The bus from Siem Reap to Bangkok takes about 9 hours and costs $8-10 depending what bus company you go with. And it’s a tiny bit misleading to say “the bus,” so allow me to explain a bit.
At 7AM, you wake up to catch your tuk tuk or van to the bus station. The bus leaves at 8AM and shakes as it ambles happily down dirtways that vaguely resemble brown, explosive Swiss cheese.
You make a couple of pit stops so the mosquitos sleeping between the curtains on the bus pulled straight out of the sixties realize there is a smorgasbord of Bertie Bott’s every-flavor human sitting perfectly still in a hot, sweaty mess.
After the first four hours, you’re at the border with Thailand and you get off the bus and carry your stuff with you through customs, walk one kilometer to the border, and stand in a room with stagnant air as two hundred dripping tourists drudge along in a queue for visas. The windows cannot be opened to promote airflow, and if someone does manage to open one, an angry Thai woman in a black suit runs out and shuts it.
When you finally get your visa, you continue walking 500m, pass through security which is monitored by A SLEEPING PERSON, and then are herded by your bus company to a songtaew (covered truck-taxi). Here, you hang onto the back and get off to stop for lunch before your minivan picks you up to take you the rest of the way to Bangkok, ending on the ever-lovely Khao San Road, where the worst of the worst tuk tuks are standing, ready to overcharge you for rides and harass you when you say you’ll just walk.
Whew. Got all that?
The change between Cambodia and Thailand is immediately noticeable. On the boarder in Cambodia (and really in most of the rest of the country as far as I’ve seen, the older generation reflects, as a mirror, the horrors of the past. Children have nothing and yet seem to be happy and friendly to everyone including foreigners, while people in the middle beg you to buy merchandise from their roadside tent so they can support their families. The roads are dust. The buildings are dust. The air is dust.
Just across the border, adults become business savvy. Children are fully clothed and play with toys. Bathrooms have soap, and sometimes even toilet paper. The country is literally more green and huge fields of crops grown for export are visible from the paved highways and streets.
When I had visited Thailand he first time, it was interesting coming to terms with a new culture and one I perceived as less clean and developed than my own. Now, coming from Cambodia, my perception has been completely altered.
Women sweep their porches, wash their tables, and clean their work area on a regular basis. Smiling faces welcome you everywhere. Air is breathable. Men only try to sell you women if you’re in the red light district and don’t constantly bombard you with drug offerings, and certainly don’t grab you from behind when you tell them “No, thank you.”
It’s not that I don’t like Cambodia and think it needs to change because of what I perceive to be wrong with it. I just didn’t ever feel clean or comfortable there. And its terrible history and the heavy loss it endured hangs too heavily over it, making it difficult for me to justify having fun there when so many are in pain and poverty.
I contacted Joy at my home-away-from-home in Thailand, U-Baan Guesthouse in Bangkok, and she was able to squeeze me in last minute. Ricarda, Jo, and Tor are all there as well, as I understand it, so I’m hoping to have a proper celebration of my old age and get to know a city that I’ve somehow, ironically and unexpectedly fallen in love with.
On arriving, I was ready to do a little bit of exploring, and I’d met a cool Spanish guy on the minibus who was going to walk all the way from Khao San Road (where the minibus dropped people off– once again, I must reiterate that Khao San Road is a tourist trap, and one of the worst I’ve come across), all the way to near where I was staying, which would take us about an hour.
“Do you know where you’re going?” I asked, seeing he didn’t have a functional phone.
“Yeah, I’ve done this exact same walking trip a dozen times.”
“How many times have you been to Bangkok?”
“Well, I’ve been traveling for a couple years. I just don’t ever want to go back home, so when I travel and run out of money, I come back to Bangkok and find work. Or sometimes it will be in Australia, or in another country. But I always come back here. It’s my favorite city in the world.”
“I like it, but I don’t know if it’s my favorite,” I said. “It’s so chaotic.”
“Everything here is chaos,” he laughed. “But it’s cheap to live well, the people are very friendly, and there’s always something to do. The best thing is to just do what the locals do and try to fit into life here.” I remembered my time in Spain, a month trying to fit into a niche and making friends by cooking for them and making sangria.
