Drive Around The World (Australia)

One family, one car, one year, one planet

Pakxe, Laos (2), – Cha-Am, Thailand (2), Day 304-310, January 11-17, 2009

Pakxe, Laos (2), – Cha-Am, Thailand (2)

Day 304-310

January 11-17, 2009

1,530km

Total: 30,980km

Soundtrack:

‘Romance in Karaoke Hell’ – Ed Kuepper

‘Down on the Border’ – Little River Band

‘We Are The Champions’ – Queen

‘Grinnin’ In Your Face’ – Sun House

‘Cloudbusting’ – Kate Bush

‘Holiday in Cambodia’ – Dead Kennedys

‘Cambodia’ – Kim Wilde

‘Border Song’ – Aretha Franklin

‘Ken Lee’ – Valentina Hasan

‘Angka Dar Qotdam’ – Khmer Rouge

‘Too Much Monkey Business’ – Chuck Berry

‘Endtroducing…’ – DJ Shadow

The mood in the truck as we drove back to Pakxe in southern Laos from the Cambodian border was subdued, to say the least. Maddy was sad that she would not get to see the famous Angkor Wat, but understood that it seemed impossible. Once in a while one of us would utter how frustrating and unfair the whole episode had been, and coming up with some innovative, yet not all that helpful suggestions. Raffy’s suggestion of just getting a decent run-up and bursting through the border did get us thinking, but not all that seriously.

This was, therefore, one of the few times we had to retrace our route. It seemed like such a waste of time and effort to be going back to the place we left two days ago, but it seemed we had no choice. We were finally resigned to heading into Thailand and making our way south without going to Cambodia.

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(Pic: Maddy biding her time at the Thai border)

While glumly heading back to Pakxe I jokingly suggested that we don’t just retrace our steps back to that city, but – hey, here’s a thought – maybe do the entire trip again in reverse! Thinking that Maddy and Raffy in particular were becoming a little homesick and weary of living out of the back of the truck for the best part of a year, I expected groans all round. But to my surprise, after a moment’s silence there came a joyous back-seat chorus of “Hey yeah!” This got the kids nominating the places they would most like to revisit, and avoid, should we spend another ten months on the road.

Needless to say, this would be out of the question. Still, it’s nice to fantasise…

We thought about trying to cross the Cambodian border elsewhere, but the amount of effort required and the possibility of another front line rejection made it difficult to contemplate. We were feeling resentful of our entire, brief Cambodian experience and thought better to simply put it behind us. Literally and figuratively.

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(Pic: “You want I should check the oil ma’am?”)

An up side? Being banned from entering Cambodia once again made driving home through Indonesia a possibility. The extra two weeks or so up our sleeves meant that, notionally, we had time, which at this juncture, was worth its weight in gold. So that night Sandy and I tweaked the itinerary and made it fit. Jakarta, here we come.

We slept fitfully, still cursing the Cambodian customs worker who prevented our entry, but, strangely, the morning sun gave us cause to once again pause and reconsider. We re-entered Thailand and headed towards Ubon Ratchathani.

SK: The border crossing out of Laos into Thailand was as straightfoward as it gets. A customs official in Laos took our Carnet, hopped onto a motorbike, and disappeared to have it stamped. It was returned to us from whichever air-conditioned office away from the rabble the higher bureaucrat sat. The Thai side was equally simple, despite their penchant for photocopying and an incredible amount of paperwork. All smiles on both sides made the waiting and the stamping easy.

To us Ubon Ratchathani was a nondescript town, office buildings, industry, wats and so on, but I’m sure it feels like home to the locals. A snoozy brown river runs through it, near to which our hotel was located. We were still in somewhat of a desultory mood, which was improved by great hawker meals at the night market. 

At breakfast we heard a familiar accent, and introduced ourselves to another Victorian. He was from Kinglake, and had been in Australia the Saturday prior at his family home, battling with those terrible fires for its existence. Now, Thursday, here he was in northwest Thailand, about to meet up with a local girlfriend, a marriage proposal in the offing. Life moves on.   

DB: Heading back west towards Bangkok and then the southern Thai peninsula we stopped for the night at Nang Rong, where the Cabbages and Condoms organisation that runs our favourite Bangkok restaurant, also operates a resort. It took us ages to find it as there was no street number provided, and the person who answered the phone could only get as far as “room for today?” After a couple of laps of the main drag we thought things were maybe conspiring against us – perhaps it wasn’t meant to be. We decided to give it one more go before heading to an unremarkable hotel by asking some locals. This area of Thailand is rarely explored by westerners and so English speakers were few and far between. Sandy thought that if anyone would be able to help it would be someone in a bank.

