19.07.2013 35 °C
Time for me to tear myself from this paradise, I’ve been here for nearly 2 weeks and now need to make my way to Cambodia. I could quite easily stay longer I’ve had such a great time.
To reach Cambodia requires me to travel back to Bangkok in the centre of Thailand and then head east to the border. I checked with the hotel on travel options back to Bangkok and the Lomprayah company offer some good combination tickets all the way. First a taxi, then fast catamaran to the mainland followed by a modern air-conditioned bus all the way to Bangkok, all up about 12 hours of travelling. I didn’t buy my combo ticket at the Hotel, instead I shopped around the various travel agents in town and after some haggling managed to get 400 Baht off what the hotel were offering.
I was up early to catch my 7:30am taxi which took me to the Ferry port about 40 minutes drive, slung my pack onto of the roof of the hard-back pickup taxi and jumped in the back to join the other backpackers sharing the cab.
Thirty minutes waiting for the Ferry and we were off. The Catamaran took a couple of hours then dropped us on the mainland, it was approaching mid day and starting to get very hot. Waited an hour sweating in the heat with everyone else for our bus to turn up with lot of people milling around at the port, this is the main ferry port out to the Islands and you have buses and ferries coming and going continuously. Four modern buses turned up on time at 1pm to take us direct to Bangkok about another 7 hours up the road.
The scenery wasn’t spectacular, mainly flat farm land broken by outcrops of coconut and other palm trees. The roads are pretty good here and we traveled most of the distance on a modern 4 lane motorway. The bus was full of backpackers all making their way to Bangkok and I did manage to get some sleep.
After several hours we stopped at a motorway service station Thai style and stretched the legs for 30 minutes. Was also a chance to grab some food from the various food vendors sprawled across the service station. I opted for some noodles with chicken. Fresh noodles are cooked then dropped into spicy watery soup along with fried chicken, one of Thailand’s staple dishes and absolutely lovely - surprisingly filling too.
We arrived in Bangkok near the Democracy Monument around 8:30pm. As soon as the bus doors opened smiling heads popped in… ‘Mr, where you going, taxi taxi taxi’… Jee-zus I thought, welcome back to Bangkok! I got out and started walking ignoring them with ‘Mr, Mr, where you going…’ trailing off behind me. I carried on until I was free then sat down for a quiet beer at a street bar to gather myself after the long trip. I still had to get myself about 10km across town to my guesthouse for the night.
I chose a cheap place called T.T. Guesthouse about 1km from Hua Lamphong Railway Station (Bangkok’s central railway station) as I needed to catch a really early train out to the Cambodia border tomorrow. There’s a train out to the border that leaves 5:55am each morning running 7 days a week. I hailed a taxi to take me across the city, the address for the guesthouse was a little obscure, down a small side alley. I showed the taxi driver my address written on a small piece of paper along with my map of Bangkok circling the address. He looked at both quizzically for a long time whist still talking to someone on his mobile phone then suddenly brightened and looked confident. After a spot of haggling over the price we drove off. The city was really just starting to come alive, bright lights and teaming people everywhere.
After he dropped me it took me a further 30 minutes of wondering around the hot humid streets to realise I was nowhere near my guesthouse and in a completely different part of the city… Jee-suz! Another cab journey which I ended up directing myself in the front seat, to be fair I don’t think his eyesight was that good so I left him to concentrate on driving whilst I squinted at the map. Made it finally after squeezing the car down some really narrow back streets, it was now approaching 11pm when I arrived at my guesthouse.
The T.T Guesthouse is cheap and only cost me 400 Baht (10 quid) for a night, not bad for Bangkok and for that you get a basic private room with double bed, aircon and shared bathrooms. The place seemed tidy enough and I was greeted at the door by a guy called Woh (I think that’s how you spell it, pronounced Woo). He was nice and we got on well, he pointed out we both came from the same generation, him being a couple of years older, generation X-ers. He runs this place along with his sister for their parents who have now retired and the place seemed tidy and well run. It was late and his kitchen was closed but he recommendation I fetch some noodles from the vendors on the street corner and bring back to eat here, more chicken and noddles along with a beer from the 7 Eleven was fetched.
As I ate we talked and he told me his main clientele are Thai workers who come to the city for periods of work, along with tourists but generally no backpackers. I was actually relieved not to be staying somewhere with backpackers for change. Large groups of Western early 20 something’s all listening to the same techno and looking like they’ve been cloned from the same vat! I know technically I’m a backpacker and their not all like that but it was a relief to get some distance for a while
We also talked about the weather. Bangkok has 3 seasons (South Thailand has 2), starting now with the wet season for 5 months, then a short winter for 2 months from Dec to Jan, completed by the hot season. The winter is the busiest time in Bangkok and prices sky rocket and you can expect a temperate 23 – 27c. He noticed I was still sweating, it was close to midnight, and told me it was 25% cooler now than the previous 3 months. They had 3 days of 45c temperatures in Bangkok during April. I’ve experienced 45c once in my life in Sydney but that was a dry heat, I can’t even imagine what that would be like with this humidly!
Train to Aranyaprathet
I pulled myself reluctantly out of bed at 4:45am to catch my train thankful for having my mobile and its alarm clock with me. After the short walk to the Hua Lamphong station before dawn, the streets already busy with activity I bought my ticket and grabbed a welcome coffee, I’d only had about 3 hours sleep. You can only buy tickets for the train out to the border on the day but no problem as the ticket office is open from 4am.