Even after having been in Bangkok for two weeks, there was a great deal I’d not seen. It’s so enormous I could spend years here and not get to see all the streets. But this walk was nice, and I got to see some of the more quiet (and some of the not-so-quiet) roads that gave depth to a place I’d mistakenly taken as an easily understood entity. On the quieter streets there were entire families sitting at booths cooking meat sticks and soups and cutting up tropical fruits. Turn a corner, and there was indescribably loud construction and an uppity clothing store staffed with young men and women in suits and skirts, while across the street, a man in nothing more than his trousers sat on the curb, chewing endlessly on something and smiling at passersby.
We ran across a trio of loud old Thai men sitting in front of a small television on the sidewalk. They signaled to us as they stood up and cheered, indicating we should look at the TV. There was a Muay Thai fight– a Dutch guy vs. a Thai champion. I’d never seen one of these fights before despite it being recommended to me, just because fighting sports aren’t my thing. But the men yelled at us in unintelligible Thai (probably something like, “YOU CAN SIT WITH US!) and pulled up a couple chairs for us, so we sat and joined them in watching the game.
“OH! WA! OY! YA!” we repeated every few seconds in unison as the Thai guy kicked the Dutch guy square in the face, back-handed him, knocked him over, and generally just beat the crap out of him. The man in front of me poured me a few whiskeys and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Worried it was rude to turn down the offer, I’d taken four shots before we finally decided we needed to get going. It had been an exciting outing.
At last we’d reached the point where we split up, and I headed for my hostel to see Jo and Ricarda again. After exploding with some happiness at them, I went straight to bed and made some plans for breakfast, because it was Jo’s last day before heading home.
The next morning, Joy took Ricarda, Jo, and I for breakfast at a place really close to the hostel I’d never thought to visit before, and we were treated to some of the best food I’ve had so far on this entire trip. A woman on the corner sells milk iced coffee the size of my head for 25 baht ($.72), and we got these little coconut biscuits that are to die for, in addition to these taco-looking things called “ka-nom-beang-bo-ran” (don’t google it, it comes up with something completely different) with string egg, tamarind, coconut cream, raisins, and a baked flatcake… I wish I’d known all these things existed when I got here, but it’s perhaps a good thing I didn’t. It’s now an obsession I haven’t been able to kick.
After stuffing ourselves as much as we possibly could, we had our teary goodbyes and saw Jo off. Some of the other guys at the hostel were planning to go to a Muay Thai fight that was free to attend and had been advertised on TV, so that afternoon we headed directly for the fight.
I’ve never seen anything as violent in sports as Muay Thai boxing. Sure, boxing is pretty guesome and broken spines happen in football, but Muay Thai is a flurry of people jumping around, pummeling each others’ kidneys, ribs, and face with a series of thunderous punches, hard elbows, and way too many kicks in the face. We were let in and slowly made our way through the crowd as locals wouldn’t let us stand near them, and I was confused about what was going on until I saw all the white people sitting on the far back wall bleachers. But when we reached that wall, after stepping on countless toes and squishing through people for twenty minutes, one local guy who was sitting there put his hand up to stop us to say, “YOU CAN’T SIT WITH US.”
To be fair, there wasn’t any more seating room, so we stood for the duration of two full fights. The entire time, Thai men were shouting at the tops of their lungs at other people, holding up wads of cash and small sheets of paper, performing complicated hand gestures in all directions to communicate with each other about who was betting what, and switching to speaking quietly into their cell phones and walky-talkies, presumably giving instructions to someone orchestrating a profitable business in the shadows. I was bored of seeing people bleed after the second fight, so Ricarda and I left and visited another of Bangkok’s famous markets; Chatuchak market.
Otherwise known as “the weekend market,” Chatuchak market takes up an entire city block and consists of a maze of covered tents and structures where merchants show off their endless wares. Here, you can have a custom-made leather wallet made, buy any kind of food you can imagine, peruse endless waves of fabric and clothing, and anger shop owners by attempting to take photos of the “Heil Hitler!” poster they’ve got hanging up for sale on the back wall. Yeesh.
Too much had happened in one day, so, sunburnt and filled with a new appreciation for Bangkok, we hit the hay with big plans to visit Ayutthaya, the old capital of Thailand.