Border Rip-Offs and the Side Walk Never Die Hotel

Office Tree, Cambodian BorderWe arose at a disgusting hour to go and stand outside the Khao San Police Station to await our minivan to Cambodia. It arrived and we climbed in, only to be kicked back out because we were apparently on the wrong one. So we waited some more. Twenty past seven went by,as did several drunken stragglers from the night before who obviously don’t contain an off switch, and our 7a.m. van still didn’t arrive. I rang Chieu, who rang the minivan outfit, to find that they were super busy and running late. So I ordered a mango shake, and then did what always triggers a late arrival when one has waited for quite a while – I went to use the toilet. Of course when I came back out, I found that the van had arrived and they were madly gesticulating for me to hurry up and get in. They somehow stuff our luggage and ourselves into spaces that should not have been able to contain us and madly raced off through Bangkok. They screamed to a halt after a while, shouting ‘Wayhaaay’ or some such thing, and we got pulled out of that minivan and onto another, that had plainly been waiting for us. That was step one.

The second van driver obviously had a racing car license, which he appeared dead keen to use. I’m pretty sure we were going well over 100 kms. We drove – or sped, rather – towards Cambodia for a couple of hours or so, then pulled up outside an outside cafe of sorts, where we unfolded ourselves and filled out various forms for our Cambodian visas. We had to hand over both money and our passports to one of the ‘assistants’ and then follow him to the van, then we were taken to an Embassy place closer to the border. It was quite bizarre really – ‘Oh, he seems like a nice chap. We’ll just hand our passports over with some money and I’m sure it will all be fine.’ Well, there wasn’t a lot of choice really. Once again we waited, then our van took us to the border crossing, where once again we were ejected. Other strangers walked up and said ‘follow me’ and we all walked along like obedient chicks following their mother, then he stopped near a wall of tired-looking ATM machines and advised us that we should change all our US money to Cambodia Rial and get money out of the ATM as these were the only working ones that we would find from now on. This sounded a little off to me, as I had read that you should take US money in small denominations into Cambodia. I tried using one of the ATM machines, but it wouldn’t even talk to my card, so I went around the corner to the bank and changed only half of my US money, sort of hedging my bets.
Another guy took over and we followed him out of Thailand, over the border, through traffic and up and down curbs and into a tired little office with a good-sized tree growing inside it, got our fingerprints taken electronically and our passports stamped, and then, voila, we were in Cambodia. We sat down on benches and were given a spiel about how, rather than take the local bus that was part of the fee we paid to get to Siem Reap, for just 500 Baht more we could get a taxi with air conditioning that would take us there in two hours rather than wait for ages for the bus and not get there until ten at night or something. Of course by this time we were all drooping and hot, and against our instincts took him up on the offer. So onto a local bus that took us to a bus station or transfer station or some such thing, where we disembarked and were instructed once again to change all our Baht to Rial. I was getting pretty grumpy by this stage, as things were really beginning to reek of being economical in the truth department, but I changed what Baht I had, though hung onto my US bucks, still not believing that all was what it seemed. Ursula and I took the gamble of purchasing a taxi/minivan ticket back to Bangkok for 4 July, and we’re hoping like crazy that it is indeed a legitimate ticket. But when you’re in a strange country for the first time, you don’t always have any choice but to trust whatever you’re told by the locals and hope that at least 80 percent of it is true.
We were herded into our taxi, along with a couple of European girls, and off we went on the final leg to Siem Reap. I had these guys call our Cambodian tour guide Sambo to let him know we were on our way – so at least someone local in Siem Reap knew we were alive and supposed to be arriving – and we spent the next two hours or so looking out the windows at Cambodia and chatting with our taxi driver, who turned out to be quite a nice guy with reasonable English. It’s so strange to drive on the other side of the road. Rather alarming on the braincells! There are cricket catchers set up alongside the many fields here – fluorescent light tubes and pieces of plastic. They turn on the lights at night, the crickets are attracted to them, hit the plastic and slide down into some water. They can’t escape the water and are collected the next day, then end up being sold in big piles at roadside stalls the next day as snacks. The roads here are pretty rough, with lots of potholes. The clay is orange, so the puddles are of the same colour – quite pretty actually, if you ignore the bone-jarring rides from A to B – as in middle India, this is an osteopath’s paradise.

We were finally met at a gas station by our guide Sambo and his tuk-tuk driver. More bone-snapping driving and we finally arrived at our guesthouse – the Side Walk Never Die Hotel.

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