80km Sangkha to Anlong Veng
We set off for Cambodia this morning, slightly concerned about the roads ahead but encouraged by the ever-smooth asphalt on the last part of our journey through Thailand. The last few kilometers went steeply uphill and not so long ago we would have been climbing, or more likely pushing, on gravel but now it was reasonably easy to inch upwards in low gear. Only the hot sun beating down our heads gave us trouble. For the first time, we didn’t see any bus stops to seek shelter under and it was a good thing we had plenty of water on board, both to drink and to pour over our sweating bodies. This would be a very easy section of road to get heatstroke on.
A small wave of jitters ran over us as we entered the last tiny village on the border. The nicely surfaced road ended abruptly, leaving a dusty dirt track in its place. We weren’t even sure where the border crossing was. No signs indicated the way and any one of the forks in the road could have been the right path but on local instruction we headed for a cluster of huts. In the distance we could see a Cambodian flag fluttering on a makeshift building but first we had to get through Thai customs.
“You speak Thai?” said the hopeful official. We had to disappoint. Beyond a few basics like ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ our Thai hasn’t advanced very much in the past three weeks. Our man actually managed quite well though, asking probing questions like ‘where are you going’ (Hmmmm, Cambodia??) before quickly putting our exit stamps in place. Now for the other side, where we’d been warned to expect plenty of poorly disguised request for bribes. First we were directed to a hut with a sign for a ‘visa service’ on it. Our suspicions instantly rose as this sounded very much like a business venture where someone charges you a few bucks to fill in an application form or lend you a pen but it was all legitimate and we watched as a middle-aged man slowly pasted visas into our passports. So far so good but we still didn’t know the asking price.
Conveniently, the stamp on the visa that should have shown us the cost was poorly inked so we could only read ‘USD’ but not the actual figure. We passed over $20 U.S. for one visa – the real fee although more is often demanded – but we didn’t have enough in American currency for the second visa so we had to pay in Thai baht and for this our man would accept no less than 1,000 Baht, about $30 U.S. and a nice profit for him. Still, we couldn’t really complain as we were soon on our way with practically no hassle. We were only the third and fourth foreigners through the border by lunchtime, which meant we doubled that day’s workload for the border guards!
Off we went onto more dusty roads but it was only a few hundred meters before we discovered a fantastic paved road all the way down the hill, past the woods where Pol Pot once hid away, and into the small provincial town of Anlong Veng. There is a noticable increase in poverty here from Thailand but the people are exceptionally friendly and can’t see very many tourists. It’s only in the last few years that improving roads here have in any way made the area accessible from the rest of Cambodia. Undoubtedly the town will soon explode in popularity with its Khmer Rouge background and the celebrated temple of Prah Vilhear. We had a walk through the market, which wouldn’t even have existed ten years ago when Khmer rebels were still in control and got many fits of giggles from the merchants and quite a few ‘hellos’ from young women minding the stalls. Now we have a long slog to Siem Reap, maybe long enough to get our heads around the basics of yet another language!