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World Tour

MARIE’S WORLD TOUR: Second Installment

Australia to Cambodia



In Melbourne, I awoke feeling alone and deserted. The previous night, my new family of Russian sailors had played pool with me in the seaman's club. Now they were back at work, plowing across the Pacific, and, after 40-some-odd days in a freighter at sea, I was on land.

I was sad and remorseful. I had kicked my cynicism on the "Direct Kiwi" ship, becoming a friendlier person than I'd thought possible the month before, when I'd been working hard in my cold New York apartment. Now, I made few new acquaintances on buses and trains through the Outback, where I toured Ayers Rock and petted tame kangaroos.

My plan was to go around the world by surface transport. I was pleased with myself for having convinced a shipping company to transport me from Darwin to East Timor. From there, it looked easy to continue on to Indonesia. There were passenger ships that went to Kupang, in West Timor, or I could take a bus. I boarded the M/V Arktis Atlantic with confidence, and didn't even get seasick on the rough 36-hour crossing.


I wandered out of the Dili port and down the street, hunting for a taxi in the sticky heat. But there were no tourists in Dili, and most visitors arrived by plane. I walked to Hotel Turismo, which I'd chosen based on its "Lonely Planet" recommendation.

Needless to say, things have changed in East Timor since the "Indonesia" guidebook was printed. For one thing, East Timor is no longer part of Indonesia. For another, Dili costs have skyrocketed as the UN and aid organizations have come in, their employees creating a market for quality hotels and restaurants. Supplies and food come from Australia now, on the same ship that I'd come in on. Prices reflected the changes.

"Do you have a room?" I naively asked the receptionist at the Hotel Turismo. She sadly told me no, and then I discovered that almost no hotel in town had room. Those that did cost a minimum of forty US dollars a night, no small increase over the $3.63 listed in the guidebook.

I decided to leave immediately. $40 a night wasn't in my budget, and Dili just looked like a city full of self-important Westerners, parading about in their Indian "Tata" SUV's. Everyone appeared to speak English, and fabulous cafes served gourmet coffee.

I was confused; if my budget would be devastated by the Australian-Timorese economy, what were the locals doing? How could the country be rebuilt when the lines between haves and have nots were so stark, and when Australia appeared to be colonizing in place of Portugal and Indonesia?

My plan to leave hit an instant snag. It wasn't possible without flying. Passenger ships no longer stopped in East Timor, and the Indonesian "Pelni" office was now a family home. I asked an Australian soldier for advice.

"You cannot go by bus," she said, after telephoning the UN Movements office. "It is possible for a local, but not for a Westerner. You'd get over the border, the militias would assume you were UN, and they wouldn't believe that you weren't. You'd be kidnapped or murdered and there's nothing we could do to protect you. All of this is IF you could convince the border guards on our side to stamp you out, which they probably wouldn't."

I had doubts. The UN was probably overstating the case in their mission to protect people. Regardless, my confidence that "there must be a way" wavered. I caught a taxi back to Hotel Turismo to collect my pack and contemplate my next move.

Then the taxi driver, a 17-year-old who didn't know much English, asked me to stay in East Timor.

"We need more civilians, people like you," he explained. He motioned at some nearby UN soldiers. "We do not trust the military. Military killed my family; my father, my mother, my younger sister, my older brother. All killed."

The East Timorese, traumatized by militias and the Indonesian military, trusted no one in a uniform. Maybe I'd give Dili a few days. There was more to it than the coffee shops, restaurants, and discos with the locals outside watching the dancing Westerners inside.

Back at Hotel Turismo, the staff took pity on me. The owner offered me a staff room to sleep in. The head maintenance man cleaned the room up, changed the sheets, and showed me how to turn on the air conditioner. And Mark, the Kiwi cook, drove me all over Dili, showing me the destruction and reconstruction, and then took me into the East Timor countryside. I met both locals and UN staff who were truly excited about building a new country, and my faith was somewhat restored.