I boarded the train and got a seat. The train soon fills up to standing room only after leaving Hua Lamphong. The trains in Thailand are well run with good friendly service, clean and mostly punctual. It’s around 250km from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet, a small town only 6km from the Cambodia border but it takes over 5 hours as the train is quite slow and has many stops. You only have 3rd class on this train but it’s fine and quite comfortable, if you have a seat. No aircon just a large fan in the centre of carriage with large windows that slide down to give you a nice breeze and view of the country passing as you clickety clack along.
The scenery was flat the whole way, Bangkok giving way to mile upon mile of rice paddies, in places stretching as far as the eye could see, each rectangular paddock a different rich green hue.
Now comes the interesting part. I’d read up about the border crossing and its damned easy to get scammed by touts selling you Cambodian Visa’s. The trick is not to, under any circumstance, purchase your visa until you are through the Thai border and have the official Thai border control stamp your passport for exit. Then you will be directed to the official Cambodian visa office to purchase your visa for $20 (US) before heading through Cambodian border control.
As you come out of Aranyaprathet train station you get swamped by a sea of tuk tuk drivers (3 wheel motorised taxis) all offering to take you to the border crossing. I ignored them and walked past until I found a driver relaxing in the back of his tuk tuk, he offered to take me for 80 Baht so I agreed. You should pay between 80 – 100 Baht to be taken the 6km to Poipet the order crossing town.
Even though I made it very clear I wanted to go direct to the Thai border exit he still dropped me about 300m short in front of a very official looking Visa office. I didn’t realise until after I’d paid and he left. Very cunning, people are directed through the office by very official looking staff with badges and they will check your passport. I side stepped this by walking around the office, not easy and meant diving down a narrow side alley, and headed on foot to the border crossing, not obvious and most people where being filed through the office to buy there visa.
About a 15 minutes queue saw me through the Thai border exit. I noticed about half the tourists had been scammed, some got angry, some didn’t even realise or were ambivalent. The visas sold are genuine but just cost around $37 instead of $20 if you wait until the official Cambodian Visa office. I was then directed to the official Cambodian visa office. You need a passport photo for your Visa, luckily I brought a bunch with me from Sydney, otherwise they will charge you 800 Baht ($18) to have your photo taken. It still cost an additional 100 Baht anyway for bringing your own photo.
There was quite a crowd queuing now for the final stage of passing Cambodian border control and it took me about 45 minutes to get through, after they’d taken a full set of finger prints. And finally I was in Cambodia with a 1 month tourist visa
Once through border control you come out onto a large roundabout and there are free shuttle buses that will take you to the International Bus Terminal about 10 minutes away, just ask one of the officials there and they will direct you to the free bus.
I was heading to Siem Reap, a large town about 190km from the border and near the famous temple complexes of Angkor where I was planning to stay and do some sightseeing. $9 gets you a bus ticket to Siem Reap and the buses every hour. You really want to try to get all the way to Siem Reap in one day as having to stop over near the border didn’t look favourable.
The 52 seater bus filled up and we headed off. The old bus was air conditioned which was a relief as it was getting mighty hot outside but then about 5km down the road the engine started losing power and we slowed to a 5mph crawl… obviously something was wrong with the bus. The air conditioning was struggling to keep us all cool, the windows wouldn’t open and a few people on the bus started to get upset. But then after a further 5km of crawling along we stopped over and changed buses and on we went.
The roads are noticeably worse than Thailand with large pot holes and chaotic make-shift road works everywhere. A continuous chorus of horns can be heard, kindly alerting other road users to your position, as it could be anywhere on the road…. 2 or 3 lanes of traffic overtaking at once on blind corners… slightly hairy until you get used to it.
4 hours later I arrived in Siem Reap completely knackered. You get dropped near the airport a good distance out of town so more haggling required from the sea of tuk tuk’s that suddenly appear once the bus stops. Finally arrived in town and booked myself into a nice looking guesthouse for $15 a night, it had large room with double bed, hot showers, TV and aircon and pretty swish all round. This was a good place to stay as it was out of town a bit so cheaper but also nearer Angkor Wat and the temples.
Cambodia, like Vietnam openly use US Dollars as a preferred currency, this along with the local Riel which are equally accepted but is prone to inflation and wild fluctuations. Currently you get just over 4,000 Riel to a dollar. I’m glad now I brought a good amount of greenback with me.
I was tired after the last two days traveling but before hitting the sack I went out to fetch some food. I was keen to get into the Cambodian Khmer food as I’d read great things about it but the restaurants can be quite pricey in Siem Reap so I opted to try out one of the many local Khmer food outlets sprawling across the pavements. I found this great place opposite my guesthouse with the Khmer chefs pumping out fresh quick food for mainly locals. I sat down and ordered a beer whilst mulling over the menu… the top half of the menu consisted mainly of different variants of cooked frog… deep fried, boiled, spiced… I decided against anything adventurous tonight given the state I was in and read further down the menu and found Pork Larb with boiled rice. Larb is originally from Laos and is a mince meat salad quite popular in this region and absolutely fantastic, one of my favourite dishes.