On weekends I’m posting 2-part short stories of any genre. Most of them are my own, but if you would like to contribute your short story, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org The first part is published Saturday morning, second part published Sunday morning. I hope you enjoy this new feature of my blog.
Frank propped his feet up on the divider in front of our seats. We settled in for the 6 hour bus ride to the Cambodia/Thailand border, munching on Pringles and resting. We had a long trek ahead of us.
Frank was a 6’2″ good-looking airline steward from Belgium. We met in Burma, went our separate ways, and then one day on the street in Bangkok someone placed their hand on my shoulder and I turned around. It was Frank.
At times Frank was a fantastic travel partner — eccentric, outgoing, and spontaneous. But he also cheated at gin rummy. You can’t trust a travel partner who cheats at gin rummy. He was gay, too, so there was some territorial encroachment happening there. Not that it mattered. For my 4 month stint in South East Asia I’d sworn off men, booze, and drugs.
Our trip to Siam Reap, Cambodia covered the spectrum of comfort levels. From Bangkok to AranyaPrathet, we traveled on a paved road. We sat in plush velour seats in an air-conditioned coach with a semi-functioning toilet. The few miles from AranyaPrathet to Poipet, the border, we rode one on the back of a motorcyle and the other in the attached side car, bouncing down a pot-holed dirt road. Frank folded himself into the side-car and sat on top of our backpacks. I clung to the back of the motorcycle driver like a coke-habit he couldn’t shake as he swerved and rattled down the road to Poipet. Then travelling got difficult.
As soon as we arrived in PoiPet, things changed. The road was dirt and flanked by beat-up old cinder-block buildings. Giant oxen cart were dragged by teams of barefoot humans through the gates between the two countries. Men waved firearms at the teams of people, yelling at them and moving them along. They struggled pulling loads of baskets, boxes, and gun-waving masters. Amputees, victims of the still-active mine fields, begged for food and were chased away by unconvincing authorities. Starving amputees with no prostheses don’t exactly move quickly. It was like being dropped into a spaghetti western, only it was in Asia, so I guess you’d call it a rice western. Or a zombie apocalypse.
Frank and I shared nervous glances. No one mentioned the border crossing. The warnings I heard from fellow travelers were: the overland crossing from Poipet to Siam Reap was cheap but also required copious amounts of valium or opium, never step off the road, never travel after dark, and hide your valuables well. The border crossing never warranted so much as a warning not to drink the beer, yet we felt that we’d stepped into a war-zone. We could only imagine what the rest of the trip might be like.
Actually, we couldn’t imagine at all.
We found a small Toyota pick-up truck loaded with a couple of nuns and 13 backpackers, paid the fee, and hopped in. We all perched on our packs, laid in the back of the truck, like buzzards on road-kill. It was close to 2:00 pm and we knew that the 100 km trek could take up to 6 hours, well past dark.
Pol Pot died in 1997, and by 1999 most of the Khmer Rouge came out of the jungle to surrender. Our trip took place in early 2000, and it was well-known that some Khmer Rouge hanger-onners with access to weapons occasionally held up a few tourists and took their possessions. I knew of other, more violent crimes too. I decided not to think about those.
Our truck rattled and belched down the dirt road.