I resembled a dog for most of the train ride from Bangkok to Poipet. Nose out of the window, breeze in my face and an open mouthed grin for anyone who wanted it.
Catching the breeze was the best way to keep cool in the wooden carriage; engineered long before the days of air conditioning. I was smiling because the four hour journey had only set me back $2.50. I smiled too because everyone was smiling back.
The train squeezed its way out of Bangkok, scraping track-side markets within millimetres of fresh produce. Was it helpful that I breathed in? I don’t think the driver noticed. Soon we popped out of the crush and into banana plantations and eventually, open fields filled with long grass. Until our predicted lunchtime arrival at Poipet (we had pulled out as the sun rose) there was nothing to do but take it all in.
To me, train travel always smacked of adventure but I had never ridden a train like this before.
An eclectic gathering of passengers, positioned as if extras on stage, filled the narrow wooden seats around me. A few businessmen in tailored suits were managing the heat better than me. Market traders with crates of food wore looser, cooler clothing but struggled to arrange their luggage into any comfortable position. Children played politely in the aisles, occasionally being summoned to help their parents rearrange plastic bags and suitcases.
A few hours in, I became grateful that I had boarded at the start of the line. The carriage filled to brimming with a variety of life. Families, young couples and more traders. At one station an entire brood of chickens was carried in, causing some adult tuts and a few giggles from the kids. With limited space in the wooden racks, they inevitably ended up on laps. And not necessarily those of their owners.
All of a sudden, I was embarrassed by my Britishness. Even before my wide-eyed surprise at the chickens’ entrance, my pasty skin, branded backpack and ready camera had given me away.
I concentrated on the palm fronds that whipped at the window edges and the train’s rhythm hypnotised me. It was like traversing quickly through a dream. And in a way I really was. The trip I had pictured in my head for so long was now met with a wonderful, visceral reality.
The joy of travel to unknown places is that it often surpasses even our wildest dreams.
All romantic notions were quickly shattered by the border process at Poipet. The chaos convinced me that there was safety in numbers so I quickly befriended a young European couple. Together we were whisked by tuk-tuk to not just one but two fake border controls and charged dollars for the privilege. It wasn’t worth arguing over and certainly something I had prepared for, although it left me wondering what the next eight weeks had in store.
Finally, and not without some worry, we shuffled silently through customs and into Cambodia.