Having spent the majority of our visa time in Songkhla with the dogs, we were running short on time without having to pay to extend our stay in Thailand. We decided to hop over to Cambodia with the hope of coming back to Thailand on another free visa once we were done.
We booked a bus ticket right through from Chiang Mai to the Cambodian city of Siem Reap. The ticket gave us an overnight bus to Bangkok, change buses and spend the day on another to travel across the border to Siem Reap. Sounds pretty easy, even if a whole night and day travelling isn’t your cup of tea. Well of course it wasn’t that easy at all. And to say we were unimpressed with the hostel that sold us the tickets is a bit of an understatement!
We happily boarded a tuk tuk outside our Chiang Mai hostel and were soon one of 8 people squashed into the back of the pickup along with our luggage. Uncomfortable, but manageable for the fairly short trip to the bus station/random petrol station at which the bus was waiting. We boarded, got our seats, and from there to Bangkok it was quite uneventful for me at least. I have the wonderful gift of loving sleep and being able to do it just about anywhere. James however, had very little sleep and in fact managed a whole season of Peaky Blinders.
We had been told the bus would drop us off at around 6am and our next bus departed from there at between 7:30am and 8am. Well, our bus driver woke us up shouting at 5am to get off the bus and had in fact dropped us off pretty far out of town and by some helpful mans calculations, around a mile and a half from where our next bus would meet us. Unimpressed, we followed the poor directions for a mile in what thankfully wasn’t yet too much heat. We found the spot that we thought the bus would meet us at and made ourselves as comfortable as possible. James chose the steps and his backpack as the perfect napping spot, and I just continually turned away the same tuk tuk driver trying to convince us we really needed his services.
We waited, a bus never showed. However, as we were starting to get mildly concerned, an elderly gentleman on a motorbike pulled up and asked if we needed the bus to Siem Reap. He took our ticket and exchanged it for another, as if to prove he was genuine, and told us he was taking us to the bus – on his bike. Thankfully, he didn’t expect us both and both our bags to squeeze on – we have seen worse than that.
I hopped on with barely enough room for me and my small carry on backpack, and wore my large one which hung worryingly over the back. I did an incredible ab workout on our ride trying to hold my backpack up with fear it would slip down onto the back wheel or counterbalance me onto the road.
In hindsight, typing out the fact that I got on a random strangers motorbike does seem a little odd.. but perhaps through experience now, it didn’t really seem odd at all. Nor remotely worrying!
The bike took us back to very close to our starting point but indeed did deliver us to a bus that said Siem Reap. Again, the actual journey was fairly uneventful other than napping and Netflix-ing, but after our 5 hour trip to the Thai border is when it began to get interesting.
We pulled over at what was evidently the bus driver’s friends cafe and were instructed to buy lunch and drinks. We declined, which prompted the first unpleasant reaction towards us. From here we were summoned into an office and had our bus ticket and passport taken to “be looked at” but it transpired it was more to use as a bargaining tool. The man in this back room of the cafe told us he was part of the Cambodian embassy and he was going to help us get through the border quickly and hassle free. He wanted merely 1600 THB, which equates to US$43. Bullshit I thought. Luckily, I had read up on the process for attaining a visa. I knew we could go straight to the border and I knew it was near to half the price he was asking for. He didn’t like that comment. He tried to show me a web page relating to the cost of Cambodian visas and how to get one and was less than impressed when I pointed out to him that the page was for Canadian business visas. Rather than admit that they had been rumbled, the man and his friends got even more rude and threatening! They had our passports in hand at the time, so I was being careful with my words for a while. The irate men insisted that we would never cross the border without their help and that the bus would pass through hassle free with the passengers that had paid. If we wanted to go on our own then we were welcome to but we would be robbed en route without their protection and if the bus was there and we weren’t then it would leave with our luggage. At this point, we had had enough of threats. We demanded our luggage from the bus and said we would take the risk.
I have to admit, as we walked with our baggage amongst twenty or so touts also telling us they would help us, I started to wonder if standing up for ourselves was the right thing to do, and that I would feel quite responsible if we ended up stranded and robbed.
However, thank goodness we did it ourself. The process was as simple as walking out of the Thai border at a sign marked Departure and being “stamped out” in our passport, and walking to the Cambodian border (merely feet away) marked Arrival where there was an official visa office, that as we anticipated, wanted far less money (and were also much nicer and official looking – uniform and everything!). The visa was in English, not difficult, and took all of a minute and a half to be granted before we got “stamped in” to Cambodia.
We preceded to sit on the side of the road that we knew the bus had to pass by, as visa or not, passengers had to get out to go through passport control. We waited over an hour! The bus turned up and the sour faced driver didn’t say one word to us. We went to the bus beaming, with our bags. I actually felt like somewhat of a hero reacting to the awe of the other passengers who had seen the commotion and seen us walk off with our bags. It caused a little conflict between them and the driver actually as we told them that as we thought it was easy and far cheaper to do it alone. We were victorious! That is until the bus dropped us 6km out of Siem Reap rather than at the bus station and into a nest of swarming tuk tuk drivers. Brilliant.
The moral of the story, is that I am awesome! But seriously, why people would attempt to accomplish a land border without having a quick read up is beyond me. The Thai people that stand at the border must make hundreds each day to unknowing tourists thinking they’re being helped. It was so easy and took me seconds to find articles on the scams and things to look out for.
If you ever take the journey, which is definitely an experience, just stand your ground and walk forward to the various official booths and desks. And if you don’t even look into it slightly beforehand, perhaps you deserve to get a little scammed!