We began our little journey by walking to the bus terminal in Chanthaburi on the Thai side, and preparing ourselves for the beady-eyed touts. We’ve learned that the best course of action is to be very polite. Getting mad or frustrated just adds another degree of thrill to their game.
We got through one, two, three, four touts (no, we don’t want a taxi. No we don’t want you to drop us in ‘Central, yes?’, wherever that may be. No we don’t want a private mini bus), and finally ended up on a public bus heading to Pong Nam. The cost was 40 baht each – a bargain. The conductor, a lovely old lady, yelled, “Okay you get off here,” and we hopped off into the dirt beside the road. “That way to the border,” the driver called after us, pointing down highway 3193. “Songthaew to border, 100 baht each person.”
It was lightly raining in the cute little town of Pong Nam, and so we took shelter with some hot kuey teow nam. Eventually we decided to try hitch hiking, so we trudged to the edge of town and I stuck my thumb out. In less than two minutes we were in a truck belonging to a Thai couple, whom, although they were actually planning to turn off before reaching the Phsar Prum border, ended up taking us all the way.
There were more touts at the Phsar Prum border, but seeing us exit from a private Thai vehicle confused them. We took advantage of their puzzlement by sneaking past and lining up at Thai immigration before they could gather their thoughts. Blam. Stamp. Easy. Friendly. No tricks.
In Cambodia we met an American couple (using US passports) who were charged $100 (USD) to exit Thailand. The officers refused to return their passports until they paid. After half an hour of arguing, they gave up and forked over the hundred. Absolute dickery. We had no such trouble, probably because Caroline went in first and everybody likes Caroline. For the record, you don’t have to pay to exit Thailand unless you’ve overstayed.
Officially out of Thailand, we walked through no man’s land being followed by touts who didn’t seem to know what to do with us. Around the gates, over a little bridge, and up the promenade towards Cambodian immigration. Wacky vehicles crossed the border with us (seemingly without any checks), such as half-tractor things, exposed engines pulling logs on three wheels, and Bedford trucks from the 60s.
For being ASEAN, Caroline got 30 days for free in Cambodia, and I was required to pay $30 (USD) for a one-month visa. At the visa office I was overcharged $5 by man loftily named Police Captain Srey Sokha (his name is stamped in my passport forever). What was I to do? Short of saying, “Isn’t it thirty USD?”, which I did say, it was either pay or enter a standoff with what looked like an incredibly patient (and presumably unmovable) man. Caroline wisely said to look on it as a donation. She was required to pay 100 baht, and so were a bunch of Thai tourists who were doing the crossing. None of these fees were legitimate, but that’s fine. Lunch is on us, okay guys?
The tiny town of Prum had two prominent features; a handful of casinos that attracted Thais across the border, and several jovial men with holes in their teeth who wanted money from confused looking people wearing backpacks. We peered into the former, and ran away the latter. It was still raining, and we ambled aimlessly about the ramshackle town looking for a place to have a drink and gather our thoughts. During our walk a man on a motorcycle pulled up and asked us where we wanted to go. Something about the guy was likeable, and so we began to negotiate a price to get to Pailin.
Then somebody over the road started yelling in our direction. Then a car pulled up and a man leaped out, pointing up at the rain. Two men suddenly appeared behind us and started squabbling. The man who first yelled was now upon us. They all wanted the same thing: sweet, sweet foreign money. It was like innocently throwing a bit of bread to a single seagull, and then having to run to your car because you’ve found yourself in an Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ situation. While the men argued and boomed prices at us, we calmly finished our negotiations with the original driver ($6 to Pailin). He managed to squeeze two of us and our bags on his bike, and we quietly drove away.
Pailin is a town which is still clearly feeling the wounds of the Khmer Rouge. It was the final stronghold of the regime*, and was one of the main towns they retreated to before the fall. A large portion of the men who live in the area fought for the Rouge, and will possibly never be taken to trial for their parts in the bloody regime. Landmines litter the area, and are still being reported exploding as late as 2014.
* Apologies, but this is not accurate. Anlong Veng was actually the last stronghold, finally coming under government control in 1998.
The area was once rich in gemstones, but most of these were mined to support the Khmer Rouge, and now the stores at the market are selling low-quality or imported stones.
We only spent a couple of days in Pailin, walking the rubbish-laden streets, past quiet small businesses, attempting to chat with the people, and diving into our first taste of Cambodian food. The demeanor of the people we met was reminiscent of the places in Kalimantan and Thailand that were off the tourist path; curious (to the point of looking surly) and then very smiley once greeted. Despite the obvious poverty, rubbish, and struggling nature of the town, the people seem to realise that life goes on, and the feeling that the town exuded was welcoming, if not charming.