In the early 2000s I made two trips into Cambodia by road from Thailand. These were my first ever visits to the country. The route I took was the same many visitors took back then, and many still do, from Aranyaprathet and Poipet, though much has changed in terms of infrastructure. I’ve heard it said peoples’ impressions of Cambodia are black or white—there is, they say, no in-between. You either don’t like it or you don't. Some others, like me, get bitten by the bug. A scholar with a much longer relationship with the country than I once referred to Cambodia as “a disease, benign, yet incurable”. These were the visits I got hooked on Cambodia. This is some of what I wrote and more, about those trips back then.
The bus from Bangkok stopped at the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet, the prelude to crossing into Cambodia. Historically, the Khmer Empire had ruled much of modern-day Thailand, southern Vietnam too. Later, the Thais conquered Cambodia and were ceded part of the country. They looted the place. Not run-of-the-mill looting—jewels, gold and some artwork—this was absolute and utter, taking with them, according to witnesses, “even the dogs”. Later Cambodia got back the provinces of Battambang, Cambodia’s major rice growing area, and Siem Reap, the location of the ancient city of Angkor, the national symbol, and now a tourist mecca.
From the bus we were deposited in a restaurant, no doubt an offshoot of the bus company, in the midday heat. I needed to use the toilet and found it adjoining the restaurant. Inside it was consumed in a malarial haze of mosquitoes, my least favourite creature on the planet. One of my morning traveling companions announced to the driver he would leave the bus after the border and make his way into Cambodia alone. He had visited Angkor on two previous occasions and told me it was one of the two most significant archaeological sites in the world, the other being Tikal in Guatemala.
He was a high school teacher who taught history and Latin. He smoked constantly and collected his thoughts whilst inhaling, expressing himself only during exhalation when his lung capacity was exhausted. I can’t recall actually seeing him speak as he was constantly obscured behind a cloud of blue-grey tobacco smoke. From Cambodia he was heading into Laos but not by any given tourist route. I suppose he was more traveller than tourist, for a tourist as John Malkovich’s character in the film Sheltering Sky explains “Is someone who thinks about going home from the moment they arrive, whereas a traveller might not go home at all”. I’m probably a tourist pretending to be a traveller.
I asked where in Germany he was from but quickly qualified my question with “Are you German?” because of the possibility that he was Austrian, which he was. Unfortunately, my attempt to acknowledge nationalistic sensitivity and political independence served merely to dig a deeper hole and seemingly insulted, he lapsed into silence. My other table companion, a Frenchwoman, wore an almost permanent sullen expression – it continued into Cambodia even days later when I saw her in a market – said little but matched the teacher for nicotine consumption. Finally, we all shuffled back onto the bus before heading to the border crossing and the Cambodian border town of Poipet, or Krong Poi Pet.
The restaurant staff did a good side line business in hastily organised Cambodian visas for the border crossing. A group of Spanish from Catalonia—or rather a group of Catalonians from Spain—gathered the correct money from among Thai baht and euros. I wondered if they possessed the fabled €500 note among them. Of this denomination printed for the signatory nations to the European Monetary and Union agreement, over half had mysteriously found their way to Spain, yet curiously few ever appeared in circulation. It has been a source of much speculation among legal and financial circles as to what has become of such a huge sum of hard cash. Jokingly in Spain, the €500 (worth about USD550) is referred to as “bin Laden” because though everyone knew who he was, nobody knew where to find him.
Thailand’s relations with its smaller neighbours, Cambodia in particular, are not always cordial. Laos, firmly in China’s orbit, and ethnically and linguistically similar at least to Isaan in Thailand’s northeast, is another story. The crossing at Aranyaprathet is guarded by a regiment from the “Eastern Tigers”. They have ascended the military pecking order since the promotion of General Prawit Wongsuwan to army chief in 2004. Later he became Minister of Defence (from 2008-11, and 2014-19) and now, deputy prime minister in the rather Orwellian-titled National Council for Peace and Order. When army chief he reportedly used his extensive connections within the military and the political class to promote generals from his faction. In the Aranyaprathet-Poipet area and south to Pailin, the Tigers allegedly amassed considerable wealth by trading gems with Cambodian Khmer Rouge insurgents based along the two countries' border enriching, it’s alleged, the Tigers’ commanders. Along with royalty, the military are the most formidable institutions in Thailand. Whatever you, as a mere visitor, and a foreigner at that, can see, there is what goes on behind the scenes and under the surface, the intricate world of what is yes can be no, and maybe means nothing, and like many a border town, Spyopolis.
Tension between the two Southeast Asian countries often boils over. In 2003, comments made by a Thai actress, Suvanant Kongying a leading soap opera star and considered that country’s most famous television figure, that Angkor belonged to Thailand resulted in riots in Phnom Penh and attacks on Thai-owned factories in Cambodia causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage. An ongoing stand-off over ownership of the 11th century Preah Vihear, a temple perched atop a 525m high cliff with commanding views from the Dangrek Mountains in northern Cambodia—which forms the southern edge of the Khorat Plateau—remains a volatile political issue in both countries. At times it has broken out into outright military confrontation. Shootings by border guards of illegal loggers on both sides of the borders can also be a regular, almost daily, occurrence.
