Friday, February 3, 2012

Maps Are No Fun

I’m not big on planning ahead. Or planning at all for that matter. Some might call me disorganized. I say I’m advennnnturous. It helps that I have the concentration span of a five-year-old at Disneyland after a breakfast of strawberry compote and whipped cream, but even if I know which country I’m in, traveling on the fly is a way to see things I’d otherwise likely never see – a forested temple, for example. A way-out-of-the-way village. An interrogation room.

I’d made it fine so far on my 2007 trip around Indochina, biking through Thailand and across Cambodia without a map. (I might have gone a few miles out of the way on occasion, missing a turn here or taking a wrong turn there, but if everything goes smoothly your stories in the end aren’t very good, are they?) Tomas, on the other hand, had a map – several of them actually, that he rotated through the handy-dandy clear plastic pocket on top of his handlebar bag. (This was back before the prevalence of iPhone GPS apps made it easy for your typical backpacker to not come back with any good stories.) Tomas and I had been traveling together since Trat, near where the Thai coast runs into Cambodia; we’d gotten split up twice in the Khmer Kingdom, once on our way out of Sihanoukville’s Wat Leu (I ended up going thirty miles out of the way that day) and again on our way out of the rarely-recommended coastal town of Kep, where we managed to lose each other somewhere along the fifty-meter gravel driveway of our guesthouse (he went one way around the barn in the middle of the path, I went around the other side and poof!).  Stephan had been on the road well over a year and had ridden thousands of miles with dozens of other fellow cycling travelers. He said he’d never lost anyone until he met me.

The solo ride from Kep to Takeo was fantastic – quiet roads and happy kids and perfect riding weather. Only the last few kilometers consisted of multiple lanes of truck traffic, and it was along this stretch that Tomas was waiting for me, on a shaded patio, sucking down spicy chicken and rice and ice-cold Pepsis. ‘What happened to you?’ he said through an ice cube. ‘Flat tire,’ I said. ‘About an hour back.’ Since that episode in the mountains of northern Japan I’m happy to say I always carry a bike pump.

Takeo, which can be spelled an infinite number of ways (Takau, Takev, Thakheew etc), boasts a rotary with a monstrosity called the ‘Independence Monument’ in the middle. Walking one way from this rotary you’ll find little besides decrepit streets, decrepit buildings and people hanging around along the edges of muddy, decrepit fields. This, we rationalized, was the perfect place for dinner. We found a joint with a few remaining un-upended tables, and after our decrepit dinner we walked around the rotary and found there was a nice side of town. In the morning we would head north, one of us leaving that rotary behind for good.

We rode through villages of wooden homes and bamboo fences, kids hanging around outside in the dirt yard, adults hanging out around machines that may or may not have been working. Before midday – and after an amusing episode at a crossroads lightly populated with people who didn’t know what a Phnom Chisor was – we reached Phnom Chisor, a temple complex sporting various states of disrepair, situated on the only hill (or mountain, depending on your personal distinctions) for miles around. All the way up the long staircase old people were selling brown paper bags of colored sand – apparently you are supposed to guess why – while young kids follow you around in packs, taking turns asking you the same three questions over and over. Not only does it seem that these three things are all the English they know, after thirty minutes you are pretty damn sure that they don’t even understand the three things they won’t stop saying. Until you tell them what will happen to them if they don’t leave you alone.
Turns out the colored sand is used in a sort of prayer ritual. Most everyone up top – Stephan and I were the only whiteys around – were spreading handfuls of the stuff around, in an area squared off with colored ropes. With my fingertips I gathered up bits of sand other people had spilled and joined in the somber fun. Tomas told me to buy my own sand or butt out.
A tour of the functional temple and its attendant ruins, long glances out over the dusty Cambodian countryside and we headed down the stairs to reunite with our bikes – assuming of course they were still there. They were, and after a ceremonial parting photo out on the same dirt road we came in on– it took forever to find someone brave enough to attempt to use my point-and-shoot Casio – Tomas turned to the north and Phnom Penh and I pointed my front wheel toward Vietnam to the east. ‘You sure you know where you’re going?’ Tomas asked. ‘That way,’ I said, pointing. ‘I checked your map. No problem.’ I knew Vietnam was that direction. Seriously, my sense of direction is uncanny.

I’d picked up the requisite visa for Vietnam a week earlier in Sihanoukville, guessing I’d hit the border around the 17th. And what do you know, trusting reader, today was the 17th. See? I’m organized and adventurrrrous. And according to my guidebook (I did have one – the greatest one ever created in fact, with minimal survival info and rough hand sketches for maps)(plus it was four years old – way outdated for the (relatively) rapidly-changing region) there was a border crossing, Khaom Samnor, between me and Chau Doc, Vietnam. There was also a river but I’d cross that bridge when I got to it – if there was one.

There wasn’t.

