Oh, Smach

On the morning of our scheduled border crossing between Cambodia and Thailand, Peter and I woke up nervous. Why our anxiety? Well, first, we had a time limit: the next day marked the beginning of the 50th annual Elephant Roundup in Surin, Thailand, which was the reason we were crossing the border to begin with. And second, here’s what our guidebook had to say about our intended route:

The remote, dirt poor province of Oddar Meanchey, created from parts of Siem Reap province that the government didn’t control for much of the 1980s and 1990s, produces very little apart from opportunities for aid organizations. . . .Only a trickle of foreign visitors uses the O Smach/Chong Jom border crossing, which is pretty remote on the Thai side and in the middle of nowhere on the Cambodian side. At the frontier, there is a zone of Thai-style modernity, with two big casino-hotels, a paved dual carriageway a few hundred meters long and a modern market. But from there south you’re in outback Cambodia. The road meanders between minefields and at one point you have the choice of paying 20 baht/2000 riel for a dodgy private toll bridge built of logs by enterprising locals, or driving through a river. All along the way, you pass motorbikes so overloaded with fruit, cheap household items, and petrol smuggled in from Thailand that they often topple over. . . To Samraong (40 km, ½ -2 hours), a moto costs 250 baht, a private taxi 1200 baht, and once you get to Samraong, where are you? Nowhere.

Right. We decided to get an early start, and met our driver at 7 in our hotel. The first thing I noticed was that his Toyota Camry* had the steering wheel on the right side, an unusual and questionable choice, since Cambodia drives American-style. Second, he had a faded tattoo melting into his chest (which was visible through the opening in his low-buttoned shirt) – the sort of tattoo one might imagine a child soldier getting in the mid-1970s as part of his allegiance with a murderous guerilla force. Combined with his mustache and aviator sunglasses, he didn’t project an image of my ideal chauffeur. And third, despite reconfirming our destination several times, he seemed to be driving on the wrong road.

The road to O Smach

In fact, he was definitely driving on the wrong road – there are two border crossings that could conceivably lead to Surin (unlike Rome, not too many roads go there) and O Smach is to the west. We wanted to go there because, unlike the other one, O Smach has a regular bus service on the Thai side of the border. But instead, we were barreling along toward the eastern border, passing everything from dogs to pigs to people on motorbikes carrying enormous sacks of rice. We began making contingency plans of how to get a ride back to the correct crossing.

But it turned out that our driver was smarter than we were – the road that we were on was paved, and the road leading to O Smach (with the aforementioned log bridge) was, presumably, not. A quick left turn close to the unwanted border crossing and we were zooming toward O Smach on what turned into a well-maintained dirt road, somehow managing to bypass the homemade bridge, the lake, and the smugglers along the way – though we did pass a hotel called “Porn Phun.” As for minefields, we saw several signs from international organizations claiming credit for their clearance – but we also saw several people on motorbikes holding crutches. I didn’t get out to pee.

"They should check their grammar," said our Cambodian guide.

There were indeed two  casinos in the no-man’s land between Cambodia and Thailand (which didn’t get too many foreign visitors, judging from the stares I got when I went in to use the bathroom). A casino at 10 a.m. is an inherently depressing sight, but instead of a smoke-filled room of quarter-pumping pensioners, the cavernous interior had no customers except for two women playing roulette. It was a sort of existential place – empty casino in the middle of no-man’s land at a border crossing in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t linger. Instead, we walked across the border, hopped into a minibus, and were off.

As our minibus hurtled down the road, I instinctively reached for my seatbelt, and felt a little sheepish when I looked up to find the rest of the passengers staring at me. What was this crazy American doing? I smiled back, self-conscious about being such a safety-conscious westerner in a land without infant carseats – and then noticed that other people were following my lead. One by one, the other passengers buckled up, occasionally glancing toward my seatbelt to see how I had done it. Exchanging a smile with an old man seated behind me (who was now more likely to stay there), I decided that, at in terms of road safety – or at least peer pressure — Thailand was ahead of its competition.

Our first stop, after checking into the hotel, was to try to get Peter some medication for a potential case of parasitic worms that he may have contracted in Nepal. (Word to our mothers: Dr. Kurth has been consulted and the situation is under control.) We were a little worried about the availability of Praziquantel in remote Thai cities – but the hospital ended up being more efficient than a drive-through window. Ten minutes after we got there we’d seen a doctor, been shepherded into the pharmacy to confirm medication and dosage, been given a bill, paid, and walked out the door. What’s more, on the way to the hospital I had my first run-in with an elephant, whose handler was selling 20 baht bags of sugar cane that you could feed it. So my day, begun on the Cambodian border, ended on a much more promising, if a bit disgusting note: with my hand in an elephant’s mouth.

* The Camry Question:

There are a ridiculous number of Toyotas – and, in particular, Toyota Camrys from the mid 1990s—on the road in Cambodia. As in, out of 45 cars we passed on the way back from the temples one afternoon, 38 of them were Toyotas. (During a later experiment, we got 19 out of 20.) The owner of our guesthouse claimed it was simply because people in Cambodia “really like Camrys,” but we’re both suspicious. Peter pointed out that Toyota sedans were among the most stolen in that time period, and we saw at least one dealer sticker from Rhode Island. I’m not sure how to research our hypothesis, but I have a feeling that petrol isn’t the only thing that’s been smuggled across the border.

A typical line-up.

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