She returned to the truck with a smirk – the bank staff thought she was hilarious. She had shown them the listing in our guide book, but of course they just wanted her to say it. “Cabbages and Condoms?” They giggled and finally one of them told her that it was out of town, about eight kilometres up the road.

And sure enough, there it was, and, it seemed, in a place that could accommodate a couple of hundred punters, we were the only ones there for the night. We ate a lovely Thai meal outdoors and by a large pond, and fell asleep to the dulcet tones of not an insubstantial group of locals in for a slap-up pre-Valentines Day meal and smoochy karaoke Thai love songs. Thais are mad for getting up in front of their peers, reading lyrics of their favourite ballads off a computer screen and missing notes like a drunken archer aiming for a moving target. No raucous “I Did It My Way” here, but serious, strained efforts at recreating a modern Thai oeuvre that simply won’t quit. Go figure.

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(Pic: Nang Rong, Thailand)

There’s nothing much else to report about Nang Rong, other than it is situated at the junction of Highway 24, running east-west, and the smaller north-south Highway 348 that runs – well, will you look at that – south to Aranyapathet, which is on the border with Cambodia.

We had all gone to bed the night before trying to put Cambodia out of our minds, but in the morning we wondered “What if?”

So, over breakfast, we held a family meeting, with one agenda item: Should we have another go at getting into Cambodia?

“Yeah,” the kids agreed, with a glint of adventure in their eyes. “Why not?”

Our decision to head south to another Cambodian border was made partly due to our desire to visit the country, partly because even though on paper we had time to drive through Indonesia the weather there still looked the wrong shade of monsoon, and would seriously blow our budget, and partly because we simply did not want to be defeated by a bureaucrat who got it so wrong a few days before and prevented us from entering Cambodia from Laos in the first place.

So, with great trepidation and a dose of anxiety, we turned left instead of heading straight out of Nang Rong. Here goes nothing.

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(Pic: Approaching the Cambodian border – again)

Like all border towns, Aranyapathet on the Thai side was dusty, noisy, disorganised and seemed somewhat desperate. Like at many other Asian border crossings, and unlike, say, Europe, trucks don’t drive through. They simply unload their cargo on one side of the border, and a bevy of straining, sinewy and sweating men pushing or pulling rickety hand carts haul the load from one side of the border to the other, where another local truck is waiting. We got through the Thai immigration easily enough, but we were a little concerned that customs might be a problem as we had previously nominated a totally different exit point for our truck on our paperwork. Hopefully this would be overlooked.

Traffic across the border seemed to head in any direction of their choosing. There didn’t seem to be any road markings or signs to indicate where cars or trucks should head – they seemed to float around like a group of learner drivers in a shopping mall car park. Of course, it finally made a little sense when we did clear Thai customs and headed towards Poipet on the Cambodian side of things. Reminiscent of when we crossed from Thailand to Laos a few weeks back, we needed to change to the other side of the road. However, instead of a helpful little ‘figure eight’ sign or lane markings, vehicles just criss-crossed in front of each other toward the Cambodian side.

We got through Cambodian immigration unscathed, but now it was time to get the truck through. Officials in the little customs building didn’t know what to do with our paperwork and sent us to the main Customs office – a rather palatial affair a few hundred metres down the dusty road. We drove down, turned into the driveway – and Sandy was advised that nothing could be done until 2pm. The ubiquitous Asian lunchtime. A two-hour lunchtime, everyday, where the world of customs and excise stops. Nice work if you can get it.

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(Pic: Getting in on the act: so many tourists can’t help posing for photos at every opportunity)

We left the car in the Customs office car park and wandered up the street in search of food. Sitting at a small food stall on the side of the road and eating fish and rice, the young man who served us approached us for a chat. With clear, considered English he told us about the months he lived illegally in Thailand where he was promised good work and equally good pay, but where he was, unsurprisingly, massively ripped off. In the end he was being caught by Thai immigration officers and unofficially ‘fined’ almost all the money he was earning. He returned to Cambodia recently and was now working in one of the vast casinos that dotted this border town and that were almost entirely patronised by Thais. It was his day off and he was helping out a friend at the food stall. It seemed that he yearned for more, that he was capable of better things, but his pride didn’t allow him to express it to us. When asking about us I felt a little embarrassed by our descriptions of world travel and exotic locations. He found it hard to grasp – Europe and north America were almost beyond his comprehension, beyond his realm of existence, beyond his world. The difference between his aspirations and accomplishments and ours were based solely on the respective location of our birth. Comedian Bill Hicks talked about not feeling specifically proud about being an American, as he didn’t have all that much to do with it, taking a more fatalist approach to his nationality due to the location of his parents’ few minutes of lust thirty-odd years before. Maybe, he suggested, if you really wanted to describe your patriotism, there should be a picture of that image on a country’s flag…

