Any day you dont find yourself playing Russian Roulette in a Vietnamese prison cell can’t really be described as anything other than good. Whether or not today was going to be one of these days I was about to find out. By some strange, possibly deliberate, bureaucratic quirk on my Vietnamese visa I wasnt quite sure that I hadn’t overstayed my welcome in the country.
I wasnt in the mood for any mishaps so I jumped on the first plush air-conditioned tourist bus bound for Phnom Penh. Ordinarily I might have commandeered the back seat and sprawled my geographically atypically long legs out down the aisle but for some reason this bus had assigned seating so instead I found myself seated next to a blond Dutch girl who we’ll call Erika. In an uncharacteristically loquacious mood I chatted merrily with Erika as the giant behemoth of a bus ploughed through the late morning traffic of Ho Chi Minh city. As it turned out she had followed an almost identical route from Europe as me, with the exception of a short detour to Thailand for a course in massage therapy. Which, she claimed also contained an additional optional component in “handjob techniques” she informed me smiling. Whether or not she opted in for this I didnt inquire.
Long before we could see the Cambodian border we could feel its approach as the usual ramshackle collection of wooden slates and corrugated iron roofs which constitute the standard Vietnamese roadside dwelling began to deteriorate into barely habitable junk heaps.
Eventually the bus pulls up to the crossing for the usual tragicomic farcical pissing contest that characterises a border anywhere in the world. Marched single file and eyed suspiciously for the probable drug smugglers, anarchists and welfare frauds that we most likely are we entered the immigration offices. Ah border guards my old friends, how I have missed your Molotov cocktail of boredom and spiteful malice.
Stepping up to the counter, the guard looked at my passport then at me then at my passport then back at me, I felt like a fly looking back at some drooling snot nosed child about to pluck my legs off for the sheer hell of it. He motions to hand back my passport, moving slowly, almost reluctantly as if his mind, realizing that this was his last opportunity to inflict some horrible damage on me was whirring madly trying to think of some devious ploy which would see me rotting in a prison cell.
Back aboard the bus for a journey of several meters before disembarking once again the driver herds us as though we were sheep being driven into a corral. The crossing on the Cambodian side went considerably smoother than I’d expected, I suspected this had perhaps something to do with the driver extracting a vague fee from everybody onboard for “travel agent” expenses, and collecting all our passports to allow him to engage in what you might term cash based diplomacy. There was no point in arguing we were now entering one of the most corrupt countries in the world where backhanders and greasy palms were considered to fall under the broad and honorable umbrella of “doing business”, oddly enough a, more than any other South East Asian country actually reminded me of another country with which I am intimately acquainted.
On the other side an ultra smooth super straight road in perfect condition ran right through the landscape in front of us. I suppose its not difficult to keep a road in perfect condition when there is virtually no traffic on it. A few cyclists and motorbike scatter like panicked chickens as the bus straddling the center line barrels down the road at full speed. The driver seems to never take his hand off the horn, I didnt know buses could go that fast.
The contrast between the country we had just left and the one we had entered was immediately apparent, waxy green vegetation sways and dances in the breeze and the countryside looks wilder and less intensively farmed. To my surprise the people too look dramatically different from the Vietnamese and Chinese before them, with much darker in some cases almost Indian coloured skin and bigger rounder eyes. Amidst the smiling faces and waving palm trees this idyllic rural scene from the vantage of the air-conditioned bus could easily be mistaken for some sort of pastoral paradise. But there is an unshakeable feeling that something sickly is waiting just below the surface, a queasiness in the sweltering tropical heat. As the bus stop to refuel we are immediately swamped by hoards of child beggars and hawkers. The door open with pneumatic hiss and the wet humid heat of midday pours in accompanied in single file by a troop of these tiny slightly comical fruit merchants chanting with an almost sing-song refrain “Hello Mister, you buy my pineapple? You buy my pineapple? Hello Mister. Now or maybe later, you buy my pineapple?”
Child Beggers in Phnom Penh
Getting off the bus I tried to swat off one girl wearing a funny pink peaky cap, “maybe later” I replied, fatal mistake I quickly realised the purpose of “now or maybe later” as she followed me back and forth around the bus stop stall chanting “how bout now? how bout now? how bout now?”, ducking and diving between fellow passengers but to no avail I couldnt shake off my squeaky tail. Eventually I stopped and turned to face her, she looked up at me with what was probably a well rehearsed doe eyed expression and said “you no buy my pineapple you break my heart!”. I gave a sigh of exasperation, “why aren’t you in school?” I asked looking down at her, “I go to school in the morning” and without skipping a beat added “you no buy my pineapple no have money for school”. I had the feeling that this was a well anticipated response to a very common tourist question.
Little did I realise that my four foot fruit seller had tired of her current sales approach and was about to resort to her nuclear option. “You like Polly?” she asked, “Wha-” “Polly?” she replied “Holy Mother of effffffff” I roared silently in my head, before I had a chance to react she had reached into her pocket and placed a hideous hairy tarantula on my chest, I could feel its weight pulling on my tshirt as it just hung there. “Okaaaaaay” I answered slowly, “so how much did you want for that pineapple again?” trying to play it cool but in actuality I was standing frozen like you always see people doing in those stupid old films when confronted by some horrible stinging, poisonous creature. I was willing to accept an asking price of anywhere from one to one hundred dollars as reasonable, given the circumstances of course. One dollar sufficed and I was grateful, and it was a very nice pineapple indeed.
Now for some gratuitious music, here’s one by that annoying cue ball Moby, I feel its appropriate since it was used in the Bourne series of films. In fact in many ways Im actually a lot like Bourne or Bond or one of those other legendary nomads, that is if Jason Bourne were to have had a deathly fear of spiders, insects and contracting malaria.