Thursday, January 24, 2008

Another Cambodian Visa Run by Saigon Charlie

May 2001 - Saigon Charlie
The morning starts off with a start as I woke up thinking I was late. I had purchased a cheap, 100 baht alarm clock the night before and discovered that only the second hand was working and of course the alarm had not gone off. Fortunately however, it was only 6:40 and I wasn't suppose to meet my van for Cambodia until 7:30.

Cambodian/Thai border crossing at
Aranyaprathet, Thailand

I took my shower and got dressed and headed downstairs to collect the outrageous 300 baht key deposit from the night before. I say outrageous as the room only cost 200 baht (fan only/no hot water). I suspect that the Sawasdee Sea View Hotel on Soi 10 in Pattaya was using the key deposit as a way to actually get more as many would simply leave their keys in the room and/or forget about the deposit. I suspect many don't even remember checking in from the looks of some in the lobby.

I walked along the Beach Road towards Soi Post Office (Soi 13/1) where "Mr. Boon's Travel and Law" firm is being given 2,500 baht to run me to Cambodia for the day and handle all the required paperwork. As I near Soi Post Office around 7:15, I see the usual "ladyboys" that hang out there on that corner. This always surprises me as I have stayed here on this same Soi before and once when I got up at sunrise to go take pictures, they were out on this same corner at the crack of dawn. There is also a Thai woman across the street at this early hour obviously in bad shape setting and drinking beer and talking loudly to herself. As I wait for the van to show up, two more ex-pats show up for the same trip and they are Germans making the visa run with me.

For the next 45 minutes I set there reading my paper and watching the spectacle unfold and Pattaya "come alive". The lady across the street continues with her drunken and loud ramblings and crosses the street several times, blocking and cursing at both people and traffic, once to buy two more cans of beer. I thought this was so very odd from a Thai and from the looks of the Thais who were watching, I think they did as well.

Eventually the van arrives, and the three of us get in to a very comfortable mini-van and get underway just a bit after 8. We than start to pick up the remaining passengers from their hotels and around 9 we are on the main highway heading to the border town of Aranyaprathet.

We find our way down some twisty back roads out of Pattaya, passing the International School of the Regents and than the signs are pointing to Kabin Buri as we head down Highway 331. Someone finds a German language video tape as the van has a nicely integrated video/TV system and for the next couple of hours I watch the most amazing German show which had some very famous individuals on it as guest including Janet Jackson, Rod Stewart (seemed incredibly stoned or drunk or both), Kevin Costner, etc. and some very wacky comedy skits and stunts. At times it actually was quite funny and the Germans were roaring with laughter every few minutes or so.

As we watched the TV, we make our second stop (the first was at a gas station for those who started drinking beer before we even got into the van) at 10:00 at a Shell Gas Station where we met up with another van from the same company that is full of other Europeans also making their visa run. Apparently, I am the only American on this trip as well. (Seems there just aren't that many Americans running around in South East Asia anymore.) We finish our paperwork for the visas required and hand over our passports. As I had only paid a 500 baht deposit, I had to pay the remaining 2,000 baht here.

Right after we left the station, the highway changes into 304 and 10 minutes later we are making a right hand turn onto Highway 33 with the signs pointing to Sakaelo. At 11:45 we stop at a restaurant in Sakaelo for a buffet lunch, Thai style. No one had mentioned this to me and I was getting a bit annoyed at all these stops we were making as I really needed to catch the bust back to Bangkok that night. I had noticed right before we stopped however a building on the right side of the road that had a sign stating it was the "Counsel General of the Kingdom of Cambodia" and thought maybe this might have something to do with it. Apparently though, no one else seemed to know why we were stopping until the driver from the other van and obvious "boss" of this excursion told us we were having lunch.

At 13:00 we left the restaurant (lunch was free and included in the 2,500 baht fee) and it started to rain as we entered an area full of rice paddies. All I could think about was the "killing fields" as we passed one rain filled paddy after another. I knew it hadn't been on this side of the border but still with the pouring rain, hills in the distance and the rice paddies around me, the impressions of what has been written seemed to fit what I was seeing. It was in this area that I started to notice a heavy military presence, seeing bases with signs stating "3rd Infantry Battalion-12th Infantry Regiment of the Queen's Guard Task Force" followed by other smaller installations and checkpoints as we got closer to the border. I also noticed signs for many kilometers indicating how far the "Rongkloe Market" was. It was not until we arrived at the border that Rongkloe and the border town of Aranyaprathet were in the same place.

Off to left I noticed a train in the not so far distance and as soon learnt this was the train from Bangkok that actually went to Aranyaprathet. Someone mentioned that only Thais rode this but I questioned that assertion and will check it out later in Bangkok as it might be a cheap and easy way to make these border runs in the future. I even learned that at one point it had actually gone into Cambodia at the border crossing we were headed for.

Entering the 'neutral zone' between Cambodia and Thailand in May 2001

The border was everything I expected and more. I had been warned of the kids and the beggars and war cripples but nothing prepared me for the girl missing a face. She was there in the sea of humanity, looking at everyone with huge eyes from behind a face missing most of its' features including a nose. She seemed to know that I was studying her, (I really wasn't being obvious) but for some reason she followed me, but not like the other kids, begging and repeating the same line over and over and over again. She was somehow different. I could see light in her eyes although I was repulsed at the "monster" that I was looking at. I watched her place a can of coke on the ground and with a straw she drank it. Never touching the can with either her "mouth" or her hands. It was something I will probably never forget.

The Cambodian/Thai border in May 2001

There were of course the others. The many amputees rolling around in hand made carts of one sort or another. There were the two kids, older actually, playing with very realistic versions of a .45 and sawed off pump shotgun. At first when seeing the shotgun coming out of the crowd I almost went for cover. It was surreal to watch these "children" play their game against this background.

I did venture down the street a bit. There was casino after casino either being built or already operational. There were many Chinese looking families coming into the area from Thailand. I guess they were Chinese Thais, as they do like their gambling. I had seen enough already however and decided this was not what I was interested in at the moment.

The actual border "crossing" was one of the many jokes in this part of the world. Clear out through Thai immigration, walk a few meters to a window that has "arrival" over it for Cambodia, get an entry stamp, and than step 1 meter to the right and get an exit stamp from the window marked "departure". It was literally that easy. Walked back a few meters to the Thai immigration building where they took my passport behind an air conditioned, computer supported , tinted window. A few seconds later my passport is handed back to me and I am now able to stay another 30 days in the Kingdom.

We headed back to the vans and were inundated with kids. No was not an option. Gave one young boy half my Lemon Manao and within the blink of an eye, the can was gone but he was still there. I wondered where it went but he was back asking for more, anything really. Money or drink seemed to please them. They were all asking for 100 baht which I thought was interesting. There were also others, before and now, trying to get us to use them and their large umbrellas as "escorts" in the hot sun. Actually, it wasn't that hot (for Thailand) and there was a slight breeze that I found quite nice if you weren't in the direct sun.

At exactly 15:00 we closed the doors, starting to drive away with the children running along the van, pounding on the windows still repeating their lines. One older boy actually looked very pissed and angry and hit the class with the bottom of his palm very hard several times. There was nothing innocent in those eyes I thought.

The trip back was uneventful. We made one pit stop at the same gas station where we all got together and did the passport paperwork. After that stop it started to get dark and other than the constant loud snoring from the Germans in the back, the trip back to Pattaya was actually quite pleasant. The sun was setting out my right window and there were some amazing colors in the sky that night and it reminded me why I was here and brought a smile to my face.

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