Click the link to follow the journey in the series, Train Of Thought
Cambodia was a worry for me because it does not have a connecting railway line. I hated the thought of taking an express bus after seeing safety breaches by Malaysian buses, causing crashes. I booked a van from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, and was pleased it included a pick-up from the hotel.
But it wasn’t a van that turned up but a taxi – a motorcycle taxi – to take me to the van. I was horrified. I would never ride pillion at the best of times, let alone in heavy traffic, with a prosthetic knee.
The driver had to hug my suitcase in front of him while I carried the heavy rucksack on my back, almost toppling backwards each time he braked, which was constantly, with the swarm of motorcycles clogging up the roads.
I was worried for my knee, in case we crashed. And there, in the middle of the road, stood a couple of tourists right in the path of my driver who was trying to turn right. Fearful for my safety, I screamed: “Get out of the way!”
I knew nobody in Cambodia but a cousin had given details of her brother-in-law, Mat Younes, a Champa Malay who runs a tour agency. I wanted him to arrange some local tours for my two days in Phnom Penh. In typical Malay way, we did not speak directly so I was waiting for him to suggest hotels and he was waiting for me to ask. In the end, I booked my room the day before I arrived.
It turned out that Mat Younes, who is also the president of the Cham Business Network, owned a hotel but since I did not broach the subject, he thought I wanted to be independent so he did not offer his hotel. But still he sent his brother-in-law Gozali to fetch me and said he would meet me that evening.
The hotel I had booked is in a great location, near the Royal Palace, but it’s horrible for the price I paid. My room had no window, and there were notices everywhere about fines for every little thing, including if you soiled your towel or bedsheet. I had a miserable evening in the room, which did not even have a kettle for me to make a drink. I tried to contact Younes but there was no response.
In the morning, I got a message from him that his sister Najwa, would pick me up at 8am. I did not realise that Cambodian time was an hour ahead of Vietnam’s, so I took a walk to find something to eat.
I found a café that had fried rice on the menu. I ordered it, and then glanced at the clock and it said 8am. I legged it to the hotel to apologise to Najwa and Gozali. Younes’s family, including his wife Soffiya and mother, were already waiting for me for breakfast.
Imagine the joy, after almost two months’ travel, eating instant noodles, to see the name of the restaurant – Mamak. I shamelessly tucked into two roti canai accompanied by teh tarik. The restaurant is owned by a Malaysian, Ismail Abdullah, who moved to Phnom Penh in 1992.
A trip to Phnom Penh would not be complete without visiting the S-21 Prison and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. The Prison is actually Tuol Svay Pray High School. Walking around the compound, with its quadrangle and sports grounds, one could not imagine the evil that was perpetrated here four decades ago. The Khmer Rouge turned this school into a torture chamber in 1976. Some of the interrogators and guards were no older than I was in, Sixth Form in the same period, in a school in Penang, no different from this one. Only seven out of the 14,000 people brought here survived.
Further down the road are the Killing Fields. Looking like a small temple, a structure houses clothes and skeletons of some of those executed here, in glass cabinets several storeys high. Every tourist who enters emerges in tears and with red noses. You walk to what looks like a idyllic piece of recreation ground with huts and a lake and then you read the notices about the killing fields. It was here that people who had been tortured at S-21 were brought, all thinking they would be transferred to a better place. Chemicals were poured on the bodies in the pit not only to mask the smell of the rotting flesh but to ensure all those still alive after being struck on the neck with tools like a cart axle, would perish. Children were not spared. Their little bodies were beat against a tree that till today stands witness. As you step off the boardwalk, notices warn you not to step on the bones, clothes and teeth that are constantly uncovered, from the mass graves, by the monsoon rains.
In the meantime, I was tortured with the thought of returning to my hotel from hell. But Younes came to my rescue, giving me a room (a suite, no less) in his five-star hotel. And he refused to accept any payment. I later learned that he’s a philanthropist as well, organising community projects to help orphans and the less fortunate. After my appalling experience in China, the kindness of this gentleman was overwhelming.
From Phnom Penh, I had to go to Poipet, the border town with Thailand, as equally famed for its casinos as it was for the scammers who would lure tourists to immigration counters and the tourists would end up with fake visas.
The 400km trip would take up to 10 hours so I had to bite the bullet and take the sleeper bus. The double-decker had double beds on top and the whole bottom deck was for luggage, including motorcycles. There were no seatbelts.
We stopped in the middle of the night for the toilet in a hut on a patch of waste ground. As the bus reversed on the undulating, muddy track, it rolled to the side. I thought we were toppling over. After that, I did not dare to sleep in case of further mishaps.
The bus broke down at dawn. I was livid. There were no other tourists and the other passengers didn’t seem to be in any hurry. There were only two trains to Bangkok from the Thai border town, Aranyaprathet at 6.30am and 1.30pm. I couldn’t afford to miss the afternoon train. The bus eventually got repaired but we were deposited a long way from the border. It was after I made a fuss that the driver rang for a motorcycle taxi.
After swatting the touts off, I got to the Thai border where a policeman helped me get a tuktuk to Aranyaprathet station.
I had to endure a five-hour wait. The ancient train took me back to the KTM (Keretapi Tanah Melayu) trains from the 1970s. The journey took seven hours, through beautiful Thai countryside of rice fields, rubber plantations and villages, stopping at beautifully decorated suburban railway stations.
I was already feeling spent after travelling for eight weeks and decided to whizz through Thailand. Arriving in Bangkok, I was shattered to learn that the international train to Butterworth was no longer running, thanks to Malaysia’s high-speed ETS trains which run from Kuala Lumpur to Padang Besar. I took the sleeper to Hatyai and caught the railcar to Padang Besar the next day.
What joy, on my arrival, to be met by a bunch of journalists who had been alerted by my friend Jalal. Not having any family member around to welcome me, this was so special. They even waited for my ETS to Butterworth.
Finally, that night, after 56 days on road and rail, my problematic prosthetic knee felt it had arrived home and, as I lay in bed at my nephew Farid’s house, I experienced an excruciating pain like no other.
This knee – which had been troubling me for three years – had braved the heavy loads I had to carry plus tackle arduous tasks like climbing the great wall of China, on my rail journey.