Aranyaprathet pronounced 'allan yappa-teht' is a small border town with a tiny population that has more visitors than any holiday resort. It is a not a historical town though there are temple ruins and archaeological sites that date back hundreds of years.
Its' chequered history has seen it change provinces three times and no one knows how many times the border between Cambodia and Thailand has moved. In the days of Siam the area was in Khmer which sort of makes it belong to both countries. As a result all up and down the border between these two countries sees intermittent spats that sometimes lead to gunfights.
In Aran however there is an agreed calm. I say 'agreed' because it's easy for central governments to have international law that states where the border is but that doesn't sit well with the peoples of each nation who live either side who because of history, dispute where the border should be.
In Aranyaprathet however is a unique situation that benefits both sides so even though they do not like each other, do not trust each other, and stay segregated, they also remain respectful to each other.
The two governments, post Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, agreed on a no mans land along the southern border. Pre 1975 there was no official borderline and Cambodians freely traded Chinese and Vietnamese goods with Thailand through various outposts along the southern border. In 1975 the border was hurriedly applied and the Khmer closed all dealings with its neighbours. At Aranyaprathet was a railway station on the line that ran from Bangkok to Phnom Penh which became a terminus and the line after was removed. Cambodians fearing for their lives were pouring over the border as refugees in such prolific numbers that the Thai government was forced to take action to stop this for fear of Cambodia's one sided civil war spilling over into Thailand. There was no international brownie points for the lack of humanitarianism and they placed a large anti-personnel tank battalion in Aran and planted landmines along the border.
Today sadly, the mines are still there and there are regular explosions as Cambodians attempt to cross the border illegally even though there are signs and barbed wire fences. They run this risk because Thailand is a more affluent country than their own which is a sad declaration considering Thailand would be deemed third world. Immigration and trade was strictly administered during that decade of terror as Cambodians with gold and jewellery were allowed into Aranyaprathet to trade their precious heirlooms and sometimes ill-gotten gains for food which they took back to their families. This made many politicians and businessmen in Aran very wealthy as the exchange rate went as high as 1kg of rice for ½baht of gold. About 25 times its' market value. Several of these businessmen have invested heavily in making Aranyaprathet a better place though often it is just whimsical. It is ironic how the balance of wealth slid from one side of the border to the other because of a regime but now that balance is drifting slowly back thanks to western vanity. Why?, Because if we were not so pre-occupied with designer labels, the Thais would not aspire to possess copy label goods and the Cambodians would not have a market to manufacture and sell to.
When the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1985 the succeeding government reopened all its borders. The markets and trading posts at Aranyaprathet came back to life and a daily stream of Cambodians who live in the neighbouring town of Poipet cross the border to set up stall in the market of Rong Klua. The market is vast and having spent two full days walking round it I saw very little. This is a distribution centre for Thais who come from all the major towns and cities to buy goods to sell in their shops and market stalls making the trains very busy and a trail of trucks on a road that is now mostly dual-carriageway to cope with the ever increasing haulage. Strategically Aran is not in any particular place other than on a road that dates back around 8 centuries though that estimate is only from known records of a road that ran from the temple of Chaiwatthanaram in Ayutthaya which at that time was the very wealthy trading port of Siam to the temple of Angwat in Siem Reap, Khmer. Today it is Route 33.
Despite the hustle and bustle it never feels crowded or rushed. It is relaxed and friendly and popular with falang who do not go there for the beer bars or market. In the narrow strip of no mans land has developed a unique piece of real estate built by corrupt politicians who could see an opportunity because of the way the border control functions. As you pass through the gate you are not asked for your passport. When you get to the other side of the no mans land it is checked. Gambling is one of those opportunities because it is illegal in Thailand. There is a number of casinos between the border gates where neither country is allowed to police and where falang like to frequent. It was also useful if you needed to update your visa because you could go to this mini Vegas for the day and then on the way back into Thailand your passport was stamped. I am not sure how I feel about the knock-on effects of a recent change in policy where falang can now freely cross borders without checks. This is a bloody nuisance for ex-pats and decidedly dangerous for local commerce. Then again it's the corrupt politicians who will lose the most and they deserve to. Property prices went sky-rocketing up until 2008 when this policy was brought in. We'll have to wait and see if they can also plummet but in the long term a sizeable cashflow will be muted.
I am in no doubt that this strip of land was always in danger just like Havanna when it was owned by US mobsters as they gambled and had women and got drunk while the local population were close to starvation. Murder was allowed and rapes were ignored and the more this private country between Aran and Poipet was allowed to develop the more likely it was to become as ungovernable as Cuba. Right now it is quite a nice place because there is agreement between all the owners but mafia is as rife in Thailand as ever the Sicilians ever were in the USA and this narrow strip of land will one day provide history with the worlds smallest ever civil war.
Don't get me wrong, Aran is by no means a dangerous place, in fact you're probably safer here than anywhere else because of its massive Military presence and besides, in the town of Aran everybody gets on with each other, if only because they need each other but if you are passing through the checkpoint en-route to Cambodia, keep a tight grip on your belongings and expect the border Police to try and make a bit of money out of you. I am not kidding, there are too many stories to be found on the internet of falang having to pay for visas and passport stamps, to the extent that they will refuse to stamp if you don't pay and whilst you are in this tightly crowded queue Cambodian children will pick your pockets.
