A chronicle of Alison and Ron's trip around the world in 2009-2010.

"Not all those who wander are lost"
- Tolkien

Monday, January 25, 2010

Overland to Cambodia

Our time had come to make our way east to Cambodia. A journey from the Thai island of Koh Mak to the Cambodian capitol of Phnom Penh. My parents were initially going to fly from Trat (on the Thai mainland) but decided to travel with us on the cheap. Even after reading about our frequent mis-adventures and torturous rides of overland travel, they dared to veer off the beaten track and hit the open (albeit bumpy) road that laid ahead.

It was to be a day chock full of five types of transport: boats, trucks, vans, taxis, and buses and through a notoriously bad border crossing. If all goes perfectly we estimated arrival in 10.5 hours. Famous last words.

The first leg was a speed boat ride from Koh Mak to Laem Ngop. When we first arrived at the pier we noticed many people waiting to board the small boat and stayed close to the front of the line to ensure we got a seat. We boarded and got 4 bench seats in one of maybe 8 rows of available seating in the main part of the boat. Although the boat seemed full, we ended up stopping at three more islands and packing in people and luggage into every square inch of free space on the boat, poor passengers standing in the aisles and squatting on the deck, but thankful to be aboard. Apparently, they don’t mess around with making the most of each trip to the mainland. The sun was shining and sparkling over the glassy water as we sped as fast as that little ship could, so laden down from the weight of the cargo.

Speed Boat: Koh Mak to Laem Ngop
Time: 1:15
Cost: 450 baht ($14)/each

At the pier we retrieved our luggage and found there was little space left in the Sawngthaew (share taxi) to Trat (except if we hung off the back, something I could not picture my mother doing, as brave as she is, in a million years). We found another one but it was empty and wouldn’t leave until it was filled up from the next boat. So we splurged and paid fare for the entire truck to the Trat bus station and arrived with time to spare for the 10am departure. The bus station was immaculate and well organized with many helpful workers and locals offering assistance to our next destination. Not a one was feigning friendliness so they could demand tip or scam us in some way. Could it be that we’ve finally found the elusive trifecta of travel destinations in Thailand: cheap, clean, and friendly.

Sawngthaew (private): Laem Ngop to Trat
Time: 0:20
Cost: 300 baht ($9) total

We purchased tickets for an air conditioned mini-van from Trat to Hat Lek, the town just before the Cambodian Border. The ride was pleasant and we met an interesting couple that were international school teachers and had a lot of helpful information about Cambodia and Vietnam that I scribbled in my journal. The ride was generally smooth until we pulled over with a tire issue and ended up changing vans for the remainder of the trip. Amazingly this only delayed us around 15 minutes.

Mini-van: Trat to Hat Lek
Time: 1:30
Cost: 120 baht ($4)/each

Next we came to the main event: the border crossing. I had read everything conceivable to prepare for the well-known visa and taxi scams we would encounter. I would not be able to adequately prepare for the fact that our onward transportation would be tied to us getting visas quickly and no one would care about paying five extra dollars for their visa stamp but me. We thought we had missed the last bus to Phnom Penh and we would pay the premium for a private car but there was a 12pm bus that would wait for us so we had to hurry since it was already 12pm! The visa officials first demanded 1000 baht ($30) from each of us, then pretended to be generous by reducing the fee to $25 although the real price according to Thai immigration is only $20. To me it was principle, to everyone else it was an unnecessary delay, so we payed and moved on although it killed me inside. For anyone else facing this border crossing, I’m positive it won’t require anything more than your perseverance and your time. Don’t be intimidated or bullied, eventually they will stamp you for $20, like the guys just behind us that were furious we had caved in. Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all.

Cambodian Border Crossing and Visa
Time: 2:00
Cost: $25 (ahhh!)

The guy that sold us the inflated bus tickets turned out not to be the taxi driver after-all, we learned in amazement as he squeezed in to the drivers-side seat with the driver to accompany us. We sped away and caught up with the bus that pulled over for us on the side of the road. It was now after 1pm and the bus (and all the passengers) had waited over an hour for us. We were not looking forward to having to board, and to be known as the cause of the delay.

Taxi: Cham Yeam to KOH KONG
Time: 0:15
Cost: 350 baht ($10) total

We boarded the bus 95% full of locals, and surprisingly to welcoming smiles. I was worried about Cambodians after the kerfuffle at the border, but I realized how unwarranted it was. If all of Southeast Asia is like this, we may never come home! Now, we were ecstatic to make the bus but there were a couple challenges to endure. Ron and I sat in front of a fellow with a broken leg so that although the girls in front of us reclined their seats into our foreheads, we were unable to recline ourselves. Not great, but not the end of the world. My parents on the other hand had the only seats on the bus without overhead air vents and it was stiflingly hot and stuffy for the first several hours of the ride. Not that our air vents were blowing out ice cold air or anything, but they did get a worse deal. We all suffered equally from hours of loud blaring Thai karaoke and from our grumbling stomachs. We did not have time to take lunch at the border and had to last the entire bus ride on snacks. Luckily the food bag was bulging with teriyaki crackers, fig cookies, jelly bellies, and nuts.

Bus: Koh Kong to Phnom Penh
Time: 6:30
Cost: $15/each

We arrived in Phnom Penh a little after 7pm and nearly 12 hours of travel (only about an hour longer than a perfectly executed trip,…wow!). After a quick check-in to Riverstar, a budget hotel overlooking the Tonle Sap river, we headed down for a long overdue dinner and congratulatory cocktails. Nothing tastes finer after a hot, humid day of travel than an icy cold G&T. Amen.

My parents made it through valiantly, I was so proud. With grace, they dealt with crooked immigration officials, stuffy buses, and mild starvation for a real independent travel adventure. And they saved a bundle of money, the overland trip was less than $38 vs. over $250 for a flight. You can’t beat that! But to this day I’m sure they missed that air con and complimentary in-flight meal…


Joe Seif January 25, 2010 at 8:44 AM  

Godspeed Ron and Alison...Get well soon Evil Kneivel!

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