok airport, I saw the biggest collection of Chinese citizens I ever saw in any one place – and all Muslim Hui at that. The entire planeload of them was there in the transit area, mostly aged people with a few middle-aged and younger ones, sleeping, resting, chatting, making tea. Probably going to or coming from Mecca. A most unexpected sight coming in from Cambodia.

KLM 0877 was delayed – snowstorms in Europe apparently and I had been sweating in the heat just over an hour ago – but Pavel, still limping from the wound I’d given him falling from the moto, and I finally met up in the departure lounge a couple of hours. We hugged like long-lost brothers. We played Praší for a while and then watched a small army of Thai men and women march up and down our plane cleaning and unloading and loading food trays.

Once on board, we decided to celebrate Pavel’s birthday. To the first airhostess who came around, Pavel placed his order – “Can I have one gin and tonic and one vodka with orange juice, please?” The matronly airhostess fixed a beady eye on the potential drunkard in front of her and said simply, “No.” Pavel and I were a bit taken aback and at a loss for words. The airhostess finally noticed me and the confusion on our faces and putting two and two together said, “Oh, it is for the two of you?”

To make up for her mistake, I think she was rather liberal with the vodka in the vodka and orange juice. Or perhaps, she mixed it in proportions she herself consumed. Whatever, it was a proportion that was a bit too much for me and I was soon high in more ways than one.

Back to cold Taipei. From 6:15 in the morning today when I woke up, to 6:30 in the evening when we landed in Taipei, it’s all been smooth sailing I should say, flying – Phnom Penh to Bangkok to Taipei – 3 airports, 3 countries, 1 day.

Epilogue

The ink in my pen has still not run dry but my journey draws to a close. 28 days of living out of a rucksack – backpacking they call it. For me, they were days in a country that was both strange and familiar, days that both brought back memories of childhood and plunged me headlong into new experiences.

To be reminded, to remember – are memories merely ties that bind us to the past, mere will o’the wisps that are of no profit or are they the vital lifelines that enable us to rise again, renew ourselves and give context to our everyday lives? Who knows? All I know is this – it helps to have your friends along for the ride.

Travels with Pavel: 28-29 January 2005

The mind is a funny thing – capable of plumbing abysmal depths or leaping to irrational joy. After several ups and downs, “going”, “maybe not”, “not-so-fast” swings, Pavel and I finally escape Taipei’s cold, rainy fingers for the sweltering heat of Bangkok, courtesy KLM which seems like Air India to employ the services of air-hostesses who have to make an effort to smile.

The two of us make a study of Bangkok’s airport layout trying to find out where the exit for the railway station is. In the event at 2300hrs local time, it’s too late. So we wait for Bus No. 59 and with a very morose bus conductor and make our way to Thannon Khao San. KS is one crazy street, I take 15 steps and I see a bunch of spoilt-looking teens of Indian origin sitting at the kerb. For the rest, it is the craziest assortment of whites I’ve ever seen in one place in my life. Lights, colour, lots of flesh, action. And one very cool, sun-glassed Thai tuk-tuk guy with a very fancy, colourful vehicle, playing some pretty good music – American, that is.

We come back to where we started as far as our room hunt went and given the heat, thank our stars we took the a/c. At midnight, the night still seemed young so off we were to see the Chao Phraya. Bangkok in the bus looked like any other old Indian city, a few late-night street corner eateries, the poor on benches or sleeping in the parks (the royal grounds in this case). Of course, with the city’s reputation for the sex trade, it was not long before approaches were made or looks exchanged, but there seemed families out also and it looked like a safe city for women – or maybe not. It was 4 in the morning before a long day drew to its close.

Not much sleep though. In our wisdom, we decided to venture out in the heat of 9 o’clock – though there was indeed a sizeable crowd about – and on empty stomachs walked and walked with some friendly Thai advice to guide us on our way – or maybe con us. Pavel seemed to think that he’d met one particular fellow on his last trip here about two months ago. So onward to the Standing Buddha shrine festival, which however is as closed as banks are on Sunday morning. King Rama V monument, Wat Bemchamabophit, lunch finally (!), Wat Saket (Golden Mount) with its 360˚ views of Bangkok, the beautiful Loha Prasat.

Pavel

Among other things: a woman in military uniform standing for the elections and going by the number of other candidates who appear also in military uniform, the armed forces still rule the roost in this country. Specialist Israeli haunts and some Japanese, more shop signs in Chinese than in English, so many white tourists – easy to see them all as a unity but there are Americans, British, French, Germans, the Belgians don’t like the Dutch, the odd Czech or two and a few mixed races; the roads are busy, chockfull and crossing them reminds me of India; Pavel doesn’t like traveling with big, “red” and “fat” people.

The wats I have seen remind me somewhat of the old, especially Christian Orthodox churches back home in Kerala – the placement of the tiles on the roofs, the placement of the trees within the courtyard, all bring on flashbacks of things familiar and the doorways remind me of temples back home. There are of course the vegetable oil paintings as well as the coloured glass lamps hanging from the roofs that remind of the St. George Valliapally in Puthupally, my home village.

“My home village” – now I know that makes me sound like I’m a country boy, but I’m not, not by a long shot. I mean its fun to see the elephant man give his elephant a bath in the little stream not 20 metres from my gate but my lungs can no longer do without their daily fix of pollution, nor my mind without the excitement of events moving at warp speed.