Despite the fact that I am fairly well traveled (28 countries), I haven’t crossed that many borders. Well, not borders that felt like borders, anyway—the sort where a guard leans into your car and peers at you intently, or where you line up in front of desk and hand over your passport while trying to look as innocent as possible. Most of my border crossing has been in Europe where things are now so casual it’s virtually impossible to find someone to stamp your passport.
I went to college in Canada, so I’ve crossed that border a dozen or so times (and make no mistake, the Canadian border guards are not all smiles). I’ve walked across the Mexican border near Bisbee, Arizona. The guard on the South African/Swazi border checked our passports, then tried to sell us some lace. I’m pretty sure I had to show my passport to take a ferry from Argentina to Uruguay, but it was very casual.
So it was with a great deal of excitement that I got up at 6:30am to wait for the minibus (read: van) that would take us to Cambodia. Just before our van arrived a van from a different company picked up a British couple that had also been staying at our hotel. We did not expect to see them again, but we ran into them on the ferry from Koh Chang, at the first gas station we stopped at, at the Cambodian border, and at Angkor Wat. (They were also memorable for their attire. Despite the fact that this is a very modest part of the world where women are not even allowed into parts of Angkor Wat without their shoulders covered, this woman was wearing a “dress” that managed to show off her bra from at least three different angles.)
Anyway, when we got into the van the driver, who spoke no English but managed to convey a lot through pointing, asked me and Isaure to sit in the front seat. She can get car sick so I sat in the middle seat, which was so elevated I had to slouch down to see properly out the windshield. A number of Buddhist talismans hung from the rearview mirror (plastic saffron carnations, etc). He needed them—he drove extremely aggressively (and I’m from Boston!) If there were ever another vehicle in front of him, he would drive up until their bumpers were practically touching, then pass it. We spent almost half the ride in the wrong lane. (To be clear, I didn’t feel that he was a dangerous driver at all—just one with no patience. But I have since learned from experience that he was a very typical driver for this part of the world.)
The van had no storage space so the driver piled everyone’s suitcases on the first seat—the one directly behind me and Isaure. My seat had no headrest, so the top suitcase had nothing but gravity keeping it from decapitating me. All the way to the ferry, Isaure had one hand on its front and Khalid held onto its back. (Do I have great friends or what?) Once we were safely on the ferry, the driver rearranged the suitcases so they were more secure.
We saw lots of people with visible motorbike injuries on the ferry (scraped legs, limps), making me happy I’d stuck to my guns and refused to ride one. (It is the primary method of transportation in Southeast Asia, but I know someone who was in a terrible motorcycle accident that changed his personality and gave him epilepsy, so I have always vowed never to get on one. I can definitely see the appeal, though—it’s a really easy way to get around, and it does look like fun. But it’s not for me.)
The drive to the border, while long, was actually pretty pleasant. Rural Thailand is very pretty—lots of interesting mountains in the distance, as well as some stretches of farmland that reminded me of the rural Midwest (with different foliage, of course). But I could definitely see why many of the Thais we met had moved to touristy areas like Koh Chang—it didn’t look like there would be a lot of money in the sort of farming we saw. We also drove by a lot of military checkpoints (often rotaries with little guard booths in the center), which surprised me—but then I really don’t know anything about Thai politics.
At lunch time we arrived at a dubious-looking restaurant near the border, where our driver handed us over to a very friendly guy who spoke excellent English. He gave us all forms to fill out for our Cambodian visas, then collected the forms, our photos, the visa fee, and our passports.
Handing your passport to a random stranger at a shady roadside eatery in a developing country is not the most confidence-inspiring act. But it all worked out—within half an hour or so he was back.
We all piled into a different van to go to the border. He parked the van behind a building, then started handing out our passports. Our group was very diverse—two Americans (me and Khalid), one French person (Isaure), four South Africans, two Russians, a Canadian, and a Swede. I was surprised to see that despite all the fuss over photos, there is no photo on my visa. So I guess my picture is now in a Cambodian database somewhere.)
We had to carry all our things a short distance to Thai customs. We queued up in the lines for foreigners and admired the “Happy New Year” decorations sparkling over the images of the royal family at the front of the room. The lines went pretty fast and soon we were on the other side, which we figured must be no man’s land. When our guide reappeared to lead us to Cambodian customs I was very surprised to see that we were actually already in Poipet. We walked by multiple casinos before we arrived at customs, so as far as I could see there was nothing stopping us from disappearing into the crowd without a visa. From what I could see Poipet was very dirty (trash everywhere) and seemed quite poor. I was clutching my bags very tightly since Shaun (the Welsh owner of our last accommodations) had told us that the border was full of pickpockets, particularly children)—but no one came near us. The line to go through customs was very, very long. (Not because there were so many people in it—but because it was so slow. The Cambodian customs agents had a very good incentive to keep it that way—for 300 baht ($10) you can bribe your way out of waiting in it.) It was so hot that I was actually sweating through the front of my shirt. The smell (sewage) did not help things much. But despite all that, I found it to be a fun adventure. We got to know the only other two people from our group who did not bribe their way out of the line pretty well—Chad (the Canadian) and Oscar (the Swede). Chad, who is about 25, works for a small airline that has partnerships that allow him to fly very cheaply. Oscar, who is about 20 and looks like he should be a playing Selena Gomez’ love interest on a Disney Channel show, plans to be a carpenter.
When we finally made it through customs we piled into yet another bus, which took us to the city’s bus terminal. There, we could change money at the official government booth, where our guide assured us they would give us fair rates. He explained that in Cambodia, even though the official currency is the riel, the real currency is the U.S. dollar. They use riel for everything that costs less than a dollar, like spare change, and dollars for everything else. There are 4000 riel to a dollar (which made seeing my bank balance at ATMs fun—I am so rich in Cambodia!)
At the bus terminal we climbed into yet another van. I ended up at the very back, next to the suitcases, with Isaure right in front of me. Right in front of her was an empty space with no seats. After all of us tourists had found seats, the driver put a cooler into the empty space and two (or was it three?) Cambodians squeezed onto the seat. When Isaure expressed dismay that they had to sit that way, one of them replied with a laugh, “You’re paying, and we’re riding for free, so of course they treat us like shit!” He told us his name was Jacey.
As we drove out of Poipet and into the countryside, the view began to improve. The landscape was beautiful—flat as far as the eye could see, but punctuated with trees and tall grass. As the sun went down, we were struck by the fact that almost every house had blue lights in the yard the size and shape of light sabers. We asked Jacey what they were and he said they were to attract crickets and lizards.
As we arrived in Siem Reap (13 hours after we had left Koh Chang), Jacey revealed that he had a tuk-tuk and asked if he could drive us to Angkor Wat. We gladly accepted. He offered to drive us to our hotel for free since he would be getting so much work the following day (but we gave him money anyway). Oscar decided to come with us, since our hotel was so cheap ($7 each for our own rooms) and he hadn’t booked anything, so the four of us and all our bags piled into the same tiny tuk-tuk. Since we probably weighed more than 600 pounds, we were genuinely concerned going around corners, but we made it in one piece.
Unfortunately, when we got to the hotel the three rooms we had been promised were not available—they told us that some westerners had damaged the toilets over New Year’s! Instead of having our own rooms, the four of us were going to have to share a tiny room with two bunk beds and a very dubious en suite bathroom. The only saving grace was that they were only charging us $3.50 per person. Given that I could barely stand, I was so tired, I didn’t really care where we slept.
And that is the story of how we got to Cambodia. And if you’ve read all this, you can properly sympathize with long slogs.