We wandered back to the Customs office where the Deputy Chief took directions from Sandy and stamped and signed our Carnet with a flourish – and suddenly we were driving in Cambodia.

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(Pic: Angkor Wat, Cambodia)

After our enormous frustration, disappointment and fury after our previous attempt to drive into this country, we all felt elated, and somewhat conceited, of not arrogant, in our success, as if we had anything to do with it. We had beaten the system, we had won the battle. It felt like winning a dour football match by a point. We are the champions. In your face, Customs Officer #346.

But of course, as we discussed in the car, this was not about victory, this was about visiting another country, another culture. We quickly forgot about past border bothers and began relishing Cambodia. We would only have a few days here but we intended to make the most of our time.

The road to Siem Reap was newly paved until it most certainly was not. International aid was contributing to it, but it meant that at times we needed to divert around bridges that were not yet complete, or hoping the ones we used didn’t collapse. Dusty, rutted and littered with rocks, the road wound through small communities, vehicles, people and animals. It seemed that, until very recently, traffic was as slow as it was infrequent, given the road conditions, and it would take a while before locals became aware that trucks hurtling along at 80 km/h or more were dangerous. We finally sauntered into Siem Reap and found a suitable hotel at our third attempt. It had been a long, hot and anxious day, yet Maddy and Raffy were troopers, never complaining and happy to observe and engage with genuine interest their ever-changing surroundings and encounters.

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(Pic: Angkor Wat, Cambodia)

The following morning’s short drive to Angkor delivered us at its legendary wat, after paying handsomely for our entry permits, in US dollars. Everything in Cambodia is in US dollars, including the cash that comes out of ATMs. A local currency, the ‘riel’, exists, but is usually only used for small purchases or as change. Not all that real, it seems.

Angkor Wat, the twelfth century Khmer temple built for a king for his capital is astounding and lives up to all expectations. Steeped in serene stillness and crumbling before our eyes, we wandered around and through its vast corridors, halls and rooms wondering about the extraordinary effort and resources required to construct such a monolith. Much of the original treasures were harvested years ago and now sit in official museums and unofficial private collections, but even so I was astounded when I watched a young man try to impress his girlfriend by ripping a shard of stone off an already deteriorating column. I caught his eye and he grinned. I approached him and pretty much demanded he put the stone down, and he giggled and shook his head. As sensitive as I think I am to not wanting to shame locals, the intentional defacing and destruction of such splendorous ancient relics riles me. While the notion of dobbing gets a raw deal most times at times like these I am moved to take some kind of action, and directed a passing tour guide to the loitering vandal. He got told off and to move on. I thought deportation would have been more apt. It’s not as if locals aren’t aware of Angkor’s importance – so much so that its image is represented on the very emblem of the nation – the Cambodian flag.

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(Pic: We made it – Angkor Wat)

The Angkor site is enormous, incorporating various temples, a city, ancient roadways and various other structures. After visiting the main wat we drove around to Ta Prohm, a temple with delicately carved stone structures now falling to bits and being reclaimed by the forest. It is tempting to shoot hundreds of photos but none capture its imposing majesty. UNESCO and others are contributing to safeguarding what’s left and reconstructing what they can, but the magnitude of this stone jigsaw puzzle seems almost futile.

The next day we explored Angkor Thom, the ancient Khmer capital, and its signature temple, the Bayon. The hundreds of carved stone heads peering down on us was the original Big Brother. Again, words and photos seem insignificant to describe the finery of these structures, the grandeur of the architecture, the beauty of the fine carving, the work that went into their construction so many centuries before, and the vision of the god kings who had them built. Our final temple was the exquisite Banteay Srei, a small temple with fine, intricate carvings that seemed to defy human accomplishment.

Like at the Taj Mahal, we stood in front of these incredible sites and marvelled not only at their beauty, but that we were there. This wasn’t a photo, this was us at the real thing. And we drove there. It was overwhelming.

