POIPET, Cambodia—As it must to all expats, the time had come to leave Thailand and make a pilgrimage to a border crossing to renew my visa. I used a package run by the oddly named Jack Total Golf International company, as it was relatively cheap, organized and took care of all the visa formalities with which I frankly couldn’t be bothered.
We met at the unholy hour of 4:30 for a 5 a.m. departure. As this was a visa run, there was paperwork involved, and in a blow to the idea that private enterprise is more efficient than government bureaucracy, Jack’s folks still took forever to handle just the filling out of forms that the Thai and Cambodian visa officials would later process.
After that, we were on the road. It is axiomatic that I will always be seated behind an asshole with a burning desire to push the back of his seat into my groin. This trip was no exception. As my knees were driven into my sternum, I sent mental stilettos into the back of the guy’s neck as he stretched out in comfort in the seat in front of me. His Beatbox headphones made him oblivious to my grunts of discomfort.
The road to Poipet, the Cambodian casino town that was our destination, is largely devoid of charm. The central plains of Thailand—lushly green from the monsoons, but flat as a football pitch—stretch east from Bangkok. They’re the rice basket of Thailand, which grows millions of tons of the stuff every year, and produced exports worth $6 billion last year, making it the world’s largest rice producer, a title it has held since 1983. With so much of Thailand’s economy tied up in the grain, it’s no wonder that a common Thai greeting—Gin khao rue yung?—translates roughly as “Have you eaten rice yet?”
Unfortunately, the land of rice paddies doesn’t get much more interesting after you digest that little factoid. It is criss-crossed by modern highways, which are themselves limned by anonymous little towns full of 7-11s, auto repair shops, petrol stations and the occasional trucker hotel. Great black bundles of electrical wires hang like urban kudzu from the pylons and poles along the side of the road.
And, as everywhere in Thailand, there are the pictures of King Rama IX (Bhumibol Adulyadej), and Queen Sirikit. These royal icons define the country for many, if not most, Thais.Our driver, however, has more immediate protective icons: three spring-loaded laughing Buddhas jiggle ecstatically on his dashboard, while a pink bear or cat (I honestly can’t tell) maintains a zen-like calm, surfing on its spring base like Kelly Slater.
Once we got to Poipet (the Cambodian side) and Aranyapathet (the Thai side), I discovered it’s a pit. Being the rainy season, it’s also a muddy one, with gloppy puddles filling the potholes. But that’s OK because most people stick to the main market street, which brings me to the main point of this post, actually.
Like all good transition zones, Poipet/Aranyapathet is a transactional free-for-all. Cheap plastic tchotchkes, fake designer bags and sunglasses, knock-off iPhones and iPads and every T-shirt produced between here and Hanoi are on display. And there are the ever-present hookers, up early (or not yet gone to bed) giving me come-hither looks and shy, too-young smiles. I avoid their gaze or nervously smile back when I can’t. Keep moving; that’s the key.
There’s a few Ye Olde Buddhist stalls peddling fake authenticity in the form of small statues of the enlightened one. And a small shrine to Ganesh, the Hindu patron god of travelers, has a cluster of tired travelers squatting under its roof, sheltering from the spits of rain coming down.
One of the few authentic aspects of the place is, ironically, the casinos, which are just as dank and depressing at 10 a.m. as you would imagine. Our trip gives us a free voucher for breakfast at the Poipet Casino, where waitresses totter about on high-heels pulling their skirts down as far as they can. Old Asian ladies in gray Crocs and black socks shuffle from the buffet to the slots. It is truly depressing and makes no bones about what it is: a dark, dank place where old people lose their pension money for a brief chance of novelty. Its brutal honesty is jarring.
In any market, the transaction is king, and most are rarely equal. Tourists get ripped off, merchants make a killing. No exception here, whether it’s a fine paid for overstaying a visa, buying a souvenir or the peddling of flesh. Oh, yes, there are rules the Thai and Cambodian authorities set up to encourage or discourage one form of trade or another. But in places like this, everything is up for grabs. The lines between a fair deal and exploitation isn’t immediately obvious.
T., our guide and a professional mother-hen, is a sweet girl with bad skin and a slight British accent to her English. We talk, and she asks me what I’m doing in Thailand.
“Nothing,” I replied. “Well, just traveling, I guess.”
She jokes that I must be a millionaire. I laugh, uneasily. To many Thais, I guess I am, kind of, with my settlement from Reuters. I give her the elevator pitch of how I came to Bangkok. Her eyes light up.
“My boyfriend, he is a writer like you. And from America, also. But,” she adds with an embarrassed giggle, “he is quite old.”
I say nothing.
“He wants to do something with his life before he dies,” she continues as we walk, and I think, How old is he? “He wants to do more than sit on the couch and, what? Eat hamburgers?”
Yes, I say. That can be a problem in America.
She tells me he wants to teach, and how he has promised to come back to Thailand to be with her if he can find a job. She asks for my email, as maybe I have some advice for him. I dodge the request, a sense of embarrassment growing in my gut. She’s a nice woman, and it’s easy to assume the guy in America is stringing her along, making his yearly sex trip to see his cute Thai girlfriend.
But who’s to say she’s not also playing him? Maybe he’s sending money to her, helping her and her family, only to have her spend it on her real (Thai) boyfriend or even her husband. It’s not an uncommon situation in the land of smiles.
I don’t know what the real situation is, and I’m unwilling to pry. She doesn’t owe me an explanation. The conversation sticks with me, however, even there’s no way I want to get involved in whatever is going in with those two.
The other visa runners on the trip, however, make me feel complicit in the strange-but-common Thai-farang dynamic that I suspect T. and her boyfriend share. While we look for ways to extend out stay in a place that allows us more freedom than in our own countries, we pay the locals to cater to our needs. Which means that although we are guests, we sometimes act like we are owed this place, its cheap food and cheaper pleasures. A visa service provided, bureaucracy circumvented, a stay in the “fantastical” paradise extended, the locals prosper, the expats get what they want.
I can’t bring myself to speak to my fellow runners, and instead bury my nose in a book or write this blog entry on my iPhone.
From this whole trip, and its business-as-usual logistics, I am struck by how Thailand has developed this well-oiled infrastructure to cater to us, and why. T.’s story, with its hints of too-typical Thai-farang tradeoffs, reminds me that the passport queues are possibly the only real lines here and that clear divisions between right and wrong or sharp definitions of exploitation and genuine love rarely exist.
After a few hours here, we piled back into the van and drove back to Bangkok, our transactions completed. For now.