Friday, December 13, 2013

Flying is Easy Compared to This

Our first few times coming to Cambodia, we flew to Bangkok, stayed overnight in a hotel, then took a one hour flight from Bangkok to Cambodia the next day. I've already admitted I'm a nervous flier, so adding that extra flight was never any fun for me. In fact, when we calculated the 'per-mile' price of that last short hop, it turns out we were paying the highest airfare rate on earth for me to be scared out of my wits.

In 2011, after talking to a few people who'd crossed the Thai border by going over land, we decided to try it. Not only would it save us some serious money, we'd get the opportunity to see more of Cambodia and Thailand in the process. It couldn't be all that bad.  Right?

Judge for yourself.......

Besides flying, the only feasible way to get to Cambodia is by bus or car, because the railway system, destroyed during the Pol Pot era, has never been restored. With such a huge amount of luggage to manage, (three huge suitcases plus two smaller carry-on cases), we decided to hire a private taxi, thinking we'd be much more comfortable, and not quite as cramped. Hah!! Only two of our big cases fit in the tiny trunk of the Toyota Corolla. The third large case and one carry-on barely fit on the front seat next to the driver, and the last carry-on sat between us on the back seat.

I always feel uneasy when I'm in a car in Thailand, partly because they drive on the opposite side of the road, but mostly because to Thai's, lane markers and road signs are merely guidelines, not rules. Nothing stops them from being 'creative drivers'. If there's room for three cars abreast (or even four), they'll find it. There is no such thing as a 'close shave'. If you pass another car and your side-view mirrors don't touch the other guy's, and you manage to get by without a head-on collision, that's just confirmation you had plenty of space. No problem! Good thing my view of the road was completely blocked by the suitcase on the seat in front of me. Otherwise I'd likely have died of a heart attack long before we even reached the border.

When you arrive in Cambodia by plane, going through immigration  is a fairly simple process. Stand in line. Hand over your passport and your visa application with a photo. Pay the fee. Stamp! stamp! stamp! and you're done! I expected that crossing by car would be similar to crossing the Canada-USA border, where you sit in your vehicle, produce your papers, then drive off. Boy, was I wrong.

In his broken English, our driver informed us that taxis and buses don't have authorization to cross the Thai/Cambodian border. He stopped just short of the line, let us out with all our luggage, and took off. We'd have to navigate our way across the border about a mile on foot, then find a Cambodian taxi on the other side to take us the rest of the way. So there we were all alone, stranded in that strip of never-never land - a Thai/Cambodian limbo - wandering in a confused sea of fellow travelers. who all appeared to know just about as much as we did, which wasn't much at all.

What happens in that mile between those two taxis is strange and scary when you're doing it for the first time. We'd  been dropped off at at an 'agency' that supposedly would transfer our luggage across the border, plus take care of getting our visas and taxi... for a 'small fee'. All they required was for us to hand over our passports and some money, and they'd take care of the rest.  I flatly refused to let my passport out of my sight. They argued it was safe, and would take much less time if we let them process our immigration.  Feeling very skeptical, I still refused. Gordon believed they were probably legitimate, and suggested we try it. I still wouldn't budge. We finally reached an agreement - They would transport our luggage across and get us a taxi, and we would 'go the long route' through immigration, passports firmly and securely in hand. I figured even if they took off with our luggage, we'd still have our passports and money.

Crossing into Cambodia from Thailand is actually a three-stage process: 1) Exit Thailand, 2) Acquire Cambodian visa, 3) Enter Cambodia. Each step is housed in a separate building, requiring us to stand in three separate long, slow-moving, sweaty lines with no air conditioning. Signage was less than helpful, and most travelers were as confused as we were, making the whole exercise even more delayed and convoluted. The only thing to do was to follow the herd and have faith that everything would work out.

After what seemed like an eternity of shuffling along in slow-moving lines, we'd finally jumped through the hoops, and had our official stamps to enter Cambodia. True to his word, our 'agent' met us at the other side, face beaming.  But where was our luggage? Our taxi?  He beckoned us to follow. We walked, and walked...and walked some more. I was getting worried...It had been at least 1/4 mile..Imagine my relief to see our luggage, already packed into a taxi. (Yes, there was a suitcase on the front seat again!). We paid the luggage handlers and gave them a generous tip.

Soon we were flying down the bumpy road to Siem Reap in a dilapidated old Toyota. Rice fields and shanties whizzed past. I closed my eyes most of the way, not so much because I was tired, but because the driver gave us the impression he was trying out for the Indie 500, and didn't mind taking our lives into his hands in the process.

We zoomed along at break-neck speed in the good stretches. He deftly dodged potholes and swerved casually around carts piled to the sky with bags of rice. He careened past tour buses and motos, and only slowed slightly when a herd of cattle crossed the road. The roads got worse. Potholes turned into deep pits, forcing us down to one lane. We bumped and rolled along slower now, getting closer and closer to our destination. Familiar landmarks came into view, and we breathed a huge sigh knowing we'd made it safely.

Since then, we've crossed the Thai/Cambodian border twice more. Nothing has changed, except we no longer feel so nervous and abandoned. This last time, the line-ups were so atrocious, we had visions of spending the night sleeping on the floor in immigration. Once again, the 'agent' told us we could 'bypass' all this if we'd allow him to process our passage. We looked at the lines, looked at each other, looked back at the long line....shrugged, and bravely handed him our passports.

This time the process took a mere fraction of the time, and true to his word, we got through without much standing in lines. It did cost us several dollars more (presumably for bribes and 'processing fees'), and cost me a few gray hairs worrying about whether we'd be without passports or luggage. In the long run, it ended up being worth every penny. We were given priority, and I suppose I could say it's the closest I've ever coming to flying first class, even if it was really only walking over the border.

So what if we'd lost our passports?  Worse things have occurred, I suppose, and we'd have dealt with it if it had happened. But it didn't. Somehow, in my heart I knew we'd be OK. One thing I've come to know in this part of the world is, sometimes you just gotta take that leap of faith and trust that everything will work out fine.


  1. Dorothy, I think all the taxi drivers drive like that anywhere that is not North America. When I first went back to Istanbul, Turkey,
    I thought I was going to fact I am sure, my fingernail marks are still in that taxi I was in. Your description of your taxi ride brought back memories...and laughter. It was exactly the same.....
    Thanks for these blogs...and glad you are feeling better..:)

  2. When I did that same crossing, I did let the agent get the visa. I'd always felt I'd been stupid to let them do it for a fee when it was supposedly so simple, but after hearing this, I'm thinking it was a good decision after all.

    I'm so lucky that none of that crazy driving bothers me. Guess I'm just ridiculously fatalistic, but I actually enjoy the ride.