Friday, March 14, 2008

The End of Chiang Mai – February 28th

‘And so we beat on’ as John Irving always says, this time through the night on an aged locomotive, the sprinter, to Bangkok. I’ve got all my luggage since I won’t be returning to Chiang Mai. Looks like I’m carting around stowaways they’re so bulky. Thankfully I’ve got Ben with me or I wouldn’t have managed. He’ll also help to cushion my sanity since there are no beds on the sprinter overnight express and the seats only partially recline and it’s so shaky that I can’t hold my pen steady and the window is slightly too far away for a comfortable sleeping position.
I’m not sad to be leaving, even though everyone who mattered during my year was there to send me off. We even had a final supper together at the nice restaurant by the river. But no, I’m not sad. I’ve already had to suffer through three goodbyes with Emily – one in Europe, one at home, and one in Thailand; and then there was the final goodbye when we took a break that turned permanent (I guess) when she soon after found bigger and better and balder things. So this goodbye is more like a footnote. I’m kind of numb now to anything non-Emily related. I guess I was never able to fully invest myself in Thailand, always one foot somewhere else. Now both feet are God knows where, though on Saturday they’ll be setting foot on Cambodian soil.
March 1st
They call it the Wild West of Southeast Asia, and it sure is dusty enough. We crossed over into Cambodia today after busing it from Bangkok to the border town of Aranya Prathet. It was supposed to be a first class ride, but somehow we kept adding standing room only passengers along the way, one of which sat directly behind my seat so that I couldn’t recline, and when I did finally manage to drift off for a moment, the wandering fingers of a small child tickled my face, startling me awake. It was in Aranya Prathet where we met the Icelandic couple, Toti and Freja. He’s a notable chef back in Reykjavik, she’s still a student. He’s loud enough to rival the American stereotype, she keeps him walking straight by doing all their expense conversions: first from Icelandic currency into Thai baht, and then into either Cambodian Reil or USD. Together, we ambled through no-man’s land into Poipet, past fake customs agents, eerie casinos, and begging children. It was in this peculiar landscape that I randomly ran into the student president of the residential college at which I lived during a semester abroad in Melbourne three years ago.
The road leading from Poipet to Siem Reap was unbelievable – no paving, half-assed construction resulting in detours circling around mounds of rubble and potholes the size of moon craters. It doesn’t make any sense how such a major route could be so catastrophically awful, unless you believe the rumor that Bangkok Airways pays off the Cambodia government to keep the road in such a state so that people will be more inclined to fly. For 3.5 hours we wondered how the driver could see anything amidst the clouds of dust and diminishing light from the setting sun, but he still hurtled ahead un-phased at full speed. And then, after 3.5 hours, just like that, the road turned perfectly paved and the previous repetition of barren landscape, dilapidated ramshackle homes and half-naked wandering children were all replaced with rococo hotels, beaming lights, posh restaurants, and still some half-naked wandering children. It was if we had just plunged through a wormhole into Cambodia’s version of Disneyland.

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