Thursday, April 7, 2011

Blowing in the Wind

The closer to the border I got, the more I realized I wasn't feeling good about going to Cambodia right now. Since I had already jettisoned Saigon because of depleted resources of all kinds, and because Battambang is a place that has always called to me, I did my best to ignore the feeling. Spend the night in Aranyaprathet and cross the border in the morning when your energy's returned, I told myself more than once.

But the truth was, I didn't have the energy. Wiped out and depressed by a long and dismal cold, in no way had this been a trip I was ready to make; I was more than willing to stick to my comfort zone. As the bus moved closer to the end of my journey, it became clear that I didn't want to leave Thailand.

But I had to. There's a quaint custom that almost every expat must adhere to while living in the Kingdom that is dashingly called the visa run. Although this phrase conjures up men in Panama hats and white suits and women with blood-red lipstick and cigarette holders, the reality is far less glamorous. People in wrinkled clothing scurry across the nearest border as cheaply as possible, get a visa renewal within a day or two, and race back to work. As far as I could tell, this was a way for Thailand to put tourist revenue into the pockets of less-favored countries, since despite their best efforts, the visa-runners shell out money after they cross the border for necessities-- transport, food, a hotel room, and beer.

When I have to renew my privilege of living in Thailand, I usually combine the chore with a trip that will make the process fun, and I've always enjoyed these journeys--until now. As I tried to buoy up my spirits for my Cambodian foray, the bus stopped, policeman got on who barked questions at the passengers and a number of people got off. Only two or three returned.

After a half-hour or so, this happened again. The young girl sitting beside me did her best to persuade the policeman to let her remain but he was obdurate. She didn't come back, nor did any of the other passengers.

The third time this happened, soldiers took the place of the police. The young man sitting beside me removed the Buddha image he had on a chain around his neck and slipped it into his pocket just before the bus stopped.

"What's happening?" I asked the woman who sat beside me after my former seat-mate disappeared.

"Khmer people," she explained, "They have no passports, no ID cards."

Suddenly the border tension at Preah Vihear seemed very close and any joy I had tried to muster up over this trip went away. I had no desire to go to Cambodia right now; this wasn't the right time for me and I knew it in the way an animal knows there will be an earthquake. When we reached Aranyaprathet, I asked to be let off at the bus station, where I bought a ticket for Korat. From there, it would be an easy matter to reach the Laos border.

Laos is almost Thailand, I told myself, it's not like really leaving. I can do that. As I stood in the first sunlight I'd felt in weeks, chatting in bad Thai to a friendly, chubby woman who stood nearby, I clutched my bus ticket that would take me through a part of Thailand I had never seen before. Shadows dappled the dust, my sweater was at last too warm, and I felt very happy.


Dr. Will said...

You are one hell of a sensitive adventurer, my friend.

janet brown said...

I didn't feel very adventurous this time around, Will. The word comfort seemed very, very nice to me in a way it never has before. Is this what age does?