she said (Cambodia): "BORDER CLOSE! ONE PASSPORT, TWO DOLLA! BORDER CLOSE NOW!"
April 19, 2015
After we left the island, we went back to Sihanoukville for one more night because our boat didn't get in until late in the afternoon and we didn't want to start the next leg to Phnom Penh and get in at like 2 am. We checked back into the same guesthouse, different room...and different toilet. This is your heads up that I'm about to tell another graphic shit story so choose your own adventure-skip or read. But don't blame me! You also have to understand that I tell these stories only because toilet issues is such a huge part of life on the road because it's so rare that you're ever just "Right" so no travel story would really be authentic without a few...
This hotel room came complete with the worst flushing toilet in Asia. It was obviously plugged (likely by some ignorant toilet paper throwing tourist) so when you flushed it, the water level rose steadily to the brim of the bowl and then it drained slowly down. For reference: this is a bad sign and if you have a toilet like this, you should NEVER play Russian poo Roulette with it! Let me also preface this that we were taking a long haul bus the next day and it is always a gamble whether the bus will have a toilet or not so the night before we are especially cognizant of making sure you try to have a crap because you don't want to have to have an emergency one on a toiletless bus. So...I wanted to go down to reception immediately and see if we could change rooms but Bridger was utterly insistent that it was fine and proceeded to prove his manly judgement by immediately taking a crap in it. Of course, he proudly reports that it was in fact fine and everything went down and now it's been awhile so I didn't want to go ask for a new room now because then they would think that WE clogged it with toilet paper. Now in hindsight I wonder two things: why I didn't just listen to my gut and ask to change rooms and also what the hell kind of feather poo Bridger has?! Anyways I was skeptical but Bridger assured me it was totally fine so I ignored my guts (pun intended) and went to bed. Well sure enough, woke up with stomach cramps that meant it was that time BUT now I had to decide whether to risk it on this toilet or risk not risking it on the toilet and risk a toiletless bus event. With Bridger being so adamant that it was fine I gambled on the the hotel toilet. Wrong move...totally totally totally plugged and now everything was just wedged at the bottom going nowhere with no downward pull. I went back to bed thinking that maybe, and this is gross, that it will "soak" overnight and be easier to flush the next day. Nope, same thing in the morning. By now I'm just about in panic tears because I don't want to leave a toilet full of crap for the cleaners so Bridger goes down to ask for a plunger. Now I've never had to plunge a toilet before so I don't really know exactly what to do but Bridger coached me from outside the bathroom. No luck. Ok Bridger's now gotta have a closed eye go (I bet he regrets telling me how no problem it flushes now!) as he's plunged many toilets successfully in his life. Still no luck, the pipes were jammed solid. So I insisted Bridger write a note (in man writing so they think it was him!) that it was sluggish when we got there and now its clogged and we tried to plunge but no luck, sorry! I couldn't get out of there fast enough and just prayed that I would be long gone before the cleaners got up there and they found us out! Well in perfect Asia fashion, our bus was late picking us up by half an hour so we had to just sit outside the hotel! And I sat there waiting for any minute when the hotel people would run out and try to make us pay for the damage but luckily it never happened. Phew close call!
Took the bus back to Phnom Penh to pick up our passports at the Myanmar embassy. Before we got on the bus I asked the worker if there was a toilet onboard and he gave me an emphatic and disgusted "NO!" and pointed to get on the bus. But there was a toilet so I'm really not sure what he thought I was asking...if HE had ot go to the toilet?! I dunno. Our bus was making really good time by Asian standards until we hit Phnom Penh where we sat for literally 2 hours in traffic! What was supposed to be a 4-5 hour bus ride turned into 6-7...which I suppose according to Asian bus math of add a few hours to whatever time frame they give, is right on time! Eventually we made it to the bus station and had to grab a tuk tuk to the hostel. The driver threw me for a loop because instead of telling me the price he said "how much you pay?" and I really didn't know so I arbitrarily threw out a "$3.50???" which he raised me expectantly to $4 which we said whatever. Turns out it should have been $2 haha...another traveling fail! Bridger still makes fun of me for it.
