An astonishing volume of goods not seen in Cambodia for years -- blue jeans, makeup, filter cigarettes, brightly colored sarongs -- has flowed into the country this month in illicit trade directed from this border town. Furthermore, much of the merchandise appears to be going to areas controlled by the Vietnamese-supported Heng Samrin government.
The deposed Pol Pot government stamped out the use of currency years ago, and, as a result, the trade is based almost entirely on gold. The Cambodians somehow proffer a seemingly endless supply of gold chains, battered wedding bands, settings without stones, and even medallions bearing the image of a youthful Prince Sihanouk.
The gold has fueled a boom in Arayaprathet. Goods are stacked high in stores and often block the sidewalks outside. Local journalists estimate that when the trade was at its peak last week, goods worth half a million dollars were passing through the town daily.
Thousands of Thais, many of them farmers turned entrepreneurs by stories of money that doubled and tripled in a day's work, have flocked to the stores. They take away sackfuls of merchandise for resale in make-shift markets just a few yards inside Thai territory.
The Thais long have maintained a ban on traffic in so-called strategic commodities, things such as bicycles, oil and dry cell batteries that could be put to military use. Last week Thai soldiers closed down the largest border marketplace, located in the Kok Soong subdistrict north of here. They reportedly also have arrested more than 100 persons suspected of violating the trading ban.
In an abandoned rice field in Kok Soong, crowds estimated at 3,000 in the market's final days of operation gathered each morning to await the arrival of their Cambodian clients.
Cambodian soldiers, dressed in flamboyant jungle fatigues and carrying American and Communist-made automatic weapons, would signal their radiness to cross the border and trade by firing a single shot into the air, according to people at the market.
The buyers often bartered their gold -- somehow hidden away during the Pol Pot years -- directly for goods.
"We'd hold it in our hands and guess the weight," one Aranyaprathet merchant said. Professional gold dealers equipped with weights and scales also were present to exchange the gold for bank notes.
The market offered unending opportunities for fraud and exorbitant profits. Returns normally were higher on the "strategic commodities," which usually were traded out of sight of the main market area, people said.
Some of the gold dealers appear to have conspired to give the unwitting (Cambodians counterfeit bank notes. Thai soliders reportedly have confiscated notes worth $60,000 that they said were to be used this way.
The Kok Soong trading gradually grew less profitable for the Thais as their ranks swelled in response to quickly spreading reports of effortless profits.
The last days were not profitable at all, sellers complained. One woman, who arrived at the market after arranging for someone to fill in at her hotel cleaning job, asked $1 for her 18 cents. She ended up bringing most of them home.
Thai officials acknowledge that the trade is continuing, although on a smaller scale. Noting the long and ill-defined border that the two countries share, a military spokesman asked, Hwo can we have soldiers standing along the length of it?"
Diplomats here say they believe that the Thai government, its official pronouncements aside, is happy to have its people sell supplies to Khmer forces opposing the Vietnamese. Many diplomats believe the local Chinese Embassy is helping finance some of the trade to Khmer Rouge forces still resisting the Vietnamese.
One analysis of the recent crackdown is that the Thais were upset that much of the merchandise was getting through to the Vietnamese, who have an estimated 10 divisions west of the Mekong River and whose supply lines have been disrupted by the rains.
Local newspapers have quoted Thai military officers as saying that the Vietnamese were making heavy use of Thai-bought bicycles to transport military supplies within Cambodia.
Despite the crackdown, merchants in Aranyaprathet are convinced that the trading will pick up again. One furniture store still offers its customers bicycles, while a hat store continues to sell sacks of rice.
"The government thinks that if we sell to the Cambodians and they've got enough to eat, they won't cross into Thailand," one shopkeeper explained. His store's specialty in normal times is textile products. However, he said, he is making no effort to get rid of the lanterns, shoes, tobacco and rope he now has on hand.