Freshly minted traveller

At the end of 2005 I spent three months travelling in South East Asia. It was my first ‘proper’ travel experience in that I was on my own and out of my comfort zone. One particular day sticks in my mind from that trip more than any other. Here is what I wrote about it shortly afterward:

I’ve heard it said that there are really only two kinds of story – one in which someone goes on a journey and one in which a stranger comes to town. Which when you come to think about it are really just two sides of the same coin. And if you think about it for a bit longer you realise what a platitude this is because we’re all on a journey of some kind or another through life and what else is there to tell a story about other than life? But anyway I’ll ask you to ignore the obvious redundancy of my opening when I tell you that this story is one of those in which someone goes on a journey. This is the story of my first day as a traveller.

Freshly minted traveller

It’s seven am and Khao Sahn Road is deserted; the vendors have not yet set up their stalls and the tourists are still sleeping off another night’s revelry in their steamy cells. It’s early in the tourist season; when I return to Bangkok in three months time Khao Sahn Road will be buzzing virtually non-stop. But for now there are just a couple of sleeping dogs and the 7-11 which is just opening.

Khao Sahn Road has two kinds of travellers. There’s the brand new green kind, ill at ease in their adventure Sandals, looking uncomfortable in the street, eyeing every local with suspicion, dripping sweat and naivety. Then there is the seasoned kind, decked out in anklets, bracelets, parachute pants and unflappable cool. I am definitely in the first camp.

I have been in Thailand only three days but already I am leaving, pressing on with a schedule dreamed up while languishing through hours of university lectures. I arrived in Bangkok alone, in the middle of the night, with no plan of where I was to stay or how to get there. Three days later I have started to feel comfortable, to feel that I can cope travelling on my own. This feeling about to leave me. I am going to Cambodia.

At the 7-11 I buy supplies for my bus trip. It’s the same one where the night before I accidentally dropped a bottle of spirits on the floor. The guy behind the counter barely batted an eyelid at my gaffe, just swept it to the side of the aisle to clean up later while I made repeated apologies in a language he didn’t understand. Drinks, chips, biscuits and a shelf-stable sweet pastry. Later when I eat the pastry I realise that it is supposed to be a pizza, that despite being a glazed cakey thing it is also topped with processed cheese. The four round red things on top represent slices of pepperoni. Already I am learning; western inspired dishes are better avoided in this part of the world (a corollary that I’ll later add is that the more homesick you are the worse your hamburger will be).

I stand outside the closed travel agent’s where I had bought my ticket and been told to wait and worry. Am I late? Where are the other passengers? Have I been ripped off? Eventually a Thai guy in black jeans and t-shirt arrives and leads me (meekly, like a lamb to the slaughter? Not quite but I feel that way) to the bus. To my surprise the bus actually looks like the ‘first-class’ bus in the photo on the ticket. I hadn’t really expected that and begin to wonder if I hadn’t been a little overly suspicious of the insistently eager vendor who sold it to me. Who knows, maybe it will only take seven hours after all?

I find my seat, recline it and put my feet on top of my bag. The bus leaves and I put my headphones on to drown out the Thai music videos playing on the television screen at the front. The air-conditioning is freezing and my clothes are with my big bag stored under the bus. Lesson number two; always have a sweater for AC buses. The roads are smooth and I drift off without really taking much in.

We stop at a dusty deserted restaurant for lunch. It’s the kind of place that only tour buses stop at and our arrival shakes it out of its torpor only grudgingly. I sit alone and order a coke and food. I’m considering whether spicy seafood soup was a safe menu choice when the bus driver’s assistant comes and asks me if I have my visa ready.

This surprises me, its a notion that I had never even considered. Visa on arrival is all I’ve ever experienced. My dismay must have registered on my face (alongside my naivety) for the assistant was quick to reassure me that he could assist. I eagerly agree and he asks me for the visa fee and for my passport photos. I have no passport photos but this is ok, a mere formality, and if I pay a little more this will be taken care of. I hand over 400 baht and my passport. My soup arrives before I have time to consider how much I may have just been ripped off.