We picked up our passports from the embassy and were on our way for another 6-7 hour bus ride the next day up to remote Northern Cambodia, on route to Laos. We went to the bus station really early to buy a ticket and sure enough they were sold out so we ended up having to kill another 2 hours with all our gear at a bus stop. Not a good start. Eventually we got on the bus and realized for the first time we are on a bus with NO toilet...so we'd be at the whim of the bus stops which they predictably make for a toilet break/meal break at a restaurant along the way. It did and Bridger and I went to the bathroom and ate fried rice at this roadside stand for lunch. Well actually Bridger had chicken fried rice and I'm still haunted by the gristly, skinny, feathery pieces of chicken in it...he did incredibly at just picking the feathers and skin off each piece and eating it without complaining. I try not to think about it or I get nauseous still. Usually I get alot of bus snacks like nuts, cookies etc. so I don't have to eat at these sketchy places because I don't want food poisoning on a bus but over the course of the last few months I relaxed a bit. I think I'm primed already by having a history of a somewhat explosive digestive system, but to this day I don't know if I really started to feel sick after this or the fear of being sick from scary restaurant food made me think I was sick (enter being able to make myself nauseous just by thinking about being nauseous!) but I didn't feel well. And then I literally started to panic because I'm feeling sick on a bus with no toilet and we're still so far away! And then you start getting visions of having to run up to the bus driver in front of everybody and flail around until he understands that you need to stop RIGHT NOW! And then you envision having to do whatever you have to do literally beside the bus with everyone watching or in front of a villagers house. I tried everything to calm myself down but ultimately I just kept feeling sicker and sicker in both the guts and pukey until eventually I just popped some anxiety meds haha...that brought it down to a still stressful but now manageable level to get through the next few hours. Aaaand this is why I just make it common practice not to eat anything that doesn't come out of a sealed plastic package on long haul bus rides bc whether I'm sick or not, the anxiety about becoming sick is too much to handle. Haha, another thing that you really don't know you appreciate is having access to a toilet at all times...appreciate it!
Eventually we made it, as per typically Asian standards, 2-3 hours after schedule and I've never been so happy to get off a bus! So happy, that I left my hat on the bus, sad story. We went to Kratie, a small town in Northern Cambodia not frequented much by tourists on it's own accord but more as a great place to break up the long journey between Phnom Penh and Southern Laos, our next stop. Kratie is most well known as the place where the endangered Irrawaddy river dolphins live. There is only something like 85 of them left in a stretch of the Mekong river between Cambodia and Laos so WWF (the animal conservation one, not the wrestling one- much to Bridger's disappointment) has a big presence in town with conservation efforts to save the dolphins from extinction. By the sounds of it, they focus a lot on education of local people about the dolphins to get them on board with conservation by encouraging the locals to use different fishing practices and pumping up dolphin Tourism in order to create more local jobs, pretty cool.
Anyways were going the next day to take a rather expensive boat trip out to the river to see the dolphins but last minute found out about a kayaking trip that does the same thing but you also make a whole half day of it for not that much more money so we kind of got our heart set on it. Bridger had a headache in the am so I walked down to the office in the am to see if we could sign up for the afternoon trip. Sure enough they already had a big group going in the am, leaving in like 10 minutes and nothing offered in the afternoon AND closed the next day so basically this was our only shot. Explaining my situation about Bridger, the lady who owned the shop had me jump on the back of a motorcycle with her driver back to the hotel to see if, given the current info, we'd just make it happen. We did! We got ready in like 4 minutes, the guy motorcycled us both back (3 on a small motorbike!), we paid and were off in a few min--the shortest prep time for a trip ever! It turned out to be SO worth it as we paddled through the river and around these tiny bushes in the middle of the river that are apparently underwater for months during rainy season. There were TONS of them. Then we paddled through the "flooded forest" that basically looked like the river had overflowed through a forest.
After we stopped for a swim in the river where, if you stand still for long enough the little fish will come and nibble at your feet--for FREE! Started to really regret that cash we spent in Koh Phi Phi paying for the "fish spa"-apparently some brilliant business person noted nature and started scooping the fish out of the river and putting them in a tiny human skin eating tanks all over SE Asia! The tour guides also gave us some food that I've only ever seen in Kratie-sticky rice cooked inside a bamboo shoot. It was delicious and was the beginning of our love affair with sticky rice.
