Back (again!) to Bangkok

You know, I really have to go through this blog sometime and figure out how many times I’ve passed through Bangkok in the course of this journey. If I was to hazard a guess, I’d say ten times. Not bad given I’d not even set foot in Asia before March 14th 2006. Is it really almost three year?

The trip was pretty smooth. As agreed, I crawled down the stairs to reception before 7am to await the share taxi. He arrived around 15 minutes later and I was told to take one of the back seats. “Three people, back seat”. No problem. We then drove around Battambong to pick up those three people, and one more for the front seat – a businessman with a laptop who’d paid extra to be the only non-sardine other than the driver. Yeah, when they said “three”, I thought they’d meant three including me.

We made it to the border in good time, and our driver obviously knew what he was doing. If ever there was a hint of a police presence at the roadside, he’d wait for a bus to overtake then sit very close behind it. By the time the police saw the taxi, we were way past them. Not that the driver was dong anything wrong but the police in Cambodia can be somewhat… “inventive” with the offences they charge fines for.

I was dropped right at the border point at Poipet around 10:10 – much better than catching the bus which wouldn’t even leave Battambang until after midday. If I could get a seat.

Getting stamped out of Cambodia and into Thailand was a cinch. Join a queue at one side to exit Cambodia. Pass through the “no man’s land” using the left-hand path and into immigration. Grab a form sat on counter number 6, fill it in, go through the routine passport check and exit from the other side. Doddle.

Once in Aranyaprathet, a short walk leads to a sign telling all tourists and foreigners to turn right. Within 20m of this point, I’d already has one person approach me with an offer of a bus ticket to Bangkok. As it worked out, it was a good deal. 300 baht, double decker, air-con, express (4 hours), free water and leaving soon. As a bonus, it would stop opposite Hualamphong saving me getting there from Mo Chit.

There are cheaper, indirect, buses from the station in town but by the time I’d have paid for a motorcycle to get there it simply wouldn’t have been worth it. There is also a train for around 70 baht, but it’s 6 hours and there are only two a day. If you’re looking, the company is the first on the left after you pass the baggage check area.

As an aside, the toasties from the sandwich stand aren’t bad (and are cheap) and the large bank on the corner does a good exchange rate.

A little over four hours later – just after 3pm, and I was disembarking at the central train station. As the advance ticket office closes at 4pm and certain routes book up early, I had to be here to ensure I could organise my ticket for the first leg to Kuala Lumpur so I knew I’d be able to get down there once I got back from Myanmar.

The helpful staff at the information desk escorted me to the right queue and ensured I booked the ticket correctly. 1120 baht gets me from Bangkok to Butterworth, overnight in an air-con bunk with meals (I think – I’ll check that!). For 90 baht more you can have a lower bunk which I think just gives you a little more space.

All sorted, I got the MRT to Silom and walked down the road. Lunch in McDs and then into the Duke of Wellington to use the free wi-fi. I’m sat here now, typing this up. On my 2-and-a-half’th Tiger and with some very good potato skins with cheese and bacon in my belly. Frankly, I’m stuffed. The “free” wi-fi has cost me about a tenner, but I’ve caught up on a lot and the live music’s superb.

And with that, I shall sign off. I’m intending to catch the 10pm-ish airport express. I’ll sleep at the airport itself as my check-in is at 5:15am. The first bus from Bangkok leaves at 5am so there’s no point in even trying to catch that.

There may be a delay in posts as I gather that the internet in Myanmar is not that good. Normal posting will be resumed once I get to Kuala Lumpur around the 24th or 25th!

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Crossing into Cambodia

You’ll find a lot of the bumph from this post repeated in the nearby “Tip”, but here it is in the original anecdotal form.

Today we crossed the border. The tuk-tuk guy we’d used yesterday picked us up at 9am and drove us to the little visa place a short distance from the border itself. The visa fee is meant to be $20 as stated on posters in the area. I was asked for 1000THB which is $33, but told them we had no Baht and they accepted $30. The excuse from last night was a repeated: “you can pay 1000THB here to get visa right away or go to Bangkok and wait 2-3 days which is more expensive”. Or you can fly into the airport, pay $20 and get it immediately as they don’t try to rip you off.

A bunch of 3 guys were there and relieved we could use dollars as they had no Baht left. One had to get his visa as his Thai one had expired and he couldn’t re-enter the country without exiting first! The tuk-tuk drove us the last half mile or so to the crossing proper where we were “helped” through border control by a Thai with a badge.

On the Cambodian side we were herded onto a “tourist bus” for the 500m drive to the taxi office where we could get a bus ticket for $10 or a taxi ticket for $60. This is a huge increase on recent years, where the taxi fare used to be $25 – and in fact, still is. The remainder is taxes and fees for the monopoly which operates in the area.

Their argument is it stops the old rip-offs that did occur – getting halfway to Siem Reap and then the driver demanding more cash or he’d dump you in the middle of nowhere. Rare, but reported. All drivers now must be licensed and regulated through them. Any problems and the driver can lose his license. They can also lose their license if they’re caught bartering outside of new system. We couldn’t find anyone else to share with (the others who came through were a group of four, and four is the maximum for a taxi) so had to foot the $60 charge between us.

