Early this morning, while the rest of the world was settling down to watch the Oscars, I embarked on an uncomfortable but essential journey that I would have done almost anything to avoid: A four-plus hour return trip to a little-known (outside Asia) corner of northwestern Cambodia, Poipet. What for? A visa run, expat jargon for exiting and re-entering a country at the closest port of entry in order to avoid eventually being levied the inevitable penalties of an expired visa. Since my visa was expiring today, and I was determined to avoid paying a hefty fee by sending it to Phnom Penh, I had no choice but to hit the road to the Cambodia-Thailand border at Poipet (Aranyapathet on the Thai side).
I’ve heard many rumors about Poipet, chiefly that it’s the most corrupt place in Cambodia – possibly in all of Asia. To paraphrase a comment I read recently by a long-time expat living in Battambang: It’s the most horrible place on earth. I’ve also heard someone refer to it as Toilet-town. Those phrases seem accurate enough when you walk by the multitude of casino ‘resorts’ and the hordes of crazy, lazy policemen eyeing you for the smallest misstep; when you hear about the children who are commonly trafficked and prostituted through the town. Thinking of smuggling drugs? Guns? Anything they might even remotely consider illegal? Be prepared to do time, a la Midnight-Express.
See the local ‘playboys’ and ‘cowboys’ riding shotgun, toting heavily-wrapped cargo, possibly containing contraband – having paid off whichever corrupt official needed it most? See the scantily-clad, shoeless boys and girls, each one dragging behind them a cart bursting with Chinese-made goods being dumped across the border? And see the mini-skirted, red and black outfitted, high-heeled ‘hostesses’ leaving one casino for another? All of them hallmarks of a town caving under the weight of its own hedonism, its flagrant violation of human rights, its filth.
So you can see why I was less than excited about the prospect of returning to this anti-Shangri La. In fact, it occurred to me on the drive out there that today was the third time I would have the misfortune of facing that border crossing. The last time I took the same route was a week after my accident. On a stretcher. In the back of an ambulance. With indescribable pain. Along the way, OJ comforting me from overseas, through the blessings of cell phone technology.
And the time before that, just one week previously, I had crossed from Thailand to Cambodia on my way to Siem Reap. My experience back then was so ludicrously characteristic of the pitfalls many a traveler has encountered at Poipet, that to think back to the corruption charade I’d unwittingly fallen for, I realized how easy it was to be fooled into complicit behavior.
Fortunately, today’s rite of passage (do I dare call it a pilgrimage?!) – departing Cambodia, entering Thailand, departing Thailand, re-entering Cambodia – came off without a hitch. Were it not for amusing interactions I observed among the two heaping busloads of Russian tourists queuing ahead of me (easily identified because of the Buryat – Siberian – couple in their midst); the interesting story I heard about how the eight-member Mennonite family from Ohio came to live in Siem Reap; the cheerful antics of motodbup and taxi drivers hovering around me as I awaited a return call from Mr. Lee informing me how I would return to Battambang after the promised driver bailed; and the photo ops I enjoyed while snacking on a plate of tasty cooked vegetables, well it might have been a very boring day indeed.