Sunday, January 16, 2011

Back to Backpacking - Bangkok and the Cambodian border crossing

Leaving the Palm Tree Resort
Decadence of Khao Lak

Time to leave the bourgeois behind now and become bonafide backpackers…after all this trip is supposed to be a bit more challenging than the pampered life as a scuba diver. To be really truthful, we now need to burn off some extra “padding” after having each day filled with three huge meals plus an afternoon snack and all the soft drinks that we could drink. Yes, our liver must resemble that of a French goose as it nears the foie gras slaughter stage.

So off we go… slinging our (also overweight) backpacks back to Phuket town to embark in an overnight bus journey.
Double Decker Freezer to Bangkok
With a few hours to spare and a ticket with prime front seats in hand, we both go our separate ways. Patrick heads to connect to the internet and I opt for my first thai massage. Then at 6:30 pm, we start our 13 hour trip on the upper level of a double decker bus. There is even a blanket provided. Views are fantastic from our perch; leg room is over a meter, bus engine purrs like a kitchen and the smooth roads and lack of night traffic is very promising.

Becoming Muslim or just
Trying to Stay Warm?
This should be a restful night. Well…almost. The blanket should have been the warning. I think the Thai people long to live in Siberia. We started wrapping ourselves in our extra clothing: long sleeves, jackets, then mummified ourselves with the provided thick blanket and lastly our sarongs were wrapped around our heads in a muslim kind of flair. My dreams were often interrupted with visions of Antarctica: we were actually traveling in a freezer on wheels. My nose was numb. The windows were dripping as if it was raining outside but it was only condensation streaming down the window. At one point, I decided to use our net-book as a heating device and tucked it inside the layers. Otherwise, the trip was fantastic!

Patrick "frozen" like a Mummy
We end our journey on the freezer-mobile at Bangkok’s northern bus station at 8am after having watched Thai morning activities for over 3 hours. But for the last hour, we are in a bustling perimeter of a major Asian city, where locals are getting ready for and getting to their respective jobs. It is like watching a movie from our gigantic bus window: the Normal Life of a resident in a city of 10 million.

Okay, time to jostle with the locals. We opt to check about 25 kgs of dive equipment and dirty laundry into the stored luggage area. Then we find out the bus times for the next route and off we go to the backpacker’s mecca of Asia: Khao san road.

No Speed Limit for Tuk Tuk's Here
Khao San Road Folks Passing by
Julane first stayed here back in 1988 and it has grown tremendously since. It used to be just a backpacker’ place but now you see just about everyone from everywhere here. It is a true global cross section of the world. There are now families with kids of all sizes, hippies (original and wanna be’s) transgenders, same sex couples, rastas, older couples in smart clothes mixed with grey haired/bald men with young eye-candy attached to them. 
The latter seem to have a bottle of beer with them also. Beer is cheap and sadly so are many women. We’ve heard many a story of men who retire to Asia to enjoy the benefits of a built in “wife” who later becomes his nurse.
Our Blog Office (Bangkok Branch)
I think the majority of the younger generation have tattoos nowadays…some seem to have even chosen to make their natural skin color obsolete preferring a decorative color replacement in their skin tone instead. We spent many an hour at our favorite corner open air restaurant watching people meander by along with “traveling salesmen” while enjoying numerous delicious freshly ground cappuccinos as fuel for our blog writing. Tough life, eh?

Departure into the unknown…
Time to enter a new country! Yes, neither of us have been to Cambodia yet. We’ve heard such great reports from other travelers and we’re very excited for the next journey. We’ve allotted the most time for this segment too. We estimate more than 3 weeks.
6:15am at Bangkok
Bus Terminal
It’s fairly compact which also makes it convenient but the condition of the roads probably defeats this statement. It is the ideal season to visit this region which means: dry season. The benefit is potholes are not the size of a vehicle but more like the size of a turtle; downside is the dust and smoke from continual burning is like a thick haze.
We rise before the sun to head towards the bus terminal. At 5:30am It’s quiet except for a rowdy group of westerners still slugging down some beer at an outdoor pub. They are still very animated and loud. We catch a local bus and arrive rapidly as there is very little traffic. We even manage to catch an earlier bus to the border. Once again, the bus is chilled to expectations, but we are prepared this time.

