Traveling, I prefer to be on the ground, for that's how you get an overview of the countryside. The bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh took more than seven hours, but that included 30 minutes for lunch, plus 45 more at the border. My seatmate was a young fellow, Morris, from Halle, Germany, and we had a fruitful, wide ranging conversation. For a moment, I had mistaken him for a woman, for he had a pony tail and such a smooth, unblemished face.
In 2016, I gave a talk at his university. Of Halle, I remember its imposing 16th century clock tower, other fine buildings that survived World War II bombing, an ugly promenade from Communist days, two Vietnamese restaurants, some Turkish eatery where I had doner kebab and an Ur-Krostitzer, many more African pedestrians than nearby Leipzig, an artsy neighborhood with striking murals and a budget store displaying its made-in-China clothing outside.
Morris had been outside Germany for 11 months, with three of those in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and most of the rest in China. In Guangdong, he took a university course in economics, but the Chinese lecturer's English was so mangled, Morris understood almost nothing, "Still, it was worth it. I've learnt a lot just being in China."
China is becoming a cashless society, Morris said, so everything is done with the smart phone, "Without it, many Chinese can't function." This means that people are entirely at the mercy of their government, I pointed out, and Morris agreed. If a citizen misbehaves, just deactivate his phone, and he won't be able buy even a baozi.
"And I will suffer much longer than you!" Since he's three decades younger.
Of his own country, Morris complained about the rise of the nationalist right, "They harass people, but Germany has long been a nation of immigrants. First, the Italians, Poles and Turks came, and now these people from the Middle East and Africa. They will all contribute to the economy."
Exiting the country, many Vietnamese tipped the officer a buck to get their passport processed immediately, ahead of the thick stack next to him. They knew the ropes. Morris said of a woman in floral pajamas, straw hat with a polyester daisy, black scarf, white socks and plastic flip flops, "I don't understand why she's dressed like that."
Borders are magical. From Juarez, one can scan the El Paso skyline, and I remember seeing a mother and son walk to the border crossing, just to witness the streaming traffic, then they turned back, for they could not cross. With the erasure of borders in Europe, one can drive from, say, Spain into France, and hardly notices it, but that won't last. A man, tribe or community can only define itself with borders.
Once I stood in Lao Cai, on Vietnam's border with China. Hekouzhen was clearly visible across the Red River, but I couldn't experience it. For an American, China charges $140 for a visa, and this can't be applied online, much less at the border. By comparison, my Cambodian visa cost but $36, and approved within two hours, after I had uploaded my photo to complete the easy application. A hundred-and-sixty countries admit Americans either without a visa, or with one granted on arrival.
Morris, "There are many more foreigners in Vietnam. In China, you hardly see any outside the biggest cities. Foreigners only see Shanghai, Beijing and a few other places. If they take the train, they ride the fast, modern one, so only see the best stations, but there are local trains that only Chinese use, and the stations aren't so nice."
Morris likes to take photos, "At first, I wasn't sure how to do it in China, but then people started taking pictures of me, so I snapped pictures of them! I don't know, but for them, maybe it's like, 'Hey, I saw a white guy on the subway today!'"
Finally, we're in Cambodia. Dusty Bavet's main business is gambling, and so on both sides of the road were casinos, with most quite modest. Our Mekong Express Bus rolled past chintzy Bao Mai, Good Luck, Emperor, Roxy, Le Macau, Las Vegas Sun, King Krown, New World, Tan Hoang Bao and Titan King, etc. Interspersed among them were restaurants and eateries, mostly ramshackle.
Since Vietnam only has casinos for foreigners, Vietnamese must spill into Cambodia to empty their wallets. Each Bavet casino hires hustlers to recruit Vietnamese gamblers, in Vietnam even. For each sucker snagged, a hustler gets $10, and he can even smuggle someone across the border for $22. Hustlers and faux suckers have teamed up to divide the commissions.
Gamblers who run out of money can borrow from roving hustlers, but if they're still broke at the end of the day, a high likelihood, they'll be locked in a "dead room," until cash is sent from home.