We left Siem Reap early in the morning, riding away from our guest house in the back of a pickup truck. The truck took us a few blocks and dumped us amidst a gathering of anxious travellers outside of another hotel. After a few minutes we were led around a corner to the bus that would take us to the Thai border crossing. The ride to the border was uneventful. By this point we had grown quite accustomed to the driving style of the bus drivers here, pedal to the floor until something got in the way then honking and swerving around whatever fool lacked the good sense to get off of the road in time. We made good time.
The border crossing itself was pretty much what one would expect, long lines, little actual scrutiny by the officers. On the Thai side there was a flatscreen TV suspended from a support column so that the immigration officers could watch football while they processed people. This probably did little for the clearance time. Eventually we were on the other side and ushered onto the back of another pickup, this one fitted with a sort of metal cage to hold us in. We drove a few blocks, passing a parked transport of swine that were squealing in all too human tones. After milling about at a restaurant, we were gradually put aboard cramped minibuses for the drive to Bangkok. What was supposed to be another couple of hours turned into almost six, as we hit heavy traffic on the outskirts of the city, and the driver took some shortcuts that put him in unfamiliar territory.
We arrived after dark, slightly disoriented. Our assumption had been that we would arrive at the bus station and we had planned our route accordingly. This was not the case, we were dropped off very close to where we actually wanted to go but our map was useless for the level of detail we now needed to navigate the winding lanes of the old centre. The driver spoke no English and simply pointed in a direction that did not seem right. A woman approached us and asked where we were going, she seemed to be in charge of something with a walkie talkie in her hand and a clipped manner of speech. She pointed us in the right direction and we set off. Sometimes it helps to look lost.
After a quick walk we found ourselves at the slum of a hostel we had booked online. It was the cheapest we could find, and we undoubtedly got what we paid for. As I was paying at the desk, a large rat ambled through the hostel bar. I have seen smaller puppies. A waiter saw the rat. The rat paused. Then both went on their way, the waiter serving his table and the rat miraculously squeezing itself under the door of a closet.
The room reminded me a bit of Tuol Sleng, minus the horrific torture. Iron beds with paper thin mats, a window that refused to open. A tired looking fan was mounted on the wall to stop us from succumbing to the heat. We immediately resolved to spend as little time in our cell as possible.
As fortune would have it, a good Melbournian friend of mine happened to be in town on business. We met him for dinner by the Victory Monument and ended up at a rooftop bar with a wacky mini-keg and a bucket of dubious ice.
We spent the next couple of days relaxing in the relative comforts a modern city affords. Gratuitous air conditioning, safe food, public transit. Our timing was pretty lousy. The national holiday kicked off and triggered the closing of most of the temples and palaces. Various streets were locked down with police standing in ordered positions along the sidewalk. Apparently there were also some mourning ceremonies so the street would be full of people wearing black. We abandoned pretty much of all of our intentions of "seeing the sights," and spent the next few days like migrating ducks fattening up.
We ended a couple of afternoons wallowing in the pool atop the King Power hotel, to which our gracious acquiantance provided us access. Seventy dollars, which is still far beyond my own means, goes a long way in Bangkok, and we found it difficult to shake the feeling that we were thieves sneaking around some palace. It is strange to have people open doors for you who are better dressed than you are.
We went to the cinema on a particularly hot afternoon and witnessed the bizarre royal propaganda display that has become something of a side attraction at Thai cinemas. A well-produced video montage, something akin to those advertisements for the tar sands, showing the royal personage in all of his benevolent glory played for what felt like a very long time, while a chorus sang the national anthem in such a way that you could not be certain how many in the theatre were singing along. We stood awkwardly and tried not to commit some inadvertent irreverence.
We spent a good deal of time wandering in the Chatuchak Market, by far the best market I have seen. Everything we bought was accompanied by an elaborate justification of how it would fit into our overflowing packs. I really wanted to get a flying squirrel, but I had a feeling it would stand little chance against Australian Customs.
By the end, we were restless to leave. The trip was over for my companions, but I had another flight to Singapore ahead. On our second last night, the last night we had planned on sleeping fully, we woke up to someone rapping loudly on our door. It was close to two in the morning. As we sat rubbing our eyes and determining whether were indeed awake, we could hear the echos of activity in the hall and the faint wail of sirens. Again came the knock. I poked my head out into the hall and saw the evening manager from downstairs. "Fire," he said, "Please come outside. It won't be for too long." I conveyed this to my roomates and we threw on some clothes. The street was an overwhelming buzz of activity. I drank a Red Bull to try to feel normal in case we had to do something important. It had been the worst stage of sleep to wake from, that nascent stage of dreaming where the only way you wake up is if woken. My eyes felt like they had been forced open, like they were still trying to sleep.
There were several firetrucks squeezed past eachother in the narrow street. Onlookers from several guesthouses lined the sidewalks taking pictures. The smell of everything burning at once filled the air. The smoke seemed to be coming from an alley around the corner of our building. One guest told me that the hotel staff said it was on the top floor of our building, at the back. I had visions of my laptop tucked away under my bed in the room, the water from the pumper trucks seeping down through the plaster, silt collecting on the motherboard. She was wrong, fortunately; it had been a small ground floor shop that had burned out, and the firefighters had it taken care of quite quickly. Most of them sat on their trucks and smoked, calling to friends on other crews. It had rained very heavily that night and much of the street had transformed into kind of creek, forcing everyone to wade through the filth. The fire might have had something to do with the water, or not, but either way they both had us expecting more elemental catastrophes. It was close to dawn by the time we got back to sleep.