I’d expected Trat to be dark and deserted when we got off the bus at 4 a.m, but the market was brilliant with electric light, the wooden tables covered with produce and household articles. The fruit and vegetables on display were solid-looking and healthy and I was reminded again of the impression of “furious plenty” I’d had when we first returned to Thailand from Laos four years ago. Sometimes even rural Thailand can seem tremendously rich.
We wandered around the market for a little while, and then went to wait for the minibus to Hat Lek to fill up. A little before 5 a.m, the driver decided that he had enough passengers, and we squeezed in for the hundred km ride down to the border. In the darkness, it was hard to get much more than a general impression of fields and trees, broad rivers or canals, drowsing villages stretched out along the edges of the road.
It was light when we reached Hat Lek, and the market there was just starting up. We walked down to the sea, past a small shrine displaying a collection of enormous wooden lingams, and sat on a stubby jetty by the small harbor. The sea was dotted with small boats, slipping back and forth across the silver water under the pale gray dawn sky.
The border was still closed, but day-workers were already running over from the Cambodian side and squatting down in a neat column by the gate, watched over by a small group of teenage Thai soldiers in camouflage boxer shorts and singlets. The Thai inspector at the control post shook his head over my handwriting on my exit form.
“Can't read, can't read,” he said disapprovingly.
On the Cambodian side, we shuffled from office to office, filling out forms and collecting stamps. The health inspector wanted us to pay 100 baht for a “SARS certificate”, but didn't press the point when we declined. We gathered our last few stamps and leapt into a taxi with a Thai man on his way to invest in a casino.
The four-hour boat trip to Sihanoukville looked pleasantly scenic on the map, with large swathes of the adjacent shore marked “mangroves” and “national park”, but turned out to be less rewarding than we had hoped. The boat was an elongated steel can with airline-style seats and no access to the exterior, smeared picture windows covered with flaking blue anti-glare film offering only glimpses of a green tropical sea and jungled shores edged with white sand. To make up for the absence of a view, the crew put on a Thai kick-boxing movie of preternatural brutality and incomprehensibility (
“Didn't they just kick him to death in the last scene?”), and our ears rang with screams and vicious thuds all the way to Sihanoukville.
The port of Sihanoukville – a sandy backlot with little more than a pier for the speedboats from Krong Koh Kong and a few high-pooped wooden fishing boats hauled ashore for repair – turned out to be about six km out of town, so we were quickly set on by teenage moto-taxi drivers, eager to ensure that we went to their aunt’s guest houses and nowhere else. We explained that we needed time to decide what we wanted to do, that we had no intention of staying in Sihanoukville, and that in the interests of preventing a multiple homicide it would really be very much better if they backed off and left us the hell alone. They smiled with exquisite politeness, nodded to show that they understood, and came back again thirty seconds later, pointing to their maps and telling us that their aunts’ guesthouses really were the best ones in Sihanoukville, if not in South-East Asia. We eventually bowed to the inevitable and allowed two of them to take us to Serendipity Beach to paddle our toes in the water.
Beyond the impeccable white sand of its beaches, there didn’t seem to be all that much to recommend Sihanoukville. We shouldered our bags again and trudged into town, shoo’ing moto-taxi drivers away like well-meaning flies. Just in from the beach, a huge and oddly reptilian-looking pair of statues of a lion and a lioness (the lion seemingly holding a gilded tennis ball in its mouth for reasons that are still obscure to me) presided over a traffic circle whose scale and magnificence was matched only by its apparently complete superfluousness.
Near the market, the driver of a white Camry managed to convince us that his was the last shared taxi of the day going to Kampot, and that if we’d like to split the cost with a buxom blonde German and a Khmer woman, we could leave immediately. The German girl seemed profoundly glad to see us, two hours of loitering on the fringes of the market and making small-talk with the local ne’er-do-wells having apparently used up most of her stock of French, Khmer and bonhomie.
The road out of Sihanoukville was in relatively good condition, but the villages alongside disgorged a constant stream of human, animal and vehicular traffic, forcing the driver to beat a continuous tattoo on the horn to warn motorcycles, bicycles, children, cows, dogs and chickens out of our way. A little before the Kampot turn, a small rat-like black dog that was meandering across the road looked up in surprise at the sound of the horn, turned around and scurried in front of us, going under the nearside front wheel with an abbreviated yelp. Afterwards, there was silence in the car and the driver slowed down and used the horn less.
Beyond the turnoff, the broad ribbon of tarmac bordered by red earth began to narrow, and in places was completely replaced by recently-graded red dirt. The afternoon rain started, and we splashed through puddles, weaved among motorcycles laden with poncho-clad riders. After a way, the dirt road gave over to asphalt again, this time a much narrower strip flanked by rich greenery.
Kampot, in the late afternoon, presented a tranquil aspect. A grubby roadside village yielded to a narrow girder bridge that carried us across a broad silver river flanked by large white houses and the remnants of a riverside promenade. We dumped our bags at a guesthouse and went for a walk.
“Look at the chicken,” I said, pointing to the gawky, fluffy chick running across the road. M. turned just in time to see it go under the front wheel of a motorbike.
“Look at the ex-chicken,” I concluded. It lay stretched in the dirt, making feeble movements with its legs trailing limply behind it in an ugly way. The mother hen ran over to peck at it. Not a good day for livestock on Cambodian roads.
We walked down to the river and watched the light fail over the humped green-black mass of the Bokor ‘mountain’ on the far side. Afterwards, we ate rice and vegetables at a riverside restaurant, while a handful of geckos scurried in the pools of light cast by the lamps on the green-painted wall above our heads. When we had finished, it was dark. We felt our way back to the guesthouse, our path lit only by the occasional headlamps of motorcycles and the intermittent flicker of heat-lightning in the distance.