The do-it-yourself, budget minded, live out of a backpack kind travel is sometimes like playing with a yo-yo. When it’s up, you find your self in amazing places, meeting interesting people, and having once in a lifetime experiences. But when that yo-yo drops, things can go from amazing to amazingly difficult quick — and when the place you’ve just left was close to paradise, it can seem like a long way to fall.
Our travels to Cambodia started rocky, literally. When we left Koh Kood the waves were bigger and the boat smaller than when we arrived. Our speedboat battled its way through the rollers for two and a half hours. Two taxis and a bus ride later we reached the city of Chanthaburi, famous for fruit and gems, or so Lonely Planet says.
When we flopped our backpacks down in the River Guesthouse lobby we were dead tired. Desperate to get off the road and failing to learn from our experiences in Trat, we gave one room a quick glance before plopping down $7 to stay the night.
When we walked back to the room, we saw what we were really in for. The pipes in the bathroom were broken and leaked badly. To keep the bathroom from flooding, I had to turn the water on and off at a small valve behind the toilet before we could use it, the sink, or the shower. When the water was on, it carried with it a festering septic smell. Dark mold rotted in the bathroom, eating the ceiling and door.
The room itself wasn’t all that bad if you kept the door to the bathroom closed and the exhaust fan on. It had a desk, something I’d wanted all week. The bed was small, maybe a twin. It had a single mangy blanket and there was a boarded up hole in the wall next to it.
We decided our time would be better spent out of doors. Sonya and I walked Chanthaburi’s waterfront. We had some snacks and looked across a small bridge to Thailand’s largest cathedral. There were a lot of trucks, draped in blue and white banners parked in front of it.
When we went out again for dinner, the streets were lined with candles. All the shops were closed and many had altars with figurines of the Virgin Mary surrounded by flowers sitting outside. People lined the streets playing music and waving flags.
The trucks from the church paraded by with their loads of priest and nuns and school children and flower girls. I watched as those on the street alternated between giving “wai’s” and making the sign of the cross. Thailand has a Christian population of about 0.7%, I wondered if I was seeing most of them on that street.
Because of the parade, we didn’t get dinner and didn’t eat a real meal until the next afternoon when we arrived in Aranyaprathet. The city took about four hours to reach by bus and we stayed in something probably equivalent to a Motel Six. To us it seemed like a five-star hotel.
Aranyaprathet is a border town. It has the kind of broken down and dirty feeling of a city whose economy is driven largely by people who don’t live there. We walked a broken and trash strewn sidewalk back towards the center of town from our motel.
When we went out it was about two in the afternoon. Most of the shops had closed or the owners were laying in hammocks, looking like they would rather not be bothered. The first signs of life we encountered were at a noodle stand on the side of the road.
We sat on plastic stools and each got a bowl of spicy noodle soup. More than a week into our trip to Thailand this was our first street food. The broth was dark and had a strong beef flavor. It reminded me of Pho with an added kick of chili paste. A girl who giggled when I tried to speak Thai, gave us a plate of bean sprouts and Thai basil to put in our soup.
I couldn’t quite make out everything in the soup but I knew most of it. There was beef tongue, tripe, liver, and a small dumpling that might have been a blood cake. I thought it was one of the best things I’ve had in Thailand. Sonya’s soup was too spicy for her. Even from behind the counter, where the women who ran the shop were sitting, you could see her lips were bright red and she was sweating.
The women gestured toward us and laughed, we laughed too. The girl at the counter gave Sonya another bowl of broth without chili paste. I gave the girl a 50% tip and we still only spent $3 on lunch.
Two days on the road had taken most of the adventure out of us. That night we played it safe and had instant noodles at our motel. I met the owner who told me about how much the people of Thailand loved their king. He pointed to his big black Mercedes and told me he was the also the local police commander. I asked a few questions about crossing the border and said goodnight.
We were up and in a tuk-tuk by 7:30 the next morning. It took us to one of the rip-off visa places on the border. We knew better and made it into Cambodia with our e-visas by 8:30. After pushing past a couple of touts, we met the driver our guesthouse had sent for us and began the two-hour journey to Siem Reap.
There had been a clear economic line at the border. Behind us sidewalks ran along the road, here there was dirt. In Thailand you passed big rigs, here people pulled handcarts and drove trucks without the cabs. After about an hour, big rice fields opened up on either side of the road.
In Thailand, cars drive on the left side of the road. In Cambodia they start driving on the right side but then move to the middle and maybe even the left side of the road if it’s really crowded. Horns are used a lot and so are high beams. There were one or two close calls with motorbikes but nothing serious. After a few white-knuckled minibus rides in Zambia, this barely phased me.
We reached the Seven Candles Guesthouse around lunch time and settled into a big clean room. It is set to be our base for the next seven days and looks like a pretty good one.
The road to Cambodia wasn’t all bad, in fact there was a lot of good. It was just a harsh reminder that no place will ever be Koh Kood.