Train of thought Rail­ing against ad­ver­sity

It’s the fi­nal stage of the jour­ney for our colum­nist as she goes through tri­als and tribu­la­tions to reach Malaysian soil.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Travel - By NOORAINI MYDIN star2­travel@thes­

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

A typ­i­cal view along the jour­ney from Bangkok to Hatyai by train. — Pho­tos: NOORAINI MYDIN

The train from Aranyapra­thet to Bangkok re­minded the writer of the KTM trains of the 1970s.

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