The road less travelled
The decision to go by road from Bangkok to Phonm Penh was purely due to problems in flight connections. And one can’t compare a smooth flight to a 12-hour road journey with all its bumps and potholes.
The 230-km distance from Bangkok to Aranyapratet at the Thai border was smooth, not only because the roads within Thailand are great but also because the moment I got into the AC coach, I went off to sleep. But the waking moments after the snooze were frustrating as the pretty Thai girl sitting next to me tried her best to converse in Thai to no avail. As it often happens with co-travellers in India, I offered her a guava, which she accepted with an enchanting smile. So much for communication in a foreign tongue.
At Aranyapratet, one had to take a tuk-tuk, a different version of our auto-rickshaw, to go to the border. I shared the tuk-tuk with a Brit who too was traveling to Cambodia with his Nepalese boy friend. Unlike me, he was on a holiday and decided, along with his friend, to check out a few casinos in the free zone of about 150 meters between the Thai and the Cambodian border. I have visited casinos in Macau, Hong Kong, the UK and the US but was never tempted to part with my money.
Walking into Cambodia from Thailand was an exciting experience. The last time I crossed a border on foot was in 1998, at More in Manipur from where I walked into Myanmmar. The scene at entering the Kingdom of Cambodia at Poi Pet was similar to any of the Indian railway stations. Taxi drivers and touts ready to fleece you, quoting prices either in Thai bhat or in US dollars. No one was interested in the Cambodian currency. Having missed the only bus to Phonm Penh, I had to share a taxi (all Toyota Camrys), which I managed to bargain from $40 down to $25.
The first 70 km of the 410 km were bumpy; the road was full of potholes. Our first stop was at the taxi owner’s home in Battambang. The petite and cute passenger who joined us in that town, I learned after four hours of travel, was the taxi owner’s daughter.
She gave me her telephone numbers suggesting I travel back in her dad’s car to Poi Pet, as others would certainly cheat me. Earlier, my Brit co-passenger had admired my courage to travel alone — considering that it was my first trip to Cambodia.
In Cambodia, more people speak and understand English than in Thailand. My meetings in Phonm Penh didn’t allow for much sightseeing, but the sight of little girls serving in restaurants was something that I had not witnessed before either in Manila, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or other Asian cities. They were neat and pretty but appeared under-nourished.
Though Cambodia is now a democracy of sorts, the churches and temples that were taken over by the Khmer Rouge have not been returned to their rightful owners. The beautiful city hall at Phonm Penh used to be the Catholic Bishop’s House. Those who want their property back have to buy it from the government, as did the Bishop of Phonm Penh with his Cathedral and the adjacent buildings.
Kingdoms on Earth
The drive back from Phonm Penh to Pursat with some friends was exciting and educative. When we stopped on the way for snacks, I could not gather the same courage to eat those little snakes coiled nicely on barbeque sticks that I had twice before in Guilin and Beijing in 1993. They were delicious.
Back in Bangkok, after a little shopping in the free zone, my host decided to drive me around the city to show me the special lights and decorations done to celebrate the 78th birthday of the longest reigning monarch in the world, His Majesty King Bhoomi Mol who had ascended to the throne when he was only 18.
It was a mixture of sheer joy and surprise to note that the Thai people loved and admired him so dearly. One only reads of such monarchs in history books. Surely the Thais are not as critical as the Indians.
I happened to be there on the day when 25 other monarchs had descended on the city. The good news was that, despite so many monarchs in one city on the same day, there were no serious traffic disruptions, as they happen in Delhi at the drop of a hat. But isn’t the joy of being in free India better than all the kingdoms on earth? I bet it is.