No destination remains the same

By : 
Dr. Jan Meyer
Biker's Diary

The first (and only other) time I have been to Cambodia was very different than this week’s visit. This time it was far more formal.

About 30 years ago, on one of my business trips to Thailand, one of the women from work was getting married. Everyone in the office was invited. Her family lived in a rural province, where her father was equivalent to the governor. Hers was an influential local Thai-Chinese family, and the wedding reflected that: a few hundred people in attendance at the dinner, and even more ducklings on the dozens of grills set up to roast them. The entire day was in strict accordance to the traditions for a Chinese wedding, right down to the red envelopes containing the gifts of money, and the careful attention to the clock so that each step was carried out at the most auspicious time.

For one of the three days we were there, the bride’s father had arranged for us visitors from Bangkok to visit the ruins of a well-known and very old Buddhist monastery, located at the border between Thailand and Cambodia. This site was in the area that had long been contested between the two countries, both claiming it as their territory.

The monastery was deserted, and had consisted of several levels built into the hillside, each separated by wide steps leading to the next sort of plateau. There were buildings or shelters on each side of the steps, once used for different purposes such as sleeping quarters. At the very top was the main part of the wat, or temple, and at the back of that was also the top of the hill. It was at a steep drop-off, at the foot of which was Cambodia.

Our small group of employees from the Bangkok office were the only visitors, so we had the place to ourselves. We were not sticking together, as we all had a different pace at which to climb all of those steps, and of course the option of not going to the top at all, which some chose to do.

At the top, the view was spectacular, and had certainly been worth the climb. There were a couple of Thai Army border guards, and of course being curious I struck up a conversation of sorts. They very rarely had Western visitors, so I was a bit of a curiosity to them and they appeared happy to have the opportunity to answer questions. They started to show me around a bit.

One of the things they pointed out was how the unofficial border trading was carried on: where the dividing line between countries was on one side of the temple, it was marked by an old wire fence. That was where they could trade western cigarettes and other goodies to the Cambodian Army guards and even villagers on the other side. They pointed out the obviously well-used path. The fence was bent down where the trail approached it and continued on to disappear into the trees on the other side of the “border.”

They asked me if I wanted to go across into Cambodia and of course I said yes, so they helped me across. We walked only a short distance into the trees to a clearing complete with a picnic table, an ice chest, and a couple of guards from “the other side,” in Cambodian Army uniforms.

The two Thai men apparently explained my presence, they looked at me in what I took to be curiosity, and we all laughed. They had some conversation, and then one of the Thai men said that now I could say I had been in Cambodia, something not easy for Americans to do at that time. I responded that I wanted to have my passport stamped, and more conversation between them followed. One said OK, and I got out my passport. Sitting there at a picnic table, high up on a hill in the jungle, one of the Cambodians got out a pen, wrote the name of the area, the date, and signed his name in my passport. Voila! I’d been in Cambodia.

Back across the border, I was again alone. I went back down the many levels of steps, and was sure I heard monks chanting, which is a very soothing and peaceful sound. I looked inside some of the structures that were still standing at various levels, but found no humans, and certainly no group of chanting monks. I was indeed alone, but I was sure I had heard them.

When I got to the bottom — I was last — and rejoined the group, I told my waiting friends of my experience. They were very nonchalant about me getting to cross the border, which I thought was a big deal. What they focused on was that I had heard monks, to them that meant spirits, which was a scary thought to them.

It was explained to me that in our U.S. culture, we are not afraid of spirits or “ghosts,” and our Casper the Friendly Ghost was given as an example. However, for them, it is the opposite: not friendly at all, and they were glad they hadn’t heard anything, or that they were already down the hill before the chanting started!

This time, my entry to Cambodia was official and formal. It was also efficient, taking about ten minutes to obtain a “visa on arrival,” which even had my photo on it! And this time, I saw a lot more than a picnic table and guards on the other side of the broken-down fence.