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Getting Real About Cambodia

Sim City 2000 rang out, just like it always does, calling us back into the world of the living. We obliged, knowing that if we did not hustle we might miss the 5:30 am bus from Nakhon Ratchasima to the border.

The sun was still not up, so we wheeled through the Thai night toward the station. Traffic was very light, and the streets were essentially deserted. As we drew nearer to the station, we started to see fellows on motor bikes coming in from the country, already in uniform for their jobs as desk clerks or factory workers. We made it to the station just in time to load our things on the bus, buy our tickets from a woman who had erected a little wooden stall next to the platform, and pay a little $3.00 graft “bicycle fee” that we were quite certain did not technically apply to the folding cycles. We considered it a $3.00 donation to the cheerful women who were overseeing the operation, and feeling quite triumphant, relaxed into our seats.

I slept so soundly I did not even notice when the bus attendant brought water and cookies around to all aboard, and only barely noticed when the bus was suddenly loaded completely full to the hilt (I’m talking people packed in, standing in the aisles) and then subsequently unloaded a few stops later, in a tiny place called Ban Dan. A little more snoozing and suddenly we were the last passengers on the bus and were being dropped off at the giant border market called the Cambodian Friendship Market.

The market was sprawling with hundreds if not thousands of small stalls selling all kinds of goods for exchange between Cambodia and Thailand. A section of the market near the center was belching smoke, indicating to us that it was either a smelter or a food court.

Either way, it would be of interest to AsiaWheeling, so we threw on our bags and unfolded the speed TRs.

There was a fellow on a pink child’s bicycle across the street yelling at us as we unfolded the cycles and started into the market. As we made our way in, the fellow on the bike came up to us. He explained in nearly immaculate English that recent changes in Cambodian law had closed this border crossing’s visa-upon-entry station, and that we would need to get a visa issued on this side.

We were dubious, but a few factors lead us to consider his argument as truth:
a) on our previous entry into Cambodia, there had been no visa-upon-entry station
b) we saw many of these visa outfits, and they all seemed to be packed with people (with foreigners getting visas)
c) we had been too long traveling in the land of the honest salesman

So we forked over about 150% of the cost of a visa-upon-entry and our passports. He helped us to fill out the necessary forms, our entry and exit cards, and ran across the border on a motor bike to get our visas.

We drew the line when he tried to tell us that without a Cambodian ID card, we would not be able to buy sim cards across the border, and that we could only buy them from him for $15.00 a pop.

Armed with our newly issued Cambodian visas, we headed toward the border, by way of a Thai-Cambodian friendship chicken satay stand. We ordered a bunch of chicken grilled on a stick, with two plastic bags of sticky rice to accompany them. This food was tasty enough, and effective in its primary mission of sustaining our energy.

Thailand let us out with little fuss. While sweating profusely in line, we ran into a German/Hong Kong/Israeli fellow who agreed to share a cab to Siem Reap with us. We also ran into the visa-upon-entry counter, which was completely operational. Well, you can’t win them all, can you?

When we finally had made our way through a large stretch of casinos, catering to Thai who wish to get around the prohibition of gambling in Thailand (express buses from Bangkok to here are called the Gambler’s Express), we found ourselves at the health check station.

Here we filled out a form indicating that we were in good health, then headed to the passport control line, which was very slow; once we finally made it to the front, it was quite straightforward. They took a picture of my face, checked my visa, and let me into the country.

On the other side of the border, I bid goodbye to our German/etc. fellow as he climbed onto a tourist shuttle to the bus station. I waited for Scott to finish his processing, passing the time by doing folding bicycle schtick with the many touts who were interested in providing me with everything from cab rides, to hotel rooms, to prostitutes. When Scott finally emerged from passport control, we discussed our options. We had been on a bus for a while, so wheeling to the station, rather than taking the tourist bus sounded more our speed. We had told our German/etc. friend that we would meet him there. Little did we know, however, it was the last we would see of the man.

