When writing our travel blog we try to limit the amount of negative material we include; after all, who really wants to hear us complain anyways? If you wanted to hear bad news you could just pick up the newspaper or turn on CNN, right? Most of the time things do work out with a bit of planning and flexibility, but sometimes it doesn't matter how much planning you do, travel plans don't always work out the way you want and bad days will happen.
Crossing the Cambodia border into Thailand was one of those days. It's actually a funny story now that we look back, so we figured we should share this 'not so glamourous' moment on our journey.
Cambodia is a developing nation but let's be clear, it is still quite poor and limited in its infrastructure. We were in Battambang about to part ways with Andrew and Nicola; they were heading back to Phnom Penh, and we were heading into Thailand for some beach time on the island of Koh Chang. The major border crossing between the countries was about 3 hours north of Battambang, a small town called Poipet. This crossing is the main route linking Thailand travelers to the world famous Temples of Angkor, located outside the city of Siem Reap.
We trusted our guide book's information and elected to take the closer border crossing of Pailin. This would get us to the island of Koh Chang much faster than our alternative option, which was to take a four hour bus back to Siem Reap, stay an extra night in Cambodia, catch an early bus to cross the border into the Thailand province of Chanthaburi, and then change buses to head south to Trat (the destination city where we would organize boat transportation to the island). Stay with us, we just need to lay the story's foundation!
Our plan seemed fairly straight forward. We had our hotel manager organize a shared taxi to the Pailin border for $7 each, walk across the border, grab a mini-bus to Chanthaburi, then catch a bus to Trat. The time expected was about four to five hours and the costs somewhere around $15 per person. Sounds like a pretty good plan, right?
The morning began at 5:00am with Cameron needing to use the facilities four times before 5:30 am; this stomach illness set the tone for the day early. We were picked up from the hotel on time and taken to the shared taxi station in the centre of town. It was here that the plans started to shift. We were told we needed to wait for an hour so that they could fill up the car with four more Cambodians. Now if you've done the math correctly, that is seven people in your basic Toyota sedan. Not good! So we felt the need to speak up. In broken English, the man responded with a "this is normal in Cambodia, three people in the front and four in the back". Not the answer we were looking for... but he was right.
We put up a bit of a stink, knowing that our $14 funded the car and that they were trying to squeeze more money out of the two-hour trip. When we threatened to go back to the hotel and get a refund, we were actually taken back to the hotel… not the expected result. The hotel manager was waiting for us outside, looking very concerned and flustered. He said, "I want tourists to be happy so that they recommend my hotel. So I will loose money this time and you can go in the car with only three people in the back seat" (instead of the 'normal' four people?). We didn't believe that he was losing money at all; in fact we knew he was making money on us (he was very adamant that we continue on this trip and not go elsewhere - and a night stay at his hotel was only $5!).
So we agreed with the hotel manager and went back to the station. Surprisingly, nobody at the station understood what we were talking about - we were still waiting for four people! Finally, after some heated conversations, we were moved to a different, smaller vehicle and were ready to go… so glad that we got up at 5:00 am! The road to the border wasn't really a road in the typical sense. It was an unpaved dirt road, filled with deep potholes and sharp hairpin turns and in the process of continual construction (although nobody was working?). The two hour bumpy ride was fairly uneventful, until we stopped in a small town and were told to get out of the car.
Apparently that was the end of the road in that vehicle! We were swapped into another car that was to take us the rest of the way to the border. Of course this information was never communicated to us so you can imagine our confusion and apprehension… it's not every day that you're in the middle of rural Cambodian being told in broken English that "you must go into that vehicle". This new ride was very comfy, primarily due to the family of six that was already in it… so if you've doing the math right, that's eight people in the small sedan!
Let's not forget that during this whole time Cameron's illness was gaining legs and he was not in the greatest state to be bouncing around dirt roads squished in a hot vehicle without a toilet in sight for miles. It wasn't that bad though. The kids were very cute and it was one of those truly authentic moments where you just had to laugh (although there was no laughing at the time!).
We made it to the border eventually, and only two hours behind schedule. We got our passport stamps from Cambodia and walked across a bridge about 200 meters to the Thailand immigration. We quickly learned that we needed a passport photo and photocopy in order to cross the border… useful information that was never communicated to us at any point! Remember, we're still in rural Cambodia-Thailand at this point, in the middle of nowhere. Luckily we had backups of both, although it took us some frantic digging to finally find them hidden nicely in our backpacks.
After crossing the border we were told (well we read in our Lonely Planet guide book) that there would be mini-buses to take us to Chanthaburi. No such luck! We needed to first take a taxi to the mini-bus station, which was a short 4km away. The taxi drivers knew that anyone land crossing was at their mercy and wanted 300 baht, equivalent to $10, to transport us the short distance. To put it in perspective, we paid 350 baht to take an airport taxi 40km to downtown Bangkok and this included two toll booths on the highway. It was the principle that pissed us off. We had the money, but hated that they were extorting it from us.
We would have hiked it out of spite (or Cameron's stubbornness) but had no map, nor a clue of what the bus stop would look like. We decided not to use the taxi and just sat down on our bags and waited for some inspiration. Our goal was to wait for another tourist to cross the border so that we could team up and split the future costs. After an hour, still no one had crossed. We were told that we could hire a motorcycle to drive us for 50 baht, but we had our massive heavy backpacks and envisioned the trip not ending well. Finally, sweating from the intense sun and humidity, we gave up and agreed on 200 baht for the taxi. We were so pissed when we saw just how close the bus stop was (five minute drive), it was complete extortion and there was nothing we could do about it!
The 'mini-bus station' was nothing more than a roadside convenience store made out of wood, and the mini-bus was nothing more than a beat up pick-up truck with two benches and a vinyl roof. We jumped in the back and were ready to go… but our driver wasn't. He was in the mood to eat and rest instead. You can imagine our conversation at this point… we were grumpy, hot, tired and irritable.
After about 30 minutes we began the hour and a half journey on painfully uncomfortable steel benches, but we were making progress and it only cost us 100 baht each (at least it was a paved road!). It was in the back of that truck that Cameron's illness took on a new form; cold sweats and fever with a hint of mild hallucinations! The black exhaust fumes and dust didn't lighten the situation either.
We arrived in Chanthaburi and had a stroke of luck, the bus to Trat had just arrived and it was only 50 baht per person. It was an actual tourist bus too! The trip was another hour but it gave us the opportunity to sneak in a quick nap. Once Cameron awoke from a brief nap it was game over. Sweating profusely in the air conditioned bus was a bad sign. Aching muscles, pounding headache and an inability to function were more bad signs. Once we arrived in Trat we had to call it… unfortunately we weren't going to make it to Koh Chang that day! We grabbed a tuk-tuk and found the closest hostel. It was already 4:00pm and we were spent.
So long story even longer, our four to five four trip took nine hours. Looking back, it really wasn't that bad and made for an unforgettable experience. Isn't it ironic that those moments when you are the most uncomfortable are the moments that are the most memorable?
So there you have it… it's not all cheap beer, sunshine and sandy beaches! Well, at least not for a few days… our next stop is the lush jungle island of Koh Chang!
And don't worry, within 24 hours Cameron's illness had passed and he was back to drinking beer and dumping hot sauce on everything. It must have been a parasite or something of that nature... not uncommon in Cambodia!