A useful website if you are en-route to Siem Reap (home of the famous Angkor Wat) is talesofasia.com which will give you a decent guide on how to not get ripped off, scammed, or dissappointed. They advise that you will probably get charged for your visa and say do not pay more than 1000baht. I would agree with that and say if they ask for more than that try to barter. Do not, whatever you do, get angry or shout at the immigration officer and bear in mind the visa fee last time I went there was 500baht. You can guess where the difference goes but hey, how else will Aran continue its commercial growth? (the visa fee is now 1000baht)
We managed to pick exactly the wrong time to go to Aran, the first week of May, the week that the annual race meet takes place. As a result we couldn't get into the Aran Mermaid Hotel in Tanavitee Road which we thought frustrating because the Mermaid is listed as three star but is much better then that and if you want some comfort and good food this should be your first choice. Really Good
Our second choice was the Wangprapa Resort in Wang Pla Tong Road. This resort is great for kids with plenty to do a great pool and rustic ranch style buildings. The food is good here too and you can visit on a day basis to use the facilities. Again it was fully booked which again was frustrating and again Really Good.
So, we end up at the Inter Hotel in Chatasing Road. This place is deceptively bad. It is cheap and they still fail to give value for money. The food was poor, the shower didn't work properly, and there is no air con'. The bed was so uncomfortable we left at 7am without bothering with breakfast. Find Somewhere Else to Stay.
The next morning we went in search of something else and found room at the Market Motel in Raduthit Road. What a pleasant surprise this turned out to be. The room was clean, the bed comfy, carport to keep the sun off and I asked for coffee and a sandwich at 1.30am and was told 'no problem'. Very Good.
There isn't an abundance of choice with eating out. The Market Motel is ok and so is the Wangprapa Resort although one time in Wang Pra Pa I had the finest crispy snapper fish cooked in peanut butter, cashew nuts and bamboo alongside an incredible sweet and sour pork. A very good Moo Yang restaurant exists in Ban Mai Nong Sai, otherwise known as Route 348 but when you ask a local they only know their roads by name. I'm not sure how far along the road it is but it is on the right just past a hotel called Indochina. There is also the Thip Kitchen and Ploen Restaurant in Jitsuwan Road which are passable. Apart from the night markets in Jitsuwan and Weruwan Road that is about all. Food in Aran is good but is better described as practical than candlelit dinner.
In Aran will surprise you though it is much more suited to women. This may be because of its own customer base such as the barracks where the men have no need to shop in town whilst the wives, like all phuh ying, like to dress nicely and always paint their face before even contemplating leaving the house. There are a lot of shops and you could spend all day in the town centre alone.
Then there is what Aran is best known for, Rong Kluea Market. It starts up in the early hours but go between 7am and 3pm. There is a sense of repetition as you walk through the stalls and shops because they sell similar goods in batches but it is worth keeping on looking for that bargain or something special. Popular with Thais who want to buy second hand Levis, Ben Sherman, and all other manner of discarded clothing, handbags, and lots of other stuff that actually looks better worn than new. Traders come to get copy goods for their stores or to tout round beer bars in the resorts. And many others just seem to be here for a day out but everyone is friendly and enjoying the iced drinks and hot food that is for sale on every corner. I also found entertainment in the madness of the place with people dragging incredibly heavy handcarts but best of all is the overloaded HGVs. You feel a sense of admiration for throwing out the health and safety manual that I have yet to find one single person in Britain who doesn't say 'bloody waste of time'. But here, they manage to remind you why it should be so.
As you go out of town there are lots of little places to be found selling things quite unique to the region. One of my favourites is on Route 33 just after Wattana Nakon fork left to Huai Chot. This is the old road once one of the tribulets that formed the silk route and just before the next town on an ancient and dusty road there suddenly appears a row on either side of open front shops selling wicker basketware and bamboo pots and little garden houses and those garden benches in huts called sala pahknon that are scattered along the roadside as bus shelters and resting spots for eating. Then just before you get to Sa Kaeo is a courtyard on the right where there is fresh coffee 'gafare soht', almost a rarity in southern Thailand, and a muslim woman (most of Thailands muslims live in the south) who roasts those red chickens that taste so good they have to be bad for you but this lady cooks them better than anyone else.
Sa Kaeo also merits a stop for a few hours at the old temple and for the shops..
No one would go without a reason. I went because my sister-in-law lives there. Thai traders go to buy stock. Thai youngsters go to the ASEAN Car Rally or the annual custom car cruise and last year the motorshow was held there. Otherwise shopping and entertainment are minimal, there is very little because this place is not a tourist attraction though its progressive development of modernity will probably change that one day which is why, if you want to see real Thai commerce and southern village life, you have to go now.
