Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Destination Cambodia III: To Poipet and beyond...

Googling 'Drive from Bangkok to Siem Reap' brings up a large number of blogs and travel advisory sites - most of which have really useful information. Almost all my research for our vacation was done through these. A very simple travel plan. From Bangkok, drive to Aranyaprathet on the border. Clear Thai and Cambodia immigration. From the other side of the border, drive from Poipet to Siem Reap. Sounds really straightforward - on paper!

Inside our van
 Ajey's cousin had helped us book a taxi for the drive to the border. There are buses and trains available from Bangkok, but we had a ton of luggage, so it made better sense to drive. The driver showed up at the hotel at 8am, very punctual - and within half hour, we were on our way! Our first order of business was to buy water. The word on the street was that drinking water in Cambodia was really, really expensive, especially near the monuments. Carry your own water! I'm quite paranoid about availability of clean drinking water, so we bought 5 huge cans of water to take with us - one for each day of our stay, and 1 just in case we ran out! What a mistake this turned out be. Bottled water is plentiful everywhere in Cambodia, and not that expensive either. We were lugging around all this water, for nothing!

Our van was comfortable, and the condition of the road is also quite good - it was pleasant to watch the Thai countryside as we drove. The landscape and the trees is so similar to southern India, made me quite nostalgic for our years in Chennai! Little coffee shops and bigger restaurants dot the highway - plenty of refreshments and rest stops are available. Just like in India, we spotted local fruit sellers on the road, squatting on the road with baskets of fresh fruits - too bad we didn't have time to stop! We made it to Aranyaprathet in good time, about 3 and half hours after we started. A fairly large town, with number of hotels and even a few resorts. Wonder why anyone would choose to stay here, though. To cross the border, we had to go about 10km further to Rongklua border market. Our taxi could go no further than this. We had to cross the border on foot, and then take a new taxi on the other side.

Now when I said we had a ton of luggage, I really meant it. And let's not forget about those lovely bottles of water that were travelling with us. As soon as we unloaded the van, we were inundated with offers of all kinds - to clear Thai immigration, to get a Cambodian visa, to get a taxi on the other side - it was quite maddening! Forewarned, we ignored all these kind offers. We did hire a porter though - there was no way we were going to carry our bags for a kilometer or so under the blazing tropical noon sun! The porter loaded all our bags (including the water cans) onto his push cart, secured them with a length of hemp, and took off. He didn't need a visa - he would meet us on the other side, where we would pay him 200 Baht, about $7. What's to stop him from taking off with all our stuff, worth considerably more than $7? Quite a leap of faith for us!

We walked to the Thai border post to get our departure stamps. A largish room absolutely packed with people - backpackers, tour bus groups, independent travellers like us and local Thai and Cambodian people! There were A/Cs installed, but none appeared to be working. We were in queue for at least an hour, and were almost at the counter, when Manasi announced that she had to go to the bathroom. Right now, and no, she couldn't wait! Newton's 4th Law of Motion - the urgency to go to the bathroom is directly  proportional to how far the closest bathroom is! OK, I made that up! Anyway, I remembered seeing a sign for toilets right where we had joined the queue, so I raced back with her - only to find our way barred by a middle-aged Thai woman demanding 5 Baht to use the toilet. Of course, I didn't have my purse with me. The woman was adamant, resolutely refusing to look me in the eye, ignoring all offers to bring her the money later. Just then, a kind samaritan heading back to Bangkok, noticed our predicament, and paid the entrance fee.

Back at the immigration counter, the border control officer was almost done stamping all our passports - then suddenly, he decided that we needed to get a re-entry permit for Thailand right now, instead of doing the visa-on-arrival on our way back, as we had planned. Well, there's really no arguing with immigration officers, so we meekly handed over money and photographs, and went back to wait. It took a ridiculous amount of time, but finally passports in hand, we stepped out of Thailand, and into a strip of what I assume was no-man's land to walk to Cambodia. By this time, bedraggled, drooping and hungry, we were beginning to feel a bit like refugees, and 'crossing the border' was achieving a whole new significance!