No cuisine is audacious as Thai in cramming so many flavours into one dish. Welcome to flavour country. The soup is incredibly spicy, salty, sour, sweet and tasty – every slurp a taste explosion that leaves me sweating. It is also intensely colourful. A rich red oil floats on the broth and out of this pokes amazingly iridescent crab legs in blue and yellow stripes. I feel as though I am eating the contents of a tropical fish tank, which I guess I am in a way. I go to take a photo but my camera battery has died (another basic rule of travel – ABC, always be charging).

I am recovering over a second coke when my passport returns with my new visa, a first – a full page affair consisting of a large sticker with a holographic logo and several stamps cementing it to the page. I go to get back on the bus but it is nowhere to be seen and our bags are waiting for us in a pile. In its place a truck arrives and we are told to get in the back. We climb into the open tray with our bags and I wonder what is next.

What is next is changing money. My friend who helped me with the visa is here to help again. I must change money now before Cambodia where the rates are much worse, here I will get the best rates, he will ensure this because he is my friend. I explain that I have US dollars which I can use but he tells me no, you cannot use them in Cambodia and I must change money.  The pudgy, ring bedecked fingers of  a corpulent sun-glassed official in a military uniform snatch a hundred of my greenbacks and hand me a greasy wad of notes in return. I realise something is wrong even as I step out the door but it is too late. I don’t even know what the rate of exchange is. The forty dollars he rips me off will stand out as my biggest loss on the trip. While laughably small in hindsight, it was two days budget on a shoestring trip where I didn’t have a credit card to bail myself out. I will think of this guy for months to come and will impotently rage against him and my own naivety. I would be happier being ripped off forty times over by street urchins than by be made a fool of by this fat parasite.

I don’t have much time to ponder this though as we drive a short distance and are told to get out. We are at the border. Poipet. Subsequent experience tells me that this border is much like other frontiers all over the world – a dusty shithole where no one wants to be, an in-between place that exists only as a transit point for most. However there are those unfortunates who for whatever reasons end up stuck there and eke out a living in a place where everyone else wants to get out of. Immediately I am surrounded by naked children and beggars who clamour around me in the dust tugging at my clothes under a merciless sun. One tries to hold an umbrella over me. I wave him away. They all want to carry my bag but I press past them, eager to get them out of sight, away from the frayed edges of my conscience that tells me that this isn’t right, life shouldn’t be like this.

It will be a long time before I tame my conscience, can subdue it by rationalizing away its emotional appeals. Even then it will rear its head at unexpected moments at some new and extraordinarily pitiful sight. It will be even longer before I realise the futility of trying to stamp it down – bloated as it is having been protectively nurtured for so long in my sheltered existence at home.  I come to look on my conscience as an emotional tax that I have to pay for travelling in a part of the world,  where I can live for days at a time on amounts that I spend without thinking at home on frivolous crap, places where life is cheap.

I stride away from the beggars and the naked children to the border post. We have a new bus on the other side, a minibus, decades older than the bus that drove us the Thai leg, its windows missing, coated in red grime, seats crammed together. Somehow I’m the last one on and the only free seats are those at the back just behind the wheel wells. Early on in my trip the lessons are coming thick and fast and I’m having a hard time keeping up with them. This one will take repeated failings to learn – on a long bus trip you don’t want to be at the back. You’re furtherest from the entrance, with the longest to wait to get off at stops, where the smells, heat and vibrations build up for the longest. Most of all you don’t want to sit above the wheel well where your precious leg room is halved and you have to sit with your knees jack-knifed up to your chest.

There is no road. Well, no sealed road, only a series of twin ditches in the vibrant red earth meandering between the fields and paddies stretching off into the hazy distance. As the bus pulls out I identify the source of the red grime on the bus as the dust billows in the gaping holes where windows should be. A choking cloud envelopes the bus. It settles in my hair and clothes, turning my white t-shirt a permanent pinky colour which will remain stubbornly through repeated laundry services as a permanent reminder of this day.

