There’s a thunder storm crashing on to the roof of Bangkok’s Hualampong station when we pull out at 5.50am for the border town of Aranya Prathet, a six hour ride away.
I’m sitting in 3rd class hard seats (wooden with stiffly upright backrests) and the fare is 48baht, less than £1. I haven’t had time for breakfast but at the first stop a team of women get on, each selling some kind of food – fragrant fried rice, hot sweet and milky coffee, cold soft drinks and parcels of sticky rice – from a basket on her hip. Fed and sated, I doze and watch the scenery go by and chat to two other travellers, Kaili from the US and Mark from England.
We arrive at 12.10. I’m hot, tired and feeling moody. By 2.00pm my mood hasn’t improved. From Aranya Prathet there’s a 6km taxi ride to the border, a horde of touts to avoid, several long immigration queues to be negotiated and a small ‘tip’ to be paid to Cambodia’s visa office. Finally, after a frustrating two hours, made worse by the burning sun and sauna like conditions, I’m over the border and sharing a taxi to Siem Reap with Kaili, Mike and Mark. Since Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge there are no train lines running in Cambodia, so for the next few weeks it’s back to car, bus and boats for me.
It takes two hours to drive the 150km to Siem Reap and it quickly becomes obvious that Cambodia has yet to share in the prosperity that’s now in evidence in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. Roads are rutted and pot holed; small shanty towns line the side of the highway and the wind blows dusty eddies along the arid rice fields on both sides (the wet season has yet to start).
Siem Reap itself is surprisingly touristy: large hotel chains line the road into town. A small, sluggish brown river winds its way through the centre of town, French colonial homes (wide verandahs, high ceilings and lazily turning fans) sit beside more rickety constructions. The streets are surprisingly empty of traffic.
In the centre of town, beside the old market, runs a laneway that’s filled from end to end with restaurants. It feels like Ibiza town. Tables and chairs crowd the pavements, music spills out into the hot night, waiters tout for business and tourists sit sipping 50c happy hour pints of beer and eating everything from fried rice to pizza. The combination of the exotic and the everyday gets even stronger when my friend Hannah arrives from London to join me for two weeks. Siem Reap suddenly feels somehow very familiar.
I sit down for a very welcome cold beer – the first icy mouthful going a long way to soothe my travel sore body – and a group of small children cluster around me selling bracelets, postcards and other trinkets. They’re a constant feature of any stay in Siem Reap and their persistence and poverty make them very hard to refuse.
One lunchtime a young boy tries to sell me bracelets. I show him the set I bought the previous day. He looks at me with doleful eyes. ‘Can you buy me something to eat?’ he asks quietly. We buy him and his friend a lunch of fried rice and they eat, quickly, quietly, beside us then tidy away their plates and say thank you and polite goodbyes before heading off to sell some more. I feel wealthy, guilty and thankful for all I have.