An impressive, grey stone gateway straddled the road. Two smaller arches flanked the centrepiece topped by three elaborately carved, lotus shaped towers. Engraved across the main arch were the words Kingdom of Cambodia. Spilling onto this side of the divide, the Thai side, were Cambodians, on foot or travelling in simple carts pulled by pedal power. They were like an army of ‘borrowers’, cross border entrepreneurs, loading their carts with the discarded trash of their richer neighbour… recycling at its most basic level. Others were piled high with cheap plastic goods, plentiful in industrialised Thailand as compared to Cambodia.
Border formalities were quick and easy. No hustlers, no moneychangers, just a little girl of five, holding a tiny baby, with the freshest and most innocent of smiles. For so long now, well over a year, we had been in richer countries – the USA, Canada, Australia and more recently the relatively developed countries of South East Asia – Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Now, riding through this archway, all was about to change.
Tarmac became dirt with no clues as to which side to ride. Traffic was sparse and two-wheeled, coming at us equally on both sides of the road. An enormous roundabout, after a kilometre or two, gave no further pointers. It was simply a hub, a meeting place, a rabble of people surrounded by litter, puffs of smoke rising from their fires. A cart, unrecognisable as such, lay buried under a mountain of wicker baskets. In contrast to the staid cleanliness we had become accustomed to, this land had a vibrancy one could immediately sense. The joie de vivre of a people finally emerging from the genocide years was shining through.