One hundred and eighty kilometers. That is the distance from the border to Siam Reap. Six hours is how long it will take us to navigate the dust and the holes in the road. In the rainy season it can take much longer I am told.

From my perch at the back of the bus I marvel at the scenes of penury around me. Poverty is pervasive, visible in everything I see. From the shacks on the side of the road selling gasoline in old Coke bottles to the people running after the bus begging for money – dressed only in an old piece of fabric round the waist – everything reeks of want and need. There’s a universality to poverty – it looks the same everywhere. I look down at my wrist and the shockingly ostentatious fake rolex that I had paid twenty dollars for in Bangkok days before. I slide it off my wrist and into my pocket as if removing this gross symbol of my relative wealth will somehow immunize me from the pleading gaze that greets me from every face on the road side. The bumping of the bus must jiggle the watch out of my pocket because I never see it again. I don’t miss it.

The night descends suddenly on the countryside. In my mind the view from the bus resembles something from Dante’s inferno. The only light comes from the bus’s headlights, rubbish fires, and – inexplicably – fluorescent tubes glowing out in the fields. Through the dust cloud and smoke everything takes on a sinister hue. Silhouettes move through the night, shadows in the fields are people still working I suppose. Doing what I can’t guess. What are their jobs? Where do they live? What do they eat? The questions whizz through my head like the moths in the night and I feel a deep sense of unease.

We arrive in Siam Reap. Finally. I later heard it said that the bus drivers drive deliberately slowly or take a long route to ensure that you arrive exhausted in the middle of the night. I also heard that the company that owned the airport in Siam Reap bribed the government not to upgrade the road to the border so that the wealthier tourists would continue to fly. I don’t know about any of that though, all I know is that we’re not at the bus depot, in fact we haven’t even arrived in town.  We’re at the front entrance of some hotel. Some people have reservations elsewhere and are forced to leave from there. I don’t but I want to go somewhere else. I don’t even know where we are though. As I try to leave the hotel staff become increasingly frantic trying to convince me to stay. Hey man, it cool. We make party for you. Every night. You want party? We party all night if you want. You look at room now.

Then a Western guy comes out from the neighbouring building surrounded by young Cambodian kids. He is shirtless and across his protruding gut a huge scar cuts into his fat like a taut cord.

Let me tell you guys how it is. Yeah they pay the bus to stop here, just like all the other places pay for the buses to drop off tourists. If they didn’t then your ticket wouldn’t be so cheap. Now you don’t have to stay but if you don’t that costs them money. They don’t have a lot of money. No this place isn’t in your guide, but its no worse than those places and a lot better than a whole lot of other places in this town. There, I’ve said my bit and he disappears back into the night.

I agree to look at a room for two dollars a night but once I have ascended the absurdly steep stairs (an architectural feature modeled on the stairs at the temples of Angkor no doubt) the price is three dollars and I’m too tired to haggle any more. I strip off and marvel at the clearly defined lines of dirt contrasting with my pale skin that was covered by my clothes. I grin at myself in the mirror.

There will be plenty more bus trips after that one, more border crossings. I’ll be ripped off again too; I always learn the hard way. By the time I arrive back in Bangkok three months later, two days before university starts again, I’ll feel like I’m in the second camp of travellers, the seasoned kind, looking on at fresh-off-the-plane newbies with a condescending eye. But I’ll always remember that first bus trip, my first day as a traveller.

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2 Comments on “Freshly minted traveller”

  1. Chris says:

    Quite a rough start. Spotting con artists is always so easy in hindsight and you feel so naive. On my first day in Asia I was ripped off by a taxi driver and like you with your money changer it had me fuming when I thought of it for months to come.

    • nzcampbell says:

      It’s amazing how much mental energy I wasted running over the experience in my head. I had a really hard time letting go of it. I guess that was a lesson I learned too from that day, although it took a while to sink in.


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