We wheeled across the city, periodically asking for directions to the bus terminal. We got some strange responses, which appeared to be sending us in two different directions simultaneously, but we decided to use the Indian method of averaging all responses to produce the verdict. So we rode on, straight through and out of Poipet, into the countryside.

It was hot, and we were going through our water at an alarming rate. This would prove to be the theme of our time here in Cambodia. So far, I would deem it the most dehydrating country of the entire trip. Even when we stopped for more water, we were told to keep going, only four more kilometers ahead.

Cambodia is flat as a pancake. We rolled along on a well maintained road, lined with new looking electric lines. It was brutally sunny, mildly humid, and the landscape looked dry. If you had plopped me here out of the blue and told me this was Nebraska during the summer, I could easily have been convinced.

But the real question was: who would build a bus station way out here in the countryside? What cruel joke were the locals playing on us? We let these questions whirl around in our heads, but kept riding. The voices were promptly silenced when, low and behold, we arrived at a giant bus depot. A totally deserted bus depot.

We parked the bikes and got off, feeling something like characters in a zombie flick. We wandered into the empty interior of the depot. Almost all the shops were closed, including the ticket counter and the information counter. There were a few people wandering around doing nothing in particular, zombie-like. Interactions with them proved that some of them spoke a bit of English.

We were able to ascertain that there were two bus stations in this city. And for reasons that still remain a mystery, the Poipet officials switch between the two stations on a daily basis. One station is right in the Poipet city center. The other is this one that we had managed to find our way to.

Luckily, everyone in the station seemed to be friends with a guy who would be willing to drive us to Siem Reap. And after a fair bit of bargaining with the crowd, all present proceeded to completely forget the agreed upon price, upon the arrival of the cab driver. Scott and I looked at each other. We hadn’t really made much progress in the bargaining, so we just capitulated and climbed into the cab.

Our cab driver was a great chap, and the cab was reminiscent of a certain Toyota Camry that my friend Joe had driven in high school. I felt comfortable in the car. The cab had no radio, but proved to offer great acoustics for the ukulele. As we drove,  I sat in the back and played most of the songs I knew. We were beginning to notice a peculiar thing about Cambodia: all the cars were Toyota Camrys. And while I am, of course, mildly exaggerating here, the percentage of Camrys really was astounding, likely 90%. Any reader who can shed light on this is most heartily invited to do so in the comments.

We stopped for petrol and provisions at a road stall along the way, and watched the pump work as the hose snaked through our Speed TRs into the back of the car.

By the time we finally reached Siem Reap, the sun was beginning to sink low in the sky. On the ride we had selected a hotel from our Lonely Planet pdf and pulled up to find it quite a beautiful structure.  It was on a gravel road in the city center, and went by the name of The Mandalay Inn. It proved to be staffed by strikingly friendly and capable characters, to be totally affordable, spotlessly clean, and featured free wifi. An instant seal of approval.

That evening we wheeled into the city in search of food. We realized that we had not eaten since the friendship chicken, and were well past the point of blood-sugar-related madness. We finally sat down at a restaurant, which was in no rush to serve us, lacked the ability to make many of the things on the menu, but despite all, won us over with its charming staff, strange music, succulent Khmer curried shrimp, strange fruit smoothies, and ridiculous interpretation of the hamburger (called the Crazy Beef Burger –which Scott instantly re-dubbed the “Mad Cow” Burger).

From there, we figured there was just enough light left to take an evening sunset wheel.  We chose a direction that we guessed was not on the way to the Angkor complex, and began wheeling. Cambodia was beautiful; and the roads were smooth as silk.

We had not been able to attain speeds like this in some time, due to either bad roads or thick traffic. It felt fantastic to just let the Speed TRs eat.

And they were hungry. Once the sun began to hang low enough, we circled back, finding ourselves once again on the main road that had led to Siem Reap from Poipet. Traffic was thicker here, but manageable. We wheeled by giant hotel after giant hotel, finally finding our way back to the Mandalay Inn just as the sun ducked below the horizon.

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