Sunday, April 1, 2012

Even after eight months on the road ...

On the second floor of the train station behind these umbrellas is the tour office where we booked our tickets.
We weren’t going to admit we fell for this, but hey, this blog is a like a confessional. It always feels good to get stuff off your chest.

When we arrived in Bangkok, we went directly to the information booth to inquire about trains to Cambodia. We were informed that the trains went to the border and from there; you need to find transportation to a bus station, and a bus from there to Siem Reap. There were two trains daily. She handed us a schedule and we were on our way.

We have seen this phenomenon many times before, but we seem to get drawn in each time. There are official type people roaming around with badges saying they are Tourist Information people, but they really work for tour companies and are steering you to their offices. The guy who stopped us seemed to know we were eventually heading for Siem Reap. He explained that the train was very slow and uncomfortable. If we would just go upstairs, we could organize minibus transportation to the border, and a pickup from the border to the bus station coordinated with a bus directly to Siem Reap. All organized, easy. Otherwise we needed to get from the train station to the border, from the border to the bus station with all of our luggage. Why go through the hassle when it could all be organized? He seemed to make good sense (they all do).

We have booked this way before knowing that it is a bit more expensive than doing it yourself, but much less hassle. It has never been perfect, and we always question afterwards if we should have done it that way, but here we went again, down the same path. Marc went upstairs to discuss the details with the tour company. Shortly thereafter we decided to go for it. It was about $30 each which seemed reasonable for a full day of travel. How bad could it be?

Four days later, we returned to the train station to pick up our air-conditioned comfy mini bus. We were escorted by the tour agent out of the train station, down the street, around the corner to a battered (and not very comfortable looking) minivan. The front windshield was cracked in two places, the seats worn. We looked at each other and cringed. Oy! What had we got ourselves into? In the van already, were three young German tourists and one young Asian tourist. At least we were not the only suckers.

We left Bangkok at a fast pace, and once on the highway, our driver proved to be as horrible as any of the drivers we experienced in Nepal and India. Marc was busy reading and didn’t seem to notice, but I was on the edge of my seat and wondering if we could possibly survive the next four hours to the Cambodian border, weaving in and out of traffic. In Thailand it seemed to be in fashion to have several cars/scooters/trucks pass at the same time so that there were often times three vehicles sharing the same passing lane while oncoming traffic moved towards them. Finally in desperation, I alerted Marc to our situation. In quick order, he stood up in the minivan and set the driver straight. The rest of the ride was much calmer.

Somewhere soon after our minivan pulled into a gas station and we all got out for a pee break and time to stretch our legs. The three Germans politely approached us to ask quietly where we had bought our tickets and how much we paid. We all commiserated with each other about the state of the minivan, the crazy driver and how badly we had been scammed. They had really been taken to the cleaners, so we felt a bit better. But only a bit better. They had paid 50% more than we had, but had heard from other travelers that the lucky ones paid only half of what we paid! But things would get even uglier, once we reached the border town of Poipet.

As we entered town, instead of going directly to the border, our minivan took some narrow back alleys and parked beside a restaurant. A representative of our “tour” company, greeted us, took our bus tickets, saying he would be replacing them with new ones. “Sit down, relax”, he said calmly as if reading a script. “You have some time for lunch and to fill out the forms for your visas”.

“Oh” I thought at first, “Good, we can get this out of the way before we hit the border”

When he came around to pick up the forms, he was requesting a fairly large amount of money for visa payment. The three Germans came over for a pow-wow and we all agreed that we did not need to take this charade any further. I had done some research and knew that we could get a visa ourselves at the borer and it should cost $25 US max. He was asking for almost double that to expedite it for us.

Quite an argument ensued between Marc and this very unfriendly and rude man. Forms were ripped up and words were exchanged. I was hoping for calm since these people had our luggage and so far we had not been reissued our bus tickets. The Asian man went for the full scam and was separated from us to be taken who knows where. The Germans finished their lunch (we didn’t purchase any food on principle which only infuriated our rude little man) and we all inquired about our bus tickets. We were ignored at first and then he came up to us with a roll of blue tape and tore off a piece for each of us to attach to our shirts. “This is your ticket,” he said blankly looking in the other direction. The Germans, who were much calmer than us, asked if our original tickets could be photocopied just in case. “No photocopy!” he said angrily “get in the minivan”.

I looked at the boys and said, “We are all together, we will figure it out” and we climbed back into the banged up minivan with our suicidal driver.

A short and thankfully uneventful ride later, our driver dropped us off in the middle of the border marketplace. Glad to be out of the van, we all walked to the Thai border, passed through passport control and then found our way to the Cambodian border and visa on arrival office. There were no hassles or delays and the fee was $20US. Certainly there was no need for any help from anyone.

We were directed to walk further on to a seating area where, incredibly, they was a man expecting people with blue stickers! But interestingly, at the same spot was a free shuttle service to the bus station. So once again, there was no need for any special help from anyone. Eventually we all ended up at the bus station along with the young Asian man who paid all of the extra money to have his visa organized for him. We all ended up on the same bus to Siem Reap. The Same bus that did not drop us at the Siem Reap bus station as promised, but rather in the middle of nowhere, so that the Tuk Tuk drivers waiting there would have a heyday with a bus load of tourists arriving after dark in a strange city with no idea how far it was to their hotels!

The end of a perfect day!

So there you go. After eight months on the road, we can still be taken for a ride!

The good news is that our stay in Siem Reap was nothing like the journey to get there. In fact, within an hour we were drinking margaritas and eating great food in the incredibly colourful and vibrant gateway to the historical temples of Angkor Wat and the many, many temples beyond.

But that is a much longer story for another post.

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