Wat: The Jewel in Cambodia’s Crown
By Brendan McGuigan
It’s a hot day. Of course. Our bus
pulls into the border town of Poipet at around noon,
just as the sun is at its hottest. There are only
two border crossings from Thailand to Cambodia, and
this – the northern crossing – is known for two things:
casinos and poverty. We have to cross on foot, and
each step is a step away from the first world and
into the third. It is a twilight realm – a meeting
of such stark opposites it’s stilting. Palatial hotels
line the dirt road, and luxury cars make their way
cautiously amidst the naked beggar children.
I’m hefting my luggage and trying not to make too
much eye contact. I want to be kind and compassionate,
but I know how it works: more than a passing glance
and they’ll decide they’ve found a mark, following
you every inch of your journey. And in the end, I
won’t give them money, because I can’t give it to
them all. So I steel myself and keep my gaze focused
in front of me, sighing at the overweight German tourist
who is eagerly snapping pictures of the children lying
in the dust with flies swarming them.
We’re stuck at the border station for two hours, and
after a few failed attempts at banter with a Swiss
couple (mostly just self-deprecating humor about my
American nationality), I focus on the scene. The crossing
itself allows no automobiles through, but there is
a steady flow of human traffic, consisting mostly
of men and women pulling enormous carts on their back.
They are the beasts of burden in this wealthy town
of poverty. Occasionally one of the border guards
will stop them and peek under the tarps at their wares,
then wave them through. As I watch, a guard pulls
back a tarp and reveals what must be at least two-hundred
pounds of opium. He chuckles and shakes his head,
walking towards his station to radio it in.
The woman who had been dragging
this cart drops it and runs after him, frantically
yelling and waving money. Everyone stops what they’re
doing, watching her as she is pulling more and more
money out of her pockets, trying to get his attention.
Finally she appears to hit the magic number, and the
guard stops, turning around and taking the money,
waving her through. Everyone watching is laughing,
and business quickly resumes as though nothing out
of the ordinary has occurred.
A few formalities at the border
station and we’re through. I’ve arrived. I’m in Cambodia.
You can taste the difference in the air, see the difference
in the people, and – most importantly for the next
eight hours of my life – feel the difference in the
Gone are the opulent paved highways
of Thailand. We travel over roads scarcely big enough
for our bus – yet with trucks and tractors whizzing
by constantly. The ground is a red dust that you learn
to hate during your time in the north of Cambodia.
It’s a dust that permeates your existence, coating
your clothing and luggage, filling your mouth, and
hiding everything in a thick red fog. As nighttime
settles, the drive becomes a matter of faith – with
visibility down to five feet – and the near brushes
with death are lost in the haze that’s settled over
my mind. By the time we reach Siem Reap I’m no longer
conscious of how many times we’ve avoided a collision
by an inch. I’m ready to crawl into a (somewhat) clean
bed, and sleep my aches away.
* * *
Siem Reap is a dream come true.
Since I first learned of Angkor I have been fascinated
by it. Seeing it in person surpasses everything I could
have imagined. More than thirty structures of such immensity
and intricate detail that they stagger the mind, all
wrapped in a sacred energy unlike anything I’ve ever
experienced. Within five minutes, I am in love.
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