Shady hotel the only show in town

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 April, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 April, 1998, 12:00am

In the country town of Surin near Thailand's northeastern border with Cambodia, all roads seem to lead to the Hotel Petchkasem.

The architecture is drab, the food only fair and the waiters prone to putting ice in the beer. But linger in the lobby for a while and the mystique of the place gradually becomes apparent.

The Petchkasem is a watering hole and staging post for all kinds of characters of shady and easy virtue connected to the border less than two hours away, and home to the Khmer Rouge's last stand and remnants of the armed resistance loyal to Prince Norodom Ranariddh's Funcinpec.

'Quiet Americans' wander about in beach shorts even though it is a full night's train ride from the sea. Furtive Funcinpec fixers whisper Pol Pot is alive.

Short dark men with yellow sunglasses swiftly bolt for the lifts carrying large steel suitcases chained to their wrists. United Nations vehicles fill the car park.

And this is just the out-of-towners. Local Thai military brass cavort over whisky with singers in stilettoed thigh boots. Catch the breakfast special before a hike to the border and they will still be roaring with laughter and song. The hotel's owners include military figures, so they never seem to have service problems.

All this in a town seemingly untouched by the more raucous aspects of Thailand's former boom, a city marked by old teak shop-houses and ageing Chinese rice merchants.

However, the Khmer Rouge leadership always seems to be a whisper away. Ta Mok, the rebel's murderous military supremo feared as 'The Butcher' is rumoured to prefer other locales for his weekly recreational trips to meet local women and help the economy. His one-legged gait is said to have yet to grace the corridors.

One of the more bizarre sights is provided by the elephants that converge on Surin for the famed annual 'round-up' - now a national tourist attraction.

The car park fills with dung as handlers guide them up the front steps, their trunks reaching inside to grope tourists for food. Guests wary of being trampled take back exits or stay in their rooms.

Everyone comes to the Petchkasem . . . even the elephants.