We all perked up as we crossed into Poipet in Cambodia, but little did we know, our journey was far from over. I had already applied for a Cambodian e-visa online for all of us, so we just had to go through passport control. Again, the lines were horrendous!  As we stepped out, we were met right away by our porter, and what a relief that was! He was offering to hook us up with a taxi to get to Siem Reap, when a very official looking individual stepped up claiming to be a Government agent - offering us government run transportation to our hotel. We had to get onto a free shuttle which would take us a transport depot, from where we would get a bus to Siem Reap. Despite all our precautions, we had fallen for the oldest scam in Poipet! The transport depot was almost 15kms away from Poipet, and once we got there, we were at the mercy of these 'government agents'!

After much haggling, we finally agreed to share a min-van with a group of backpackers. It was really, really uncomfortable - 10 of us crammed into the van, with luggage shoved everywhere. One of the 'agents' also hopped on for the 2 hour ride to Siem Reap. Again, the road was very good. The passing landscape was idyllic - acres and acres of lush green paddy fields, small homesteads with thatched roofs and swaying plantain trees, little lotus ponds, children swimming in lakes and creeks - very pastoral, very serene. A far cry from the seedy, grimy, corrupt Poipet!

Restaurant on the way to Siem Reap
Fatigued by the day, lulled by the gentle breeze, we were nodding off - when the van stopped at a road-side cafe/restaurant. Our co-passengers were hungry, and didn't want to wait another hour to get to Siem Reap. They were, of course, in no hurry, and lingered over their meal and cigarettes - while we waited impatiently! It was almost 6pm by the time we were driving into Siem Reap. We actually drove right past our hotel - but when we asked the driver to stop and drop us off, we were given a vague story about having to go to the office first. Then, we were told, we would be brought back to our hotel. This 'office' - 30 mins away in the heart of Siem Reap - brought an end to their pretense of being 'government'. It was clearly a tourist agency run by a hotel. And now, instead of taking us to our hotel, they told us to take tuks-tuks! This was absolutely the last straw!

Now anyone who knows Ajey would agree that he is the calmest person in the world! So it is always a spectacular sight when he decides to lose his temper! After a vociferous argument, we still ended up taking the tuk-tuks! This time around, we avoided the main roads, and took the backways. Again, very reminiscent of India. The dusty dusk, the red earth, children playing in the streets, vendors at crossroads, the indolent air of the people - all bring back memories of childhood!

Tuk-tuks outside our hotel
Our hotel was the 'Sokhalay Angkor Resort and Spa'. A huge campus- almost 10 acres, dotted with colonial style villas. We had a 2 bedroom villa - thoughtfully, the hotel had provided a golf cart service to go back forth from the reception. The villa itself was slightly disappointing. It was really spacious, lot of really dark wood, but it lacked the grandeur of a 5-star resort. The kitchen had a musty smell - maybe because of the varnish on the wood! The bedrooms were quite comfortable, though. We had hoped to reach the hotel by 2pm, and then go out for dinner. Definitely wasn't going to happen now! So after a drink from the bottle of Glenfiddich - which we had carried from Bangkok, just like our water - Ajey and I brought back dinner from a local Cambodian restaurant.

Third exhausting day in a row! And we had just got here! Hopefully, Angkor Wat will live up up to the expectations!


  1. hi Gauri. Great post. i am planning the same bkk-siam reap road journey in jan with my wife, 3 teenagers n wife's parents. a few queries:
    1. was the luggage porter licensed?
    2. is it possible to avoid the transport scam n get taxis upon exit from Cambodian immigration?
    3. i was budgeting 3 day at siem reap. but do u think 2 days was adequate?

    Joy from Gurgaon

    1. Hi Joy, thanks for reading! I don't think the porter was licensed - but he did prove to be trustworthy! There are taxis available as soon as you leave with your entry stamp - you will have to negotiate, though! Also, your porter will probably have a 'friend' who has a taxi, so that's another option! I felt that 2 days was a bit hurried - we did get to see the main attractions, but 3 days should be better! Good luck with your planning! Let me know if you have any more questions! - Gauri