*Day 69: Escape From Poipet

Trip Start May 20, 2008
Trip End Aug 19, 2008

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A tap on the shoulder from Jeff woke me up. After what should have only been 3 hours of sleep to catch the first border-bound train, I felt strangely awake and wondering how the sun was so high this early.
"It's 10am." "Goddamnit."

We skipped breakfast, checked out, and flew to the bus station via subway. The overland journey to Siem Reap (the Cambodian city that houses Angkor Wat) involves a 4-5h bus ride or 6h train from Bangkok to Aranya Prathet on the border, then a tuk-tuk to the actual border, an hour of wandering around the Cambodian border town wondering what the heck is going on, and finally a bus or taxi ride the rest of the way to Siem Reap on a mostly dirt road, with that journey time varying between 3 and 8 hours depending on how long its been since the last rain storm. Basically, we were supposed to leave very early in the morning to get there before dark, and it would now be noon before we were out of Bangkok thanks to a breakdown in human/alarm clock relations. This wasn't a good start, but we were determined to get to Siem Reap by the end of the night no matter what ridiculous hour we'd end up there. The next bus left at 12:30 and we snagged the last tickets just in time. 5h and a sore butt later, we were at the dusty but pleasant Thai border town. A tuk-tuk carried us to the local Cambodian consulate where we arranged our Visa-on-Arrivals (probably for some extra commission fee but by this point we didn't care), and off we whizzed to the border itself.

An Instant-Friend(tm) of a new, yet unencountered breed greeted us here. This guy used fear tactics to make his sale.
- "You want transport, I help you."
- "No thanks, we'll go it alone."
- "What you don't trust me, you think you smart? You tourist, you stupid. You go back to Thailand and party... You no want my help I no help you etc etc."

The book assured that no matter what touts at the border say, Cambodia was (at the moment) a safe destination and we should not succumb to their bogus warnings. I didn't really want his services anyway after he called us idiots. Exiting Thailand was a normal, hassle fee process, only involving a simple "thank you for visiting! ::stamp::" Once we left the immigration office though, we rounded a corner and came upon a slightly derelict concrete arc d'triumph like structure with "KINGDOM OF CAMBODIA" emblazoned across. Atop the arc was a gothic replica of Angkor Wat that only made it look that much more ominous. We passed under the arc and into the Cambodian immigration office, where we met a fellow American tourist, this one from Bakersfield. He was in town to gamble (Poipet, the Cambodian border town, makes its money via casinos) and we chatted briefly about his travels, which country was his favorite, etc. In the middle of the conversation, a tout popped up in the window and proceeded to shout "I tourist police! I take care of tourist!" He was no older than 20, had a peach-fuzz 'stache, a baseball cap, and a handkerchief around his neck, yeah right he was a tourist cop. We brushed him off, got our passports stamped, and took our first steps into Asia's 3rd poorest country (Nepal & Bangladesh trade spots for #1) and the 8th poorest in the world. And oh wow, this was not a good first impression.

Poipet was a lawless mudpit of a place, with recently bombed out buildings filling the gaps between the seediest looking casinos I've ever seen. Touts on motorbikes circled around asking for a taxi job and our new "tourist cop" friend continued to annoy. We ignored him and as with the first Poipet tout, he too turned to fear tactics.

"You act stupid to me! You're in Cambodia now! You stupid, without me cop pull you aside and take your money, you dead." - direct quote.

