Monday, January 17, 2005

The guide told us it was important not to stop or talk to anyone. "Very dangerous," he said. We made our way in single file behind him through the crowds outside the border crossing at Poipet. But despite the guide's warnings, A. stopped and gave away a handful of candies to the children who surrounded us like birds, all fluttering fingers and cries and pleading.

When the children began to fight viciously in the dust over the candy, A. caught up to me. "It breaks my heart," she said.

That's why it's not good to give them things, I told her. It's better to give to organizations that you know can help, I said, trying to convince myself that it was true, holding tightly to my bag, ashamed somehow of myself.

In truth, I was nearly overcome with the raw desperation common to such towns that sit on the border of two countries that vary so greatly in wealth.

We'd gotten our visas to enter Cambodia at a tired café in Aranyaprathat in Thailand from officials sitting at tables in the back where they sipped coca-cola, stamping the papers we filled out and taking our pictures and our passports, coming back an hour later with the passports that now contained visas that would get us into Cambodia.

So, we stood in line first to leave Thailand, frantically filling out more papers, dripping with sweat and watching with foolish envy the townspeople of Aranyaprathat and Poipet on bicycles or walking or weighed down with baskets hanging from a yoke or wheeling pushcarts of fruit or what looked to be trash, shoed and shoeless, with and without hats, smiling and frowning, all of them crossing the border as if they were crossing any ordinary street, no one stopping them or saying a word.

Once the border officials let us through from Thailand, we entered a strange place between the two cities in which there stood a tremendous hotel and casino, vaguely sinister and unexplained, no one going in or out.

Then, having at last faced a final set of officials in Cambodia and gotten a few last thumping stamps administered to our passports, we were free to walk as we wished in Poipet, as if one would want to promenade through such a place that conjures up secret rot and the selling of souls to random demons in exchange for a little hope destined to be dashed.

What it really meant was following the guide to an empty hotel where we waited for a car to come to take us to Siem Reap and the great Khmer temples in the jungles of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

The Swedish word for the day is gränsen, which means the border.

- by Francis S.

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