Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Two out of three ain't bad

Tuesday 8th February 2011

MP3 track of the day: Two out of three ain't bad – Meatloaf

Weather: Hot

I had a strange dream last night; I dreamt that I wasn't in my room but somewhere else on the island. It was pitch black, I couldn't see where I needed to go, or where I was. The dream was so vivid that I awoke to find myself within a pitch-black area … maybe the dream was real. It wasn't until I stretched upwards, locating my beds mosquito net, that I knew it was a dream. I hit the light button on my watch to read 3:30am. I went back to sleep.


I got up at 6:30am and got ready. I was glad that this was my final cold shower for a while and I was looking forward to better accommodation within Cambodia. I had plenty of time to get ready, so much so that I spent thirty minutes sitting in a chair looking at the morning due within the fields. In the corner of my eye I saw this little girl standing and staring at a fence. I moved my chair a little so that I could see what she was staring at. A bull was staring straight back at her; there was a kind of 'wild west stand' off for a couple of minutes until the bull took one step forward. The little girl wobbled off screaming until she was a safe distance away. She had ran out of view however I did hear her laughing.

At 7:30am I made my way down to the 'Laos harbor' to catch my ferry to the mainland. Three things worried me about my journey today. Firstly was the ferry, and the possibility of my bag ending up at the bottom of the Mekong River. Secondly was the Cambodian border crossing, and being able to get a six week visa. Finally was arriving late into Siam Reap with my accommodation closed. The final two were far from my thoughts at this moment but, as I made my way down onto the beach, the three boats present looked a little dodgy.

I hoisted my bag onto a bench and waiting on the beach with others, presumably all present were departing today. I asked around to make sure that I wasn't the only one going to Siam Reap. I wasn't. During this time I met a lovely Aussie couple, who were also heading to Siam Reap. We chatted about this and that plus we shared our particular worries. The general concensous was that none of us were looking forward to the boarder crossing.

It took forever for everyone to board the three vessels present. I wouldn't say that it was the tourists fault, more a total lack of organisational abilities on the Laos side. I sat down in the middle of the biggest boat present. I had made sure that my bag was safely inside the vessel and, whilst looking around, I decided that this boat wasn't bad at all. My 'worry 'o' meter' was at an all time low. I found myself crossing the Mekong yet again; it was just as pretty as before and, also like before, nothing went wrong. I made it to dry land and all backpackers present headed up a hill into a small village.

This village consisted of one main dirt road, with shops on either side. In a strange kind of way it looked as though the Laos people were evacuating the mainland: there were all these different kinds of vehicles stranded along the road side with anything that had the potential to float (which the Laos people call boats: I call them an accident waiting to happen) chaotically moored in the tiny harbor below. It was here that, for some reason, we were left stranded for ages. There were tourists heading to Siam Reap, Phom Phenm and many other destinations all mixed in with one another. No one in charge had thought about using destination signs to split us into groups. In fact, all the people in charge were bothered about was giving us maximum time to spend money at the shops and advertising their own 'Cambodian Visa service' which, for an additional $6.00, they would get your visa for you. We waited, sitting on the curb, for two hours or more which was extremely frustrating. The people encharge weren't bothered about doing their job, they just wanted to screw even more money out of us … even if it meant that we would be late.

Finally two coaches came to pick the lot of us up, however there were too many people for said coaches. As the Aussie couple and I hadn't paid the people encharge to get our visas for us we were told that we would have to get on the coach and stand to the boarder (didn't even get a plastic chair). It didn't really bother me that much as, earlier this morning, I had turned on my phone and got a Cambodia signal. We must have been really close to the boarder.

The bus was packed, we were late, and I still hadn't made it to the boarder. As I predicted it didn't take us long to reach said boarder. The coach stopped at Laos immigration and, as I was the last one on the coach, I was one of the first off. At 'Laos departure' the famous phrase 'anything you can do I can do better' seemed to ring true where immigration was concerned. Just like the corrupt Cambodian guards - my guidebook warned me about - I had to pay $2.00 to get stamped out of Laos … which was just going in the back pocket of the guard who served me.

