We have to organise a ride to the border. Our time in Cambodia is up, money is running low for me and the girls have plans. I chat to the Moped guys who have been ferrying us around the temples. The best they can do is offer a seat in the cab of a pick-up, which can’t take more than two of us. No cars got to the border they say, it’s too dangerous. It’s a warm afternoon and we are all sitting in the shade. I look around at their faces and wonder if they are purposely trying to make the journey sound ominous. It certainly does, but at the same time a little exciting.
I find out the girls have organised a ride, but when it turns up there are about ten locals stood in the back and not much room for us and our packs to squeeze on. It is not a short journey, it will take half a day, so it looks like a non-starter. The girls are starting to get a little freaked by the prospect, it seems there might not be a safe way back to Thailand, they are considering heading back to Phnom Penh.
Kev and I head to the market and started to ask around. There are plenty of guys with cars there, but no one seems keen to go, this is not a journey the want to attempt. After some bartering, finally the lure of enough American Dollars sways one guy, so we jump in his beaten-up old taxi and head back to the hotel to collect the girls. We have a ride! It doesn’t take long for us to load up and we are off.
The taxi looked pretty rough, I mean it was completely battered, but it was built like a tank. It had to be, the road was the worst I had ever encountered. The car sped along the tarmac at almost frightening speed, and we were thinking, this isn’t so bad, and then the tarmac just ran out. The surface changed to a cratered mass of red soil and white sand, barely recognisable as a road. It was as straight as it was uneven, and we just hammered on as fast as our driver could carry us.
The road sat on a ridge up from the dry fields around us, barren soil bordered by sculptured trees. At times it would become unpassable for the car, so the driver would just veer down the bank into the field beside and speed along like that for a while. Sometimes we would follow a well-worn sandy track, at others we would cut across the hard-ploughed fields, huge clouds of dust billowing up behind us. The driver was reluctant to stop, or even slow down, but once or twice, when we he deemed it safe enough, we were allowed to get out and take a few photos. At one point I was able to get a couple of shots of the locals in one of the wood and straw villages strewn along the road, bewildered faces looking back through the camera lens at me. But always the driver wanted to keep moving, he was not happy when he wasn’t in the safety of his car.
We encountered no trouble the entire journey, but we were constantly reminded of the lawlessness of the country we were in. As we passed by, men in an assortment of uniform styles sat around under trees, in hammocks, always a rife, machine gun or rocket launcher in east grasp, every village and town protected by its locals. We asked the driver if these were army and he responded with a definite ‘No’ and drove faster for a while, as if a reminder of some inherent danger. Every now and then we would pass a pick up, or often a truck, and they would always be filled with standing people, a collection of weapons visible. Where were we?
On certain stretches, for no apparent reason he would just speed up, hurtling down the deteriorating road as if something has spooked him, at times he looked genuinely scared. We didn’t mention this too him for fear he would decide the $100us we were paying him was not enough and just drop us at the next village. At times the force of the cratered surface seemed as if it would break the car in two, we just trusted him though, it was all we could do, he knew this road and had obviously done this trip a few times before.
So we sat back, smoked some grass, and watched this surreal and unique country pass by. The taxi ate up the miles on the open stretches, but would slow with the other traffic in towns, the driver nervously looking from side to side, constantly aware. It was always good to be out on the open road again. I have to say though, the driver at no time did anything to alleviate any of our concerns, the guy was genuinely worried and wore his feelings openly on his face.
The Cambodian countryside has such a contrast to it. Huge pockets of fertile Jungle stretch for miles to be broken up by barren farmland. Dry earth, mostly sandy with little visibly growing. At one point we stopped for a toilet break, the strangest feeling, standing in the isolated landscape pissing into the barren earth, the wind fanning our bodies the land silent and dead like some post-apocalyptic back drop.
The others held up well really. It was obvious that we were not in the safest of environments, a fact that seems to dawn on them as we travelled through the landscape, with a mild panic appearing at times, particularly when we were stopped anywhere. Madhu and me just got more stoned. I think we had entered Cambodia with an understanding of what was happening in the country. It was mildly surprising to realise other maybe hadn’t.
At we neared the end of our journey, despite a deteriorating road, we were unable to divert as the fields around us filled with landmines and barbed wire for miles on end. Warning signs dotted along the road side. Were these left from 1979? I guess, in reality, who was going to pay for the clear up all the way out here?
We arrived at the border after four and a half uncomfortable hours bouncing across the broken countryside, but in one piece. We located Cambodian immigration and we were herded into a wooden panelled room, the walls decorated in the memorabilia of a career in the Cambodian military. One soldier sat behind a large wooden desk, talking with him comrade. Their conversation went back and forth.
Meanwhile me and Madhu who had been very bravely trying to finish the stash of Cambodia grass before we got to the border were beginning to see the funny side of things and started having the giggles. We were stuck in the middle of nowhere with two guys with guns who obviously had taken a bit of a dislike to our bohemian nature and there probably wasn’t a funny side, but to us we had time travelled and were stuck in some bad 1970s movie. It was too much.
Eventually the senior guy turns to us and asks for a dollar. I mean they have been chatting for twenty minutes and that’s what they come up with. As stoned as I am, this just rings of someone who is used to taking advantage of his position but this in new territory for him. The border has just opened up again, for the first time in decades, and the world media has an eye on things. The last thing they wanted was an international incident, so I tell him that is not the deal. There is no fee. Madhu is complementing him on his uniform, the other girls are looking worried. There is a pause, he looks at us with a mixture of contempt and intrigue, then he stamps our passports and we are out of there.
In retrospect, we probably should have been a bit more respectful, but hell we were stoned.
From there we just walked back into Thailand. We caught the most amazing rickshaw to the train station and got the next train back to Bangkok. So ended our Holiday in Cambodia.
If you want to read more about this trip or just look at some photos, please click this link.