Saturday, July 9, 2011

To Cambodia: Thailand’s Eastern Line and a bus ride into Khmer Country (June 27, 2011)

One of the first things I saw, after having my passport stamped and officially crossing the border, was a butt-naked boy running through the crowd.  Actually, butt-naked only half describes him.  Furthermore, he wasn'ta young boy, certainly no toddler.  He was at least five feet tall and I guess at Least 11 years old, maybe older.  I do not know what was up with him (and thankfully I never saw another kid running around in his age his birthday suit), he served as a shocking reminder (along with having to learn a new currency and the words for rice and noodles) That I was in another country.  Cambodia!  This was a land I've wanted to see since I was a teenager, just a few years older than the boy running around.   As a ham radio operator, I remember reading an article in QST (or maybe it was CQ, both amateur radio magazines of the time) of a trip made to American hamster Cambodia to meet with a few of the operators in the country.  The article had photos of the Temple of the country and it all Looked exotic.  A few years later, as the war intensified and later came to a horrific conclusion in Cambodia, I Often wondered What Happened to the few radio operators in the country as well as the Temple that were being destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.  Now was my chance to find the answer to at Least one of my questions.
I caught the train at Bangkok's Makkasan Station at 6:20 AM.  Actually The train starts at the downtown station at 5:50 AM, since pen was closer to my hotel Makkasan  I Began my journey there.  And for a while that morning, I Began to wonder if That Was a good idea.  I'd asked for a 4:30 AM wake-up call (it came at 5:15, as I was Preparing to leave my room, pen luckily I've Learned on this trip not to depend on hotel wake-up calls) .  Leaving the hotel, I ventured out into the darkness and (as the Skyway wasn't running yet), found a cab.  Contact The driver spoke little, PS I showed him where I wanted to go and he agreed and Gave me a fair price that seemed.  We piled my luggage I went in and off.  Two blocks later, something strange Happened.  A policeman was standing in the middle of the road with a blue lighted pointer, indicated for the cab to pull over to the curb.  Two other policemen with flashlights shining came over and asked the driver questions as they They shined lights into the back of the cab and onto my face and bags.  They opened the back door and asked where I was in rough Default from and where I was going.  I answer.  He Looked at me for a moment then said, as if Asking for some, "cigarettes."  I Shook my head and said 'I do not smoke.  "Okay," he said, and waved us on.  I had the feeling some Thai policemen were looking for smokes! 
My next hurdle was getting to the right station.  It turns out there are two Makkasan stations, one for the railroad and one a high speed rail line that runs to the airport only.  It was this station that the cab driver insisted must be mine. Having been to the train station, I knew not, and finally, a Thai man who heard me talking came over and asked where I was going and then Gave directions to the cab driver.  There were only two dozen or embarking passengers at Makkasan to coal, from cab drivers to the confusion was justified.
I purchased my ticket for the border (48 bahts or about $ 1.50).  The only option was a non-air Conditioned third class train, pen as it was only a five hour trip, that did not matter.  On the station platform, I noticed that in a yard Across the tracks were a number of old steam engines and I went over to see if I could get photographs, pen a guard said, "No photos."  I have no idea why, it wasn't bright enough to pen yet get a good photo (Once I was on the train, I did snap a photo of the old engines, pen from the distance and the low light photo meant that wasn ' t very good).  After walking around a bit with my heavy pack, I then sat down on the platform to wait for the train.   It was still 15 minutes away.  There I met Niranya, a Thai woman going back to her village near the Cambodian border.  A travel agent that work with Indian tourists Mostly, she has to speak Contact at work and I did not speak Thai Assuming Obviously, Began the conversation.  We Talked for a bit before the train arrived and, a few hours into the trip, she moved over to where I was sitting and We continued our conversation.  Having grown up on a farm, traveling with her was enlightening as she shared about the various crops and showed where fields were being converted to a fast Growing tree was used for pulp, but it really harmed the land as it drew so much water.  Much of the land in eastern Thailand is dependent on the rainy season for water as there is not enough water for irrigation.  Such trees, she complained, steals water that could be used to grow rice.  But the demand is high and Farmers, not thinking about the long term, are tempted to plant the trees that require less work than keeping up Rice Paddies.  Another crop that is in demand is tapioca, which also tends to rob the soil of nutrients.   
Outside Bangkok
I was amazed at the number of rail lines running into Bangkok from the east.  At places, as many as eight parallel sets of tracks ran from the city.  As it was early morning, the trains coming in were all packed with passengers.    Our train, heading the opposite direction, slowly filled.  This was a slow train and we stopped at every stop and once we stopped in what appeared to be “nowhere” and a woman got off and walked into a path that ran into the jungle.  Slowly, the further away from Bangkok we traveled, and after passing places like Chachoengsao Junction and Khlong Sipkao Junction, where lines split off heading north and south, we were on a single track line running through a flat countryside, occasionally pulling over to sidings to wait for east bound trains to pass. 
A passing train heading to Bangkok