I hung around for days, following up on leads on cargo ships and plans to smuggle me through the nearby islands. All the plans evaporated as cargo ships fell behind schedule, and smuggling didn't offer me the option of an Indonesian entry visa. 

I convinced Mark to drive me to the border, but an AP reporter put the kibosh on my new plan. She told me that the last person to try that had received a machete in the head for her efforts at cross-cultural communication. I was willing to live with the scar, but the Hotel Turismo staff flat out refused to let me out of their site until I bought a plane ticket. I left the complex issues of UN intervention behind me on a Monday, and flew to Bali. I didn’t seem to have any other choice, and I figured a plane ticket wouldn’t kill me, but trying to get out of East Timor any other way just might.


What came first in Southeast Asia, the backpacker or the banana pancake? No one knows for sure, but I didn't give the banana pancake trail, a/k/a Bali to Bangkok, the time that it deserved. I had visited previously, in early 2000, before scheduling my round-the-world trip, and didn't want to repeat myself when there were so many new countries to see. I was forced to pause briefly for a 36-hour bus ride across Sumatra when the public ship from Jakarta to Singapore was full, but otherwise traveled as fast as I could without flying.

Bali was on holiday, and the entire country, with the exception of touts yelling "hellotransport" at tourists, was celebrating instead of booking me an onward bus. I saw Java and Sumatra from the bus window, except for the Sumatran town of Pekanbaru, which I wish I had only seen from a bus window.

Unfortunately, I had to visit dirty, unattractive Pekanbaru (filled with whistling, hissing men) to catch my onward transport to Singapore. This consisted of a very long minibus ride over bumpy dirt roads, followed by a longer, painful speedboat ride filled with children's vomit and cockroaches.

Say what you will about the politics of Singapore; it looked like heaven to me as I walked through passport control and paused to worship the metered taxi, the tuna salad on baguette, and the invention of the traffic light. Within days, however, the novelty of predictable plumbing wore off. Indonesia had exhausted me, but Singapore's pleasant uniformity recharged only my digestive tract, leaving my spirits dull and in need of further maintenance. I moved quickly through Malaysia, and on to Thailand.

Bangkok is a mad city, in need of public transportation and mousetraps big enough to catch backpackers, but it's kind of like my New York home. My sole complaint about my four days in Bangkok was that the Thai foot massage I got at the Wat Po Massage School involved foot torture with a stick. I left Bangkok, energized by a steady diet of mango and sticky rice, ready to take on the rest of the world, or at least Cambodia.


I adored East Timor, but Cambodia was my first love among developing nations. I was excited to return and didn't even mind the 10-hour drive to get there from the Thai border. I piled into a pickup truck with seven other travelers, a driver, and four Cambodians interested in luring us to their Siem Reap guesthouse. We drove across a ridiculous road, with "potholes you could park a truck in" and a "motocross track for a road," according to Cambodian English-language publication "Bayon Pearnik." The road resembled photos of the moon, and at one point, we had to ford a river. A cargo truck had gone through the bridge, and precariously balanced in mid-fall, having caught on some pieces of wood before crashing through completely.

As we drove, the Cambodian people welcomed us. Children waved, parents smiled, and everyone seemed excited to have tourists returning en masse to Angkor Wat. No one cared if tourists covered their shoulders, just about any currency was acceptable, and the coffee was excellent. Cambodia was so much like East Timor, in that both countries seemed friendly and optimistic in spite of recent tragic histories.

A few days later, as I surveyed "Ta Prohm," the jungle temple, it became apparent why there were so many similarities between Cambodia and East Timor.

"In the 1990's," explained the guide I had hired for the day, "UNTAC ran Cambodia. Now we are self-governing."

The UN used to run Cambodia, too. Perhaps there was hope for East Timor after all.

Read more about Marie's World Tour:

Episode One: Across the USA by Rail and the Pacific by Freighter

Episode Two: Australia to Cambodia

Episode Three: Siem Reap to Beijing

Episode Four: Mongolia to Berlin

Episode Five: Cape Town to Nairobi

Episode Six: Nairobi to New York

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