Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Touts

Poipet is a hassle prone a border town that takes you from eastern Thailand into western Cambodia. It is here you cross over from a country which on the surface bears a resemblance to a well-heeled and well-regulated society and enter into a country which is brashly down-at-the heels. Here those who live the good life do so by either living outside of or somewhat above the law while those who live the best of all possible lives are those in a position to interpret and enforce laws.

You don’t have to venture too far from the Thai side of the border to see this in action. You don’t even have to enter the country. There is a sign above the windows where you purchase your visa that lists the price of a Cambodian tourist visa as twenty dollars. Insist on paying twenty dollars and not a penny more, that’s what the sign says, so you have right on your side. Then take a seat on the bench, put your feet up and make yourself and your sense of righteousness comfortable. You will be sitting there for as long as it takes for you to get tired of wasting away. Be sure it is sooner than later when you cave in and choose to pay the extra five dollars so that you can proceed to the passport clearance, and snake your way through the queue to have your passport stamped.

So it begins. Welcome to Scambodia.

Once you’re officially in country, just outside the passport building, you find yourself overrun by a clatter of touts who have been dispatched by private taxi and mini-van drivers willing for a fixed price to help you to beat it out of town. The touts are unrelenting and aggressive, and they need to be as they try to steer you towards your ride hoping for a tip of a dollar or two to supplement whatever baksheesh the taxi driver doles out. They are part of the less fortunate lot who by and large live within the limits of the law.

In the past, I have ignored the touts and waited for a free city bus to come and take me a few hundred meters into town to the transportation depot where fixed-priced taxis to Siem Reap can be had for up to forty dollars; half that if you are willing to share it with one other person. The expediency of the government authorized taxis is worth the money and the wait to find a second party to split the cost. The unauthorized taxis usually take twice a long to get you to Siem Reap because they will pick up extras passengers along the way and are obliged to stop at least once at a decrepit roadside restaurant where you can’t help but kill time and order at least a beer or two while you wait for the taxi driver to have his lunch. The authorized taxis might also make the same stop, but because there is a receipt of some sort in your pocket which includes the driver’s name and his authorization number, you are in a position to decline and tell them politely but firmly to make this a non-stop trip.

I do not advise you to leave the passport control building and hike to the transportation depot. Wait for the bus. Once you step away from the building the swarm of touts will encircle you and will follow you like ravenous, hectoring mosquitoes abuzz with great deals on a ride out of town.

I made the mistake of not waiting for the bus. I took off on foot, guitar, backpack and all weighing me down.

They followed me every step of the way, no matter how bad-mannered or indifferent I was to them and their badgering. I knew the transportation depot was just a ways down the dusty road and I was determined to show these guys I was an old hand at this. I ignored their warnings that the place had closed down or was closed for the day or that it had moved far outside of town. 


The touts it seemed were more unconvincing than usual, desperately claiming that I was wasting my time—the depot had shut down, the depot had moved, there was no longer a depot. They offered to carry my backpack, to carry my guitar, to take me to a place where they knew I could get a taxi at the same price, maybe cheaper than the authorized taxis. As we walked, the dozen touts encircling me at the passport building were continually joined by new waves of reinforcements. The circle expanded to a mob. Some on foot. Some on bicycle, some on motor scooters. All of them chattering, “No sir, the building is closed. Come with me. The building has moved.” 

Every step for me represented the core of my spirit to endure what I was sure was a test of wills. I could weather this lot. I’ve been to India.

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