I’d been riding for so long it seemed the sun had gotten stuck on its way across the sky. I’d pedaled down dirt road after dirt road, each taking me further east, each a little narrower than the last, all of them rutted and pocked like mine fields (this was Cambodia after all). I passed through a town that may or may not have had a name, the streets all dusty and desolate, the river below packed with boats and mud and evidence of industrious if not prosperous humanity. I met a bright-eyed kid walking along the road, more like a path at that point, and gave him a ride on the back of the tandem, home to his leery-eyed, dumbfounded parents. Their look really should have been a bit of a clue to me, like everything else for miles around, that the road I was on was less traveled for a reason. But did you see Bourne Identity, when Matt Damon looks at that map of Paris for like five seconds and proceeds to escape the entire Paris police force chasing him through the streets? That was me with Tomas’s map of southeast Cambodia. Without the cops I mean. And the car, and the girl. All right the important thing was, I knew where I was going. And dammit if the road I was on didn’t come to an abrupt end under the trees along the edge of a river.

I saw a house, a boat and three people, none of whom seemed to know a single word of the English language – or any language for that matter. None of them seemed to have ever heard of a place called Khaom Samnor; one of them looked like he knew what the word Vietnam meant. Oddly, out here where one could rightfully suspect the people catch fish, grow vegetables and barter with chickens and pretty rocks, all three of them knew right away what a five dollar bill was. A minute later I was hauling my tandem down to the water’s edge and onto their boat, directing the guy at the helm to ply south.

As we motored down what I was hoping was the Mekong, I pulled out my passport. Blank stares all around. I opened it up and pounded the page with my fist, saying ‘Vietnam, Vietnam, stamp, stamp’ over and over. (Well come on, what would you say?) They nodded and half smiled like Grandpa when the battery in his hearing aid is shot and kept cruising down river. Miraculously, a Vietnam flag on a pole suddenly appeared, poking out above the trees on the far side of the (maybe) Mekong River. My guy pulled over and up to a rickety dock amid a cluster of about-to-crumble-and-fall-into-the-water houses.

I have no idea what all those people were doing there on that muddy riverbank, the air coated with an odor you could taste, cavorting like people who have no idea what to do on their first day off from work in twelve years but still enjoying the hell out of it. Of course, they’ve all been writing the same thing about me in their blog posts. But they were nevertheless damn happy to see me. And I was happy to see Vietnam. But just to be sure – and I am never this clear-headed, ever – I told my guy, somehow, that I wasn’t going to pay him for the boat ride until he took me to the official border crossing. To him that meant take me to the nearest – and likely only – place with any sort of authority figure hanging around in a chair worth more than any of those riverfront homes. We rolled down the street on the tandem, the townsfolk chasing after us, smiling and laughing and gleefully shouting something like ‘Kill him, whoever he is!’

We came to a green hut outside a gated compound. Inside a guy in a dirty white tank top was watering the lush garden grounds. The guy in the hut stared at my passport, my visa, me, my friend, me, my visa…and picked up a phone to ask someone to come figure out what the hell was going on.

They were very nice, these two, then three, then six, then eleven men, all standing around me, no one knowing what to do except keep me from leaving. Finally this kid shows up to let me know, in pretty good English, that I needed to personally thank every one of the men behind him for not tossing me in jail. I did, however, have that visa in my passport with today’s date, and I had the name Khaom Samnor scribbled in my notebook – luckily that meant something to one of the guys. ‘You need to get out of Vietnam,’ my young friend said. ‘Now.’

With his heavy-handed help I found a guy with a boat (my original driver, who was not allowed inside the compound where I was being politely and firmly accommodated, had given up and left forty-five minutes ago) who, for that same five bucks, would take me to the nearest village on the Cambodia side. From there I’d find another boat to that town with the dusty streets and all the boats (I will name it Kato for now) (alternatively Kateo, Katev, Katheew) where I had the option of sleeping in a temple (on what was by now an extremely empty stomach) or paying some other guy twelve bucks to take me to…Takeo.

Night fell as my fourth boatman of the day plied those grassy waterways for two hours, finally dropping me off and getting his twelve bucks. I looked around and put up my hands in that ‘What do I do now?’ way. He pointed down the road behind me – a road that led directly to the Independence Monument.

I slept in the same place as the night before. In the morning I found an ophthalmologist’s office, a few doors down from my guesthouse, and asked him which way to Vietnam. ‘That way,’ he said, pointing down a wide, newly-paved road – one that hadn’t yet been built when my guidebook was published. Two hours of smooth riding later I came upon the Tinh Bien border crossing, well south of where I’d made my illegal entry into Vietnam the day before. And much more accommodating.

So really, I didn’t need a map; I’d gone east, found the Mekong and made it to Vietnam – and back to where I started without being jailed, black-mailed or accosted. Admittedly, having an up-to-date guidebook might have helped me understand that the Khaom Samnor border crossing is, largely or perhaps exclusively, for boatloads of tourists traveling between Chau Doc and Phnom Penh. But then with the crutch of complete and correct information I wouldn’t have encountered that kid and his parents, met some of Vietnam’s most forgiving henchmen or set foot, eagerly and illegally, in that muddy, stinky riverside village.

If I’d been less organized I might have even experienced an overnighter in a Vietnamese jail.

Maybe next time.

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