Posted by: kim | August 11, 2007

Overland from Cambodia: O’Smach/Chong Jom

We’ve successfully negotiated our last international overland border crossing of the trip: the obscure O’Smach/Chong Jom border crossing that connects Cambodia and Thailand.

Most people travelling overland to Thailand will leave via Poipet and make a beeline for Bangkok, but as we’re visiting areas slightly north of there we thought we’d leave Siem Reap by one of the less frequented routes and head to the town of Surin in Thailand.

Our friendly tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap, Sukhin, told us his friend could take us to O’Smach for $55. “But the road is not so good,” he said, making undulating gestures with his hands. Most of the roads in Cambodia are not sealed and are thus in a state of constant disrepair… the rains do nothing to improve matters. A few days ago, the red dirt road we had to take from Battambang to Siem Reap had deteriorated rapidly when we got to the junction at Sisophon. Later that day, Sukhin told us that his friend had wanted to use his new car to take us the 150km or so to O’Smach, but he was afraid it might get wrecked so he was borrowing someone else’s instead.

At 6.30 we left the relative comfort of Siem Reap’s roads and headed west on to the ‘highway’. Those going to Poipet will share this initial part of the trip. After the rains, there were an incredible amount of potholes in the rocky, red dirt road and our driver began to do the pothole ‘dance’ which involved swerving rapidly at the last second to avoid them. Invariably you’re then confronted with another car in the opposite direction doing the same thing. If any astronaut plans on going to Mars, try practising driving your buggy on a Cambodian road! At times the driver reached 80 km/h but much of the time he was going at 40 km/h, so it took us about 4.5 hours to get to O’Smach.

It’s not all whiplash and juddering jaws though… the countryside really does change dramatically. It gets more mountainous and even more sparse, although crops are still prevalent and there seem to be more cows on the road. About 85 per cent of Cambodians live in rural areas and you’ll see many children herding, or running around naked playing in puddles or on dilapidated statues. The small wooden shacks people live in are filled with people, and there are many roadside stalls selling fruit, drinks and homemade food. The road got slightly less potholey once we headed north as not as many vehicles pass through, but it was still spongey and bumpy.

Along the way there also seemed to be a visible amount of foreign-funded schools and information signs about registering your child once it’s born or looking out for landmines. As we headed up towards O’Smach we saw people looking for land mines (this is pretty much the region of Khmer Rouge’s last stand), and another five-on-a-motorcycle sighting, this time with three monks on it!

We passed a car with some Westerners and as we approached O’Smach, we saw the big casino in the distance that attracts daytripping Thais (gambling’s illegal in Thailand). The border crossing was uneventful and straightforward enough — we made it to Thailand and immediately, we noticed how the road was sealed and even had paint on it! The problem now was getting to Surin without any baht.

Luckily the three young Americans in the car behind us were also going to Surin (about 90 mins away), but they were hard bargainers. Only one driver offered to take us to Surin in his private bus and wanted 1,000 baht for the privilege (about $30). No one could tell us when a public bus would arrive. The Americans were initially only keen on paying 50 baht per person ($1.50). Eventually, after almost an hour of discussion and negotiation, we all agreed on paying 100 baht per person “but you share with some Thai people”.

Finally we got to Surin after occasional checks by the bus police (some Thais had to get out of the vehicle – don’t really know why…) and despite a few people dropping in and out at various stops it was pretty straightforward. Our hotel was even next door to the bus terminal!!

Surin is a provincial town but compared to what we’ve seen it’s pretty big. It’s famous for its ‘elephant round-up’ which is some kind of fair involving elephants participating in contests of skill, beauty and showmanship (I think). Apart from that, there’s nothing too exciting apart from huge DIY stores, keycutters and so on but the people are laid back and friendly! And we did see one elephant in the bus car park…

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