‘This trip will change your lives.’ Our Cambodian guide, Kakada, made this rather grandiose claim in a Bangkok hotel foyer to fifteen strangers sitting quietly around a table, me included. It was the night before we were to embark on our Mekong adventure, beginning with a bus trip from the chaotic and steamy streets of Bangkok to Siem Reap in Cambodia.
I had just spent the day gallivanting around Bangkok with a fellow explorer I had met at breakfast that morning, James. We had gotten lost on its crowded local buses, spotted a rodent leisurely creeping under market stalls (which I cannot name specifically given the depths of my phobia, and to which James had exclaimed, ‘You came to South-East Asia and you have a fear of r*#s?!’), sat in air-conditioned goodness after giant Buddha viewing and eating a delicious spicy omelette, and had fabulous tuk-tuk adventures across town. I had also dragged my poor companion to a great, big shopping complex to have passport photos taken for border crossings. After walking up and down to find a camera store, the photographer-cum-stylist of this store promptly directed me to a mirror to fix myself up and ordered me about so that my best angle was photographed – a little different to home where passport photos can also handily be used as prison identification.
James was also to embark on a similar trip in the next couple of days – his group setting off to Cambodia and Vietnam. He warned me that he and I would represent a minority demographic in each of our groups – i.e. thirty-somethings taking annual leave out of our full-time careers to enjoy this very holiday and not twenty-somethings with an interminable amount of travel time ahead – in our respective groups. Aside from feeling envious, I suddenly worried that I might be stuck on some kind of Contiki tour dressed up as an cultural adventure tour of South-East Asia. What the hell was I thinking when I booked this, I wondered at that moment. I then envisioned a situation in which I was being made to skull beer through a tube and then pushed into a river or lake or some body of water with half-naked, shrieking hippies – hairy ones. It made me feel very old.
As if to prove the point, James greeted a member of said early-20s demographic outside the shopping centre, whom he had met at the hotel we were all staying at. He asked her how long she was travelling for. A few months, she had said, to which James and I had exchanged a knowing look. I had been in her shoes over 10 years earlier, and suddenly remembered that feeling of freedom buoyed by a seemingly endless stretch of time, where ‘real life’ felt like something I would get around to, eventually. A sharp feeling of confinement in my current life’s conventional trappings washed over me. I wanted to skull beer through a tube (I’ve actually never done that) and run around in hippie braids and elephant pants and prayer bracelets and tassels. It was then that James said something to the effect of, ‘at least we can afford to have dinners in nice restaurants while travelling, and do all of the optional activities’. There was my silver lining.
And so when I went down to meet with Kakada and my travel companions in the hotel foyer that evening, I was pleasantly surprised when I did not find a plethora of sun-kissed, rainbow-coloured, hemp-clad travellers before me. Instead there were a father and son from Canada, two best friends and retired attorneys from the US, a South African living in Gloucestershire, a young couple from Bristol, a third Bristolian … roughly my age, a couple from New York (originally from Brazil and Russia), another lady my age from New York and a GP and my soon-to-be roomie from London.
After initial introductions, we were whisked from the hotel and guided across the mad streets of Bangkok, and then split into taxis to head to our dinner destination. In what should have been a straightforward journey from hotel to restaurant, this epic trip was to set the tone for further epic journeys throughout this adventure. With three of the five Brits in the back seat chatting away, and me in the front seat taking in the road ahead and the vibrancy all around, I did not even think to question the uncertainty of our dazed and confused driver. After cruising along quite nicely, we came to a sudden stop in a part of town none of us recognised. And from our seat we watched an array of lit lanterns drifting about the dark skies, and were told in very broken English that this was indeed Loi Krathong, the festival of lights. For the first fifteen minutes of sitting perfectly stationary in that traffic, the lanterns were an exciting distraction. Then there was a mention from the back seat of needing a bathroom stop, coupled with some nervous mutterings in Thai from our driver. After another 10 minutes, the lanterns were helping to soothe me as I had a phone thrust in my face several times and asked (I’m pretty sure) in Thai to speak to Kakada, who was already at the restaurant and wondering what had happened to the four of us. The driver had no idea what the restaurant was called, and we had no idea where we were. Mike’s need to pee was becoming dire, and given my Thai extended to Sawadee Kha and Khawp Khun Kha, ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’, communicating with our panicked driver was becoming increasingly difficult. The beauty of the lanterns was now lost on me.