Then we stopped at the dolphin pool and just hung out and watched the dolphins occasionally surface. These ones are pretty timid so they stay far away from the boat and just roll in and out of the water (no jumping unfortunately, though the tour company pictures would have you believe this is all they do!). Definitely not the most exciting thing but really cool to see nonetheless, especially given the circumstances around their endangerment. Glad we did it on part of a great kayaking trip which added another layer of awesomeness.
Bridger and I both wanted to try to do a bit of volunteer work in Cambodia on our travels. We didn't end up doing this however because I did a bit of digging about volunteering here and ultimately as it turns out, there is really not a legitimate need for very short term volunteers in Cambodia as you really are unable to have a positive impact in such a short time...so best case scenario would be that you have a nice time as the tourist and get a few snaps but really, do absolutely nothing for the local people even though you have best intentions to. What I did come to understand in more detail was how utterly damaging voluntourism can be, being totally detrimental to the local people. For example, as it turns out, given that there is such a market for "orphanage tourism" in Cambodia (I.e. Volunteering in an orphanage to play w children), fake orphanages are now popping up where basically children are rented or taken from their parents so they can basically pretend to live in orphanages where the "owner" may not have children's best interests at heart... and tourists can pay to come "volunteer" so it's actually quite a moneymaker--it's really very scary and horrible! Further to that I started to understand as well (and it makes total sense) how institutionalized care is actually the least optimal care you can offer an orphan, so much so that the developed world has all but abandoned the practice. Instead, legitimate organizations in Cambodia are actually moving to try to place children in the care of an alternate family member or if that's not available, another unrelated member of the same community as these both are far better alternatives to child welfare than institutions anyways and institutions should be seen as a last resort. That being said, I don't know that this holds up across all places so we'll keep our eye out for some kind of place that we could be useful to somebody!
It's so funny because people really take notice of Bridger in Asia, I think because he has a really different look than obviously the local people but tourists too. Not only does he have golden blond, hair and an ever growing beard, his hair is long, shaggy and hangs downwards which I've come to realize is not common at all and also they notice his nose! We'll be walking down the street and adults and kids alike's heads will turn, sometimes a stare or head turn, sometimes jaws drop, sometimes they smile, sometimes look on in total speechless fear (the kids) and they rarely so much as notice me...all him! One time as we were walking into a restaurant the lady who worked there passed Bridger some bags to carry upstairs to the other people working there (I don't know even how that happened in the first place) but then as he walked upstairs past her, she smacked his bum! Anyways, I feel pretty proud to be with him and I'm just glad that I've gotten to experience what he experiences with me on a daily basis at home :)
Haha, we've reached a new level of flashpacker. When we started this trip we planned to stay in budget fan only rooms. Well, pretty well these days we always pay more to stay in air conditioned rooms that Bridger is obsessed with cranking as cold as possible. It's usually pretty easy to justify when Kratie and other places are literally +40 and humid and Bridger is a Newfoundlander (i.e. anything over 15 degrees he is miserably uncomfortable). Except the other night it got to the point that I had so many freezing cold sleepness nights that I was now sleeping in my base layer shirt/pants and more pants and another shirt and socks. This kind of became the new normal for me, I'm always cold, but then on day I woke up and Bridger was in a long sleeve shirt too and I thought what the hell is the point of AC if we both need to wear our warm clothes to stand the AC haha?!?! But he still insists and then when I complain that I'm so cold, he slowly turns it up degree by degree warmer until I eventually shut up.