We have read about all the scams at the border crossing and manage to whiz through unscathed by the sharks attempting to fleece us at each bend and crossing. Even the official Cambodian visa office makes an attempt. We fill in the 30 days visa application, attach one photo and present our $20 fee at the booth. We are the only applicants as most tourists get ripped off before they exit Thailand by a “fake” official office where they pay double for a visa (which means a representative takes your application over to where we are currently and then returns it to them while they wait in this nice a/c office). 
At the window, the uniformed officer says $20 plus 800 baht each for processing. Ah…another ploy for baksheesh (bribery). Julane asks, “What is the 800 baht for?”  Officer’s reply, “express service.” Julane’s reply, “We don’t need express service. We have plenty of time.” After all it is only 11am! Five minutes later, we depart…only 2 x $20 dollar poorer!
Cambodia In Sight
Our feet hit real Cambodian soil. And suddenly, we are surrounded by leeches…the human kind. Everyone tries to coerce us to take some form of transport. We are attacked by questions of where we want to go, see, do… We were prepared for this. It’s happened to us at other borders in the third world. We put on our armor and forge forward.

The other white people become fewer and the most persistent touts continue to trail us. Julane tries the standard strategy to shake them. She goes into a hotel to ask for the bus terminals location. Vague answer: continue walking turn left.  Okay, plan 2: Let’s get a drink at a café and they will lose interest. All the cafés look uninviting and too open to get refuge. One tout hangs on tight. He is determined to convince us to take his ride: a shared taxi. This is a standard form of transport here, but I prefer the safety of a bus when I enter a new country and have no idea yet of the roads or system of travel. Plus, we see one “taxi” which is basically a small car filled with about 6 people already and also asking us where we want to go so we can join them in this vehicle for a lovely 4 hour trip.
Alas we find a decent café. I order a ice milk tea. I ask in English and then Thai. No one understands. I look around at the other tables with locals trying to find one to point too. The girl brings some bottles of drinks of our table. I see some dark beverage at one family’s table and ask what it is. I don’t know a word of Cambodian language and we don’t even have any local money yet. Cambodia uses US dollars as its main currency so I wasn’t too worried and border towns accept Thai baht. This is an unusual predicament. The dark drink is ice coffee. Yeah. We can handle that. And better yet, the man speaks English. Yippee. It’s Sunday and he’s out with his family. He lives 45 km away. I explain our desire to find this elusive bus terminal and he volunteers to help us get information plus our iced sweet black coffee arrives as our reward.

At Last a Bus Helping us to
Escape the Leeches of Poipet
Soon he is drawing us a map to the bus terminal and it’s only a 5 minute walk away. We feel energized again and thank him for help and ready to see if there might be a bus going “somewhere or anywhere” from this not so lovely town of Poipet!
Believe it or not, our short walk still attracts a tout. This one follows us on his motorbike, all the while trying to get us to take some kind of transport. The same taxi with our previous tout follows us too in the distant background. We have an entourage. 
We find the empty bus terminal. It’s a hollow shell of concrete. No ticket agents behind the windows, but plenty of young men sitting around on chairs that jump up in excitement to greet us. Maybe there really aren’t any REAL buses…as we had heard from many of our friendly Poipet friends?

In Bus Toilet Facilty
We ignore them and circumvent the building to see a lonely private bus with some more young men clustered in the front. One has a chair and sits at a folding table with a big umbrella.We ask him if he goes to Battambang. Yes. We buy the last 2 tickets for the bus and wait for it to depart at 2pm. Our seats are in the rear and next to the onboard toilet but frankly, we don’t really care by this point. We reached our destination…almost.

It’s a private a/c bus in a state of slight disrepair that lost its shock absorbers in another life. We arrive in Battambang just before dark and easily find a hotel.

We HAVE arrived!