Cambodia to Ko Chang

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“Never judge a country by its border town,” writes Allan Weisbecker. That’s a good thing to remember when passing through Poi Pet, the scummy Cambodian stain on the Thai frontier about which another writer, Gordon Sharpless, says, “Poipet more-or-less rhymes with ‘toilet’ and the two are virtually indistinguishable.”

Luckily, Tay and I pass quickly through Poi Pet, first its seedy truck-stop massage parlors and fly-swarmed eateries, then its anomalous gleaming mountains of casinos, after which we are mired in a two-hour wait at Thai immigration. For the hundreds of people waiting on line, there are two customs officials, in no rush to apply their precious stamps, seals, and signatures.

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Shady characters abound — greasy Western expats making visa runs, Thais streaming into the casinos, and suspicious-looking dark-sunglassed women standing near the anti-drug signs which threaten “execution or life sentence”. . .

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Because of the wait, we miss the direct transport to Trat, so we board the Chantiburi “express,” which, for the next six hours, rolls across the southeast Thai countryside, a green landscape of hills with sharp limestone rises and dozens of sparkling pagodas and monasteries. Inside, a Thai-dubbed film plays on the bus’ television monitors, starring The Rock, who loudly bashes and shoots his way through the next two hours, a wonderful depiction of America: violence, guns, sex, and gambling, what else?

We arrive in Chantiburi in the dark and cram into the back of a seungteow, or outfitted pickup truck. Our company for the next hour: a Canuck and Aussie who just bicycled from Hanoi to Siem Reap after a longer pedaling trip in China, raising money for Oxfam; a young, solo Englishwoman, slowly traveling to Sydney where she will work for a few months to be able to continue her world tour; two mustachioed Frenchmen drinking Lao Beers out of cans, one with stringy hair around a bald patch and his silent Thai wife beside him. We speed through the dark, open air rushing by, several rainstorms on the roof, speaking of the things that travelers speak about.

We arrive in Trat, exhausted after 14 overland hours since Siem Reap, dump our bags in our $3-room in the Ban Jaidee Guesthouse, and walk down the block for a plate of seafood and spicy Tom Yam soup.

I can smell the sea in the air, a briny rot that speaks of brackish swamps and fresh fish. We are not there yet (Trat lies at the top of a long inlet of water), but we are close. Tomorrow, we will board a ferry for Ko Chang — Elephant Island — in the Gulf of Thailand. The interior of Ko Chang, we have heard, is a paradise of virgin forest and waterfalls, but its coastline is a booming tourist haven, with upscale development trying to push out the partying backpackers. But Tay and I have heard of a quiet bay removed from this hectic energy, a cluster of bamboo huts built over the lapping waves.

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Incredibly, except for a brief glimpse of the Arabian Sea during our one day in Dubai, we have not seen the ocean since our honeymoon in Belize, 10 months ago. Tomorrow, at last, we return to The Beach.

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If traveling overland between Cambodia and Thailand, Tales of Asia has the best, most up-to-date nuts-n-bolts.

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