Sunday, April 21, 2013

Thailand and Cambodia are not the same...

If you had asked me two months ago what the difference between Thailand and Cambodia was, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Now, I am very aware of the differences. It looks different, the people are different, the language is different, the money is different, the markets are different, the Tuk-tuks are different, and the food is different.

Our trip into Cambodia started with a marathon travel session by boat, mini-bus, songtaew, overnight bus, local bus, and our now travel-hardened own two feet. We left Koh Phi Phi on an early ferry and had a few hours to kill before our overnight bus to Bangkok, so we negotiated a price with the waiting mini-bus driver and we were on our way to the beach town of Ao Nang, about 30km from Krabi.

We ate a delicious lunch right next to a big air conditioner and couldn’t have been happier. After a while, we strapped back on our backpacks and did a little sightseeing around the town. We noticed the skies were growing a little gray, so we flagged down a passing songtaew (A small pickup truck with a canopy and two benches down the length of the bed) and hopped a ride back to the Krabi bus station just as it started to drizzle.

We loaded up on dinner and snacks for our overnight ride to Bangkok, which was scheduled to arrive around 5am. Our plan was to grab a taxi as soon as we arrived, high-tail it to the train station, and catch the 5:55am train to the Cambodian border. Our bus finally arrived in Bangkok at 6:05am. Awesome…

New plan! We were at the Southern Bus Terminal, and knew that buses leaving for the border left from the Northern Bus Terminal (or as we like to call it, “The bus terminal that sent us to Ban Mi instead of Sing Buri”) After asking a helpful conductor, lots of gesturing, and saying “Mo Chit Bus Station?” over and over, we got on the local bus 28. Sure enough, it dropped us off right next to the Northern Bus Terminal.

What’s this? The actual building for buying tickets with signs in English and helpful staff? Where did this come from? I didn’t see this the first time…

We had heard a few stories from people warning against buying a ticket straight through, as sometimes the ticket wasn’t honored once you reached the Cambodian side of the border, but we found a good price on tickets to Siem Reap through the state run bus company that we have had good luck with so far, and the bus was leaving in 45 minutes, so we decided to risk it.

The bus itself actually worked out great. The only problem we had with it was when they brought us to a satellite office to purchase our Cambodian visas instead of purchasing them at the border. We ended up paying about $15 more than our guide books told us to expect, but it was hassle free and now we know better.

Our real problems happened at the border crossing. Courtney and I had obtained 30 day visas for Thailand on March 18. We checked the wording online, and it said the visas were valid “for a period not exceeding 30 days” which, to us, meant we had til the end of the day on April 17. Apparently Thai time applies to days as well as minutes and hours, because the tiny stamp on the bottom of our visas in our passports said April 16. According to them, we had overstayed our visas by one day, and there was a 500 baht charge for each of us (about $17). Not only that, but we were leaving Thailand, and so instead of carrying around the extra baht with us, we had spent the last of it on water and snacks. We stepped out of line, I dropped my bag at Courtney’s feet, and sprinted back into Thailand, desperately looking for an ATM. I found one at a nearby market, yanked the 1000 baht out, and sprinted back. We had to wait through another line to pay, and then yet another line to get a receipt for paying. We finally stepped out on the other side, and our hearts sank when we realized we didn’t see our bus, nor anyone from it. We wandered forward, going through the possible scenarios in our head. “At least we have our Passports and an ATM card. There is a hotel over there if we’re stranded. If nothing else, there is a guy selling tax-free whiskey and we’ll figure out our problems tomorrow.”

Thankfully, after a few more steps, we spotted our bus, and another line of our fellow travelers under a sign that said “Passport Control”. Whew! Once we knew we hadn’t been left, the new long line didn’t bother us as much. We had our passports stamped and jumped back on board to watch the now drastically different country side go by on our remaining two-hour ride to Siem Reap. Instead of brick houses and shops, we were now passing shabby wooden shacks, naked children playing in their front yards, and multiple people peeing on the side of the road. Our bus driver pulled over at a roadside stand, and proceeded to purchase a plastic bag full of fried whole frogs, complete with head and legs still attached. We were a little wide eyed as we drove, but luckily the scenery became a little more like what were used to as we approached Siem Reap.
Our bus dropped us off in the middle of town, which was actually the middle of a town, and we were introduced to another difference between the countries: the persistence of people trying to get you to spend money. In Thailand, they might ask you if you need a tuk-tuk or want a massage, and then politely nod and smile when you say no. In Cambodia, we were bombarded with a steady stream of “Lady Sir, you want massage only 1 dollar.” “Sir Lady, you need tuk tuk I know where you go. Anywhere in city one dollar person.” “Lady Lady you buy from me I give you discount please.” It never stops.

We were determined not to get a tuk tuk from someone harassing us at a bus station, so we google maps’d our way and started walking. As we were leaving, we picked up another fellow traveler who was looking for a place to stay, so Marc from Pittsburg walked the 1km or so with us. Something about us must have seemed trustworthy, because our route quickly turned into a mud filled alleyway between buildings, but he plodded along with us, and after only one or two wrong turns, we saw the sign for Siem Reap Rooms Guesthouse. Not knowing what to expect after our walk through that part of town and expecting more of the same, we were blown away with the little gem of a hotel we were at.

The staff was super friendly, and walked us through the possible tours of the temples that they offered while they gave us free, super delicious welcome drinks of honey lemon iced tea. The furniture was all dark stained wood and everything was very clean. Our room had comfy beds and our own private bathroom. It even had a rooftop pool. After the long 36 hour journey to get there, we felt like we were in heaven.

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