If anyone out there can resist the charm of Siem Reap (the quaint little town, home to the archeological wonder Angkor Wat and warm Khmer hospitality) then, seriously, that person is a stone—passive, cold, and boring.
Look for the Visa Sign
Hypocrisy aside, the decision to reunite with Siem Reap was born out of necessity. There were no buses plying the Bangkok–Ho Chi Minh City route, and with our coffers draining by the minute (thanks to Bangkok’s irresistible street food, Thai noodles, and fresh fruit juices) flying was out of the question. So despite travel book warnings about the bus scams on Khao San Road, we went inside the most legitimate-looking “travel agency” and bought tickets to Siem Reap for the following day.
We used the same agency we booked the floating market tour with. Pardon me, I forgot the name. But it’s along Rambutiri Street hidden behind street food stalls and has a “We accept Visa and Mastercard” sign on the door. And surprisingly, they do accept credit cards with a non-negotiable 4% charge. Most travel agencies along Khao San, at least the shady ones, don’t have those signs, so that put our hopes up that this one was legitimate.
The Pick-up Guy
Our Siem Reap–bound bus was scheduled to leave at 8:30 a.m. and we were supposed to be picked up at 8:00 from our hotel. By 7:30, Pinky and I were already geared up and waiting at the very entrance of the hotel’s café. We’ve learned our lesson in Siem Reap the other time. And the day before, a couple missed their bus because they were too busy sipping their coffee and reading their Lonely Planet guide so they didn’t hear the pick-up guy scream “Siem Reap”, which actually sounded more like a choppy “sya reh”. Bless him.
The thing with these pick-up guys is that they don’t have the names of their passengers so they scream the destination’s name and everybody scramble towards them with their backpacks and all only to be told his only picking one guy and he has to look at all the tickets first to see if he picks the right one. So everybody goes back to their seats, until another pick-up guy comes and does the same ritual all over again.
Our man came 15 minutes late, which made me a little bit jittery. He beckoned us to follow him, so we walked and walked and walked along Khao San Road. Then he stopped in front of what looked like a government building and instructed us “to wait here and don’t go anywhere.” Pinky and I were thinking, Oh no, not another scam! Anyway, like kindergarten kids, we stood there, not moving an inch (he told us not to go anywhere, didn’t he?). A long fifteen minutes later, he was back with a bunch of Japanese kids who started fussing about their visas and passports and what-have-yous. The man disappeared again. Ten minutes later, he was back with an Italian guy and two British blokes. The group was complete. We were all instructed to get on the “bus” (or van), which was way more comfortable and spacious than the ones in Cambodia.
And off we go. As we bid Bangkok good-bye, we said hello to this Italian guy who regaled everyone who cared to listen with tales of how he found true love in a young Thai bar girl and how he met her parents and how he wants to marry her . . . *rolls eyes*
Unlimited Toilet Breaks, Anyone?
Long bus trips are not for the weak bladdered (forgive my English) unless you’re in Thailand. Also, if you can’t live a minute without munching on something, take a bus in Thailand. They stop at a gasoline station/toilet/convenience store in the pre-text of refueling when in fact, they just want you to buy goodies from the store. And they make sure you do, because you are not allowed to stay in the van while they are “refueling”. Some business network there.
The amazing news is they don’t stop once or twice or thrice. They stop four times, just to make sure you shelled some Baht in the course of the trip. Of course, this is just my theory. Don’t quote me.
The Border Crossing
When the toilet breaks had all been used up, the driver dropped us off a restaurant where we’re supposed to relax and get some lunch—and he wasn’t kidding. The lunch break took more than an hour so we were left with no choice but to order food despite being properly stuffed already right to our esophagus. Now there was a problem with ordering food because in Thailand, most establishments only accept Baht. But Pinky and I only had a few Baht bills and coins left and a few hundred-dollar bills between us. So we pretended we were not really starving and ordered a drink and a meal for the two of us.
