Monday, April 5, 2010

Laos to Cambodia - Long Transit Double-Day With Little Sleep and Lots of Scams

11:30 AM finish breakfast, check out of hotel, hunt for old bus station.
12:00 AM told this is where the old bus station used to be, not bus station anymore, but the bus to Vietane will stop here for us. Wonder at the central planners who shut down a bus station in the middle of town, right next door to the decommissioned airstrip from the war (thus plenty of space), and replaced it with a new bus station 2-3 km ($1 pp by tuk-tuk) out of town. Tuk-tuk drivers lobby is really strong perhaps?
12:30 PM get on fan bus.
4:30 PM arrive north bus station of Vietane.
6:00 PM get on bus to town in Thailand across the border, 22 km away.
7:30 PM arrive in Thailand.
8:00 PM get hassled by a bunch of private bus company employees to take their buses, then depart on public overnight air-con bus toward Bangkok, which we are only on until Khorat. Exclaim over how nice the Thailand public buses are. Air-con, included cold(!!) water and snack when you board.
12:15-12:45 AM bus lets us off for free (included) dinner. The soup looks a little disgusting (as do the other choices), but it is the most popular choice with the other riders and smells good, so we get it. Turns out to be excellent!
2:00 AM dropped off at Khorat, which is like Thailand's second biggest city, but gets approximately no tourism. There are no signs in our alphabet, but there are 3 women working what looks like an information counter. We tell them where we want to go and they write down some times for us and point to where the bus will be. Next bus is at 5:30 AM. Fortunately nice well-lit, but not air-con, bus station is open all night. We play Canasta at one of the tables in the food court. Disappointingly, the food vendors are shutting down and not selling food by the time we get hungry again.
6:00 AM depart on bus to Cambodia border.
7:30 AM driver turns on the loud rock music, making further sleep impossible.
11ish arrive at border, find street vendor for Pad Thai and Cow Kai Gatium (fried garlic and pepper over rice).
12ish cross the border.

We were caught off guard by the immigration cops insistence on an extra 100 Bhat more per visa than the posted sign said. We paid the extra $3 each because we were confused, then regretted it. Not that it's an amount of money to really worry about, but we don't feel so good about feeding the corruption. The systemic problem of cops skimming off the top like that is something to worry about.

When we got through with all the paperwork, we were pushed to get on the "free government bus to the bus station". How nice. So we did. Not surprisingly, the chatty Cambodian guys riding the bus with us turned out to be taxi drivers. And the bus station? A fake. Well, I think it was really run by the government, and there really were a few buses parked there, but the posted prices were only in English, and there were no posted departure times. The ticket sellers said "2 to 3pm", which seemed pretty odd. I understand some buses tend to run late, but there is normally a single stated time when you are to show up. Also, the price was crazy-high. It should not cost $9 to take the public bus 155 km in southeast Asia. We paid about that much to go 3x as far from the Laos border to Khorat, and that was a really nice air-con bus with meals. The taxi drivers continued to pester us something horrible. Even though we had 2-3 hours to the next bus, they just didn't think it was right of us to neither buy a bus ticket right this instant, or get in one of their taxis right this instant. And needed to stand about two inches away from us explaining it over and over again like we were little children who couldn't figure it out on our own. The taxi was only $12 pp if we waited for two other tourists to share with, but when possible we do not spend our money with people who are so obnoxious, or people who are clearly running a fake bus station racket.

We decided to go walk to an ATM, and from there back to the border crossing. At the ATM (which was in a glorious air-con little glass room), Mary discovered her ATM card was missing. Crap. When Josh tried his, the mechanism for pulling the card in seemed off--it was pulling too slowly. We pulled it back out and tried again a few times in a few orientations before deciding we didn't really need to use it all that badly. As we were leaving, we spotted a guy standing nearby watching us, trying to look casual and basically failing. Sure enough, after we were a little ways away with our backs to him, he went briefly into the ATM, then went and stood around at the business next door watching the ATM. I've read about the scam where they put a hook in the ATM slot to capture cards before, and it's supposed to be big in Southeast Asia, but this was our first time seeing it in action! (We cancelled our missing card upon arrival at our hotel--don't seem to have been any bad charges on it.)

When we got back to the border crossing, we started asking for directions or a taxi to the "old bus station", the "real bus station", and the "public bus station", but no one would give us directions or a taxi ride. There were also none of the shared private mini-buses that our guidebook told us to expect at the border crossing. Our guidebook suggested a small town a little up the road where you can take real public transit to Angkor Wat (or at least could as of publication), but evidently the powers that be have wised up to that suggestion, and it cost almost as much to get there as to get to Angkor. Apparently somewhere this corrupt, you really do want the up to date travel guide.

Anyhow, one taxi driver offered us $30 for the whole taxi, which seemed pretty good to us by then if we could fine two more people. Soon we spotted a pair of English blokes getting mobbed and suggested splitting the taxi with them, which they happily agreed to. On the way, when the driver was out getting cash, they told us about the upcoming scam of being dropped at a hotel outside town where you have to pay another few bucks to the taxi driver's tuk-tuk friends. They were ready with their fake reservation in the part of town they wanted to go to (with the cheap beds), and sure enough our taxi driver tried to drop us somewhere random to take an overpriced commission hotel or overpriced commission tuk-tuk, as he "didn't know" where our hotel was. We refused to get out of the car. The English guys insisted that they'd already paid for the hotel rooms at the other place for all 4 of us, so staying at this hotel was out of the question, and said we'd deduct the cost of the tuk-tuk from the taxi fare if we weren't taken the right place. After about 5 or 10 minutes, we were finally at the hotel.

The hotel seemed like fine value, so we checked right in. In Thailand and Laos, unlike India, shopping around for hotels doesn't help much--prices are pretty flat for similar rooms. And our room isn't too bad, but they say they have free wifi, and 24 hours later it's still not working. Josh made them knock 20% off the price of the room for failing to have it as advertised, and I think if they still don't have it tomorrow (they said they'd get it fixed today), we will move to the similar place next door that does.

As you can no doubt imagine, Mary, who does not sleep so well on buses, even nice Thai public buses, was kind of grumpy by the time we got to the hotel, installed Skype on the ancient computers that were available instead of wifi, and cancelled her ATM card. Actually, she was still pretty grumpy the next morning when Josh woke her up at 7:00 AM all anxious to get out right away and upset that we'd overslept the 5:00 AM opening time for Angkor Wat. Instead, we took a rest day with Josh doing some research on options to get to Singapore, and Mary catching up on sleep. Much better.

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