The train to Aranyaprathet, which is the Thai town on the Cambodian border closest to Siem Reap (the Angkor Wat temples), was more 3rd and a half class than 3rd. The four of us also got on the only carriage without soft seats. And it was full. Deep joy. But at £1.29 each (the experience was free) it wasn’t really any trouble … at all. Although, here’s a thought. We made a snap decision about which side of the train to sit on, to avoid the sun. We thought we’d chosen the wrong side (we were travelling east and sat on the right side of the train), but the sun shone through the other window … result.
Because it’s mid-summer (northern hemisphere) and we were south of the Tropic of Cancer. Simples?
As we approached the Cambodian border the flat terrain remained flat … agricultural in a paddy field, other short crops way, and, other than some fabulous birds, the scenery was uneventful – unlike the previous day where there were spiky hills and jungle aplenty. The good news was that the train thinned out later on and we were able to stretch our legs.
And then Aranyaprathet. The edge of nowhere. A long, wide sandy/tarmac road with local industry spilling out onto its fringes. It could be southern US (not that I’ve been). We decided to walk the one mile to the Indochina hotel. Dogs barked defendingly from their plots, cars and trucks sped past. Where were we going? What had we booked?
An £15 a night oasis, as it turned out. Opposite the hickest, most bizarre rock ‘n roll bar in the east, with a beat-perfect, 5-piece band and supper and a number of big beers for £7 each. What a night. What a place. I was even invited (I think it was an invitation) to sing. All my dreams (but nobody else’s) coming true. Could things get any better?
Well, they did. Breakfast was, I kid you not, full English, which was fab after my early am swim. Then … the border, which we’d read and heard so many wincing stories about. In the end it was straightforward, although you had to be on your toes.
A hotel bus took us to the Thai crossing (others will take you to a ‘pre-crossing’ where you get badly shepherded through the process for an almighty cost. We got our passport exits stamped on the Thai side and then walked into, what can only be described as, a dystopian no-man’s land. It was 300 metres of building site, moped park, vagabond stop, furtive individuals keeping an eye on you type of place. The visa shed didn’t look cosher, and we almost walked past it. Inside we paid our $30 and an extra TB4000 (= £1) each, the latter appearing to smooth the wheels of administration. We didn’t need our passport photos, although they took them originally, but then handed them back. And then our visas were done.
Next, another 50 metres on, was another shed marked ‘customs’ (all the way we were walking alongside a road full of traffic and people). We weren’t encouraged to go in, and I was concerned that it was another ruse … which it wasn’t. Suprise, surprise it was a 3rd-world passport control, which we could have walked past. Photos and fingerprints scanned later and we were officially in Cambodia.
Next, the big roundabout that everyone spoke about, where you can get a taxi to Siem Reap. Or some other disease.
Take your choice. A cordial 10-second barter and for $40 we were off in a tatty Lexus 4×4 headed for our hotel … which, and we knew this, was two and a half hours away. It was easy, though. Our driver spoke perfect English, and he even stopped so we could buy a tourist SIM.
And then Residence 101, delightfully picked by Bex for our three-night stop in Siem Reap. Absolutely fab. Drink and fruit on arrival, a poolside apartment that is really tastefully done, more smiling service than a Wimbledon finals match, and breakfast = £24 a night. I can’t tell you how good that is.
Two days here … and more reflection from me in a bit.