Crossing from Thailand to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh is not as easy as I'd hoped.
Avoiding the traditional northern route from Bangkok to Siem Reap, home of the spectacular Angkor Wat temple complex, we decide to cross along the Gulf of Thailand, allowing us to stop at a few of Thailand's less frequented beach resorts en route. A leisurely week of island-hopping culminates in a sunny afternoon's journey by minivan to the border crossing.
Thailand is a breeze to travel, with excellent roads and a well-established tourist infrastructure. Given the massive quantities of foreign money poured annually into the country from tourism, the police and government do everything in their power to ensure a minimum of hassle. As a result, I'm a tad unprepared for the chaos across the border.
As our van pulls into the parking lot at the visa office, a small group of people give chase. Stepping out of our comfortable air-conditioned refuge into the harsh afternoon sunlight, we're surrounded by people all strenuously arguing their suitability to guide us onward into Cambodia.
The shrewder of them have developed a persona to distinguish themselves from the others: a kindly older gentleman approaches us with protective paternal care; a younger man starts buddying around with me, offering friendship and doubtless anything else I might want; a voice in the back of the mob takes the role of my ego, informing me, "You are confused, you don't know who to choose, there are too many of us."
He may be right, but I ignore his odd pitch, grab the nearest guide and blow past the rest. After a few minutes and some official stamping of papers, we're speeding away to Koh Kong, the first town on the Cambodian side of the border.
The dark legacy of the Khmer Rouge lingers over the country. The number of amputees is a reminder of the tragic toll land mines have taken. Spend a few days and you start to notice the scarcity of older people - an entire generation was decimated by Pol Pot's monstrous regime.
Only recently has Cambodia been considered a safe place to travel, and then only if you confine yourself to the beaten track. The coastal border crossing is newly opened , and Koh Kong can hardly be considered a tourist destination. One look at the accommodation available and my travel companion insists we charter a van and leave for Phnom Penh immediately. Since the average visitor in town is a Thai in search of gambling or cheap prostitutes, it has a bit of a Wild West feel, and I'm quickly persuaded to leave.
Previously, tourists were required to travel by boat to the nearby beach resort of Sihanoukville before reaching Cambodia's one decent highway to the capital, but a new road has recently been completed from Koh Kong to the highway.
At first we marvel at the width of the newly finished dirt road, but we quickly realize that since any given stretch could be 90 per cent impassable, the engineers had simply come up with a solution to the lack of money for paving. It takes us six hours to go about 100 kilometres due to the soggy roads, and more than once our jeep passes older vehicles that are completely stuck.
Bridges are non-existent, so we must cross rivers on small ferries, one of which has a motor that fails midway, triggering some frantic and fortunately successful last-minute tinkering. When we finally reach the highway, we're so ecstatic we forgive our driver for dumping us for some passengers in a minivan and sending us the rest of the way to Phnom Penh with a pack of laughing teenage monks, shaven freshly bald, en route to the spectacular temples of the city.
Arriving at close to midnight, we take the first room we see and collapse exhausted into our beds.