“We are the pilgrims, Master; we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow, Across that angry or that glimmering sea,
White on a throne or guarded in a cave
There lives a prophet who can understand Why men were born: but surely we are brave, Who take the Golden Road to Samarkand.
Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells When shadows pass gigantic on the sand, And softly through the silence beat the bells Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.
We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.”
James Elroy Flecker, from Golden Journey to Samarkand
FROM BANGKOK, I took a local bus eastwards to the border at Aranya Prathet. It was at the Mo Chit bus station in Bangkok, where I saw the straight-faced devotion of the Thais to their King. I‟d heard that, whenever the national anthem was played, you had to stand to attention. So on the hour, every hour, at the bus station, the anthem plays at full volume and everyone stands ramrod straight. A video was playing on the large monitors recounting the whole of the King‟s life. I‟d heard about the recent case of an Australian novelist who‟d committed the offence of lèse-majesté (an offence against the dignity of a monarch) in a little circulated, self-published novel. He’d been arrested at the airport on the way out of Thailand, and thrown into jail for three years for his crime (he was subsequently pardoned by King Bhumibol Adulyadej). I stood to attention with my arms by my side for the full five minutes, just like everyone else around me.
It was six hours to the border. At Aranya Prathet, I saw huge signs telling Thais, that once over the border, their lives may be at risk and that nothing could be done by the Thai authorities to help them. You were on your own. This border crossing is well known to travellers as slightly hairy and I was well versed in the potential pitfalls. I crossed under the famous Khmer-style arches: Welcome to Cambodia!
Cambodia is bordered by Laos to the north-east, by Vietnam to the east and south-east, and by Thailand to the north and west. The Khmer people make up more than 90% of its population; the remainder includes Chinese, Vietnamese, Cham (Cham people are an ethnic group concentrated between the Kampong Cham Province in Eastern Cambodia and central Vietnam. The Cham form the core of the Muslim communities in both Cambodia and Vietnam) and Khmer Loeu people (they are Mon-Khmer or Highland Khmer or “Montagnards‟ as designated by the French colonialists.) The official Cambodian language is Khmer, a member of the Mon-Khmer subfamily of the Austro-Asiatic language group, a large language family of South-East Asia, also scattered throughout India and Bangladesh.
As soon as you cross into Cambodia at the casino town at Poipet, you‟re besieged by touts wanting to sell you a ride to Siem Reap, two hours away. Scams abound such as taking your money upfront for “gas‟ and then kicking you out of the car ten minutes up the road; or insisting that you exchange money in Poipet because there‟s no money exchange anywhere else; or driving all over the place for hours to leave you feeling tired and less able to refuse the guesthouse that they drop you off at, where they receive a tidy commission for leaving you there – the list goes on. Poipet is a Wild-West hellhole! I saw, I kid you not, in broad daylight, a bus driver take a picture of a man‟s penis and then give him money for it. The guy just pulled his pants up and got on with his day! Kids run ferally around naked. The roads are mudtracks. Nobody smiles. It’s like the guide book says – get the fuck out of Poipet as soon as possible. So I did, in the front seat of a battered Toyota Camry with several huge cracks in the windscreen, with an impassive driver saying “Yes, Siem Reap” and then getting on his phone. I didn’t leave Poipet for more than an hour; the car just kept circling the town, with random Cambodians getting in the back every ten minutes, then getting out, then getting back in, then dropping off huge amounts of hitherto concealed blood-splattered fish from the trunk. Toilet breaks were just on the main road as nobody wanted to step onto the potentially mined surrounding land. That ride into Siem Reap, about two hours away eastwards, was easily one of the most interesting journeys I have yet taken! I’d arrived at Siem Reap; the gateway to Angkor Wat.