I really don’t know what has inspired me to write this article. It was raining heavily this afternoon, and I was riding my motorbike to work for around 20 minutes under the rain because the roads were flooded, which did not allow me to ride as fast as I would want to. It was not a sightseeing ride at all, especially when I saw other people in their nice cars chatting and playing without caring about adjusting their raincoat or getting soaked up. While I was looking at them, a car suddenly drove fast pass my motorbike and splashed stink water on me. You know how it hurts when you’re splashed with stink water? I believe that everyone is born equally, thus why can’t I drive cars like them? Why am I riding a motorbike while they are in their cars? You may say that I am ambitious or even greedy, but I was really jealous. “Why not me?” I asked looking at those people. Nowadays, I am trying my utmost to get the things I want and deserve as an equal human being, but I don’t know what else to do besides hating rain because rain has represented bad experience for me since I was a young boy. I have been conditioned to abhor rain.
Riding under that heavy rain today, I felt deeply sorry for myself and disappointed at my life and everything. Don’t ask me why because I really don’t know why I felt so either. (I know rain is an inevitable part of human life, and I should not blame it for what have happened in my life). But, the more time I spent under the rain, the more miserable I felt, and the more miserable experience I came up with. At that time, one of those miserable experiences that came into my head was about my first professional two-night trip to Thailand, January 22nd-24th, 2010, just after I had resigned from Sumitomo Corporation (Phnom Penh office) on January 18th, 2010. The trip was almost a year ago already but the experience still dawned on me. Actually, the trip was unexpected; an acquaintance of mine (who worked in Belgium embassy stationed in Phnom Penh) introduced me to a woman who needed English-Khmer & Khmer-English translator for her interview with Belgium embassy in Thailand. She had gotten married to a Cambodian-Belgian, and the Belgium embassy required her to clarify some points in her application form applied for permanent residence in Belgium. Because the net wage (USD$120 excluding all expenses) was quite reasonable and I needed some money, I accepted the deal without caring much about what would happen to me during the trip and letting everything to be planned by the woman and her family. Without proper planning and too much trust that things would turn out ok, the whole trip was disastrous and dangerous, at least for me. This is a true story, so let me do my best to narrate the sequences of the event with absolute truth and sincerity.
After packing up my clothes and some official documents such as passport, I started the trip at 6:00 am by a bus (Sorya Bus Company) from Phnom Penh city, Cambodia to the Cambodia-Thailand border called Poipet. On a 400-kilometer-plus trip across four main Cambodian provinces in respective order such as Kompong Chhnang, Porsat, Battambang, and Bantay Menchey, the bus took around 8 hours and 30 minutes because of twofold: (1) the bus had to pick up passengers along the way which was one of its routines, and (2) roads were bad, bumpy and small in some particular areas. Even though the bus stopped three times during the whole trip, I still felt exhausted and my spine hurt because I had sat down too long. Because the woman and her family (father and uncle who accompanied her during the trip) lived in Porsat province, I just asked the bus to pick them up there so that we could go to the border together. Because it was my first trip, everything along the way was refreshingly original and new. Somehow, I was ecstatic to see those new things, but somehow I was scared because everything was new and I did not know a trustworthy soul there.
So, from one province to another, the bus stopped for around 15 minutes so that the passengers (including Cambodian people, foreigners and I) could have some refreshments. After a long drive, the bus eventually arrived at Poipet at 2:30 pm and I knew it was high time that I work even though I had not had a proper lunch yet. Because I hadn’t talked much with the woman and the family, I had to spend around half an hour to discuss with them about what to do. It was not until then that I knew they had not planned anything, meaning they left everything for me to decide. You bet, I was shaky and a little bit afraid but I pretended that everything was ok and that I could take charge. In fact, I could not blame them either and understood their situation wholeheartedly. Let me tell you why. The family and the woman were (and still are, I guess) typical Cambodian farmers living in mountainous areas of Porsat province called Phnom Krovanh. Needless to mention, they were illiterate and almost ignorant about the outside civilized world. So, when they met me, the father and uncle just completely depended on me, whom they thought knew Thailand and the interview process clearly.
