Tuesday, January 31, 2006

How do we get to Siem Reap?

Greetings from Siem Reap. This is part one of our adventures to and around the home of the ancient Angkor ruins and so much more. Part two will be an unexpected start to our SR visit and part three will be our two cents on the various Angkor temples. Enjoy.

Upon our arrival to Pakse, we realized we needed to get transport to Siem Reap in time to meet the group we were touring the ruins with. We worked with our guesthouse owner (the seemingly always right Mr. Vong) to get a plane ticket. Fairly painless it seemed; his cousin worked for the airline and he seemed pretty confident we'd be able to get a ticket for the date we wanted.

With that taken care of, we headed up to the Bolaven plateau. We stayed for two nights at the Tad Fane resort as a present to ourselves. Man, we need to get better at giving presents. Ok place but not worth the "treat". We headed back to Pakse for a day to check in and see how our ticket was looking.

The answer? Not good. The best Mr. Vong could do was the day after we were supposed to be there. After wrestling with a number of options, we decided to tackle the overland border to Cambodia. This border crossing is the source of all sorts of good stories; of the water boat mafia, corrupt border officials, no ability to get visas, etc. After doing a little research online and another trip to the Bolaven (this time finding a winner with Tat Lo), Becca and I were convinced it wasn't going to go well.

Bummed and not looking forward to the next day, we headed back to the guesthouse and struck up a conversation with the previously mentioned musician David and his magician friend Steve. They mentioned that they'd found a company that would take them as far as Strung Treng (across the Cambodian border) in their efforts to reach Phnom Penh the same day. From there the adventure began...

8:30 pm We convince Steve and David to go with us to convince the company owner (an English guy named Alex) to sell us two tickets. The idea alone of avoiding the boat mafia made us giddy with excitement.

9:00 pm Alex arrives and we are able to get two tickets for the next day. Properly stoked we hang out for awhile and then head to bed.

6:20 am Our alarm goes off. Moving day. The alarm ends up being a unnecessary item as we'd suffered through a fitful night of sleep that had kept us awake since 2am. Mr. Vong informs us that Alex is not to be trusted and will most likely leave us 6-7km from the border and to our own devices.

7:00 am Talk with Steve and David about it and decide we'll just make sure Alex takes care of us. Contemplated strapping Alex on to the back of the car for insurance but decide against it.

8:30 am Pile into mini-van with 15-20 late middle aged folks all headed down to the southern islands of Laos. Alex is not in the luggage hold but we feel confident. Ride itself is pretty uneventful.

11:30 am Mr. Vong is finally proven wrong as our van takes us all the way to the border. The slightly sketchier Cambodian half of the company picks us up. I'm leery at first and then realize it's probably due to the fact that instead of picking up the folks with real money, these guys have to haul four backpackers and a slightly insane Belgian named Josef (who appeared out of nowhere at the Laos border) to Strung Treng.

12:00 pm Clean checkout through the Laos border. Our "departure tax" is set when Steve pays the border guard $2 without the requisite haggling. Given the rumors we'd heard was that they normally started at $5 we're ok with it. Evidently the "tax" is beer money for the guards. Can't say I blame them as we are firmly out in the middle of nowhere with what I'm convinced are minefields on each side of the road.

12:15 pm Arrive at the Cambodia border. Becca and I have smooth sailing with our overpaid for yet very valid visas while Steve, David and Josef all decide to test whether the just recently announced visas on arrival is still going strong.

12:45 pm We're clean through the Cambodian border. No worries for the three guys as they all sail through and Josef even saves us all a buck with the following exchange:

Friendly Border Guard (actually friendly): Your tax please?

Me: How much?

FBG: Same as Laos border. $2.

Josef (as my brain is trying to figure out what to do): We only paid $1 at the Laos border.

FBG: (stutter) Oh. Yes. It's Tuesday. $2 is the weekend rate. I'm sorry. $1.

Me: (hands the FBG the $1 and grab my passport gleefully)

Seriously Jedi mind trick by Josef. We're starting to warm up to him.

1:30 pm Bumpy trip gets us to Strung Treng. Kind of. We're actually dropped off on the other side of the river from Strung Treng proper. We thank our drivers and we're off to negotiate our way across. We get a decent fare and then are descended upon by Richie.