I paid up. I couldn't be bothered to argue and $2.00 was a small price to pay to leave Laos. I ducked as I walked under a barrier pole, too short to cover all of the road, and I continued the short walk into Cambodia. First up was a 'quarantine' check where I was asked the question 'are you ill?'. I also had an electrical health checker gun thing prodded into the side of my face (which, whatever noise it made, didn't seem to matter) and I was asked for $1.00 in 'fees'. The Aussie couple were looking a little white; due to there being no banks on Don Det they only had enough money for their visas and not all of these bribes. I told them not to worry as I had plenty of cash and could help them through … what was I supposed to do, leave them on the boarder unable to afford to enter Cambodia and unable to return to Laos?

We walked to the next shed which was the 'visa processing' shed. As I walked up the stairs there were Cambodian visa papers sitting in a pile, on a table, with chairs and pens. I sat down, filled the forms out, and then joined the queue to get my visa. $20.00 should have been the cost of a months visa (according to the Cambodian official tourist website) however, magically, the cost had gone up to $23.00. The Aussie couple were three dollars short and so I said that I would give them three dollars. I asked them if I could go in front of them, in the queue, as I was trying to get a six week visa and so I wasn't sure how much my visa was going to cost me. The boarder guard wouldn't give me a six weeks and so I had to pay $23.00 for a months visa before passing three dollars to the Aussie couple.

I met the Aussies at the third, and final, shed. This was the 'shed' were you got stamped into Cambodia and picked up your arrival / departure card. Unsurprisingly there was a fee of $2.00 to get stamped into the country, and the guard made no intention to hide the fact that it was a fake fee. Again I gave the Aussies four dollars and, finally, we were all out of the immigration farce and free. Overall the process hadn't been that stressful; unlike the border crossing into Laos, immigration was orderly with different sheds dealing with different issues. It was just extremely infuriating knowing that $20.00 was how much the visa should have cost however I ended up spending $30.00. What was more annoying was that these 'Cambodia / Laos officials' had taken the Aussies last bit of cash, not allowing them to purchase anything to eat for the rest of the day (as ATM's are scarce out of the cities). I gave the Aussies a couple of biscuits each time I ate one.

Once through immigration we still had the problem that we had more people than coach seats. The people encharge were getting a little stressed, however my 'worry 'o' meter' was still pretty low (I didn't worry on the boat, through immigration or now … maybe it's broken). A few people were moved from a coach to a mini-van with the up-shot being I got a seat, with the Aussie couple rotating between the floor and the final chair. There were three other people sat down the isle and another two standing. Apparently, in 500km, the people going to Siam Reap would be changing to another bus … but that was 500km away, surely people wouldn't be standing for that long.

In actual fact people weren't standing for very long at all; on our coach we had a good sized group of locals that, along with there 6ft long boat rudders, got off after a couple of miles of crossing the boarder (slightly odd that). Everyone now had a seat, which was better than the other coach. I didn't know this at the time but the other coach was even more packed than we were, so much so that people were still sitting in the isle a few hours into the trip.

The scenery wasn't that inspiring; scorched, sandy agricultural land as far as the eye could see with the odd tree here and there. I did go past a few lush green rice paddies and fields, however these were few and far between; it really did appear that, even with the Mekong running so close by, irrigation wasn't a word that had made it into the Cambodian dictionary. I started to wonder if Cambodia was actually poorer than Laos; I looked out of the window at the bleak situation that lay before me ... until our lunch stop … at 3pm.

It was here that the tourists from both coaches shared their travel stories; rumors were past back and forth trying to estimate just how late we actually were. It was at this time that I found some friends that I had originally met in Chang-mai, Thailand. They told me that we would we switching to a bus, to Siam Reap, at around 6:30pm.

The sun was setting and the view was disappearing fast. When the Cambodian coach journey had started I thought that the Cambodians didn't believe in tar-mac as the roads were all single lane dirt tracks. Finally, with the introduction of tar-mac, we were making progress and crossing bridges made out of concrete instead of wood. I switched on my MP3 player and awaited the inevitable coach switch.

