Would you believe I’ve been in Thailand for six months and already had to leave the country again on a visa run? Where does the time go?! My mindset on the whole visa run situation hasn’t changed. Screw sitting on a bus for x number of hours only to be transported to the border, get your passport stamped, and come right back. If I’m going to kill that many hours on a bus and have a sore bum then I want to go see something! My friends Summer and Eric were due for their first visa runs as well so we coordinated our trips. Neither of them expressed any preference for where to go so I took the lead and decided we were going to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, something I’ve been wanting to do ever since missing out on the extracurricular trip that was offered when I traveled the world during Semester at Sea.

Sunday

We left Sunday afternoon on the Songserm ferry from Koh Tao to Chumphon, giddy with excitement and well stocked with booze from 7-Eleven. With the help of a couple of Full Moons (cheap, sugary wine coolers) and a concoction of lemon iced tea, Sang Som (Thai rum), and Red Bull, the three hour ferry ride whizzed by and we were soon debarking at the pier in Chumphon. With several hours to kill we went for a stroll into town looking for food and another 7-Eleven to restock on alcohol. We were definitely in a local spot, off the beaten tourist track. No one seemed to speak any English and to ask for directions we were practically peering into people's living rooms. We finally found the 7-Elelven and I discovered that Full Moons in Chumphon are only 32 baht. On Koh Tao they are 40! I also found a toy train that disassembled into several pieces and came with a plastic wrench and screwdriver to assemble it with. It was only 150 baht and I’ve been wanting some sort of puzzle thing to bring with me for my students on deep dives so I bought it. We passed by a street food market and browsed the stalls looking for something to eat for dinner. I couldn’t pass up papaya salad, a staple in the street food world here. Chilies that will set your mouth on fire are ground up into a mixture of lime juice, fish sauce, garlic, and sugar with an old fashioned mortar and pestle. Then a handful of shredded green papaya is tossed in along with some dried shrimp and suddenly you have the best darned papaya salad you could imagine. I watched in terror as the guy threw an entire handful of chills into the bowl to grind up into the mixture. I have a pretty high tolerance to heat and even at that I can probably handle about three of these chilies. Luckily that batch belonged to someone ahead of me in line but mine was next and all the spicy residue was left in the bowl as my salad was mixed up. Needless to say my mouth was on fire for a good few hours after that.

We returned to the pier at dusk even though our bus wouldn’t be picking us up til 22:00 and started a round of King’s Cup, only to be interrupted halfway through the game by a little local girl who turned out to be quite the card dealer. She couldn’t have been more then four or five, walked over to our table, gathered up the cards and began to shuffle them like a Vegas pro. She dealt a certain number to each of us as we watched eagerly, wondering what game she was about to teach us. It turned out that her skills with cards ended at shuffling them. Her game consisted of matching up pairs of cards until she had won and no one else had had a turn yet. Every time she won she would clap her hand enthusiastically and yell “YAY!!!” and we would join in, wondering what had just happened. As suddenly as she had appeared, she ran back to a little restaurant across the way where a parent must have been calling for her.



On the other side of the little bus station we found a group of Israeli and French travelers, two of whom had ukuleles and were lost in their own music. We sat down to join and passed around a bottle of Hong Thong (Thai whiskey) as our contribution. They played many songs we were familiar with, and we all joined in singing along to Cee Lo Green and Jack Johnson. There is something wonderfully pure and innocent about the ukulele. Listening to it is like washing away all the bad in the world. I asked one of the Israeli girls to sing her favorite Hebrew song and she played us a beautiful song, none of which we understood.

In no time at all our bus was there to pick us up, only it wasn’t a bus so much as an old school school bus, the back end completely removed, no windows, and just one long bench running along each side so that everyone sat inside facing each other. After our jam sesh this bus seemed only fitting but at the same time the trip from Chumphon to Bangkok was going to be around ten hours. I was simultaneously amused and filled with dread over the prospect of the ride ahead of us. As it turned out though, this bus was only bringing us to our actual bus, a proper tour bus with reclining seats and A/C. The new bus had a small area on the bottom level for ten people, and seats for everyone else up on the second level. Summer and Eric and I and our new friends claimed the little area downstairs and had a comfortable trip the rest of the way. Half a valium each and we made it to the rest stop where I bought some vermicelli noodles that looked like they’d been sitting out all day but hit the spot none the less. Another half a valium later and we were in Bangkok.

Monday

The spot where the buses drop you off near Khao San Road is at the intersection of about ten different streets and I could not remember which one of them led to Khao San. We were supposed to be meeting our next bus at the McDonald's though and so I pulled up McDonald's on my iPhone and navigated to the nearest one. Sadly it was the wrong one. After walking around in circles for a good twenty minutes we finally found what barely resembled the usually bustling Khao San Road, now deserted in the early hours of the morning with no one but a few monks dressed in their orange garb, silently walking about. We found the correct McDonald's and sat down for breakfast. Even I ordered a couple of hash browns. I have to admit they were far better then the patties they call hash browns on Koh Tao. Our pickup time rolled around and we observed the street as numbers white minivans pulled up to various meeting points to pick up travelers. We walked outside and started approaching the drivers of these white minivans to see if any of them were going to be taking us to Siem Reap. None of them were for us. We weren’t sure if the minivan would be our transport all the way to the end, or just to the bus terminal once again where we would get on another tour bus. Half an hour late, our guy finally parked in front of McDonald's and drove us to a little tour office nearby. He ushered us into the tour office where he turned on a couple of fans to combat the heat, and told us to wait there. There was a schedule on the wall of bus times, and Bangkok to SiemReam was meant to have left half an hour before. Had we missed our bus because this guy was late picking us up? There was nothing to do but wait some more so I laid down across a couple of chairs and fell asleep again.

