30 Jun 2009

When it rains, it pours

To paraphrase the opening line of Apocalypse Now, "Aran... Shit!" It's that time again when I have to dip my toe outside of Thailand just to set foot inside yet again. A pointless exercise that, perversely, earns far more money for Cambodia than Thailand. But that's not my problem - my problem is steeling myself from the coming assault. I can cope with the children carrying parasols. "Free?!" I beam a smile "Free, OK!" They don't understand much English but they know that 'free' means an empty outstretched hand. It works.

The visa touts are more persistent but in a world of scams and lies just keep walking and lie. "I have a visa from one of your scamming friends, thank you." Is far too complex a sentence but makes me feel better. "Cambodia visa stamp. Quick. No long waiting! This way!" I keep on walking... smile and lie and walk. The visa to get into Cambodia officially costs US$20 - the actual price being whatever they can take off people - but the actual border stamps are free. The scam is to tell foreigners that they can just sit in no-man's-land for a few minutes and all will be done... for a fee. Except that walking the extra 100 metres reveals that there is rarely a queue for foreign visas. However, looks like some of the guys manning the Cambodian side must be feeling they live at the arse end of the border food chain so have started charging for the stamps. A mate of mine reported this back to me after his recent adventure.

Being in no-man's-land is always one big joke. It must be one of the largest bits of lawless land in the world, crammed with casinos and peddlers of alcohol and cigarettes. You could, of course, get one of the visa touts to get you some smokes as you wait idly for your visa stamps, except that they charge you double the going rate, which is about 10 Baht for a packet, that's under 30 cents. Even if you don't smoke, worth buying some to sell to your friends in Thailand. The actual packaging is an illusion designed to charge you more for popular international brands such as Marlboro, but once unwrapped the actual cigarettes are all the same.

The Cambodia visa scam seems to have moved up a gear. I figure the border guards are probably making more than I do, which is pretty impressive for a third world country. However, once into Cambodia the air is a touch more peaceful - the busy border market is on the Thai side as that's where the money is. I was offered a trip to the famous Angkor Temple and a young Vietnamese girl, so figured there must be just two types of tourists here. I can't believe a Vietnamese girl is going to be working in a Cambodian border town - Thailand or Singapore, yes, but here!?

I got my free stamp on the way out so was waiting to see what would happen on the way back in. Things were not looking good. A group of Asian tourists were shouting at the Cambodian guard who was safely shielded from the barrage behind his glass counter. It was hot, I could be standing here for ages before the UN sorts this out. They speak a bit of English: Vietnamese tourists doing the Southeast Asian trail. The guards want money for a splash of ink that by the sound of it should be free. "Ask them for a receipt!" I say helpfully. It worked - I jumped the queue as they were getting processed en masse. The UN wasn't needed and I got an appreciative round of bowing. "Enjoy Thailand."

Half my day's work was done and I drove off with my Thai friend. The horizon, however, looked bleak. As the sky turned to lead the rains descended. The windscreen wipers were overwhelmed by the waterfall so was safer to pull over and grab a late lunch. The rainy season has now started in earnest. Unsurprisingly, this coincides with the monsoon in India, as Thailand gets the trailing edge of India's weather patterns. It's at times like these that I feel justified in my dislike of the ubiquitous pick-up truck. The open back-side has some advantages over an estate or van for stacking boxes of beer or cramming Thai workers, but during the rains everything, and everybody, gets drenched. I need to pick up some furniture and try to calculate if better to abandon the project today and postpone it till tomorrow morning. My friend is adamant that this will pass and we'll get it all done by night-fall. The rain is deafening as it hammers onto the tin roofs.

The rain eventually eases a notch just below torrential so this is obviously a cue to resume our drive. The rains signal the end of some cycles and the start of others. Many fields of cassava had recently been dug up and lying fallow, waiting for a fresh crop to be planted once the rainy season comes to an end. In contrast, I saw many workers planting rice in the paddy fields. Much of the land around this area is without an irrigation system so the rains are crucial to avoid even more paddy fields being turned over to less risky products. The occasional break in the cloud cover shone bright beams of sunlight to reveal a lush emerald landscape below a petroleum sky.

The lack of irrigation is coupled with a general lack of drainage so that water-logging and mudslides are not unusual. The landscape here is fairly flat so there aren't the same serious problems as in the mountainous north, but sliding the car into a paddy field is not on our itinerary so we take a detour through the dirt-tracks rather than the slick and slippery tarmac roads. We see a cow standing in the middle of the road like a sentinel. Cows and buffaloes are not an unusual sight but a solitary beast parked there seemed slightly surreal. Driving slowly past it so as not to startle the creature (as it can do serious damage to a car) we noticed one hind leg was raised up off the ground, most probably nursing a broken bone. Cows are expensive and seems unlikely the owner would just abandon it but in its statuesque grace it showed no intention of moving so was probably safe to leave it where it stood, waiting for the butcher to arrive.

Our work completed and back in town I needed some food and a drink and headed for my local bar. People don't go out much when it rains. As scooters are the main mode of transport around town, arriving drenched from the rain and steaming from the heat is not the way to start a night out. However, Thais are a sociable lot and any break in the rain is a cue to drive around and check out who's hanging out where. But just as night follows day, so a power cut inevitably follows a rainstorm. A city plunged into darkness is an eerie sight, illuminated only by the searching beams of cars and motorbikes and the flickering of hundreds of candles quickly lit to ward off the darkness. A bar immersed in a candle glow may seem a romantic setting but without music or TV there is just the sound of subdued human voices, as if telling stories of import round a camp fire.

The glow of my mobile phone could illuminate the short path home, so long as the battery didn't drain away. But why hurry, there's always another beer and the light will come back soon... probably.

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