At the River Kwai

One-way Ticket
Gracefully, a smiling, blue-shirted employee of the Royal Thai State Railway proffered a ticket over the counter. Victor Offord, gruff and unshaven, snatched it back through the semicircular hole in the Perspex that separated the two of them. Without words, he squinted at the ticket, making sure of the destination, tucked it into his shirt pocket, hoisted up his bag, and began walking to the platforms.

‘Please, you take bus to station,’ the man at the ticket booth called after him.

‘What?’ Offord replied, turning his neck. ‘Isn’t this the railway station?’

‘Yes, same same; old part, new part; you please bus to new part.’

Offord let go of his bag. It dropped heavily with a thud to the concrete, pushing up motes of dust. Sighing, he straightened his back and scrutinised the surroundings, focusing for the first time on what had been there all along. The ticket-seller had a point: if there were indeed two parts, this could only be the old one. It looked more like a shanty town than a station. The only train in sight was far off to the west side, resting, or dying, along a grassy track. It could not have moved in a decade, and probably would never do so again. Along the east side, a market had asserted itself, as happens in poor countries when land is left idle and unsupervised. It seemed to Offord that the vendors and stalls had stealthily and gradually sneaked in, past what little security there might have been, and pushed out the trains. All that remained of a functioning station was a ticket booth and the solitary, smiling state employee. Offord dropped his eyes and turned his back on the ugly mess. He was agitated, sweating, and in no mood for delays; he wanted to be rid of Bangkok as soon as possible. He retraced his footsteps out of the filthy station and boarded a red bus parked up in a pile of refuse.

Kuai2The bus ride was short but succeeded in elevating his blood pressure further and adding more sweat stains to his already-malodorous cotton shirt. Offord suffered in silence, closing his eyes in an attempt to reduce the pain. He reached platform three and his ride to Kanchanaburi by crossing two tracks, or rather by hopping through the two trains that were sitting on the two tracks. Finally, he heaved his big black bag up into the luggage rack and slumped down onto the bare wooden seat, trying to catch his breath. He fingered the mobile phone in his pocket for a moment but was distracted by dazzling light. The glass window had gone but a wooden shutter remained; this he heaved up into the window frame, blocking out the intense sun. Sitting again, he withdrew the phone and flipped it on. He called up Fong’s number on the small screen then pressed the dial button. Continue reading

Freedom in Cambodia

It was a good time to be in Cambodia — Angelina Jolie was strutting around Angkor Wat as Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft and a band of insurgents was shooting up the capital, Phnom Penh. Both events I missed, squandering a real opportunity to sharpen my journalistic teeth. But I did keep up with the rumor mill, as it relentlessly disseminated hearsay via the usual assortment of expats that populate desperate countries such as Cambodia.

By all accounts Angelina Jolie did exude an aura of invincible beauty, as you would of course expect from the thespian chosen to play Lara Croft — that front-loaded action woman from the Tomb Raider computer game. I just wonder if she needed to be digitally enhanced at all.

Eight killed, fourteen wounded, and hundreds arrested without warrants is not so amusing; but the way it all happened does make for a funny story.

FreedonInCambodia2A few days before the shootout, I arrived in Cambodia, at a desperate town in the south west corner of the county, on the coast, just over the border from Thailand. Roadless, charmless, and more or less foodless, this jungle town didn’t fill me with much excitement for the rest of the county. I checked in at the least dirty hotel and filled my belly on rice gruel from the stinking market, tumbling haphazardly through a putrid ditch in the centre of town. The food didn’t kill me; and due to the fact that I slipped back into my hotel before dark, neither could the locals. Continue reading

Saigon Gary

“You looking for a room?” came the sandpaper voice from above.

I looked up and saw an old man, Western and worn, hanging out of a second-floor window.

“Yes,” I replied, arching my neck further.

“Try the owner of the house on the corner; I rent this place from him; I think he has other places,” the man said. His face creased into what could have been a smile and then disappeared from view.

The sprawling neighbourhood was a mess of small alleys and narrow buildings, jumbled together heedless of symmetry. I wondered which corner he meant and backtracked to a corner-shop cum drinking-den, where I gingerly asked for a room from a toothless Vietnamese hag, who was serving bottles of beer to fat-bellied locals. Suddenly he appeared again — the white man from the window — materializing at my shoulder, like a wisp of smoke, now on my level where I could get a better look at him. He had evidently lost half an arm some time ago — the withered stump was hanging grotesquely out of his tee-shirt. He waved the stump back towards his own building and said that he sometimes sub-let the spare room in it; would I like to look at it. His gravelly words were spare and direct.

SaigonGaryWe stepped back along the alley, and into his narrow, four-story house.

“My wife told me to go out and get you; ah! here she is; Kim,” he said, introducing the middle-aged Vietnamese woman who had just hopped down the stone stairs in her bare feet . Continue reading