At 7pm the coaches stopped and the people heading to Siam Reap transferred onto two empty 'local buses'. Our driver seemed pretty jolly and our pit-stop occurred with F1 speed. As we set off the road conditions were good; the road was straight and it had tar-mac. Being dark there was little traffic and this bus could go a fare whack. Looking at my watch I thought that, keeping this speed, we could actually arrive on time, or at worst thirty minutes late. I found myself in a bit of a bizarre situation; I wanted the driver to hurry up so that I wouldn't arrive within Siam Reap, at some stupid hour, to find my hostel shut. However a few overtaking moves were a little dodgy and so maybe a little slower would have been better (the old proverb: better late than never). I decided that I couldn't really affect the situation so instead I tried not to think about it.

The Aussie couple and I chatted for a while, spirits raised with the thought off arriving within Siam Reap at a decent time. That was until the 'happy driver' announced a 'fifteen minute break'. Fifteen minutes would have been great, if the stop had actually been fifteen minutes. We all waited an hour for the driver to finish doing something or other. There were two girls, on the bus, who had come from another part of Cambodia and had been waiting four hours for our original coach to turn up. They told us that the drivers spent those four hours drinking and that all them were probably drunk (no wonder our driver was so happy). I wish she hadn't given me this gem of information until after the journey … not halfway through with no alternative than to complete said road trip.

I was fuming; here we were, so close to arriving at Siam Reap at a decent time, and we were sat here for an hour. To make matters worse the drunk drivers wanted the Aussie couple, a Danish guy and I to switch to the second bus for no logical reason that I could think of. On this 'second bus' were the rest of the tourists, heading to Siam Reap, from our coach before the switch. We chatted as we continued on our journey. After a few toilet stops and a cigarette break (for the driver, not for us) we finally arrived in Siam Reap. The time was 11pm and so, without that hour stop, we would have arrived on time. Whats more, if the Laos / Cambodian people encharge could actually employ someone with better organisational skills than a cream cracker we could have arrived within Siam Reap at around 8pm. It wouldn't have been that difficult.

The driver, and his attendant, hadn't finished scamming us yet. Instead of stopping within the bus station (which of course is miles out of town) they stopped at the side of the road, out of town, and had phoned all their tuk-tuk mates to pick us up. This annoyed me intensely as I had a free pick-up from my hostel waiting for me at said bus station … though me being an hour late the pick-up probably wasn't there. The tuk-tuk rate wasn't bad and so we all asked to be taken to the center of town. The tuk-tuks here are so slow that I could have walked faster, which again annoyed me thoroughly as the bus – which could have gone into the center – would have been miles quicker.

My hostel wasn't actually within the center of town, however it wasn't far off. The Aussie couple asked to stop at an ATM for cash along the way (they had been searching for an ATM at every stop) and so when we did eventually stop in the center of town the guy gave me $10.00, which was three dollars over what he borrowed. I only had one $1 note in change so I gave him that with the intention, if I saw him again, of giving him the other two dollars later.

But of course, we weren't in the center of town were we. The tuk-tuk drivers had taken us to their mates guesthouse. At this point I had enough; the Aussie couple and the Danish guy went off, on their own, and I found the friendliest tuk-tuk driver out of the bunch. I sat him down and told him where I wanted to go, that I wouldn't pay him until I was there and that if he stopped anywhere else I would reduce the amount I gave him. He told me that the journey would cost me $3 which I gladly accepted; it was now 11:45pm, I was tired and I didn't want to be messed around.

We finally set off … and then stopped because the driver didn't actually know where to go. We were stood under a lamp column, at the side of the road, for a few minutes with me explaining where my hostel was. We set off again; my heart dropped as I thought that we were heading in the wrong direction. However, on this occasion, I was wrong. My tuk-tuk driver met another tuk-tuk driver and they exchanged notes. It wasn't long until I arrived at my hostel; It was still open and so I checked in, went to my dorm, and quietly got ready for bed. I flicked on my watch light and it read 12:30am.

Today was one of those days that puts everything I hate about this part of the world into one experience; however my bag wasn't at the bottom of the Mekong, I was at the hostel that I had booked into though I had only got a one month visa at the boarder. I drifted off to sleep thinking that two out of three ain't bad ... I suppose.

Toodle Pip!

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