1:35 pm Richie (of the world famous Richie's guesthouse and restaurant of Strung Treng Cambodia) has us seated and ordering lunch at his place. Crafty little bastard. We inquire into potential taxis to Kratie all while having zero negotiating power and momentum.

3:30 pm After nearly two hours of negotiating, woe stories of being overcharged by poor Richie, the indifference of most Taxi drivers, etc. we've negotiated a car to Phnom Penh (typical midsize car whose six(!) passenger seats we've had to buy out to fit the traditional four. Josef bids us farewell as he patiently waits out the taxi drivers with a beer in hand. By his slightly crazed looks he's prepared to wait weeks to get his price.

3:35 pm Mr. Fish, the brother of one of the people hanging around the restaurant, has us in the car and we're off.

4:30 pm Mr. Fish asks us if we want to watch a movie. It's then that I notice that instead of a rear view mirror we've got a 7 inch flat TV. Our movie? Assassins. My guilty movie pleasure? Antonio Banderas. Who can't love his over the top "acting"?

6:30 pm We've all enjoyed the movie as it ends. This include Mr. Fish as while he's done his best to avoid large rocks, constructions trucks, pigs and the like he's kept one eye on the riveting complex narrative presented.

6:35 pm Right about dusk Mr. Fish pulls over for a rest stop. He uses it to convince us to spend an extra $5 to go an extra 100km instead of over the dirt rock filled road he's currently got us pointed to. I'm game for the dirt road but there's no other takers.

8:00 pm Having just gotten back on the road from dinner, we listen to David's CD. Good bluegrass that had my toe tappin. Shameless plug for our fellow traveler here. After the CD we get another movie to pass the time.

8:05 pm Assassins is Oscar worthy compared to our next movie, Hard Boiled. Mr. Fish does his best to keep an eye on the action while avoiding more livestock and an actual person who raises his ire enough to roll down the window and yell at them in Khmer. Becca's head is about to explode at this point at all the potential accidents she's had to watch from the middle back seat.

9:30 pm A thankful movie break at Kompong Cham where Mr. Fish tries pathetically to convince us to end our trip there. He's tired but so are we and we're ready to be in PP (still two hours away) and there's no way in letting us off on the price. Onward ho!

10:00 pm Mr. Fish realizes he's nearly out of gas and pulls into the station. Bad luck as it's closed much to his surprise. Surprise?! It's 10pm in Cambodia! If it's anything like Laos everyone has been asleep for hours now.

10:05 pm After driving a bit further down the road he is able to get some emergency gas at the local gas baron's house. This is accomplished though only after waking him up via car horn. The baron comes out tastefully dressed in a towel and a three button suit jacket. The emergency gas gets us far enough to properly fill up awhile later.

10:30 pm After a body count of 230 and finding out it is currently banned in Sweden, Hard Boiled comes to a painful end. The good news though is that no babies were harmed in the making of the film. Mr. Fish asks us "Do you want to watch Iraqi soldiers kill Americans?" Even our NOOOOOOOO!!!! still gets us 20 seconds of Faces of Death before our protests finally break the language barrier and he shuts it off. Ugh.

11:30 pm Exhausted and ready for bed, we arrive in Phnom Penh. The driver tries to get us to go to the guesthouse Richie recommended (i.e. gets a commission at) but we have him plow through to an area Steve is familiar with.

11:40 pm We finally arrive to the room in our guesthouse after avoiding the typical lakeside Phnom Penh gauntlet of touts, tuk-tuk drivers and drug pushers.

17 hours of traveling and despite the length, dodgy road, narrowly missed obstacles and the like the trip itself was pretty painless. Or so it seemed. Guess we're getting used to traveling in Asia.

The rest of the trip to Siem Reap was a piece of cake. One day scouting out the Wild West town of Phnom Penh and a painless bus ride up to Siem Reap. Now where's a guesthouse that has room during Chinese New Year?

Part two soon.



Anonymous said...

What a narative! I won't take our fairly efficient public transportation for granted anymore! Glad you both made it in one piece!

Steven said...

wow... what an experience... that's just incredible... keep up the good travels...