Seeing as we were moving at 5 kilometres an hour, Mike and his partner Jen made a hasty exit from the moving vehicle in search of a bathroom, leaving me to talk directions with our driver, who was so sorry he was almost in tears. Hand gestures and repeating ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ were wearing thin. The Pad Thai I’d been dreaming about now seemed out of reach, not to mention the thoughts I was having about never finding Mike and Jen. But then, after another 10 minutes of moving at about .00125 kms down the road, they materialised and jumped back in the car. We all decided it would be best to abandon our driver at this point. In perhaps my fiftieth conversation with Kakada, we established a meeting point. I offered our troubled driver all of the ‘thank yous’, ‘hellos’ and appropriate hand gestures of gratitude that I could muster, and then the four of us set off towards the famous Khao San Road – a stretch of tourism treachery where one could buy everything from pints at the Irish pub to fried scorpions on a stick. And it was there that we four weary travellers found our esteemed leader, Kakada, standing in front of the Burger King as promised.
As he walked us over to the restaurant, a mere two minutes away, we also walked past the doomed road where we had been stuck for the good part of an hour. The whole time we were only metres from our destination! On reuniting with the rest of the group, who had mostly already eaten, I immediately ordered a beer and Pad Thai. It could have been the best Pad Thai I’d ever eaten, but I ate it so fast that I barely had time to fathom its deliciousness. Kakada then announced that we were heading nearby to watch the lanterns, for it’s Loi Krathong in Bangkok. Didn’t I bloody know it!
And so we watched the falling lanterns from a bridge over the Chao Phraya River, with gaudy ferries passing by underneath the bridge. It was a pretty sight, I’ll admit. We were then shepherded into tuk-tuks once back on Khao San Road, for an exhilaratingly long and slow ride back to the hotel. Loi Krathong, coupled with the very beginnings of the now infamous protests that crippled Bangkok for a good six months, meant gridlock on roads where regulations were merely a suggestion. Our little tuk-tuk ran head on into cars, swerved out into the path of motorbikes, ventured onto the other side of the road, because, why not? Yet with all of these maverick tactics, we were barely moving. It was fascinating to watch the heaving life around us as our tuk-tuk jaggedly made its way to our hotel. But, man, was I happy to see that hotel. It had certainly been a day well spent in this heady town.
Early the next morning we were out the front of the hotel with backpacks in tow, ready to hit the road. We were split into two lovely, air-conditioned buses. I was looking forward to a journey of staring out at the Thai countryside and zoning out with my music. Kakada had other ideas. While still in the thick of Bangkok traffic thanks to the protests, Kakada decided to get us right into the history of Cambodia, and prep us for the horrific and not-so-distant history of suffering the country had endured. We were shown a video on how the Americans were instrumental in the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Straight into the controversy, and truth, many would argue.
After watching the sobering footage, and with many questions left hanging in the air, I decided to withdraw into my corner of the bus, music playing in my ears, and watch the Thai countryside move rapidly by. I would soon enough be confronted by the responses to my questions, in the prisons and killing fields that I would visit and the corruption and poverty I was fairly certain I would encounter.
As we continued to head west, the countryside became more sparsely populated and my excitement for the unknown grew. There was a quick stop at the Cambodian embassy to obtain visas, and then we were on our way to the last stop before the border crossing. A couple of hours a later, a rather large market materialised out of what was fast becoming very dusty, desert-like country. It was strange to find all of the same knock-off shoes and bags sold in the capital, there in the middle of nowhere.
We hopped back on the bus one last time for a quick journey to the border crossing, where we disembarked our Thai bus for the last time. Memories of watching Charlie and Ewan at border crossings in Long Way Around and By Any Means were very much with me, as we grabbed our backpacks and headed to the main building for processing. I didn’t know how the others were feeling, but standing in that queue amongst locals, many carrying produce in one arm and a baby in another, was kind of exhilarating. I was completely out of my comfort zone, about to enter a third-world country and feeling incredibly humbled. There would be no special treatment here, for which I was glad. With a stamp placed firmly on my passport, I walked out of the building and straight into no man’s land, a strange in-between land of Thais and Cambodians crossing into each others’ territories. There was an immediate sense of stepping back in time when I looked over to the Cambodian side, from where huge carts of produce were being hauled across by men, a trail of yellow dust swept up into the air behind them. This was not Sovereign Hill, a historical theme park depicting the gold rush in rural Victoria; it was modern-day life in rural Cambodia. Every part of me was alive and fascinated, as I took my first steps towards the gates of the Kingdom.