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(Pic: It often looks less like the trees have grown upwards through the stone and more like they have been poured on, Angkor Thom, Cambodia)

Still within the archaeological park, we stopped at a local orphanage where children who had lost their parents, or whose families could no longer support them, lived and learned. One of their key activities was painting, and these kids had produced some fabulous work that was for sale to raise money for more school supplies. Raffy had quickly made friends with one of the older boys, and coincidently selected his work to take home. The orphanage was paid a donation, and Raffy and Maddy presented some of the children with Australian souvenir pencils.

Leaving the Angkor sites we stopped at the side of the road to giggle at some monkeys, one of which decided to get a closer look at us by climbing up onto our truck. He was particularly interested in Sandy as he perched on her side mirror and gave the window a kiss.

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(Pic: Making a monkey out of us, Angkor, Cambodia)

Spending time in the Siem Reap night market and eating locally gave us a bit of a taste of local culture, and there was no shortage of attention paid to our children – Maddy’s curly hair and Raffy’s, well, being Raffy had many people pointing, smiling and patting. Maddy finds it amusing, while Raffy is slowly becoming frustrated and annoyed at the unwanted touching. We try and protect him as much as we can, but in a crowded market it becomes almost futile.

There are many similarities between Lao and Cambodian culture, and unsurprisingly, their modern histories seem to have contributed to the way in which people now engage with the world. Maddy was interested that it seemed almost all of the locals dressed the same way, wore their hair, walked and talked the same way. Even all the pop music sounded the same, be it local or nauseating western mantras. We had a sense of a ritualistic conformity that is not seen in most other parts of the world. Maddy wondered if there were any Lao or Cambodian punks, or Goths, but we thought it doubtful. We wondered what this meant in the context of living under oppressive regimes, of varying degrees, and whether not standing out in the crowd was as much a cultural imperative as a means of survival.

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(Pic: Maddy giving out pencils to the children of the Angkor orphanage, Cambodia)

Not surprisingly, the horror of the reign of the Khmer Rouge’s terror is pervasive, yet while Sandy and I didn’t want to entirely shield our children from the broad reality of Cambodia’s history, we found it difficult to have conversations about this nation without it sounding entirely gruesome and without wanting our children to be fearful.

Still, it boggles the mind that a regime that ruled for less than four years thought it fit and proper to slaughter a fifth of the country’s population. Almost all of Cambodia’s documented and represented history went up in smoke when Pol Pot decided that time would restart on his mark and that his country would seamlessly become an agrarian utopia. Their aim to intentionally completely destroy Cambodia’s customs, history and heritage was aptly described during our visit where International restorers had dismantled a section of roof at Angkor Thom with an aim to rebuild it so as to prevent further degradation. When the Khmer Rouge marched in they destroyed all documentation, which was seen as the tools of the evil educated class, including the record of which stone or tile went where, and the restorers were banished. The roof remains in pieces on the ground – a giant puzzle without so much as a diagram.

Every family in the country suffered at the hands of this despotic regime, and evidence remains of a country still trying to rebuild basic services such as schools, hospitals and basic infrastructure. While tourism may be an interim saviour of its economy, it’s difficult to know what impact this will have on rebuilding Cambodia – particularly because, as for Laos and Burma as well, true democratic process is still a ways off. Hopefully it will be positive. Nevertheless, it is quite impossible to tour this place without being affected by the atrocities of the late 1970s. People with injuries caused by leftover bombs, as we learned in Laos, struggle to make ends meet, with some of them selling books on the street. Many of the books tell stories of the Killing Fields and people’s personal accounts – sort of grotesque voyeurism. Still, we befriended a young man who sold us a book and told us a bit about himself. All the while he put the book in a bag for us, took our money, retrieved his wallet from his pocket and deftly fished out change – all without hands or most of his forearms.

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(Pic: Angkor, Cambodia)

We read on foreign news websites that the long-awaited criminal trials of people allegedly responsible for the wholesale slaughter of their compatriots was about to commence, yet locally it seemed as far away as the international community was when it was happening in the first place. It is difficult to imagine the benefit to today’s Cambodians of putting a few octogenarians on trial, especially given the enormous costs involved, instead of providing opportunities for people to tell their stories and heal.

Heading back along the calamity that is the road from Siem Reap to the Thai border at Aranyapathet – again passing dozens of identical navy blue Toyota Camrys that, oddly, were left-hand drive and unregistered – we reflected on leaving yet another country in which we wished to return and spend more time, but, importantly for us, leaving the last ‘new’ country of our trip. It was here that we began making note of what would be the numerous ‘lasts’ that would hover about us like a guardian spirit – or ghost – until we get home. The last time we headed east, the last time we head west, the last time we tackle a new language, a new currency, a new culture.