Just north of Aranyaprathet, from 1979 until 1993, had once been a camp holding up to 160,000 Cambodian refugees, Khao-I-Dang Holding Center, once dubbed the most famous refugee camp in Indochina. It had been run by the UN Refugee Agency, but more than 30 agencies provided medical care, education, skills training and other services. All up an estimated 200,000 refugees passed though the camp, some back to Cambodia and others on to third countries. Since the 1970s, Thailand has hosted more than one million refugees from different countries and ethnic groups, many now currently living in camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border.
Today the campsite is the Learning Centre for the History of Khao I Dang which uses photographs, videos and text to pay tribute to an important waypoint in the Cambodian exodus and an enduring symbol of the international humanitarian response to the crisis. In 1979, Thai forces were accused of forcing 45,000 Cambodian refugees back into the path of advancing Khmer Rouge forces and into minefields at gunpoint, where hundreds were killed—the Khmer Rouge sanctuaries after the Vietnamese invasion were all along the Thai-Cambodia border. This was all part of the Cambodian humanitarian crisis from 1969 until 1993, which had several phases: US bombing, civil war, Khmer Rouge rule, invasion and famine, refugee camps, resettlement, and repatriation. Other major camps for Cambodian refugees were also located around Aranyaprathet. Some camps were shelled by Cambodian forces, while others came under the control of autonomous warlords who controlled commercial activities and food distribution.
On my first visit in 2004 to the border at Aranyaprathet-Poipet, I watched as queues of trucks all heavily laden with bags of cement crossed into Cambodia from Thailand, all heading to Siem Reap to supply the hotel building boom. Later these trucks would make the return trip empty, the economic activity between the two countries almost entirely one-sided in Thailand’s favour. Cambodia at that time had no cement factory and economically the country was broken and re-building, so everything had to be imported.
From the heated congestion of the Thai customs hall—it had no windows and the fans were inadequate, so everyone sweated—I watched the traffic inch its way towards Poipet, spewing diesel fumes. A rat scampered across the border behind the mud flap of a large truck, the sun so hot even the rodents have to seek shade. A child, naked from the waist down, squatted by the roadside and defecated, emitting a mustard coloured ooze. Handcarts carried impossibly voluminous loads of plastic dinner trays towards Cambodia. Everything came in and nothing except people, went out, at least that which was visible.
“Drugs, gambling and prostitution,” said the Austrian teacher sadly, “It’s all here.” I had first crossed this border two years previously and was curious to see what, if any changes had been made. The construction of new customs and immigration facilities were in progress. More gaudy casinos and hotels had sprung up among the rice fields adorned by large billboards with airbrushed Asian women in evening gowns. A mass of people moved in each direction by all manner of transport in all states of attire, from the well-to-do to the poverty stricken. Expensive cars with darkened windows plied the mud streets of Poipet. Somethings, like the vehicles, haven’t changed, there’s just more of them.
Back then, the roads were covered with rubbish of all description and some that defied description. Leg amputees steered hand-powered tricycles between scores of tuk-tuks, motorbikes and other assorted vehicles. It was incredibly hot. The initial view most visitors got of Cambodia was this part of Poipet—sleazy, tacky, unattractive, filthy, and smelly. It was also raw and alive. There is something about the vibe in some border towns. It was like survival of the fittest. There was an edginess to it. I sat back and thought it just a sliver of a country, one little aspect and obviously not the best one, like the filter you pass through to get to the other side, the storm before the calm.
I asked the Austrian what effect he thought increased tourism would have for Cambodia. He replied with a quote from Hans Magnus Enzensberger, “Once the traveller reaches his destination he has destroyed it”, and then sank into further reflection. He seemed genuinely impressed that not only had I heard of essayist, poet, dramatist and traveller Enzensberger, but also I had read his work Europa Europa. I had redeemed myself.
Once through the Thai side it was a short journey to the Cambodian immigration office. In two years from 2004-06, they had trebled their computer capacity from one old desktop to three flat-screen computers and small cameras mounted on the counter to vet every entrant. One small travel group was turned back by the Cambodians. The visas in their passports had been issued by one of the scam visa offices in Thailand with the wrong year—they were 12 months too late— and the Cambodians weren’t showing any sympathy. The back door of the immigration office carried an almost life-size poster of the captain of Liverpool Football Club, now much faded by the hot Cambodian sun. Poipet was on its way to becoming one of the world’s hot spots for football gambling. The city is a hive for bookmakers, so perhaps fitting one of England’s most prominent clubs should be on display, but then you can find posters of players and of clubs from faraway all over Asia, such is the reach of the game.
