Thursday, February 14, 2013

SE Asia day 6 - getting to Cambodia

Note to readers: i am posting either from our iPad or sometimes very old computers with sticky keypads. If there are misspellings or errors, please accept my appologies. i see them, but it takes too much time to go back and fix them when there is so much to write about before I forget it.
Today was the day to move from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to Siem Reap in Cambodia. We learned our lesson on the overnight train from Bangkok to CM - we were not doing that again. Instead, we booked $100 flights back to Bangkok which required rising at 4:30 AM. The flight on Asia Air was fine. We then waited an hour on the curb in front of Bangkok's Don Muang airport for the local bus to take us to the cross country bus. That bus ride took about 45 minutes. At the bus staiton, we quickly bought the last two seats on the "1st class" bus to the Cambodian border. The bus was leaving immediately, so no chance for breakfast. I was already hungry.
I wasn't really expecting the bus to be a lovely experience, but it was considerably less than lovely. The only seats available were at the back of the bus next to the toilet.
It reeked of stale urine every time someone went in. I did not drink the entire day because there was no way I was going in. The bus headed out north along the same route we had just come in from the airport. Three hours after we arrived at the airport, we sailed by it in our big hot stinky bus. Uff da.

Turns out we did not buy the last two seats, since 5 or 6 more people got on and off in route and had no seats to sit in. Drew, being the chivalrous man he is, gave up his seat for an older women. He sacked out on a bag of rice in the back of the bus for a few hours until she got off. Others had to stand.
The ~17 year old woman in the seat across from us had a cute 1.5 year old little boy that wasn't so cute after she took his diaper off and he peed on her. She didn't seem to think there was anything wrong with that. The young woman was also VERY pregnant and had to go into the bathroom to throw up a few times. We saw her give her seat mate quite a bit of money when the police came on to check passports. We later wondered if she was running to the border to sell her little boy. Child trafficing is a big problem in Cambodia.

The guidebook said the trip should take 4.5 hours. It took 6, which seamed like 9 with the sad excuse for air conditioning. We stopped once at a convenience store where I bought some nuts and cookies. That was it for food for a while.
Once we arrived at the border, despite reading all the advice not to get sucked into a scam, we did. We followed the sign for Visa on Arrival, which was really a Thai business that would give you the visa and shuttle you across. We ended up paying about $10 more than we should have for the visa, plus we had to pay in Thai baht, of which I did not have enough, so another $10 charge at the conveniently located ATM later, we had our Cambodian visas. We finally wisened up and just got out of there with out there special taxi. Chalk up $20 to being American.
The border crossing was a bit unsettling. First there was immigration exiting from Thailand,
then cross the street to the immigration and visa check entering Cambodia. There were plenty of other westerners around though, so we didn't feel super scared.
We were in Cambodia.
Once we got our passports stamped, we took another little shuttle bus along a major highway lined with horribly poor people and shabby buildings.

What is very different from Thailand and interesting about the buildings is that they are quite ornate and show French influence. Even the run-down buildings had a sense of royalty about them.
At the bus drop off station you either buy another bus ticket to get to Siem Reap or hire a taxi. Some brits offered to share a $48 taxi ride with us, which was double the price of the bus, but by this time, about 4 PM, we were wiped out and tired of "1st class" buses.
The taxi ride took about 2 hours but took 20 days off our lives! The driver was a mad man, driving 60 miles per hour with oncoming trucks, cars, and bicycles weaving this way and that. There were several near misses. Contrary to drivers in Thailand, Cambodian drivers are not afraid to use their horns.
The scenery slowly changed from the dirty shops and buildings to more open deforested flat lands with an occasional hill. Farmers were burning their fields, so the air was thick with smoke - and just when we thought we would be out of city air pollution.

Finally, after dark we arrived in Siem Reap, the town that services tourists going to see Angkor Wat and the other temples. We were shocked to see the sheer numbers of exhaust-belching trucks and tour buses, Lexus SUVs, and of course tuk tuks and scooters. In Cambodia, they carry all manner of cargo on scooters, even live pigs! This guy had three grunting pigs on the back of his motorcycle.

The traffic was really horrible and so much more congested than we expected from this little town. At the end of this long, long day, the very friendly and welcoming staff at the Happy Guesthouse was the best thing we could have imagined!!!! (Many other tourists had no lodging booked for the night - we later learned it was very difficult to find a room that night.)
We ate hungrily at the guesthouse restaurant, as our dinner (veggie noodles for me and a hamburger and fries that was more like beef jersey for Drew) was the first real food we had eaten all day. Then went directly to bed. Welcome to Cambodia!

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