The Aranyaprathet/Poipet border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia has a bad reputation among travelers, but we didn’t have any problems. I think all of the problems associated with the border (corrupt officials, scams, and onward transportation) are no longer an issue.
It’s crazy how a line on a map can change everything. The countries in Asia really are as different from each other as the countries within Europe are. One of the first things I noticed is how much poorer Cambodia is than Thailand. There’s more trash and filth in the towns. The roads are in bad condition, which is a little ironic, since everyone says the roads are much better now than they were twenty years ago. (I can’t imagine how bad they must have been then!) A fair amount of people ride actual bicycles, not motorbikes. Touts and beggars are out in full force again, something we haven’t really had to deal with since Indonesia.
Other things have changed as well. The food has, in my opinion, taken a turn for the worse. Grilled meat here is excellent, but most dishes seem to lean heavily on cucumbers and onions. (Maybe they’re cheaper?) I don’t dislike cucumbers and onions, but they’re not my favorite vegetables. At least bread is common here, probably because we’ve reached former French Indochina territory. I didn’t realize how much I missed bread until I bit into a freshly baked baguette.
Money is pretty confusing here. They have a local currency, the riel, but mostly use US dollars. That sounds simple enough, but they don’t have any US change, so they use the riel as change. The exchange rate is about 4,000 to $1, so if your bill is $6.25 and you pay with a $10, you’re going to get $3 and 3,000 riel back as change. And to make things even more confusing, they also use the Thai baht, so prices can be given in dollars, riel, baht, or a combination of them, and we have to figure out which one is the best price.
The language is different, of course. The people look different. The tuk tuks are different here. In Thailand, tuk tuks are small, three-wheeled vehicles with the driver in front and a bench in the back for the passengers. Here, tuk tuks are chariot-like trailers pulled by motorbikes. The dirt is red and dry, like it was in Australia. Everything is dusty. It even smells different here, but I have no idea how to describe the smell. It’s not bad or stinky, just different.
And, sadly, there is evidence all over of Cambodia’s tragic past. After enduring war and genocide of an estimated two million people by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime, the country faced a new problem: land mines. Until recently, Cambodia was one of the most heavily mined countries in the world and right away I noticed how many amputees and handicapped people there are. The land mines also stopped people from using large areas of land, which is partly why Cambodia is less developed. (If you want to read more about land mines in Cambodia, I highly recommend this National Geographic article.)
Clearly Cambodia is going to be a whole new ballgame. Most tourists blow right through here, stopping only in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, but we decided to stay just a little bit longer to see more. It may not be as pleasant or fun as Thailand, but I’m looking forward to learning more about Cambodia.