March 3, 2013
Rain, although because everyone said there wouldn’t be any until May, we hardly trust our ears. No one is prepared for the unexpected deluge that transforms the hot dusty countryside into a cool foggy landscape of puddles and lakes. Moped and three wheel drivers have pulled in their heads and look like turtles as they brave it head on.A taxi driver picks us up from our hotel for the trip back to the Thai border. At the spot where the truck ran off the road knocking down the electricity lines and cutting off the power in Siem Reap, the concrete masts have already been mended. Men, scantily dressed and without shoes, are up on top of them in the torrential rain, struggling to get the power lines back up. Christof worked in the electricity industry for 21 years and is shocked by the lack of safety precautions. No engineer in Germany would dream of sending men out to work on power lines – always a risky business – in the rain without protective gear.
We never saw one car accident in Sri Lanka where the traffic was heavier and far crazier, which makes the number of accidents on the straight road leading to the border, some of which are fatal, highly disturbing. A pickup truck is turned upside down on its roof in the ditch, and further on police have stopped the traffic on the side of the road where two young women are lying face down in a pool of blood. Since there’s no ambulance or anyone attending to them, we assume that they’re beyond help. A large white van has stopped in front of them, leading me to the conclusion that the women met their death head-on. Christof reminds me that since we don’t know what happened, this is nothing but speculation. I say it’s a combination of observation paired with keen deductive faculties.
The taxi driver speaks of a ‘friend’ who could take us on to Bangkok (a 3 1/2 hour ride) for only 50 Euros. We ask him to make the arrangements, which he does using his cell phone. Watching him type the numbers into the phone while taking his eyes off of the road and drifting over into the other lane quickly has me surmising – here we go again! – that this type of activity is the most likely explanation for the many accidents we’ve seen on this straight road.
The ‘friend’ meets us and after pasting a tag onto our shirts, says he’ll wait for us to clear immigration on the other side of the border.
The line is clogged with expats doing ‘visa runs’. An elderly (American) stroke victim, for whom the long wait in the extreme heat is obviously far too strenuous to manage easily, has to be rescued by his nurse. Just before he reaches the officials, she pulls him out of the line and drags him towards the bathroom. Christof, shocked to see a person in such ill health traveling, says,
– If I were in that state I would stay home.
– Oh he’s not traveling, an experienced expat explains, he’s one of those medical tourists who live here permanently.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand which has been promoting medical treatments since 2004 now has a website listing available medical services for the convenience of potential patients. Bangkok, long popular for its deferential Asian service, has added state-of-the-art medical procedures to its already attractive bouquet of services. In luxurious, newly-built hospitals patients can have any medical, cosmetic or alternative treatments done at a fraction of what they would cost in North America or Europe, while being treated like guests in an upscale resort.
India has a reputation for being stuck back in the dark ages medically, but because Thailand offers a standard of care equal to that of Singapore for substantially less money, it is increasingly becoming a magnet for medical tourists from around the world. There are no medical procedures that cannot be had here for a reasonable price.
John (Day 196), told us about an Indian women who comes to Bangkok for her cancer treatments and regularly stays at his posh hotel. Suddenly the feeble stroke patient takes on a new meaning. Westerners on a budget can end their days living luxuriously in a warm climate in a chic hotel apartment, with private caretakers to keep them comfortable and accompany them out to restaurants for meals.
No wonder the immigration lines are clogged with foreigners who have stopped working and are living off of their savings. Why not enjoy the wide range of Thai amenities until the money runs out? The comforts Thailand offers mainly attract (older) men. There are no older women and relatively few young ones standing in the visa line. The greatest inconvenience these expats face is having to travel to the border 4 times a year to renew their visas.
A young man from Arizona passes the waiting time by talking about himself. He’s been here for three years because he adores the South East Asian Lifestyle which enables him to travel somewhere new every week. He’s been living on savings he earned at a previous job and hopes to be able to eke out another 5 years before having to take on a new one. Living this way beats being stuck in a boring 9-5 routine doing the same thing every day. Nodding in the direction of the stroke victim, he says the time to travel is now. Why wait until he is old and infirm and no longer able to enjoy the experience? He’s impatient because his Thai girlfriend is waiting for him in his car on the other side of the border, and complains about the line which is hardly moving. The complete tour – crossing into Cambodia for a passport stamp and returning to Thailand for a new visa takes about four hours. The lackadaisical attitude of the border officials, who seem to take pleasure in moving as slowly as possible and making people wait, is frustratingly bureaucratic and infuriating.
A depraved looking Hungarian in his late 60’s – proud of his bohemian life style – lets us know within minutes that he is a DVD producer living in Bangkok. Instead of admiration, all I feel looking at his bloodshot eyes set in a face deeply etched by heavy living and surrounded by grey greasy hair combed pathetically across the top of his head and pulled together in a thin pony tail, a style that might have suited him 40 years ago, is a deep chasm-like disgust. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess his reasons for choosing Thailand as the place for his artistic endeavors.
Our visa, he explains, will now only be valid for another 15 days, because the 30 day visa we received on flying into Thailand was canceled (unbeknownst to us), when we crossed the border into Cambodia a few days ago. Our visas will now expire on March 17th, a full week before our flight leaves the country, forcing us to choose between paying a fine at the airport or doing our own visa run to lengthen it. Since our plans are still flexible, this could be the impetus we need to travel north and cross over into Laos, or Myanmar.
After about two hours of standing in various lines we’re back in Thailand. The ‘friend’ picks us up as arranged and deposits us at another waiting spot. Christof recognizes him as one of the fellows involved in selling the invalid visas (Day 197) to tourists. I suggest bowing out and taking the train back to Bangkok but Christof wants to check out the car and its driver before making a decision. He’s depressed by the fact that our knowledge of the existence of groups fleecing tourists does nothing to prevent us from falling into their wide-spread, sticky nets.
The driver seems like a friendly young man, although since he doesn’t speak English we’re unable to have an exchange with him. The ‘friend’ pockets 1/4 of the fee and passes the rest on to the driver. Within minutes we discover that although he drives very quickly he exercises good judgement in implementing one of his frequent passing maneuvers.
As the rain increases so do the accidents. Crashed vehicles line the roadside. When the road floods completely becoming a lake, our car hydroplanes and floats out of control. I’m relieved when the driver looks back to us for permission to take a break until the storm has passed. We pull into a rest area crowded with other vehicles waiting in rain so heavy that after going to the bathroom, I have difficulties locating our car. The rest of the journey is uneventful and we reach our hotel three hours earlier than we would have with the train.