The driver was great. Fast, chatty, friendly and the 2 1/2 hour drive passed quickly. The roads really have improved on what I’d heard about and for the first half or so it was rare to go more than a mile without seeing some kind of roadworks as they continue to be levelled and surfaced.

In Siem Reap, I gave the driver 200 Baht (about three quid) as a tip and he seemed genuinely taken aback. Hey, I don’t even know if he’d get a fare back to the border. Petrol here is about 50p a litre – less than half that in the UK – but this is an enormous amount when the average daily income is less than $1. We had a short tuk-tuk ride to the Bou Savy Guest House where Amy had stayed the last time I was in Siem Reap and settled in to enjoy the aircon.

After a shower and change of clothes (yeah, I know you’re hearing that phrase a lot on this blog – it’s humid over here), we tuk-tuk’d to the Children’s Hospital where I bled down a tube in exchange for a Coke and some iron tablet. As we were there, the first proof of the wet season descended upon us. When it rains here, it really rains! After the torrent finished, we got a lift down to the old market for a quick wander round.

Leah looked at the silks, I stared at the meat and fresh produce section. Great stuff. After a quick wander into some bookstores and a non-haggled $5 purchase of a new Vietnam Lonely Planet from a woman in the street, we settled down at the Temple bar on Pub Street for a drinkie and some food. My pizza was very tasty and Leah made approving noises as she devoured a steak. After a few more beers/vodkas we walked upstairs to watch the free Apsara dancing and supped a couple of cocktails. I recommend the AK-47 with a whopping 5 shots in it… and always available on 2-for-1. Eek.

After the dancing, we trundled over to the X rooftop bar where I let Leah beat me at pool (with our jury-rigged ball system as there aren’t enough for the two tables) and I got talking to a guy from Dorset who kind of arrived here and hasn’t left yet. He’s now working at X for around $10 a day, wondering what to do with himself – but I don’t think his plans will involve moving on any time soon. Apparently I was drunk when Leah instructed me that it was time to head back to the guest house, but I still don’t believe it. I’d only had about 12 beers and 9 shots. And one less pint of blood in my system than usual.

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TIP – the Thai / Cambodia border

Information published elsewhere, but I thought it worthwhile to give this a space of its own as the other stuff’s spread across a couple of posts.

Crossing is easy – that’s the first thing. Don’t sweat it. We went from Bangkok to Siem Reap with an overnight stop, but if you can be bothered with an early start it’s easily achievable in a single day.

Stage one is to get to the border. A train is the cheapest and easiest way – you want the service from Bangkok’s Hualamphong station to Aranyaprathet which at the time of writing was 48 Baht. A superb resource for train journeys all over the place is The Man In Seat 61.

There are two services a day – 5.55am and 13:05pm. Taking the first, you can get to Siem Reap no problem. With the second I’d recommend an overnight in Aranyaprathet rather than over the border in Poipet, though the latter would be cheaper from what I hear. Maybe. I gather it’s not so safe, though.

Either way, you’ll have a 4 1/2 hour train ride with some great scenery (and no air conditioning). On arrival at Aranyaprathet you will of course be greeted by tuk-tuks prepared to take you to the border or to a (“cheap”) hotel.

Also either way you will end up at the border at some point. If you already have a visa then head straight for the crossing. Otherwise you’ll have to go to a separate office elsewhere (tuk-tuks know where) at which point you will be fleeced for the visa fee.

Right now, a Cambodian visa is $20. You will pay this in Hanoi, Bangkok, Saigon, Auckland, London… $20. Yup, it might take 2-3 days, but that is the visa fee. You’ll also pay $20 if you land at either airport in Cambodia and pay the fee on entry. $20 and they put the big paper stamp in your passport.

However, get it at a land border… at Aranyaprathet they ask for 1000 Thai Baht. At the current rate of exchange, this is $33. You can “save” $3 by saying you don’t have any Baht, and they’ll let you pay in US currency at a fee of $30. The “excuse” is that the $10 is an express fee, though they don’t offer a means of paying $20 and waiting 2 days. It also doesn’t explain the immediate visa at the airports without such a fee. The presence of overseeing government officials at the airport, however, does.

Short version – $30 at land borders so the staff can line their pockets.

A short tuk-tuk ride away is the border crossing itself. You disembark and a Thai will likely assist you through. There’s no real need for this, but they’re not pushy and slightly helpful. Of course, they expect a tip afterwards for this non-requested and non-essential service. Stamp out of Thailand and into Cambodia (after filling in one of those annoying immigration slips), then walk out into Cambodia proper.

There you will be herded onto a tourist bus which will drive you over the incredibly potholed road to an office where you will be sold a taxi or bus. Taxi is $60 to Siem Reap (around 2 1/2 hours with the new roads), bus is $10 and around 4 hours. The roads are much better than you’ll have heard about historically and work is still being done on them. The little bit up to the tourist office is by far the worst you’ll experience.

Now you can get a cheaper taxi, but it’s difficult. You’ll be actively discouraged (harassed) if you try to barter outside the monopoly system. The driver gets $25, the monopoly some money and the government (apparently) some more of the $60 fee. So theoretically, you should be able to find a private driver for $25. Good luck. I did meet some guys in Siem Reap who’d got one for $45 by refusing to board the tourist bus – just say you’re going to check the casinos or something.

Good luck, however you do it. It’s not a difficult crossing, and the experience isn’t bad. Quite an adventure, really!

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