As the sun rose higher in the sky, the car became warm and everyone began to sleep.  There was little movement, only the occasional seller passing by with drinks and snacks.  After Niranya moved over to my seat, a bunch of women boarded at one town, coming from the market.  They’d taken an earlier train into town and were heading back with baskets of produce and stables like cooking oil.  The train was so crowded that there weren’t enough places for people to sit.  I offered my seat to a couple of the older women, thinking that standing a bit wouldn’t do me any harm.  My act of kindness must have caught the attention of one of the women, who looked to be in her 30s.  She asked Niranya, whom she’d seen talking to me, if she was with me.  She laughed and told her no, that we’d just met that morning while waiting on the train.  The woman then asked Niranya if I was available!  She said she told her that I was married, and went on to say how many Thai women seek out American and Western husbands as a way of escaping the hard life, especially of one in a village.  I was certainly shocked with the number of Western men who were with Thai women, generally women that were half f their age or younger.
Station Stop

The women coming from the market only rode for about 30 minutes before getting off at a small village.  Niranya, who was going back to her home village to take care of some family business, got off Watthana Nakhon.  By then, the train had mostly cleared with the exception of those of us heading to the border.  The train was mainly filled with tourist and Cambodians returning home, such as a man who sat across from us and had drank at least a six-pack of beer during the trip that ended around noon!   He was coming back home after having some kind of surgery done on his nose in Bangkok.  The train pulled into Aranyaprathet, at the end of the line, a little after noon, about 30 minutes late.  As there are at most places, there were a host of tuk-tuk drivers wanting to take us to the border.  The prices quoted was what I was expecting  and soon I was being whisked away toward the border, feeling like I was in a chariot race with each driver vying to get their passenger there first.  The drivers also tried to encourage us to book rooms through them in Siem Reap (they all seemed to have a cousin or brother there), but I’d already had my reservations made. 
Inside the Coach Car
The crossing of the border was hassle free (except for seeing more than I’d wanted to see).  I had some lunch (rice and ginger chicken) and then got on the bus for Siem Reap.  The Cambodian countryside was flat as a pancake, with an occasional hill that seems out of place (these are called Phnom as in Phnom Penh, which is named for the hill it sits around).  I was surprised at how large the fields were.  The road is now modern (a few years ago, I heard this was a rode that would jar the fillings out of one’s teeth) and we moved along in air conditioned comfort.  We stopped once, for a bathroom break and to let the engine cool (while waiting the driver sprayed water on the overheated engine!).  The bus needed more gasoline  (or diesel, it’s hard to say) and the driver pulled up to a garage looking place and they brought out two 5 gallon jerry cans and dumped them into the fuel tank.  The bus station was on the edge of Siem Reap and I hired a driver to take me to the Golden Banana, where I had reservations for three nights.  After having seen the Cambodian countryside, I was shocked at how modern Siem Reap appeared.  That evening, I went into town and had Red Curry for dinner.  Then it was off to bed, in order to get up early to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. 

Cambodian Mass Transit
Half way between border and Siem Reap


  1. You sure are meeting some interesting people!!

  2. the naked thing happens here at Mardi Gras, but at that time New Orleans is practically another country anyway.

  3. For all the modernization, there are always things to remind you you're in the Third World. Fortunately, the Khmer Rouge are gone and the country can be normal, again.


  4. Thanks for the detailed descriptions. A colleague from the university spends long months in the back country of Thailand and tells of social attitudes and customs that are civil in their own way but very different from what westerners would consider the norm.

  5. In my travels, I have seen lots of older American males married to much younger Asian women in several countries. I used to think of it as a horrible practice but now I'm more neutral on the subject. At the end of the day, both get what they want from the marriage and many seem happy. Other's get used, both the Americans and the Asians, but that happens to same race marriages too. The worst part about it is that people remember the unhappy ones where someone got used and it gives all others a bad name, even marriages like mine in which an American is married to an Asian though we are of the same age and met innocuously while on vacation in London.

  6. Your travels made me wonder why I never use the train anymore. There is a station five minutes from my house, yet I always seem to drive these days. I love trains! I'll have to think about that.
    The way you traveled, you got to see how the people actually live, not just the tourist areas. It's nice...