Casinos hold no interest for me so I can't say if they're good but I am told by my brother-in-law they are. If you do go for the gambling do not expect razzmatazz and glitz. Aran is more sort of serene and dark. Also expect it to be more Oriental than Nevadan because the resort is more popular with successful Thais and Cambodians than falang.
In the corner of Route 33 and 348 is Su-Wan Kanchana Phiset, a park where during the day there are various gatherings but at night locals meet up and families picnic and several street traders turn out to sell moo yang etc., much to my relief when I realised what was on the families picnic menu one evening. It is kind of nice and certainly relaxing when you're sat round the mooyangholee, the Thai version of a barbeque burner, listening to night sounds like crickets and grasshoppers. Children giggle distantly and the warm evening air smells of several bouts of cooking of pork and tiger prawns. Three of the in-laws thirteen year olds were catching said crickets and putting them in to glass jars they had rescued from litter bins. They knew exactly where to find the insects as they ran excitedly the edge of the moat that surrounds the park.
The boys came back with three jar fulls of insects and I commented to Mr. Blue, the elder of the brothers-in-law and the soldier in town, that kids in the UK do exactly the same and the only use boys find for them is to scare girls but they keep them anyway. He shook his head and muttered "Brekfat". Thais buy farmed insects from the market when out shopping but they are so much more tasty when they are free range. I can assure all readers that they taste exactly how you might expect them to. They're shit.
I had consumed enough bottles of Singha to necessitate the use of the once monumental objet d'art bequeathed by the Victorians as the Public Convenience which still exists in Thailand. In the UK the death knell resounded as the last days saw it lost to gay men calling them cottages, though why anyone would feel aroused in a stainless steel cell with scattered used UL10 insulin syringes paid for by the tax payer and the stench of dehydrated stale urine, is beyond me. In Thailand they are staffed the way they were in the UK in a bygone age and they are kept relatively clean and functioning. As I crossed the partitioning road through the park toward the toilets a motorcycling girl travelling far too fast ran over another girls little Scottie dog. I was mixed with sentiment for the squealing animal, then again I hate the bloody things, toy dogs that is. I agreed with the owner who was anomalously angry and chasing a semi-disabled dog around the pavement. But mostly I realise that racing motorbikes and cars is what Aranyaprathet is all about and the youth meeting in the park will copy their peers. It doesn't spoil the park because you hardly notice them, but it's a good idea to look both ways before you cross the lanes.
Along the road from the Hospital is Tot Rung market (pronounced To' Roong Talat). A night market that is popular with the locals for eating out and take-aways and the kids like the Naam Kang Sai which is a bit like Slush Puppy. Its a nice place to visit but this is about it for nightlife. There are no bars or clubs other than the hotels. Don't be fooled into thinking Aran shuts down at night, far from it and some of it seems permanently open but this is a long way from Pattaya.
One afternoon while the missus was in her long lost salon, to which I suspect I had driven from Ayutthaya so she could get her hair done, I was wandering around the streets, just walking and not going anywhere specific, when the notion to start writing this website came to me. When it comes to the web everything has already been done, but Thailand has always been done badly. There is so much incorrect and misleading information that I thought I could do it better. As I considered where to start I was taking photos of road signs and layouts so I could put to rest this myth that Thai roads and its users are the worst in the world when a young lady called from behind me "Do you need directions?". I replied in Thai that she spoke very good English and thank you but I wasn't lost. Ban was from Pattaya but was here in Aran visiting her granddad and was on her way to the train station. Well you have to offer a lift don't you? and you then go via somewhere to eat and drink and chat away an hour or two and this is what I love about Thailand - you never know what is round the next corner. And yes she did offer me more and no I didn't take up the offer but it helped to fill the six hours it takes Thai women to complete a session in a salon.
The local temple is Wat Luang Aran. The road goes through the middle of it which I have not seen anywhere else before and is a shortcut to the far end of town and to the border road that takes you south toward Muang Prao. Home of Prasat Sadok Kok Thom, a temple ruin that is worth a visit. It may be in bits but built in the twelfth century by Jayavarman IV who dovoted slaves to protect the Shiva Linga and later added to by Uday-adityavarman II who gave the land and slaves to build a sanctuary for Satasiva Brahmin who was his teacher and I am fascinated how they did it in a time when only brute force was available to them. I am told it is built in the style of Kleang-Papuan, a Khmer artform, and all the buildings face the rising sun.
Today it is being rebuilt by only two men and a very big crane but because Thais use it as a beauty spot it also has two small shops and a refreshments samloht. This is a great place for a picnic but it doesn't attract tourists as was obvious when I heard a very old scroat shout "Falang". Being the only falang there I acquiesced and turned to face the voice. A very old man said "You speak Thai" and I answered truthfully, 'only a little'. We chattered away sharing both our mother tongues for some time and extraordinarily with a tear in his eye he thanked me for having made him very happy because he had not spoken English for more than twenty years. He had worked as a driver for 15 years carrying Americans around Chonburi but when he retired and went home he returned to a family none of whom spoke a word of his newfound language.
Tourists are plenty in Aran but they come here to cross the border. They are missing out because Aran has incredible scenery and National Parks. Stay a few days and see for yourself - it'll be worth it.