Before I continue, I want to tell you a brief history about Cambodian and Thai people, which is a really long story full of hatred and revenge. In general, Cambodian people dislike Thai people and vice versa. You know, at the time of my trip, this hatred was even stronger due to some territorial issues, which should not be discussed here. Personally, I have been very neutral to Thai people, so I had nothing to become an enemy to them and in no way, treat them as my enemies because I don’t pre-judge people by their gender, race, religion, etc. Still, when I was in Thailand, I was kind of scared because I was not quite sure how Thai people would react to me, Cambodian. But, I can say that I was treated pretty satisfactorily, maybe because most Thai people thought I was Korean or something. (when I was in a restaurant in Bangkok city, I was asked if I were Korean).
At 5 o’clock on the same day (after we cleared all the custom-related documents, and I received some money for all expenses in Thailand), the 20-year-old-plus woman and I crossed the border to Thailand in order to travel for more than 3 hours to Bangkok city. From a translator to a father (kind of), I had to take care of the woman because I would have been in hot water if she had gotten lost or something. So I had to stay nearby her almost all the time even though I did not want to. Timid and fearful of the outside world, especially her interview to be taken place the next day, she did not eat, drink or talk much at all. She just sat in the car sobbing and mumbling to herself. She was scared and so was I. Yet, because I had promised to her father and uncle that I would take good care of her and the interview, I could not demonstrate to her that I was scared or even nervous. As a part of my job, I had to counsel her to know her story and some background about her as to make sure that we would understand one another clearly during the interview process the next day. Actually, everything about her and her marriage was real but she just had difficulty in expressing herself out clearly in front of people doomed to her weak communication skills and illiteracy.
Because roads in Thailand are much better than that in Cambodia, we could arrive in Bangkok city at around 8 o’clock. Wow, Bangkok city was much bigger, better and complicated than I had expected. I was really confused because there were dozens of highways and skyscrapers. Even though Thai people were not that different from Cambodian people in terms of appearance, I felt a big gap between us (Thai people and me) maybe because I could not speak Thai language. (For some people who don’t know, please don’t be confused that Thai and Cambodian people speak the same language even though there are some phonetic similarities between the two languages).
Right after we got out of the bus, the woman and I took a taxi to find a fine accommodation with reasonable price and Belgium embassy in advance before we went to visit the place the day after. In our pursuit to find the places, we had many obstacles one of which was we could not communicate with the taxi driver at all because he was not able to speak and read English language, let alone Khmer language, besides ‘yes’, ‘no’, and ‘ok’. At that time, when I told him in English that I wanted a small guesthouse, and he nodded his head in a way that he understood what I said, but I ended up at a five-star rated hotel. Without any dinner (the woman was not hungry, but I was starved like hell), we finally found the Belgium embassy. But, do you know what kind of guesthouse we stayed for the night? The second taxi driver took us to a guesthouse frequented by teenagers who went there to make love for a couple hours or a night. As I still clearly remember, the guesthouse was in a not-well-organized location where teenagers (both male and female) were hanging out. Quite honestly, I was kind of scared (because I had desocialized my life completely from gang-related stuffs) but I had no other choice because I was so hungry, and physically and mentally exhausted.
So, we stayed there in one small, unclean room. (Please don’t misunderstand: I slept in one bed and she in the other bed. We did not do any immoral things). Also, the room was not bright at all even though we switched on all the lights. After having some snacks, I slept like a dead man though the bed was tough. But, in the middle of the night, I was awakened by the woman because she had fiver. I did not know what to do besides asking her to drink some warm water, put wet clothes on her forehead, and try to sleep. Because the bed was hard and rough, I did not have a good night sleep at all. I woke up the next day at 5 o’clock in the morning, still feeling sleepy. Even though I was feeling so tired, I had to get up to get myself ready, pack all my clothes and items for we had planned to leave Bangkok city in the afternoon once the interview was completed, and help the woman organize her official documents for the interview.