We are SO frustrated because we are having some tech problems. We bought and brought an iPad mini so that we could write updates, watch movies, upload photos, facetime, research/book hotels and flights etc. We also have Bridgers normal iPhone and my archaic iPhone whose battery lasts for maybe a day if I'm lucky. The iPad and Bridger's phone worked fine up until Sihanoukville and then at the same time the internet absolutely stopped working on both devices--both can connect to WIFI but the internet or any internet related apps won't work...except the facebook app which somehow continues to track the world. Which means that even though I write updates, without WIFI I have no way to get them off my iPad (I've since tried plugging my iPad into a computer with iTunes with no success either) to send them out unless I just retype from scratch which the thought of it makes me sick. It was so bizarre because we went to two of the same hotels that WIFI initially worked in, same network and everything, and second time they didn't. There's not really anywhere I can take it in to get it looked at, I'm hard pressed to find a computer in ancient computer Cambodia that even recognizes my iPad let alone has iTunes, it's not easy or possible to make international calls to figure stuff like this out and I just spent about 1.5 hours on chat with apple tech support with no ideas except plug it in, update it and restore the whole device which we can't do because we don't have a computer with us. Poor guy suggested a ton of things but either nothing worked OR given our traveling circumstances, they were not an option (he cant do diagnostics bc no WIFI for internet connection and Bridger's phone is still locked so he cant get a local SIM for 3G, we can't reset bc we'll lose everything on the ipad (my notes!) because we don't have a computer to backup etc.) so ultimately what it came down to was that we would need to take it in to a certified apple store, though northern Cambodia and Laos, our next stop, don't have one so we'll have to wait for our next Thailand stop. So now we are down to one Internet device between us and its the shittiest one that doesn't hold battery. And also, bc of widespread (though regularly shitty useless) wifi availability, gone are the days with an internet cafe on every block--pretty well they can be hard or impossible to find in many places or when you do the connection is so slow and frustrating, the computers are too old to do anything (like no memory card insert-seriously hasn't that been standard for computers for like 15 years now?!) or they are so expensive. So in the end, it's made it really difficult to research next steps in our travel plan or keep in touch properly as we need to type out emails or Google on my tiny iPhone which doesn't work so well. I'll keep trying but that's where things are at right now...has been immensely frustrating bc now we are carrying around and protecting this "valuable" for absolutely no benefit at all. We hold high hopes for the apple store and after that if it doesn't work, it definitely runs the risk of the piece of crap being thrown off a roof instead of carried for the next few months.
We stayed in Kratie for 2.5 days until literally the day that our Cambodian visa expired and then headed to Southern Laos on the longest, shittiest travel day! The border that we were headed to is basically a joining between really remote Cambodia and really remote Laos and known to be riddled with corruption and scams. We decided against taking a minibus (again, the rule is mostly always that minibuses full of tourists never go well even though on paper and by what the travel agent will tell you, they look really good) and went for a big local bus instead. Our big bus was supposed to leave at 12:30 and didn't leave until 1:15 which wasn't a big deal. It was a big beautiful pretty empty bus with a few tourists and a few locals so was feeling pretty good that maybe because we were traveling on a local bus we wouldn't be as prone to scams. Things were going really good except having a bit of a bumpy ride (at one point I had my feet up on the seat and the bus was vibrating so fast that my big toe was bouncing around and looked like a rubber toe. I thought this was hilarious and couldn't get enough. Bridger, not so much) and being a bit choked out by dust (seriously I wished I had a dust mask on the bus-Cambodia/all SE Asia in dry season can be a huge dust field)...Until slowly we started dropping the local people off until the last one gets off at the last town before the border...of course they weren't going to Laos! So all of a sudden I realized that we were in fact, now on a bus full of tourists, duh duh duh...Here we are on a bus full of foreigners heading for one of the most corrupt overland border crossings in SE Asia, fun! Even though it seems comforting, it's NEVER good to be on a bus full of tourists because that's when you'll get totally sleazed. Sure enough, the "bus representative" stood up and made the announcement that we could give our passports to him and he'd do the visa himself for X number of dollars and then proceeded to tell us the fees we'd pay if we chose to do it on our own not to mention how remote the border crossing is and that the bus "might not wait"--enter well known scam where you basically pay an involuntary commission fee to this person when you could have applied to the visa yourself for quite a bit cheaper. On it's own not a problem, we knew about this scam BUT to be reminded how remote you are and threatened that the bus might not wait is still unnerving. Regardless, all tourists decided to do it on their own, more reassuring than other buses I've read about where only 1-2 chose to do it on their own.
We didn't even get to the border until a few hours late at 6 pm, almost closing time at this border in the middle of nowhere, with barely any sun left. And this border was in fact remote, literally two buildings in the middle of nothing, barely even a town passed on the way up! There was absolutely no traffic except for the bus we got off and a minibus that dropped a bunch of other tourists off.
