For my latest trip to Cambodia and Vietnam, I decided to take Tiger Airways, a budget airline partly funded by Singapore Air. I've always wondered what constituted a budget airline and what it was that they were "budgeting". Was it the fact that they charged you for food and drinks, hardly a major expense on their part. Could it involve scrimping on maintenance or the replacement of aging aircraft? A scary thought or almost as unappetizing were they paying their pilots and ground staff significantly less than the so-called full-service airlines, the only business where giving you a free bag of peanuts could be considered "full service". Would I happen upon a disgruntled pilot who would try to land just a little quicker, the earlier to get home or who while piloting the aircraft was studying for his night classes to become a mortician, a job that was recession-proof? Before I could finish any more morbid thoughts we had landed in Bangkok, our gathering spot.
Southeast Asia has a real grip on me. From the very first time I went there, it was a fulfillment of my childhood fantasies of the way travel should be.Anthony Bourdain
As I sit in the lobby of our hotel reunions seem to be going on all around me as travelers from what I assume were previous tours are regrouping. I hear English voices tinged with Canadian and Australian accents shouting out greetings. These will be my companions for the days ahead. Many seemed only just removed from college but sporting bulging passports with stamps and Visas from countless lands. Those that did most of their traveling between European Union countries could only look in envy. It’s interesting to note that up until the First World War passports were rare and only started being used in England to represent permission to leave the country rather than for someone wanting to gain admittance.
I had purchased a book the last time I was in Bangkok on Thai puppets and dolls. Upon surfing the internet I located a factory called Bangkok Dolls that produced hand made dolls depicting characters in the Thai Ramakien based upon the Ramayana of Valmiki. I found a store that was selling them at the Royal Thai Government Handicrafts Center and purchased what I promised would be my single Thai souvenir. This had the effect of totally ruining all of the planning I had undertaken to rationalize my luggage to one backpack and a single messenger bag. I was now transported from a backpacker to an ordinary tourist due to the shopping bag that I now carried. I longed for a suitable daypack in order to hide my gift parcel and to return to the role of a backpacker. Eventually, I was able to disguise my purchase in suitable hand luggage.
We took a bus from Bangkok to the border with Cambodia. From there we had to walk a couple of hundred yards to the other side of the border and join a new bus for our trip to Siem Reap. I saw a number of small boys pulling luggage carts larger than themselves hoping to help any overburdened tourist get their luggage from one bus to the other. Cambodia finds itself sandwiched between Vietnam and Thailand, with each country attempting to assert control over its weaker neighbor. After the Vietnamese army routed Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge they have maintained hegemony over Cambodia but if you were to categorize the country as permanently victimized you would be ignoring the astonishing resilience of the people. The past horrors of the old regime are spoken of almost matter-of-factly as if reciting from an old history book except that the dark period is still within living memory. The road from the border to Siem Reap is unpaved, I became fully aware that I had entered the third world. We seemed to pass all sorts of vehicles from trucks to buses to cars and some that beggar any categorization. I found the people warm and inviting and I loved the sound of their spoken language.