#Aranyaprathet #Thailand: Swimming to Kampuchea–by Train

Train to Cambodia

Train to Cambodia

The train from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet on the Cambodian border seems unusually crowded. My British friend Tom and I are lucky to get a seat, and we’re both trying to figure out why—maybe because it’s Friday? Or maybe it’s a holiday. Whatever, by the time we’ve reached the BKK airport on the skirts of town, the train has long been full to capacity, and nobody’s getting off, with still more trying to get on. Nobody seems angry, though, as if this were to be expected.

I assume it’s because the ride is free for locals. That means people can ride whether they have any business or not, just joy-riding, so to speak. Still, no one’s getting off—anywhere. They can’t all be going to the border, can they? Aranyaprathet is not that large of a town. Unless they’re Cambodian (what is the sound of one light-bulb lighting?). Our seatmates are silent the whole trip, pretty strange for Thais, not known for their pensive moments. They’ve got tickets, though; locals wouldn’t need them.

“Locals Ride Free”

We finally get to Aranyaprathet, only an hour late on a five-hour ride—not bad—and the just train shuts down, period, lights out. That’s weird. People start getting off, then stop. Some go out the windows. Tom thinks we haven’t even arrived yet, but I know we have. It’s a traffic jam out there—literally—people traffic, jamming the platform. We finally thread our way through forward cars, wherever there is empty space, until finally we can see the station, and a path to it through hundreds of carefully seated people.

It’ a traffic jam alright—human trafficking, illegal labor. But I didn’t know all that then. I read the news later. The army junta is cracking down, or threatening to, anyway, and Cambodians are running scared, literally, running for their lives. Apparently they’re running right into the arms of the dog-catchers, waiting there with open arms, and trucks, personnel carriers, so to speak. I go back the next morning to see the mop-up. It ain’t pretty, those same people now seated on the asphalt entrance to the train station in front, my fellow passengers from the day before. I doubt they’ve slept, or eaten, or shit.

Martial Law in Thailand

Martial Law in Thailand

Trucks soon begin arriving to carry them off, presumably to the border only a couple miles away. You’d think that people who’d just independently ridden a train for six hours would be allowed the dignity of a walk to the border without the Gestapo and trucks. I guess not. These are the descendants of the builders of Angkor Wat, the progenitors of much of what Thai culture itself borrowed. There is no shortage of irony here: guns, germs and irony.

I’ve been here before, crossroads to Cambodia, perfect if you’re swimming (joke), jumping-off point to Chantaburi, south on the Gulf, where you keep your desires at bay and toss your wishes to the sea, follow the coastline to Kampuchea or swallow your tears in a cold bia Kh’mai. Or head north if you prefer, over the hump into the heart of Isaan, Buriram or Surin, where I’ve been many times before, home of Khmer-language gantreum music, or continue on to the border and Preah Vihear.

Train to Cambodia in Thailand

Train to Cambodia in Thailand

But me, I’m going back to Korat, aka Nakorn Ratchasima, backtracking backpacking, where I was just a few short weeks ago, on the way to Laos, in an entirely different set of shoes and circumstances, a small backtrack, but not too much, just in order to catch the train, a third-class train, my partner in Thai high-jinks and lowbrow satisfactions, spicy food and cold cold bia, the only difference in Korat this time is a crib closer to center, Thailand’s second-largest city, depending on how you count, tied with ChiangMai, only difference being the one tourist here: me. CM’s got sh*t-loads.

I’m heading soon toward another border, Laos, though I’ll stop short, at Ubon Ratchatani, somewhere else I’ve never been, in my bid to mop up Thailand, ethnic cleansing at its best. The Great Migrations have begun; this is the Bible.  Stay tuned…

June 2014

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