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(Pic: Angkor, Cambodia)

We screamed into Poipet at the border at 11.45am, making sure we didn’t have to wait around once again for the obligatory public servant two-hour lunch break, but found the customs building deserted anyway. A guard at the gate jumped on a bike and headed into town, returning a few minutes later with the head honcho big kahuna customs man, who was not too impressed about having his lunch disturbed, and made it known. Still, when it was pointed out that it wasn’t even 12 o’clock, he reluctantly and grudgingly stamped and signed our Carnet and we headed through the Cambodian and then Thai borders.

The first time we drove in Thailand in early June last year we were decidedly on edge. Everything seemed weird, exotic, perverse, unreasonable, dangerous. Road traffic seemed haphazard and nonsensical. We felt out of our comfort zone and anxious. Now, it felt ensuring and rather predictable – almost ordinary. The roads were better than in Laos and Cambodia, with a distinct lack of wildlife, walking tractors and bicycles. We were back in the land of the large, silver, extra-cab ute, and all was well in the world.

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(Pic: Heading through the outskirts of Bangkok towards Cha-Am, Thailand)

We initially intended to stop at a non-descript Thai town for the night east of the marauding brawl that is the Bangkok highway system as we were unsure how long it would take to go back through the Cambodian and Thai customs and immigration barn dance, but time in the short term was on our side for once and we steeled ourselves for a big day in the saddle – more than seven hours – heading past Bangkok to the southern Thai peninsula. We returned to our recent days of frivolity with Clan de JJJZ at Cha-Am on the east coast and would spend the next couple of days sitting on the beach, eating seafood and preparing ourselves for the drive south through Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore, which would be our point of departure to Australia. We were resigned now to the fact that, aside from the weather still being monsoonal, time in the broader sense was against us, and  Indonesia would have to wait for another time.

Eating dinner in Cha-Am we felt as if we had not only covered almost 600km that day but felt we had also travelled in time. Breakfast in Siem Reap felt like days ago; wandering the ancient temples and buzzing night markets now in the distant past. The Cambodia and Laos we experienced that week felt like a different era – almost stuck in time – our vehicle more akin to a Tardus.

We still have thousands of kilometres to travel, but there is a distinct feeling that the end is looming large.

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6 Comments»

  Jenny Bihary wrote @

Dear D,S,M&R,
I’ve been reading your blogs and am amazed at how well you’ve achieved your aim in this big adventure. This latest blog about your finally getting into Cambodia drove me to write to you. I feel fortunate that I don’t work on Tuesdays, the day of reading and replying, because I needed the time to read and digest your beautifully written epistle. I wish you well with the 1,000s of kms still to go. Thinking of you all.
Jenny

  Wally & Eleanor wrote @

Hi DSMR I have just spent 1 and half hours catching up and reading your blog. I love it Ilove it I love it. Cant wait to see you all when you get home. Speak to you soon Love you ll Wally.

  Hilary wrote @

my my – your question about the value of bringing to justice people responsible for the slaughter in cambodia is indeed a complex one. on the one hand there is, as you say, the expense to a poor country. on the other hand about how all those affected families, and those damaged people, and the whole nation for that matter, might be affected by knowing that people directly responsible for their devastation were living in freedom, not answerable for their crimes. perhaps the nation becomes emotionally drained and impoverished at some deep level by the presence in their midst of perpetrators of such appalling and universally experienced atrocities.
not that i have the answer. just a question, really.

i expect you are back, or very shortly will be, in the merry old land of oz – keeping left, understanding the road signs, and wondering where the year went!
fondly, hilary

  auntiefranny wrote @

Hi everyone, finally read all of your latest blogs…once again sooo interesting! Enjoy the final stages of your amazing adventures.
Raff, I think with your boat building skills, Clive wants to see you on Wed. afternoons.
Maddy, can’t wait to sample some of your authentic asian cooking …mmmm…thai matzah balls
love to you all
Fran and family xxx

  Pete wrote @

Almost the same time zone!! Do you remember the road rules?
Dan – I think you’re the most handsome and well endowed person I know. I am honoured to to call you “Grand Poobah.”
Be safe,
Pete

  drivearoundtheworld wrote @

Thanks Pete – I am truly touched.
db


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