After what seemed like ages in that resto, we were ushered to another van to take us to the border, which was only 10 minutes away. The immigration at the Thai side was fast and efficient, but it was a different story on the Poipet (Cambodia aside) where we all had to form four snail-moving lines inside a small airless room. I was wondering why it took forever for the line to move until I realized some locals were cutting the line and shoving bundles of passports to the immigration officials. God only knows what was going on there. As Pinky and I waited for our turn, a very nice Japanese guy chatted with us and asked where we came from. When we said Philippines, he said, “Oh, I lived in the Philippines for 3 months. I was in Cebu.” Small world. We also live in Cebu. The guy had nice things to say about the Filipinos’ hospitality and friendliness and ability to speak very good English. But later, when I asked him if he wants to come back, he said he might but he got turned off by some staff from the Department of Foreign Affairs asking him to give them bribes so they can extend his visa. He said the Philippines is a very good country and would have been more developed if not for the corrupt officials. It’s quite shocking to hear this out of a foreigner’s mouth. Sad to say but I have to agree with him.
|A day in the life of a border.|
After surviving the border crossing, we hopped on another bus to take us to the bus terminal to get on another bus again. I couldn’t even count how many buses we’ve been in since the beginning of the trip.
The bus came with a tour guide who spoke very confusing English in a weird American-British-Khmer accent. Whenever he spoke, I couldn’t resist laughing and had to pretend something got caught in my throat. At least I was discreet. One Aussie guy at the back was just killing himself with laughter every time the tour guide spoke.
Anyway, the bus started moving towards our final destination for that leg of the journey—sweet Siem Reap. But before we finally set foot on the promised land, of course we had to stop for dinner break. Now I know why Westerners say, the Orientals love their food.
The bus stopped and as we alighted we were greeted by smiling school girls who showered us with sugar-coated hellos and asked for our names, shook our hands, and tied home-made straw bracelets on our wrists. When I said I don’t need it. The little girl with the puppy eyes said, “It’s free. It’s free.” So how can I resist a freebie? After the bracelet was already fastened securely, she then said, “Can I have a Thai coin?” Oh dear, o dear.
After the encounter with the girls and the sumptuous feast of fried rice with “pock”, we continued towards Siem Reap, settled in our hotel, showered, watched TV to our heart’s delight, used the wi-fi, until our weary bodies couldn’t take it anymore and we floated to Dreamland.
Now the original plan was to stay in Siem Reap for the night and head off to Saigon the next day. But on the second day, and the third, and the fourth, and the fifth we were still in Siem Reap. These photos will tell you why.
|The Mekong River bank where Pinky and I spent most of our lazy afternoons.|
|Inside a Buddhist temple compound.|
|Ready to raid the Angkor Night Market!|
|Pinky perfecting her haggling skills at the Old Market.|
|The famous Pub Street. Angie Jolie used to come here, the locals say.|
|Ah, what better way to spend money!|
On the fifth day, however, we felt it was time to go. When staying in a place for a long time, one starts to take in what’s happening around them. I was beginning to feel melodramatic about almost everything I see. I felt for the tuktuk and moto drivers who never seem to get any passengers, and I kept thinking, How is he going to feed his family? I felt for the petite waiter in that Asian Restaurant who wore a very tight-fitting shirt and a pair of shoes which looked too big for his size, an unwavering smile plastered on his face to lure customers in, and I kept thinking, Does he ever go to school? I felt for that lady shopkeeper at the night market who gave me all the attention in the world and was willing to give me almost 100% discount on the Cambodian earrings and almost cried when I turned to leave, pleading me to buy the earrings because I was her first customer, and I kept thinking, Does she earn something every day? And I felt for our tuktuk driver friend Ara, who nonchalantly told us he stopped school because he never passed exams and that he had to work to support his parents and siblings who live in a rural town, and I kept thinking, Why is he so kind and caring and happy when life has not been very good to him?