I didn’t have very much of my three month SE Asia tripped booked before arriving and yet I still managed to fall behind ‘schedule’ within the first few days. One of the few pre-booked elements I did have was the hotel in Phnom Penh, as I was turning up in the city on New Year’s Eve and didn’t particularly want to see in the New Year walking the streets searching for accommodation.
Leaving from London, I’d decided to fly in and out of the gateway city of Bangkok for my return trip and overland it as much as possible between my destinations in Cambodia, Laos and, briefly, Thailand. The first leg was to take the train from Bangkok to Aranyprathet and cross the border over into Poipet, Cambodia, hoping to then get on a bus all the way to PP.
The journey begins with the chaos of the train chugging out of the station and directly into the path of a market which stallholders set up within inches of the tracks, their goods overflowing onto the tracks themselves. Knowing the timetables inside out, the ‘choo choo’ that signals the train’s imminent arrival is merely perfunctory as the market people know only too well – to within a nano second – what little time they need to interrupt an all important sale by standing between train and their stalls to ensure none of their wares are spoiled. Rickety awnings are pulled in, shelves are held down securely and valuable tat is clung on to as the iron horse thunders straight through regardless.
Seconds later, the entire place is alive again with the buying and selling of daily essentials amid the twisting tornado of swirling litter that has been fanned into action in the train’s wake.
The border crossing was excruciating, taking a good five hours waiting with neither any shelter from the blistering sun nor seats for our weary legs. Still, good company was easily found in the queue. Lots of us were heading for PP that night but the unanticipated wait cast serious doubt on achieving this.
Once successfully in Cambodia, it transpired that the last bus had already left and the only option were taxis. Five of us commissioned one as far as Siem Reap, as we would by now be late enough reaching there and PP remained elusively distant.
For that reason I was a day late arriving at the Paddy Rice Hotel and the New Year’s Eve celebrations were in full swing when I pulled up. I joined the party downstairs where a band played covers and got us in the mood. At 11.45pm the countdown was initiated by the lead singer and at 11.46pm we all shouted ‘Happy New Year!’ and embraced everyone around us. The glitter cannon shot out its highly flammable, sparkly contents and totally smothered us.
At midnight we stopped in our tracks at the sound of another countdown taking place outside on the street, followed by more ‘Happy New Years!’ Perplexed, the band looked at their watches and confirmed that they’d been a bit previous with our one and it therefore didn’t count.
So, at five minutes past midnight they conducted a second countdown and we all saw in the New Year once more.
It was a struggle getting up at a reasonable hour the following morning but I was a day behind and had things to do. On that New Year’s Day agenda was a trip out to Phnom Chisor, a temple at the top of a very high, very steep hill. After breakfast at the nearest place to the hotel, my taxi arrived and off we set. My aim of making it up to the temple, would be fairly challenging given my delicate condition.
I wasn’t to know that my condition was about to get much worse.
It was with no small amount of embarrassment that I had to ask the driver how far we were from the nearest loo as I was becoming increasingly desperate. He assured me there would be one in the small market at the foot of the hill.
My stomach was feeling decidedly dodgy.
I jumped out of the car while it was still moving as the driver pulled in to the parking area, shouting I’d see him back there in a few hours. I had no time to lose. With the hill looming up in the background, I ran to the only visible out-house that was set apart from the handful of stalls.
The door was locked.
I ran back to the market and played a game of lavatorial charades with the first person I met.
‘Ok, one word. Looks like this,’ (I squat).
‘Sounds like this,’ (by this point my stomach was providing the necessary clues).
‘No? It was ‘Key’!’ (unlocking action).
Finally getting through to her, she reached in to her hut and came out with the key.
I grabbed it and ran off again, only just making it on time.
It was armagheddon at both ends.
There was no stopping me.
It was clearly far more than just the after effects of a good night on the Guinness at Paddy Rice. Something had been very much up with breakfast, and now up and out breakfast was coming.
The force of it totally took me by surprise and made me feel dizzy. I felt I needed to get help.
I staggered back out into the blazing sun and headed back for the kindly key woman.
I passed out before I reached her, out of sight from everyone.
When I came to, I couldn’t move. I had the feeling either end could explode again at any moment and my head was still spinning. I lay as still as I could, hoping someone would spot me.
Bu no-one did.
I decided I’d attempt to somehow make it over to the key woman and set off on my hands and knees.
She was squatting on the ground with her back to me. I approached her crawling and was about to cry out for help when I came face-to-face with the job that was occupying her. I got to her just in time to see her slit the throat of a chicken, its desperate eyes seeming to fixate on me as its final vision. The blood spurted out; it resembled a grotesque gargoyle fountain.
I had to leave that scene fairly sharpish for fear of becoming her next victim (they go for the weak, you know) and silently crawled away backwards.
There was no-one else close enough to call to. I collapsed again mid way between the key keeper-cum-chicken killer and the out-house.
This time when I came to, a young girl aged about six was sitting next to me. She stared, fanning my head with a leaf.
I couldn’t speak and I still couldn’t move. She stayed with me for a long time, confused and not knowing what to do.
Eventually she ran off and returned with a number of adults.
One of them took charge, despatching others to find my car and driver, some to fetch my water and a hot tea and she herself carried me back to the out-house. She must have seen see that I was about to have another attack.
No sooner in there than a repeat of the previous performance was staged, only this time I had an audience. What kind of amazing person would mop the brow of a stranger they’d only just met while they expelled all bodily fluids in a dank, unventilated hut?
My driver burst in, assuming full responsibility for me and I was carried back to car where I was laid out on the back seat.
When I came to a needle was going into my arm (hmmmm) as I was hooked up to a drip.
And this is how I celebrated New Year’s Day 2013, in a remote outreach clinic somewhere in rural Cambodia for an afternoon.
Happy New Year!