Welcome to Cambodia!
There is something particularly unwelcoming about the phrase, “You give money now.”
Particularly when spoken in a Khmer accent. The language isn’t tonal, so you lose all the mellifluous softening you’d get in Thai, there’s a different set of vowels and consonants, a lot of plosives, and, what with the khaki and the nurses waving thermometers at you to check for swine flu, it all gets a bit Bridge Over the River Kwai.
Yep. As border crossings go, the Cambodian side of Hat Lek has rather little going for it.
I suppose if I’d seen a sweaty mother with growing out roots, a nasty case of motorbike elbow, a backpack apparently full of rocks and a top going more off the shoulder by the second lumbering across no-man’s-land trailed at an offended distance by a ravenous and irritated small boy, I’d have read us as an easy mark too.
Z hadn’t wanted to get up for breakfast on Koh Mak. Once we got to Trat, he wasn’t mad keen on the rice crackers which I’d bought because anything containing 20% “flossy pork” and 10% chilli paste has to be tried. (Flossy pork is, as the name would suggest, pork rind pulled to the consistency of candyfloss. It is not, I have to admit, at its most appealing when clinging to rice crackers like clumps of peroxide split ends.)The chicken skewers I got him from Trat market were so glutinously marinated and sweet that he thought they weren’t properly cooked and didn’t want to risk them.
I offered him a chicken heart from my skewer (chewy in a good way, surprisingly flavoursome and mercifully short on tubes). He said that when I held it out to him it reminded him of Apocalypto, where the priest removed the man’s quivering heart “and ate it”.
I hope he won’t have nightmares.
So, anyway, one pickup, one speedboat, two sawngthaews and roughly two rice crackers later, I said he could have an ice-cream provided he chugged about half a litre of water to hydrate.
Once he had drunk the water, he had no room left in his stomach for the ice-cream, and slumped in a heap of utter misery at the evil woman who had done this to him.
And, of course, once he did have room we were on the Cambodian side, with no ice-cream for 15km.
This added a little urgency to proceedings.
All in all, 200 baht* to get rid of the men in the surgical masks who had officiously (and apparently officially) filled in our papers for us wasn’t so bad, though I still wish I hadn’t done it.
It did, though, seem a little unfair on the taxi and moto driver who had been engaged in a beautifully choreographed tandem haggle over our trip to Koh Kong town for the entire 45 minutes surgical mask men were running around with our passports and pushing us in front of cameras.
Essentially, taxi man starts at 300 baht, I go for 50 baht, using the carton of Marlboro Lights I had just bought for 200 baht and the price of the journey to the border as base units, we get taxi down to 200 baht, motorcycle man comes in at 150 baht, I wearily propose 120 baht, double the going rate, just to get out of there, then both scent blood and say I should take the taxi as he can do it for 150 baht now. I say, I don’t care, we’re taking the moto now or do we need to get someone else’s moto?
By the time we got to the guesthouse, I was also past haggling. Although, as far as I can tell, everyone starts slightly above double. There are lots of face-saving translation errors because Khmers count in base 5 and riels come in large denominations.
Whatever. It’s clean, tiled, we have our own bathroom and a fan, the light-up Buddhist altar makes up for a multitude of sins, and I really like this town.
Basically, anywhere where ladies of a certain age replace the traditional Khmer pyjamas with teddy-bear prints in scarlet, canary yellow and hot pink, then pair them with sparkly mules gets my vote. Anytime.
*Thai baht: roughly 60 to the pound last time I checked the international money markets, in practice more like 50 to the pound once ATMs and exchanges have worked their voodoo. Low 30s to the dollar in Thailand, mid-30s to the dollar in Koh Kong.