We left the guesthouse at 5:30 am to find something for breakfast. Because we were not in a hurry and did not know anywhere, we walked around half an hour just to find a small cafeteria serving set-menu food. We ordered fried fish and papaya salad for our breakfast. I don’t know what to say, but the food was somehow delicious (maybe because I was still hungry from the night), even though it was quite different from my daily diet then. We stayed there until 6:15 and left when the sun rose.
Like country pumpkin heads, we arrived at the office of Belgium embassy, which was located in a tower (I’ve already forgotten its name), at 6:45 when no one came to work yet. We were even earlier than the male security guard. So, we had to sit down on the floor and wait in the hall. Exhausted and miserable, we anxiously waited for almost two hours until 8:30 when all staffs arrived and started to work. Because we were the first on the list, we were allowed to go as the first interviewee. Right away, we were escorted to a quiet room in which we could see the interviewer through a big glass window. The interviewer was a Thai woman who was able to speak English language almost perfectly. I can tell you now that I was really nervous, even more than the woman, who was the real candidate because I worried that the woman would not be able to take such pressure based on her natural personality. Fortunately and surprisingly, she did pretty well and was indeed interactive with the interviewer and me even though she had to answer around 50 questions prepared from Belgium government. The interview, therefore, went smoothly with very few interruptions and misunderstandings because of cultural differences. The interview lasted around 3 hours. Later, we headed off to a bus station called ‘Ekamai’ in order to prepare for the first afternoon departure (12:30) to Cambodia-Thailand border.
Again, there was not a proper lunch for me because the woman still did not feel like eating or drinking (I don’t know what kind of stomach she had), and I did not want to spend much money given by her family. (She revealed to me that her family had had to borrow people’s money to cover all expenses of the trip). So, I just had some instant noodle and snacks to fill up my empty stomach. While I was at the bus station, really I was feeling lonely and missed my people in Cambodia a lot. I was not being emotionally weak, but I literally wished that I were in my country doing my favorite hobbies with people who love me and whom I love. Many times, I almost cried but I just couldn’t do it in front of a lot of people especially in public area.
The saying that goes ‘time crawls when you wait for something’ is absolutely correct. On the way back to Cambodia, the bus was stinking slow and boring. I wished I would have flown so that I could be home much faster. In total, the bus took 3 hours and 45 minutes, almost an hour later than its normal schedule. Finally, I arrived at the border at 4:15 pm, and I knew I could not go home right away because there were not any buses leaving Poi Pet to Phnom Penh. Never having known how interesting the famous market at the border is (Cambodian people call the market as Long Kuer), I requested the motor-taxi driver that I want to have a quick tour around the market. Anyway, the driver is the woman’s uncle and somehow close relative, and the reason he came is that he was assigned to pick up the woman and me from the border and drop us off at Svay Sisopun, the small town of Bantay Menchey province, which is around 20 kilometers away from the border.
That’s why he was really nice to me. He guided me around the market, explained to me how they did business there, helped me find the difference between genuine and fake products, and translated for me (Khmer-to-Thai and Thai-to-Khmer). Because I did not buy anything at all (I was not in shopping mood), the tour lasted only thirty minutes, which made me happy because I could go to the town when the sky was still shining and bright. But it wasn’t as I had expected at all. After the shopping tour, the man took us (the woman and me) on his Honda Dream scooter to his house which was about five kilometers from the border. His house was in a remote village, so we had to travel on a roughly bumpy road (you can imagine how inconvenient it is for three grown people to sit on a scooter, which is originally made for two people). I am big and heavy, so I had to squeeze myself in order to sit in the middle between the man (the driver) and the woman at the back of the motorbike. Even worse than that, I had to carry my two bags in both hands. And the worst part was that we had to travel on that scooter at night when the road was dark and we could not see anything clearly.