Some time later, I don’t know how long, our minivan driver was waking us up to load us back onto the same minivan. None of us knew what was going on, the driver said something about the tallest building in Thailand so we thought maybe we were meeting our bus there. By the time we reached our first gas stop we were beginning to think maybe this guy was just going to take us all the way to Siem Reap. Eric asked and he said yes, he was driving us all the way. Whether that was the original plan or not, none of us have any clue, but we had the whole minivan to ourselves so couldn’t really complain.

We reached the border sometime after noon and the second the minivan came to a halt, a local who spoke perfect English was there to open our minivan door and escort us through customs. I had spent the previous week reading about all the scams at the border, the locals who act concerned for your well-being and insist on escorting you, the children who beg, the tuk tuk drivers who say it’s too far to walk, the officials who say the visas cost more then they really are and pocket the extra cash, you name it. I suddenly became suspicious of everyone, this guy welcoming us off of our minivan especially.

He escorted us into a little restaurant area and told us in perfect English what our options were. We could stand in line to get a visa which would take two or three hours, or he could do it for us right then and there for an extra 100 baht each. We could also pay extra for a business visa if we wanted which would allow us to stay for an entire year. (Why doesn’t Thailand have that?). When we had originally booked our tickets, the travel agent at the booking office had been very helpful and said that we should probably pay the extra 100 baht to have the bus driver do our visas for us, otherwise sometimes the line would be too long and we might miss our bus. 100 baht extra was definitely worth not missing our bus, so we handed the guy our passports and the amount of cash required and off he went. 5 minutes later he returned with our passports, all filled in with shiny Cambodian visas. From there he walked us to the line to exit Thailand, through the weird limbo area between the two countries where there was a casino set up, and across the border into Cambodia. Of course at the end he asked where his tip was. I had suspected as much would happen, but seeing as he had spoken perfect English and had actually been very helpful we were happy to tip him 100 baht each.

There was a shuttle to bring us to the bus terminal where we would wait for our bus to Siem Reap. We restocked our supply of alcohol from the little stands set up and at one point Eric waved me over to talk to the local in charge of herding us to the appropriate bus. He was trying to offer to take us via minivan for an additional 150 baht each, promising we would arrive in just two hours, rather then waiting for our bus. Having read too much about scams, especially involving minivans, I politely refused the guy and told everyone we should just stick to the original plan. We weren't in any hurry.

Our bus made one stop along the way at a nice restaurant out in the middle of no where with an old open farmhouse feel to it. It was completely open and looked out over the endless fields surrounding it, and we were able to watch as a thunder storm rolled in from the distance. The menu had about ten options on it; I chose a noodle dish with a fried egg over the top which ended up tasting like breakfast syrup but still rather satisfying. Three meals and three beverages ended up costing us $12. Oh yeah, Cambodia is like Vietnam in that its currency is worthless and so they just use US Dollars. Eric actually exchanged some money at the border into the local currency and everywhere we went, when they told us the price in USD, he would ask for the price in riel and they would have to pull out a calculator and calculate it.

A few hours later we arrived in Siem Reap. It was dark out by then and the second we loaded off the bus there were a dozen tuk tuk drivers waiting there to get our business. I had been in contact with the hostel we had booked and the person there had said they would come pick us up and had given me a phone number, saying to go into the nearest restaurant and we would be able to borrow a phone to tell them where we were at. We told the insistent tuk tuk driver who had chosen to go after us that we had a ride arranged, we just needed to borrow a phone. Of course his didn’t have any credit. We asked where the nearest restaurant was and he said there were no restaurants nearby, which I knew to be BS having looked at a map of the city before arriving. He was not going to be helpful unless we gave him our business and it was dark and we had no clue where we were, so we finally gave in and let him transport us to our hostel. Eric had never ridden on a tuk tuk before and the expression on his face was priceless as we bounded along the dirt roads in the little buggy being towed by a motorbike. Once our driver dropped us off he insisted on knowing what we were doing the next day so that he could arrange to be our tuk tuk driver for the day. We told him we were tired and needed time to think but he was insistent. After much exhausted haggling, we finally agreed to meet him back outside there at 10pm to let him know what we wanted to do the next day.

Our hostel was really nice considering what we had paid for it. For the equivalent of $20/night, split three ways, we had a clean room with soft beds and a hot shower. What more do you need. The place also had a pool. We were set. Eric promptly passed out and Summer and I went back outside at 10pm to let the tuk tuk driver know we wanted to hire him to take us to the temples the next day. He was no where to be found but anther guy who was stationed at our hostel happily agreed to meet us at 5:30 the next morning to go see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Once back in the room, our plans of checking out the town quickly vanished as everyone passed out.