The Smooth Road to Civilisation

26th MARCH 2019

Ironically, my final hours in Cambodia pass under glorious, wall-to-wall sunshine after two beach days blighted by cloud, wind and rain. I have scrambled egg on bread for breakfast, pack up all my gear and say Goodbye to my Polish hosts. They are in the middle of their morning routine of picking up any litter from the beach and around the bungalows. If every beachside business in South East Asia followed their example it would make such a difference. The Hula Hula Bungalows beach looks pristine, but the sand right next door is sprinkled with trash and plastic. These Polish newcomers are putting the locals to shame, and showing what can be achieved with just a little bit of effort.

From my beachside accommodation it’s only 4km back to the main road, and then a further 8km to the border. This short morning trip turns into a microcosm of my ride through Cambodia – cycling rough, bumpy roads under a hot blazing sun. I move past a couple of glitzy-looking casinos, looking absurdly out of place by the dry, dusty roadside, before reaching a jumble of markets and money changers at the border.

On the immigration office steps there are the usual clamour of locals, ‘helpers’ and folk selling goods on cross-border day trips. Twice I manage to stand in the wrong queue, before eventually working out the correct lines for Arrivals, Departures, Passports and Border Passes. It’s a fairly routine process, although I’m glad I kept the second photocopy of my e-visa as the official needs that to stamp me out of the country.

With my passport successfully stamped, I walk my bike through a weird two hundred metres of No Man’s Land in between Cambodia and Thailand. This section looks messy and disorganised, as every person crossing into Thailand will go from driving on the right hand side of the road to driving on the left. In direct contrast, those arriving from Thailand will be doing the opposite. I’ve always wondered about the logistics of moving between two countries that drive on different sides of the road. At what point does the crossover take place ? The conundrum here is solved by barriers, which are raised so only a handful of vehicles are let through at a time. When drivers get into the No Man’s Land between nations they simply move to the side they are due to drive on in the new country. I do the same.

At the Thai immigration post I chain my bike outside, fill out an Arrivals Form and receive a month in the country with no fuss whatsoever. A hundred metres over the border I stop to withdraw some Thai Baht, which thankfully means I’ll no longer have to work out the double exchange rate of US Dollars and Cambodian Riel for every transaction. Then, with the border post commotion behind me and local currency lining my pocket, I cycle into the Thailand leg of my journey.

When crossing some borders you’d be hard pushed to spot major differences between the two countries. Often the people, scenery and atmosphere are so similar that the nations almost feel like they have morphed into one. The changes can be so gradual that I usually have to cycle some time and distance to notice the slight variations. However, in Thailand I only have to travel one kilometre to feel like I’ve been magically transported to another world. What was a bumpy, dusty road in Cambodia this morning has now been transformed into an immaculate new dual carriageway, surfaced by the smoothest black asphalt. There’s even a wide, litter-free buffer zone at the road edge to protect me from passing traffic. After a while though, I begin to realise that there’s really not that much traffic ! There appears to be a larger incidence of private cars here, but the buzzing scooters that were so prevalent in Vietnam and Cambodia have become far less common. I’ve only just arrived, yet I can already tell that Thailand has a richer, more developed feel to it.

The following kilometres pass effortlessly, with me cycling cheerfully along a road surface that feels like polished marble compared to the last few weeks. Apart from this beautifully modern road, the surroundings are relatively natural and unspoilt. Below me to my left I have the flat, blue Gulf of Thailand, and rising to my right a steep hill covered by verdant green jungle. Before long I reach a long mirrored sign, making it useless for photography, which proclaims this location to be ‘The Narrowest Point in Thailand’. Apparently the Cambodian border lies just inland, and runs almost parallel to the Thai coast for about 60km. At this point there’s less than five hundred metres between the coastline and the Cambodian border. If I wanted, I could trek up over the hill and be back in Cambodia in no time.

My ride to Klong Yai passes smoothly and quickly on lovely, gleaming black tarmac, even though the dual carriageway returned to normal road not long after the border. Perhaps Thailand was just showing off to Cambodia with dual carriageway at the border. My accommodation is at the Klongyai Hotel, a group of cheap motel units run by a grumpy Indian family. I choose the most basic room, but presently return to reception and stump up a further 100 baht (£2.50) to upgrade to air-conditioning and Wi-Fi that actually works.

Most of my afternoon is spent lounging and catching up online following five days of Wi-Fi wilderness. I stroll into town for some food and celebrate my arrival in Thailand by ordering my first Pad Thai of the trip. This mixture of noodles, egg, prawns, peanuts and fish sauce is a staple for Western travellers in Thailand and is always a dependable, filling option. I sit at a large, open Plastic Chair Cafe near the town’s river, slowly becoming aware of a huge brown rat skulking around underneath the cooking stands. If this creature appeared in a UK restaurant I’d be horrified, but out here it doesn’t seem to faze me too much. I put my hygiene and rodent concerns aside and watch the owner bloke cooking my Pad Thai from scratch. It’s such a simple process, taking about three minutes and the result tastes so bloody good. No wonder the rat has taken up residence here.

On the way back I stop at a pharmacy for some sunscreen, to find they only stock the dreaded ‘Whitening’ version. The woman behind the counter phones her sister (who’s the pharmacist) and hands me the phone so we can talk. In the language confusion she initially thinks I want aloe vera for sunburn, but then tells me of a 7-11 store in town that should be able to supply me with sunscreen. A 7-11 ! I’m irrationally excited by this prospect as, along with Pad Thai, they are another safe, familiar cop out for Western tourists. When I arrive at the store I do find genuine Nivea sunscreen, and also see that I can indulge in brand name pizzas, chocolates and crisps. It’s good to find familiar products for a change, and even better to see prices displayed on the shelves below them. It’s not often I’m able to make such well informed food decisions in South East Asia.

When I return at night I turn up the air-conditioning, play on the internet and stuff a calorie-laden pineapple pastry into my gob. For the time being I’m simply enjoying being back in the comfort of a developed country. I remember when Thailand was a mysterious unknown to me, thinking how exotic and possibly dangerous it might be. Then, when I first visited in 2002, I discovered the country was really rather safe, Westernised and extremely easy for tourists. My thoughts are that Thailand’s popularity is mostly because you get alluring, exotic locations without stepping too far out of your comfort zone. After arriving in the country today it feels like I’ve made a return to civilisation after being away for a while. Apart from the rats, of course.

 

 

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