A sculpted stone archway overhead bids us welcome to the Kingdom of Cambodia. As we pass under its imposing grey carvings, we are keenly aware that we've entered a very different place. Poipet feels old and scruffy, worn down and rough around the edges.
Wheeling our bikes towards the immigration office for one last stamp, red dust from the unpaved roadsides swirls and blows in the air, kicked up by the motorbikes that whiz past us. Occasionally one stops, it's driver telling us more than asking: Where you go?
Following a long wait in the immigration line, befriending some middle-aged French tourists, and then getting our visas officially stamped into Cambodia, we hop on our bicycles and roll into town.
The first few seconds in a new country, we can't help but compare it to other places we've been.
It's like Tunisia combined with a little bit of Thailand! Wait, no, there's some Mongolia in here too!
Pedaling out of the border town, much of the hustle-and-bustle gives way to a calmer, greener Cambodia. No longer does this place remind me of Tunisia or Mongolia or Thailand, and I am rapt, taking in the new sights and sounds. One of the first things I notice is how most of the cars on the road have been replaced by bicycles carrying everything from stacks of firewood to bales of cut grasses to several children.
There are mopeds and motorcycles loaded to unimaginable heights, and when the occasional pickup truck passes, it, too, is piled high, sometimes with a mass of cargo, sometimes with passengers, and more often than not, both.
Long koyan, or walking tractors, chug along with clearly home-made trailer contraptions hitched up to them. They, too, carry more people than I would have thought possible.
The piling of cargo and people on vehicles well beyond any reasonable measure of safety seems to be an art form here in Cambodia.
Lastly, we pass a few hand-cranked vehicles, used by people with horribly crippled (or missing) legs, squeaking along slowly, no doubt victims of land mines or some other horror?
Further into the country, the traffic thins, and we begin to take notice of the houses. They're mostly bungalows on stilts, planted along the roadside, behind tangled jungles of trees and plants. In the cool shade of these homes, or under the palm trees growing everywhere, families rock back and forth in lazy hammocks, smiling, and calling out "hello!" as we pass.
Even more friendly than the radiant, beaming adults are their ecstatic children, who can be found running around everywhere. Hardly a kilometer passes where we don't see them playing ball in their yards, helping their parents herd livestock, swimming in wet, muddy ditches, climbing trees, or biking home from school.
As we cycle in their direction, they look up and take notice with a split second's surprised pause, followed by an overjoyed shout of FALANG FALANG FALAAAAANG!! Then, they come running from whatever they're doing, hurtling across the dust and grass to arrive at the roadside, panting, shrieking some more, hysterical. It's like we're the Beatles, or the circus, or their own personal saviors.
HELLOHELLOHELLO! they shout as they wave their arms frantically, hopping up and down with unbridled excitement.
HELLO! we yell back with a laugh, deeply touched by their enthusiasm, utterly slain by the sheer cuteness all around us. Our response sends them shrieking with delight, and encourages them to follow up with another heartfelt round of greetings.
We go back and forth with each other until we're out of earshot, and then the process begins again with new batches of unbearably cute kids.
Sometimes, we can't even see where the emphatic greetings are coming from, and are instead surprised when it seems that a bush or a tree elicited the faint hello. Other times, we hear a hello and have to look really, really far away out in a rice paddy before we make out the enthusiastic yeller, waving emphatically. How can they spot us from so far away? It's like they know we're coming!
Some kids shout variations on the "hello" theme, that make our hearts explode even further. "BYE!" they shout, when spotting us for the first time, or "BYE BYE HELLO!" or even "OKAY BYE OKAY!" But whatever they say, they are all so freaking adorable that it almost hurts.
We've heard about the dangers of land mines in Cambodia, but there was nary a warning about being killed by cuteness.