Friday, June 19, 2009

Siem Riep to Bangkok: In Trouble with the Law

Very early in the morning, after three glorious days in Siem Riep at our wonderful hotel, we prepared to board a bus to the border. Lonely Planet loves to remind you of "Scam Buses" in the area- since the drive to Bangkok is only around six hours, many buses will take you to a border further South, making the six hour trip a twelve hour trip, dropping you in front of their partner guesthouse and assuming that you will be too tired after the journey to look elsewhere.

OR there's a bus that will offer to take care of your Thai visa, so they will charge you the "visa fee" and run your passport through immigration. There is no visa fee, it's always free to enter Thailand, so some people get tricked that way.

We thought we did pretty well when we booked our bus. We made sure it went through the right border and made sure we got the visas ourselves. The plan was: pay for a ticket directly to Bangkok but switch buses at the border. Foolproof, right?

Well, yes. Sort of.

First of all, this guy comes in his car to pick us up at our hotel. Strange, but we've seen strange and weren't put off by it. Another Japanese couple were already in the car.

Second, when we arrived to the bus... not to sound snobbish, but I was just surprised... it was really run down and dumpy looking. We usually paid ten bucks and got a really nice air con bus, so to pay twelve and get this was an unpleasant surprise... more for Pat than me, who has issues with leg room at the best of times. But still! No problem, we're on our way to Bangkok. Nothing will stop us now!

We got on the bus to find throngs of foreigners- only foreigners- already loaded onto the bus with all of our bags piled in the back. Interesting. One always becomes a bit suspicious when they look around and can't find a local. It makes you think that there are much better ways to get where you're going. But even that didn't bother us and we found a seat.

After the bus was filled (over)capacity, we finally got on the dusty road to the border. LP says the road is full of potholes, but it has been fixed since they printed their last guide so it was one of the smoother rides we had. We continued on, having a nice conversation with the last guy to board the bus, who therefore had to sit on the floor by the bus driver. Among the crowd there were some rowdy Dutch who kept the whole bus laughing, a haughty wannabe hippy who spent most of the time on her cellphone talking (loudly) about the great yoga detox she was going to do when she got to Bali, and two women- one with a videocamera who kept filming the every move of her travel buddy, which we thought was strange.

We made our first stop after about two hours, and the driver immediately got out and started eating with the people who owned the place. The Dutch said "Probably extended family".

We hung out for about 30 minutes as children did their rounds, asking everyone for their foreign coins. I haven't quite figured out why they wanted foreign coins, but I was happy to see that they weren't begging and they were actually quite cute. So yeah, I gave them some Thai Baht. One of the older kids ran over to me and tied a piece of coloured string around my wrist as a thank you. Then we were on our way again.

About 15 minutes later, we stopped again. Huh? Why would we stop after only 15 minutes?

"Lunch time" said the bus driver.

It was 10 AM.

The entire bus of foreigners became mutinous.

"We don't want to eat lunch, we want to get to the border!"

"How much longer until we get to the border?"

"We just #%%^&& stopped!"

"We aren't going to spend any money here."

And so on.

The bus driver said, "I don't care if you think it's too early. In Cambodia, it's lunchtime. We are stopping for 30 minutes".

And that was that.

The bus was in an uproar. The wannabe hippy girl suggested we all stay on the bus as a show of solidarity. That lasted for about 5 minutes, when the smokers decided to go out to smoke and everyone else decided to stretch their legs. Ever the "hippy", the girl stubbornly stayed put the entire time. The only person on the bus.

After a time we did, eventually, get to the border. And the crossing was fine, and we waited on the other side for our new bus, thinking "this is Thailnd, no more crappy buses!".

Then, instead of being loaded on a big, air con bus we were shown to two minibuses. OK, whatever. Air con, at least.

However, they never thought about room. They overloaded the bus in Siem Riep, and now there weren't enough seats for all the passengers. After some fiddling around, Pat and I were wedged tightly next to the luggage. Great. Very comfortable.

We were driving for about 20 minutes when our driver got a call on his cellphone.

"Janine MacLean? Canada?"

"Yes...", I said.

"Ah." The driver said something into his cellphone and turned the minibus around, taking us back towrds the border. I was petrified. The driver couldn't speak any English so he just pointed at a passport and made an X with his arms. Something wrong with my passport? Had I been accused of some crime that I didn't do? Did something happen to my family back home? A million things ran through my mind as I mentally prepared to freak out. Pat was looking extremely concerned, the Dutch guy was cracking jokes about me being a terrorist, and the woman (who we found out was filming a documentary about her friend who is very rich and lives in LA and never travelled anything but first class) was videotaping every second of my agony.

We passed by an Army Base where they had all the soldiers out, marching. The Dutch guy said "My God, what did you do?!"

I was very pale. I was terrified. I thought I was going to jail where I would be beaten and, eventually, executed.

We arrived and the stern looking official who stamped my passport looked in the bus and said "Janine MacLean?"

I timidly said "Yes?"

"I need to talk to you. Step outside, please"

My legs were shaking so badly I could barely walk. I made Pat come with me for support. That man was scary.

As I got outside, he broke out into a huge smile.

"Ahhh! Sorry, sorry! I made mistake with your passport! I would be given large penalty for mistake! Thank you for understanding!"

I was torn between hugging him and punching him in the face. That was one of the scariest ordeals of my life. And for nothing! Apparently, he had given me a 60 day visa by accident, when I was technically only allowed in the country for 14 days.

He said, "I understand you are leaving in two days, but I needed to make sure to fix my mistake. Thank you for understanding and I hope you visit our country again".

Wow! Hilarious. First of all, how did he know I was leaving? Maybe he called the airport to ask when my departure date was? Who knows. Second of all, he would have been in serious trouble if I had overstayed my 14 day allowance. So ends the terror and so ends my last real adventure on the trip.

We arrived in Bangkok early that evening, and got ourselves a hotel. We did some shopping on Khao San Rd., and the next day we went to the fancy business and shopping centre of the city, where we though Pat might find some shows that actually fit him (nonexistent in Korea).

We arrived at the airport right on schedule, I took some valium to quell my fears, and before we could blink we were back in Korea. Our trip was over. So, so sad.

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