Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cambodia Crossing

3 January 2010 - Poipet, Cambodia. Border crossing from Thailand.

7:15am. I asked the waitress at the Atlanta if she could make me some toast, takeaway. It was the older waitress, the one with the long black hair who remembers everyone. Every day she tallies my order at the cash register, and says, “ah one toas’, ah one porridge, ah one cappuccino… and one big smile!”[bxA]

The driver showed up while I was eating my toast from a Styrofoam box and the sweet Thai waitress reprimanded him for rushing me. Let her finish. She walked me to the street and hugged me like we were long friends. The young guy who always hauls my heavy backpack to my room on the 4th floor hauled my backpack to the van and even though it was just a few feet I tipped him 20 baht. He did the prayer thing with his hands, bowed his head and thanked me.

The mini-van was nice and there were only three other passengers. I asked if we could stop at an ATM since I was down to my last 300 baht (less than ten bucks). When we stopped at the 7/11 for me to get cash, it turned out what we were getting was redistributed into other already-crowded vans.

An older German man and I got stuffed into the very back half-seat next to an overflowing stack of luggage in an 8-passenger van that already had 8 people in it. German Man chatted me up with the world’s stupidest and most boring trivia about what awaited me in Cambodia – at the border and in Siem Reap. He asked me if I knew how much a Cambodia visa costs. No, I didn’t.

“Twenty US dollars… and they only take US dollars.”

“Well, I don’t have any US dollars.”

“You don’t have any US dollars!!! How are you going to pay???”

“I’ve got Thai baht,” I said, thinking dude, they’re lucky I have any money at all, didn’t you notice I just went to the atm?

He was like Rain Man regurgitating everything that was going to happen. “You will have to carry your luggage across the border. It is a very long walk. You will have to carry it all yourself…,” he recited in his thick German accent, anxiously awaiting my distress. I knew it would delight him to learn I’d overstayed my Thailand visa.

“You have!?! Do you know how much they charge if you overstay your visa!?!”

“Um, yeah…five hundred baht per day.”

“Oh, so you do know!”

German Rain Man wasn't finished.

“You can take a riverboat from Siam Reap to Phnom Penh for $35 dollars and a tuk tuk will cost you fifteen dollars to see Angkor Wat and the guest houses will cost you ten U.S. unless you don’t need air-conditioning it will be only five U.S.…”

I stared out the window for ten seconds then closed my eyes and pretended to go to sleep. Eventually he got the point and redirected his Rain Man ramblings to two guys in the seat in front of us - as if they didn’t have enough problems with the tower of luggage toppling onto their heads. Seems they were also going to places in Cambodia…that would cost money…and German Rain Man was going to tell them all about it. I turned on my iPod for the duration.

German Rain Man was correct: the border crossing was the longest ordeal ever. The bus dumped us at a restaurant next to a travel agency where I ate fried rice while a travel agent arranged my Cambodian visa. My agent, a young Cambodian man wearing a Jason Mraz hat with the brim pulled down over his smiley face, herded us to the side of the road and lectured on what awaited us corssing the border.

We were to hold our belongings close because children would approach us and ask for money or sweets or a drink but only as a distraction while they picked our pockets. Then, as we exited the Cambodian immigration office with our freshly stamped passports, official looking men would tell us to follow them, but if we did they would take us to the jungle and steal our money.

German Rain Man was right again: It was a long walk. It was hot, my backpack was heavy, and I braced myself for the seedy underworld that awaited me on the other side.

The villains turned out to be handful of joyful little kids, mostly girls, carrying brightly colored lifesaver striped umbrellas to shield us from the sun. They were barely begging much less picking pockets.

We waited an hour for our Thai exit visas, crossed the border and spent another hour in queue to get our Cambodian entry-visa stamps.

In the Thailand queue I’d befriended a young Italian guy who watched out for me the rest of the way. He reminded me not to talk to the jungle-villains (they too were harmless) and we joined the same share-taxi for the four hour drive to Siem Reap. He insisted the taxi drop me off at my guest house first because he was certain the driver would try to fleece me.

“I know how things work here,” Italian Guy told me, “because my country is enough dodgy.”

And he was right. The taxi driver did try to pull the exact scam the agent had warned about – where he delivers you to a tuk tuk stand instead of your guest house. Italian guy argued politely for a good long back-and-forth with our driver and a tuk tuk driver, eventually winning the battle and getting me to my guest house unscathed at 7:15pm.


assie said...

hey i stayed in that same hotel !!! it cost peanuts and was awesome !