When you’re splitting Bangkok at 5.55 in the morning, it’s better not to sleep at all.
The reason for us fleeing the charms of Southeast Asia’s party central is waiting at a platform at Hualamphong, Bangkok’s imposing railway station. The three of us blearily stagger in, asking for the “Cambodia Express”. Only, there’s nothing remotely resembling an express train on any platform. “There Cambodia Express, khap!” says the ticket guy, pointing to a rickety little train that seems to have come straight off of a 70s spur line. Express, indeed!
The ticket, at 48 baht (around 70 bucks, Indian) for a six-hour, 300 km ride, is pretty 70s, too. This, I found out later; for now, all the Jack and Coke I’ve downed trawling Khao San Road sends me into a pleasant slumber as we rattle out of the City of Smiles.
I wake up three hours later to find the sun burning one half of me to a crisp. We’ve stopped, bang in the middle of a railway crossing. Passengers jump on and off. This, it seems, is routine on the line to Aranyaprathet, the border crossing into Cambodia. After the squeaky-clean Bangkok Skytrains and their chic commuters, the Indian in me feels at home right away. Jabbering villagers clamber on with baskets of chickens and vegetables, while a couple of bored Thai soldiers doze in one corner, camo caps tipped over their eyes. There’s also an endless stream of hawkers; if anyone can beat the Indian Railways in this department, it would have to be the Thais. These guys can really eat, though where it all goes is a mystery (fat Thais are – pardon the pun – rather thin on the ground). Three hungover souls, gulping juices, wallop whatever goodies come our way. Of course, this being Thailand, there’s almost every edible species of the animal kingdom on offer, including a few you wouldn’t have thought would make the grade.
Then, at a little station fifteen kilometers before Aranyaprathet, the train stops. We wait. Nothing happens. It’s blazing hot, and we’re baking in the steel box that’s our cabin. Clambering down, we’re told that a Thai royal’s visiting the area, so all rail and road traffic is shut down. This puzzles the scattering of Europeans present but, to us desis, it makes perverse sense. “Behenchod VIPs …everywhere you go it’s the same, man.” mutters Chandan. Worse, there’s not a single beer to be found in the neighbourhood. Gulping water, we wait for over an hour before the train begins chugging its way to the end of the line.
Aranyaprathet! I’ve read so much about it, and about Poipet, its twin town across the Cambodian border. In reality, both are nothing much, except for rows of casinos that look totally out of place. It’s a duty-free zone or something, so gambling’s legal here. A tuk-tuk takes us to the border and the driver tries to pull a time-honoured scam. You get dropped off at a ‘Visa Centre’ where, according to your tuk-tuk guy, you get a Cambodian visa for 2000 baht. Pure bullshit; just walk right past it (and your now-agitated tuk-tukwallah) and you’re at the border where (horror stories in the Lonely Planet and elsewhere notwithstanding) getting visas on arrival is a pretty painless process, at 1000 baht a pop.
Welcome to Cambodia! Poipet’s a dump, but our spirits immediately rise! Because, when it comes to the plentiful availability of cheap, cold beer, Cambodia boots Goa in its unmentionables. Angkor, Kingdom and Cambodia Beer are excellent brewskis, and cost just a dollar a bottle (TIP: The US Dollar is the de facto currency in Cambodia; pick up as few Cambodian riels as you can – they can’t be converted anywhere else and are therefore worthless). Re-hydrated, refreshed and pleasantly buzzed, we’re deposited at the Cambodia Tourism office. Sweet, efficient guys – India Tourism should train under them. 40 US sees us cooling off in an aircon taxi, driving down the highway.
Next stop? Siem Riep, and Angkor!
Update: Thai Railways (http://www.thairailways.com/) has finally gotten around to providing online booking which, strangely, wasn’t available even two years ago. That said, tickets are available only on certain routes, and definitely not for the Bangkok-Aranyaprathet train. Your best bet is to hit Hualampong Station (it’s also an MRT terminus) and ask. Tickets are usually plentifully available. Across the border, Cambodia Tourism has a complimentary air-con shuttle to the Poipet bus terminal, where buses and prepaid cabs regularly ply to Siem Riep, 150 km away.