Actually, we left the border at around 5 when the sky was still bright and I knew we had to drive fast (when it was still bright) for safety reasons. I tried to persuade the driver to drive fast, but he did not listen to me at all. At that time, I even requested that I drive, but he rejected. Maybe because he was too nice to me and wanted me to learn about his community and hometown, he just drove in a sightseeing mood and told me history of each area and place. I was really frustrated at the situation and mad at him, but I had to trust him.
I am a mentally and physically strong man, but I can tell you that I was dam* scared to death. The road was around 20 kilometers but it took more than 2 hours, so long beyond imagination and reality. Because it was so slow and dark (no lights along the street at all), I had all the time in the world to review my life. Like I wrote in the introduction about rain, the more I thought of my life, the more miserable things I could come up with. I could not stop thinking about death. I started to think of something stupid like: ‘What if I were hit by a speedy car driven by a drunkard?’ ‘What if I were robbed and shot at?’ ‘What if I were left behind in one of those dark, remote rice paddies?’ ‘Would any of my friends, relatives, and my girlfriend find me?’
I started to think of many things. I thought about Pol Pot regime and those pictures related to the regime such as people shot at in rice fields, etc. I also questioned myself why I had decided to accept the job without any consideration like that. Why did I sacrifice so much as to get so little (USD$ 120)? Was it worth it? In my head, there were many inner speeches, one of which was “I am an outstanding graduate in the field of education. I can earn a safe, classy, and reasonable lifestyle if I work or teach in educational institutions. I have a bright future and a happy family. So why am I doing this risky job now? Am I trying to kill or beat myself?” You know, I was almost killed—at least mentally and emotionally—during that two-hour ride.
Hungry, dirty (because of dusty roads), and exhausted, I at last reached the town and was warmly hospitalized by the family. They served me local dishes and cold drinks. During that dinner, I was bombarded with dozens of questions related to the interview and it was my job to clarify all their doubts since the woman did not want to talk, or was not able to express herself and the situation clearly. The dinner was not delicious or fun, but it was one of those feeling-relief dinners that I had ever had in my life. After the dinner, they asked me to stay at their house which was not well-organized (in my opinion) and noisy. But I rejected because I wanted a rather quiet place to comfort my soul and talk to people whom I could confide in my story. I was taken to a local guesthouse whose name I have already forgotten. As soon as I got into the room, I took out my phone, called my girlfriend and told her everything that I had gone through for the last two days. I don’t know what to tell you about my feeling then, but I was feeling completely relieved like I had escaped from a war. For that whole night, I could not sleep that well at all even though I was trying to. I knew I was safe, but I just was not sure and my brain did not stop working.
I woke up the next day at 4:30 in the morning. Not knowing what to do next, I just packed my stuffs, had an early breakfast and waited for an early bus to Phnom Penh city. The bus left at 6:30 and arrived in Phnom Penh at 3:30. On the way back in the bus, I learnt and saw many things that I don’t want to see again in my life, ever. Because it was a low-class bus, any classes of people could use it, and I happened to sit in front of a woman who was having a deadly carsick and vomiting all the way. Whenever she vomited, she banged her head into my seat and I just could not concentrate or take a nap at all. Moreover, at the back of the bus, there were people talking out loud (without respect for other people’s privacy) and children crying for whatever reasons I did not know. You can imagine who emotionally and mentally tortured it was for me to sit in that bus for almost 9 hours after I had gone through an emotional and mental instability. Yet, I was glad to arrive home safe and sound, and am happy to be able to write this article now.
Quite honestly, I learnt a great deal of things from that experience. I learnt to trust people like the way I trusted the motor-taxi driver, to help people beyond my duty like the way I took care of the woman even though I was just a translator, and to adapt to situations like the way I survived in Bangkok during nighttime. Yet, one of the most important things that I learnt is that no matter what I do and whenever I do anything, I need to plan well and properly; I’ve got to have to focus on details and trivial things before I actually jump to do them. Simply put, I learnt to plan because ‘if I fail to plan, I plan to fail’.
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