It has been anticipated all week and now we are off!
With excitement and perhaps some apprehension, eight of us are going by taxi to Poipet on the Thai border where we will meet two other volunteers coming up from Battambang to celebrate the birthdays of Deustcher Daniel and Manchester John. For me, the excitement is the fun of a weekend break and the apprehension is because we are staying the Star Vegas casino hotel and I don’t want to gamble my money. The casinos of Poipet cater for Thai visitors and are situated in no-man’s land between the two borders because gambling is illegal in Thailand. They can leave Thailand to gamble without entering Cambodia – how convenient!
My up-bringing taught me gambling is wrong. My family has taught me other lessons. In Western Australia my cousin Greg trains and races horses as pacers (they pull sulkys, two-wheel buggies where the driver sits, and they wear harnesses like the connecting rods of steam railway engine driving wheels, which ensure the legs of the same side move together and not alternately as they would in trotting or cantering) and we went to Pinjarra to watch Nicky Noodles race.
Hilary placed her $10 bet and won $25 when Nicky came first! She was really pleased and bought us all hotdogs! I didn’t bet but I felt sad and wished I had. It made the race much more fun and it supported Greg and Sue in their passion for pacing. My detachment did nothing useful, so this time I’m determined to join in the fun.
We head out of Sisophon, four per taxi, on the 60km journey due westward. It’s the usual traffic and the usual driving technique except that our taxi is right hand drive like the UK, or rather like Thailand where these drivers often go and maybe that’s where he bought his taxi. I am the willing front seat passenger which means I can see everything clearly. I see every car, bus and truck heading our way, sometimes on the left side and sometimes on our side. When we are overtaking I get the first sight of what’s bearing down on us, well before the driver does so it’s my job to guess if he can make it through and to warn the driver if he can’t. The trouble is I am happy to overtake where the back seat passengers are not, so I am encouraging the driver to go for it when perhaps he should hold back. There are hard shoulders on these roads rather like Sweden, where the slower vehicles pull over as the faster vehicles start to overtake. Effectively there are four lanes and sometimes there are three vehicles overtaking side by side.
Halfway to Poipet, on the long straight highway where it’s easy to overtake if the traffic permits, in the heat haze I see a bundle on the centre of the road, maybe clothes. On the right hand verge is a Chinese tractor and trailer with some people standing around. Has the bundle fallen off in the road? As we approach we recognise not merely clothes but a body; a woman face down on the central dotted line. Has she fallen off the trailer? Why don’t they move her before she is hit by something? The traffic expertly passes her by to right and left and she doesn’t move. As we pass Alison cries out to stop but the driver takes a long time to respond. The other taxi ahead of us sees us stopping and also turns around to drive back.
Walking the 100 or so yards down the road we watch with considerable apprehension fully expecting her to be run over before we get there (running in this heat in flip-flops on the highway is not to be recommended). I cross to the central line and walk the last 30 yards facing the oncoming traffic. I reckon the drivers can see me standing up better than the bundle of clothes and it may offer her some protection. There is no blood, no sign of injury or grazing even and I’m sure we can pick her up safely but as soon as we lift her to her feet she bears her own weight, throws off the proffered help and walks off into the scrub land beside the road muttering to herself. The watchers on the verge react at last and part to let her through. We have no idea what is wrong but it seems very likely she is emotionally or mentally disturbed and was making a suicide gesture at the very least. Perhaps some of the onlookers and villagers here are family members. Perhaps there has been some domestic unrest today. We can do no more and leave the locals and the poor woman to sort things out for themselves. This is not the kind of gambling we expected to see.
Leaving Cambodia is easier than you may think. We reach the roundabout at the end of the highway (a bit like Douglas Adam’s restaurant at the end of the universe) and there it is. The border and a few Cambodian policemen. Our passports are checked and we are asked if we go to Thailand. No, we are off to the casino. Simple question, simple answer. We can answer the Thailand question tomorrow. The taxis are waved through. No problem.
The Star Vegas has a huge outdoor swimming pool where we spend the afternoon after we checked in. There is plenty of fun for the redskins and plenty of shade for the pale-face, under the palm trees, but we are short of two sun loungers so Olly and I go off to explore. On the far side of this vast pool are the only two other loungers visible but they are so very heavy. I know! Let’s see if they float, we can float them across. Ah, good old VSO training, lateral thinking! We have a great time in the water and chilling by the pool, reading old newspapers and novels and generally relaxing after a busy week.
Over a wonderful Chinese meal around a lazy Susan laden with a range of dishes we had some interesting and occasionally bizarre conversation like “I worked in Liverpool once, did you know Joe? He was a great guy, worked for a local housing association, sadly he’s dead now.” ” Did he go to live in Granada in Spain? No? Sorry, I don’t think I knew him.” I think it’s time to head for the casino…
There are hundreds of electronic gaming machines and I can’t understand them and don’t trust them. The card tables are Baccarat, Poker (but not Texas Hold’em), Black Jack and Pontoon but I don’t understand them or the odds. Then there are the roulette wheels. I can see they are a game of chance and I can work out the odds, we all agree that’s the best place to start. We each have our 2 free 100 Baht chips and Olly and I agree to buy another 500 Baht worth each and stop there. That’s about $17, rather modest! You will think I have a gambling family when I say I learned from my son to play the short odds and also to keep separate any winnings and stop gambling when the original stake has been lost. So I follow his advice and place my chips only on the odd/even numbers, the red/black colours (50:50 chance, pays 1:1) and the columns and blocks of numbers (1 in 3 chance, pays 2:1). My first three bets with the two free chips are winners so I am immediately 600 Baht up. Pleased with the flying start I continue the strategy for perhaps 45 minutes and we all have much fun. At the end of that time my 7 original chips are gone and I have a stack of 14 which were won. Sticking to the plan I cash them for 1,400 Bhat (900 profit, $30) and relax to watch the others play. We have a great evening but it’s not long before the oldies retire and watch the Wales England football game from bed, although it’s a shame about the score line 2-0 (shame for Wales that is). An even greater shame is that I couldn’t find a channel showing the Melbourne F1 Grand Prix this weekend.
The next day I discover that the youngsters played Pontoon and Black Jack for much of the night, swam in the pool at 2.30am and hijacked a golf buggy! No wonder they are bleary eyed when we set off for Tesco across the Thai border. First we must officially exit Cambodia. There is the usual form filling, queueing, rubber stamping, scrutinising and stern faces but we are soon walking to the Thai border to repeat the process there. Then it dawns on me. The others are all long-term volunteers and have multiple re-entry visas. I am a newcomer and I suddenly I realise I can’t return. My single entry visa is now cancelled and I’m out of the country.
So here I am in an internet cafe in Pattaya, Thailand doing my blog, wishing my friend Lloyd was still living here and hoping someone will help to get me back home. The others returned three days ago and I’ve spent most of my Baht, I haven’t heard anything from Phnom Penh and my phone has just died…
Just joking! I’m back at work in Mognkul Borei and all is well. My new visa cost $25 but lasts only one month. It can’t be extended so I will have to rely on the VSO Program Office in Phnom Penh to sort it out. Looks like I’m grounded like a naughty schoolboy. Confined to Cambodia.