Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Arriving in Thailand and heading to Cambodia via the Poi Pet border crossing

We arrived in Thailand nearly two weeks ago, to start the next chapter of our year of adventure! I've been wanting to write a blog post for a while, but we couldn't find an internet cafe in Cambodia despite looking for ages in Phnom Penh, the capital.

We flew with Emirates and this time they didn't lose our bags, hooray! Last time we flew into Bangkok, Emirates lost our bags, along with the bags of dozens of other passengers, as they didn't make the connection at Dubai. We eventually got them back after five days. We were worried that the same thing would happen again, as we were nearly an hour late taking off due to 'baggage issues', which is what happened last time. Turns out someone didn't board the plane, so they had to find and remove his bag from the plane.

We had a nice enough time reaclimatising to the weather in the Khao San Road [backpacker central] of Bangkok. We've been here so many times now on the way to and from places that it's all too familiar and super tacky. We stayed at Lucky House which was very noisey all hours on the first night and then moved to a much quietier and nicer guest house called My House for the second night. We had an enjoyable foot massage while we sheltered from an epic rain downpour - it's the end of rainy season at the moment. We booked an early bus from our guest house to take us to Cambodia, booking with a local tour company, against the advice of our trusty Lonely Planet book, which suggests only booking from the bus station. This was the start of a long, hectic and frustrating journey into Cambodia...

The bus price was 350 THB [around 7 GBP]. We really should have known better than to trust a bus price that low, especially when crossing a border. The visa price should be around 20 USD and general advice seems to be to arrange the visa on arrival, just bringing one passport sized photo with you. When we boarded our minivan in Bangkok, we got chatting to Owen and Nanna, a lovely couple who live in London who were doing a similar trip to us. 

We got what we thought was fairly near to the Poi Pet border, when Emily and I were told we had to get off, as we were booked through a different company, so the process would be different. We were dropped at a cafe and didn't have a clue where we were. We took solace in the fact that there were plenty of other tourists there, so it didn't seem too dodgy. That's when they asked us to hand over our passports, which is obviously something anyone is very reluctant to do when travelling, unless an official asks. We were told to pay 1300 THB each [around 26 GBP] which is a fair bit more than the official price of around 18 GBP. We said that this seemed a lot and asked why we couldn't just go and do all this at the actual border, The man immediately got very angry and came up with excuses of why it cost more. We had no idea where we were, and were worried about missing our connecting bus, so we had no choice but to do what he said. 

Thankfully within a few minutes the same man came back with what looked like a legit visa in both our passports. We were then taken by bus, then paraded further to another area with some other tourists, where the same guy did a 10-minute long speech about how it's best to have lots of THB with you, as USD means you get a bad exchange rate in the shops in Cambodia. He was really going on about this for ages, so something seemed fishy. He then instructed everyone to withdraw a large amount of cash from the cash point we were stood near [can't remember that amount but it was a lot]. Emily and I refused to do so, as we had enough money with us to keep us going for a couple of days and we knew that there were ATMs everywhere in Siem Reap, where we were headed. We waited to see what the scam here would be, which we assumed would be that they would then pressure sell you into changing the money for bad exchange rates at some point in the near future. We never saw this, but then again the guy knew who did and didn't have the cash as he watched them withdraw it, and we got split up from the other guys shortly after.

We then walked to the actual Poi Pet border, which was very chaotic, noisy and dirty. The queue was short to get our passports stamped to leave Thailand, then we joined a long queue to enter Cambodia. During this time we also got 'health screened' [I think due to Ebola fears], which involved us having what looked like a handheld supermarket scanner with a laser coming out of it pointed at our necks and filling out a sheet to declare that we didn't have any serious diseases. Shortly after, we bumped into Owen and Nanna again, who had a different border experience and didn't pay as much as us. They were able to pay at the actual office and not lose sight of their passports at any time. They also didn't have the token health screening. 

We queued for ages in stifling heat, before giving fingerprint scans and having our passports stamped by Cambodian authorities. We then finally walked into Cambodia - hoorah! Gambling is banned in Thailand and Vietnam, so there are dozens of shadey looking Casinos as soon as you cross the border, What a pleasant welcome! We saw one of the people who we think was involved in the dodgy company we booked with, who told us to sit and wait for the other passengers, so we could board a big bus. We were told this bus would take four and a half hours, whereas a taxi would take two. This is info we had already read up on before, so it seemed legit [the big bus goes slower on the pot holed roads and stops more]. It was pretty cheap [around 9 GBP each] to go in the taxi, which we shared with Owen and Nanna. 

The taxi ride was quite pleasant, taking in the scenery and chatting to our new friends. By chance I worked out that Nanna knew our friend Rosie, as they went to acting school together. Small world! It was also interesting to listen to Nanna tell us a bit about her native Iceland. We arrived in Siem Reap in around two hours as promised and were taken to a garage in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. We were promised that the taxi would take us to the guest house we had booked, so were annoyed to see two tuk tuks wait for us. The tuk tuk drivers said they would take us for free to our guest house, but were really very persistent that we should book a tour of the Temples of Angkor with them the next day, as if it was our duty to them for being so kind to them! Turns out we had passed our guest house on the way, so we had been driven out of our way to be pressured sold something again! Owen and Nanna booked a tour and said their tuk tuk driver was great, but we didn't book with the other guy. I spoke to him for ages about details and price, but he really gave me the creeps and I didn't fancy spending the day being driven around by him. 

We booked a tuk tuk driver through our guest house to head to the Temples of Angkor the next day. I'll write more about that in my next blog post. 

Thanks for reading!

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