Tourists, gamblers, traders and others can now travel by train between Bangkok and the Thai-Cambodian border for the first time since tracks were cut 45 years ago at the end of the US-Vietnam War.
The new rail link ends one of the last infrastructural disruptions caused by the Cold War era conflict and will more tightly connect the peacetime economies of former staunch adversaries Thailand and Cambodia.
The two neighbors recently extended an existing Bangkok-Aranyaprathet railway line which crosses eastern Thailand and ends at the Cambodian border.
Repairs to a final 5.7-kilometer link between Aranyaprathet and Ban Klong Luk border station on the Thai side of the frontier were recently completed to tie the link together.
The connection comes as Thailand ramps up spending on modern railways, though most of the construction to date has been around the capital Bangkok.
It also comes as China bids to extend its Belt and Road Initiative into mainland Southeast Asia, including through a train project now being built across Laos that aims to connect to Thailand and beyond.
The re-opened Thai-Cambodia link may or may not be part of those larger designs.
The link’s opening ceremony, held on July 1, is the latest indication of a bilateral warming trend.
That day the State Railway of Thailand’s trains began scheduled departures from each station twice a day — two at dawn and two at lunch time — for a total of four daily trips.
Each journey takes about five hours to complete 216 kilometers at a ticket price of less than US$2.
These are Southeast Asia’s only trains to and from Cambodia, which has only a skeletal railway system after decades of debilitating civil war. The Asian Development Bank bankrolled the reconstruction of the link for $13 million, according to news reports.
Bilateral trade, currently estimated at $6 billion, is expected to grow with the line’s reconnection.
Passengers crossing the border have to disembark and walk through the immigration and customs checkpoint. Public and private vehicles are available on the Cambodian side to continue the journey.
Cambodia’s railway from Phnom Penh reaches Poipet, six kilometers from its side of the border, but it is unclear when it could be extended to the frontier for an unbroken link to Ban Klong Luk.
The four trains on the Bangkok-Ban Klong Luk route will be diesel-powered. In Thailand, that often means passengers are forced to breathe the engine’s foul fumes while the train idles in a station polluting its surroundings before departure.
The route’s original railway service began in 1955, but a coup in Thailand temporarily halted the crossing.
One year later, trains rolled again but were cancelled in 1961 because Thailand and Cambodia — frequent enemies since medieval times — argued about who owned the stone ruins of Preah Vihear in a border zone still contested today.
The 11th century Hindu temple was linked to Cambodia’s nearby slave-built Angkor Wat complex.
In 1970, the railway line opened again but finally stopped on July 1, 1974, exactly 45 years earlier. During those years, Thailand hosted US airbases for attacks on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam during America’s Vietnam War.
Intense US aerial bombardment and weak Cambodian government troops, however, failed to stop communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas from advancing on Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot achieved victory in mid-1975.
His xenophobic, ultra-Maoist “killing fields” regime left nearly two million people dead and destroyed most of the country before Vietnam invaded in January 1979, ousted Pol Pot and occupied the country for the next 10 years.
Thailand then became a conduit for US, British and other aid to an anti-Vietnamese Cambodian resistance, which included the Khmer Rouge and other guerrillas.
After Vietnam’s withdrawal in 1989, border clashes between Thailand and Cambodia occasionally erupted from fortified positions until agreements were reached several years ago.
Pol Pot died in 1998. Cambodia became peaceful, enabling the two former foes to begin repairing the railway link in 2014. Today, inexpensive flights also link both countries as they bid to lure more tourists.
Road trips across the border are also popular among Thais and other gamblers who flock to glitzy casinos constructed during the past several years in Poipet. Gambling is illegal in Thailand but thriving in Cambodia.
Among the import-export traders who cross the border each day are infamous Cambodian smugglers who bring most of the high-quality, made-in-China counterfeit goods sold in Thailand, according to Bangkok vendors and counterfeiters.
The most dangerous and feared smugglers are suspected of operating safe houses for imported counterfeit items in and around Aranyaprathet in Thailand’s Sa Kaeo province close to a popular secondhand market known as Rong Kluea, or salty warehouse, investigators say.
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978.