If I hadn't been with Jeff, I would have made an instant u-turn back into Thailand and Poipet would've taken the honorable position of being the only town on the trip that I did not feel safe traversing alone. Thankfully I was not alone and on we pressed. All prior research, homework, and stories indicated that the real Cambodia was as harmless as a Balinese jungle village, and that this hellhole was a drastic exception to the rule. And what a hellhole it was. It was like nightmare that looked more at home in "Children of Men" than SE Asia. Even with Jeff, doubts ran through my head. I was safe in Nepal because its people were peaceful and the country a magnet for neo-hippies. This place however was a clear gangster stronghold and anything could probably happen - not really, but such were my scared thoughts. I popped open the good ole LP hoping to find some guidance, only to find that the author of the Cambodia section was not the sharpest on the staff and the Poipet blurb completely useless. There was no map of the town, making an aimless possibly endless stroll down the main drag our only hope of finding the bus station, and no one seemed to know of a free tourist shuttle to the station from the immigration post that the book mentioned. The book basically just said "get out as fast as you can" with no useful instructions on how to do so, great. Not only that, but our tout friends kept insisting no buses to Siem Reap would be running at this late hour, meaning that even if we found the station our struggle could be fruitless. We decided to walk for a bit, if only to soak in the atmosphere, hopefully get lucky, and if not start haggling with the nearest taxi.

Turns out Pseudo Tourist Cop had nothing better to do that day and tagged along, deaf to our silent treatment and probably just looking for trouble. I'm not going to repeat some of the stuff he blabbered to us here, but it took virtually forty minutes to get rid of the guy. On the rare occasion we'd find a moto/tuktuk/taxi who agreed to drive us, he'd show up, start shouting at them, and suddenly they weren't so eager for our business. We remembered plowing through an entire army of taxi drivers at the immigration office though and decided the best option was to walk back there and defeat this punk with shear numbers. I think we would've been successful, but along the way one of the prior drivers snuck up and whispered that he'd drive us for a fair price, he just couldn't agree with the other guy present (or something like that.) Mr. Punk rode up on his bike on and off while we waited, shouted some more incoherent empty threats unless we agreed to sleep at his hotel, but was easily shrugged off. Before long we were in an air-conditioned taxi en route to Siem Reap; Jeff said he saw Mr. Punk tear a USD in half in frustration as we drove away, snicker. So, after one of the biggest whirlwind nightmares of the trip yet, our perseverance landed us a taxi at what the book listed as a bargain price, and yeah... dunno how we pulled that off, but it was a victory worthy of song and story.

The driver himself was a magical human being, got us there in 3h and gave us a classic "welcome to Cambodia" moment. A lone cow emerged on the dust clouded road at one point (it was after dark fyi), prompting the driver to turn to the side... revealing an entire flock of cows blocking the rode, and too close to stop. "Ya know, it would be hilarious if we actually hit one of them." was the thought that ran through both our heads. Just then:

BAM! "Moooo..."

Jeff and I turned around in shock, then turned to each other, mouths agape. Did that just seriously happen? We burst into hysteric laughter as the taxi skidded to a stop with the driver shaking his had and uttering the funniest "Oh... my God..." I've heard in a while. Only the side mirror hit the cow, who as far as we could tell was not lying wounded on the road behind us. We shared some more laughter and continued the rest of the way to Siem Reap. The other travelers I'd met this past month, the book, and my own homework proved correct. Siem Reap seemed like a completely different country. Paved, well marked roads, half decent lighting, traffic lights, parks along a river, sparkling hotels and even a mall (albeit a small one.) Despite is poverty, this was a civilized, relaxed, and most of all charming city. The taxi driver dropped us off by a tuk-tuk hangout, whose driver graciously gave us a free ride the rest of the way to the hostel. He asked us to strongly consider hiring him as a guide around Angkor Wat the next day, and it was an unspoken understanding that the free ride was on the condition that we'd hire him. Preferring to do the rental bike thing, we rejected his offer but thanked him for the ride with a fair payment - which he at no point asked for even after I made it clear we didn't want a guide. "Welcome to Siem Reap, please I hope you enjoy my homeland." he said, smiling, as we parted ways and checked into the quite nice and cheap hostel.

Terrifying first impression aside, I was now sure this tiny rugged country would be (and now is) a highlight of the trip. Nowhere else would a taxi driver chuckle and shrug off nearly hitting a suicidal cow with what was probably Cambodian for "Eh, happens all the time..."
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