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Bangkok, Cambodia, headaches, less food-related, road trippin', Thailand, travel

East of the Border, South of the Sun

02.16.10 | 1 Comment

“The train to Bangkok is never late,” he promised.

Of course we were the ones who decided to take the risk of buying tickets for a bus that left 90 minutes after our train arrived in Bangkok. But we had read a lot about crossing from Thailand to Cambodia over land, and it didn’t sound easy. Bus to a Thai border town, tuk tuk to the border, visa scams, bus and taxi scams from the Cambodian border town, and more taxi or tuk tuk scams to your hotel.

Scams to take tourists’ money? Shocking.

To do the crossing by land, you must accept the idea that you will pay too much money for something. A lot of buses stop at places where they get commission if tourists buy things, or they have agreements with border workers and delay the bus so that you’re willing to pay an ‘expedited visa fee,’ or they lengthen the bus ride so that you arrive to Siem Reap late to pressure you into staying at certain hotels where they get commissions. Our straight-through ticket was a gamble, but if it paid off, it would make things a lot easier.

But first we had to make the bus.

You know what happens when you say that something won’t happen? It will. Titanic won’t sink? George W. Bush won’t possibly win the election? The train to Bangkok won’t be late?

The train was supposed to leave at 2:50 in the afternoon. At 2:45, there was still no train. I was starting to get antsy. There was an announcement in Thai that we obviously didn’t understand. I figited. Finally, at the time the train was supposed to depart, it rolled into the station. Everyone moved to get on, but one of the station officers held up his hand and proclaimed: “Forty minutes.”

We stood by as they hosed down the cars, rearranged them, and brought in the engine. Finally we piled into the car and found our seats, second-class un-air conditioned sleepers. At 3:30, forty minutes late, the train pulled out of the station.

All the windows were open all the way to let in the air. There were small fires in many of the fields we passed, and ashes drifted in onto my skin. The train crawled, stopping in the middle of the tracks frequently.

It was a noisy night; the din of the clacking train reminded me of the opening percussion in Paul Simon’s song Obvious Child. The window was open and I could hear every whistle and clack as the train stopped and started and rolled downhill. I slept on and off, listening to an old audio book my mom and I had listened to on our cross-country drive in 2008.

I woke for good around 4:45 in the morning. At 5:30, the train was still moving. At 6:00 we were entering an urban area—it had to be Bangkok, so we must be close. Maybe we would make it by the skin of our teeth.

At 7, we were rolling through the endless city. I decided to sleep, lest my heart rate rise too high. I would let John deal with the travel agency and talk back our non-refundable money. If I tried, my blood pressure might get a little too high.

At 7:40, John squeezed my knee to wake me. We walked quickly to the travel agency, where the man informed us that the bus had already left. Luckily before John had to get to threatening, the man said he would call the bus back to the station.

Ten minutes later we squeezed in to a small 10-seater van. Most of the passengers were asleep; one girl wearing white pants had lain down on the floor. Her feet kept touching mine as the driver floored it out of Bangkok. As I listened to my audio book, I realized that the scenery out the window seemed to be going by awfully quickly, and all the dips in the uneven road pushed my stomach into my throat. How fast was this guy going?

I craned my neck and looked at the dashboard: 150 kilometers an hour. Oh good. I’d always wanted to die in a fiery car crash by the side of a rural Thai highway.

After 3 or 4 hours of driving, we arrived in the border town of Aranyaprathet. The van dropped us off in a little restaurant next to a visa office/consulate. There were already about two-dozen other backpackers sitting in the steamy heat, draped across their chairs and eating fried rice.

We took a seat at a table, and filled out three forms: visa application, entry/exit card, and health form. Then they collected our visa money–$35, even though I’d read everywhere that the price of a visa was $20. They told us to wait half an hour, so I ordered some fried noodles. Then another man came around to inform us that we had paid for a bus, which wouldn’t leave for four hours and would take another 5 hours into Siem Reap from the border. A taxi, on the other hand, would leave immediately and would be only a two-hour ride. Just another 400 baht a person!

Having spent the last 24 hours on a train, we decided to minimize our time being transported and forked it over. About 20 minutes later, a ‘guide’ gathered us in the searing sun and talked to us for 15 minutes, explaining what could have been said in two minutes. Of course most people neglected to actually listen to what he was saying, and delayed us a few minutes fretting about their Thai exit cards, whose absence would delay them at immigration by an hour or two. Newsflash: it’s stapled into your passport.

I had been expecting some sort of wheeled transportation, but instead we walked our backpacks and suitcases 15 minutes in the heat and sun to Thai immigration. On the walk, our guide warned to be careful of the children on the other side of the border, who would approach us and try to shade us with umbrellas, and then demand compensation. He reminded us to watch our wallets, as there were a lot of sticky fingers awaiting.

After immigration, we waited out in the sun for our whole group to get through before we moved through the health room and onto the line for entry. Unsurprisingly, this was a very inefficient process, and we spent about half an hour in line. A Canadian woman in front of us was very grumpy, as she really really needed to pee and let everyone in the room know it.

Again we waited to regroup on the other side—now I was in Poipet, Cambodia. Honestly, it wasn’t a very nice looking place. Dusty and neglected, it was a pretty bleak town. The Canadian woman came out a few minutes after I did. I watched as she asked a beverage seller where the bathroom was. The water bottle lady hesitated, and a local man came up behind the Canadian to tell her where it was. He pointed across the street, and she snapped, “I just want a bathroom.” She then noticed that the man had pointed her in the direction, and she thanked him sarcastically and took off. The man was pretty irritated, and mocked her for a few more minutes. The lady kept complaining even after she had relieved herself and returned.

Finally our guide herded us onto a government shuttle bus to take us to the bus station, where he divided us into taxis. We shared a taxi with two nice guys from Majorca, but I ended up sleeping the entire two-hour drive. We had all been under the impression that the taxi would take us to our hotels, but in fact, the taxi stopped in a vacant lot and a few local approached. Good sign.

The men opened the doors and informed us that now we had to switch to tuk tuks, which would take us to our hotels, price already included. A young man sat with us in the back, chatting with us and telling us what our tuk tuk driver could take us to see during our visit.

Finally, at about 6 o’clock, we arrived at our hotel, The Golden Orange, after about 30 hours of constant travel. Luckily the hotel is more than adequate—it’s actually quite nice—and that night as we walked into the downtown area, I knew that Cambodia would be my favorite leg of our journey.

Just call it a feeling.

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