My previous journey along National Route Five to Sisophon and then route six onto Siem Reap had been in a minibus which called for European frames to be compressed into laughably small spaces. Back then the Second Gulf War was in full swing. Locals joked their prime minister was called Saddam Hun Sen because he was “same, same but different”. Though a word of advice, it pays not to joke about Cambodia’s leader. Anyone who has travelled on roads in Bolivia will understand why the short trip of 150kms from Poipet to Siem Reap, used to take six to seven hours. It now takes about 2 ½ hours on a road only sealed in 2013.
Until 2013, the first stage of the trip was on the road sealed but in desperate need of repair. The stream of large trucks from the border snaked its way through an obstacle course of potholes, while smaller vehicles, motorbikes and cyclists tried to avoid the trucks and the potholes. After the town of Sisophon, where the road from Cambodia’s second city Battambang connects about 30kms from the border, the road managed to deteriorate, as if that were possible, as the last vestiges of tarmac disappeared for over 100kms. In their wake, the trucks leave a thick coating of dust of terre rouge covering everything roadside: houses, trees, livestock, restaurant furniture, and people. Rumour had it that Bangkok Airways bribed the Cambodian government to prevent the road being sealed thereby guaranteeing a steady stream of passengers for its flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap, for which they held a monopoly of service. By road it was a bone shaking journey capable of breaking your teeth.
On my first trip in the minibus we had stopped at Kralanh village, where National Route Six joins with provincial route 68 north towards Samraong, the capital of Oddar Meanchey Province, and the mountain border with Thailand. This was to let the passengers stretch their cramped limbs, but more an opportunity for locals to earn some money selling items to bemused barangs, foreigners, stumbling into their country for the first and for many, only time. School children, mainly girls, approached selling postcards to pay for their schooling, they said. One boy hung back. When the others had gone he asked me if I knew what the capital of Madagascar was. I did, but played along and said no. He said, “if you give me a dollar I’ll tell you”.
On my second trip in 2006, there was no repeat of a bad journey made worse by an impossibly small, woefully inadequate and poorly maintained minibus. Instead two Brits and I shared a taxi with a badly cracked windshield which threatened to surrender to a rainy season downpour of considerable force and volume. Just completing the journey to Siem Reap was testament to Japanese vehicle suspension engineering. At the mi-point we stopped for gas, pumped from a 44-gallon drum while the driver stood by smoking. Vehicles here are sometimes fitted with racing shock absorbers to cope with the extra pounding such is the state of the highway. Most cars in Cambodia then appeared to be the Toyota Camry. Cambodia was donated 300 Camrys by Japan post-Khmer Rouge, and ever since there has been this special connection with the car, though today, that’s given way to SUVs. There were new and old model Camrys; left and right-hand drive; some with number plates and some without; some driven on the left and some on the right-hand side of the road; and some on both, at the same time. When we hit the unsealed stretch of highway, our driver increased speed. The rougher the road the faster he seemed to want to go. Speed it seemed, absorbed shock.
Closer to Siem Reap the road reclaimed the tarmac, or perhaps it was the reverse. The town is the jewel in Cambodia’s tourist crown. It stretches about 2 kms north to south along the Siem Reap River and roughly three to four kms east to west along Route Six. Siem Reap means “Siam Vanquished” and was the administrative and spiritual centre of the Khmer Empire, which rivalled the Roman Empire in size before it, before it somewhat mysteriously crumbled. Siem Reap has been receiving visitors for over 100 years, at least foreign ones, but in the early 2000s the tourists were only beginning to arrive in big numbers. They all come to see city of Angkor and its famous temples, the biggest of which is Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. Siem Reap itself is actually a cluster of old villages which originally developed around individual pagodas and was later overlaid with a French colonial-era centre, some of which survives. It now has some of the most expensive real estate in the country.
Outside town there is an international airport to service the flights from Bangkok and Phnom Penh, and now further afield—sustainability and conservation being almost wholly absent concepts from the management of visitor numbers—terms that just get in the way of making a dollar. There were many expensive hotels in Siem Reap with more being built all the time, a boom fuelled by the convoys of cement carrying trucks seen coming from Thailand. Every evening the roads from Siem Reap are full of workers returning home, usually by bicycle, from the construction sites. School children too, finishing the second shift at public schools, there not being enough classrooms for all, so classes are split between morning and afternoon. Everyone seemed to be laughing with magnificent smiles.
And there it was, the vision of a sunset, the sugar palms, and the luxuriant greenery of the rice fields in the wet season, when Cambodia is transformed. Images that have stayed with me forever. Cambodia is a country where I discovered the mundane magnificent and the ordinary fascinating, even photogenic, and the people to be among those with the most positive outlook. Whenever I see photos of Cambodia, or Cambodia on the television or film, even music, or hear anything about the country, that’s the memory I have, from that one day, and it’s what always takes me back. I was bitten by the bug on the afternoon of a day I had first seen Cambodia.