First stop is the Cambodian border where they have to stamp our passport out-seems effortless enough. Nope, they want a $2 bribe per passport which again we had best intentions to question and fight as much as possible except when we got up, there was no niceties and the Cambodian officials swiftly moved us through with "border closed, $2 each passport, border closed" constantly so you didn't have a chance to even say a word. Not alot of money but just blatant thievery not to mention absolute rudeness. You don't pay, you don't get a stamp, you're stuck at this remote crossing at dark-I guess they have you by the balls. When we got to the Laos building, I was actually kind of happy because we were only asked for $1 "after hours" fee when giving our passport in for visa on arrival. We waited SO long for our passports and Bridger and I were two of the last (curse you sitting at the back of the bus!) and now it was pitch black and the angry bus people who didn't make any commissions that day were getting impatient. Then finally, along with a demand for another $2 bribe to get your passport back, we were given our visa. Bridger got his first so ran to the bus to make sure it didn't leave without me so it was just me and another clearly very young and very naive Canadian kid at the window. Well, little Canada, was having trouble because he was trying to pay for the bribe in what little Cambodian money he had left (he was trying to give like 100 Riel which equals about half a cent) and he had absolutely nothing else besides an American hundred and the border man was having none of it and waiting for him to cough something up until eventually the kid said "ok, I guess I'll have to go back to Cambodia then". So, given that it was dark, quiet and remote, I just paid his $2 bribe money followed by a lecture on how you should ALWAYS have a USD float w a variety of smaller bills that you carry with you and never touch for times like these and other screw job times because USD is the universal currency. There were a few girls who kicked up a fuss every step of the way to every border guard about the blatant "stealing" which was met by mixed feelings by the other travelers-some complained about it. I was really impressed that they stuck to their guns and complained. Even though its only a few dollars, its pure theft and with the amount of tourists that go through the border ever day they make a sweet extra amount of cash for being assholes. Really that's what every one of us should be doing instead of begrudgingly but silently reaching deeper into our pockets for money just to get it over with (which I understand after a long travel day). It's unlikely that you'll get through without paying (I've heard stories of border guards ripping up passports of tourists really kicking up a fuss about it) but at least we'd slow down the process, make it a pain in their extortionate asses and create a nuisance. It's really not about the dollars bc it really is such a small amount but the fact that the cash goes straight into their pocket...quite frankly, I think any one of the people on that bus would have happily donated the $5 bribe money to the people in these countries that actually need it instead. So secretly I cheered the girls on because the rest of us were just too weary to make a fuss. And then to top it off, I disgustingly find my Canadian self saying thank you when they pass my passport back. No, fuck you! Why am I saying thank you, you should be saying thank you to me for making you rich!!!
The border also reinforced the decision to take the local bus instead of the tourist minibus as we met a group of people who left at 8 am (remember we left at 1:15) and were at the border at the same time as us. They had been picked up and then dropped off in one town where they waited for another bus for a few hours. Then picked up and dropped off at another town where they waited another few hours. Then picked up and heavily pressured to pay the extra to let someone else do their visas for them. Not only that, they had paid up front for everything so got dropped off at the Cambodian border but never had another minibus come pick them up at the Laos part so now it was 6:30 pm and they were actually in the nightmare situation of having no ride at this remote border. So they ended up getting on our big bus (I assume they paid again) and luckily that bus came like two hours later than it should have because other than that I don't know what they would have done save sleeping at the border on the ground.
The bus did wait and we all got on, drove the next little bit to our drop off point in Laos and then literally dropped off at the side of the road again with "the truck will come" and then the big bus drove away. WTF, now it's 8 pm, pitch black and you're dropping us on the side of the road with all our stuff in a who knows where we are in town?!? Well the truck did come pick us up. And the truck was "free" which is never "free" so I wondered what was up. Sure enough, the truck dropped us off at a tour company who sold us boat tickets for double the price over to the island of Don Det in the middle of the Mekong River. These little islands we were going to didn't have an ATM but the mainland town did so we headed there before paying for tickets and getting on the boat. Well, the ATM ate the card of the people waiting in front of Bridger so he decided best not to give it a shot. Rule: NEVER trust or bank on ATMs, reinforced again!!! When we were buying the boat tix Little Canada apparently only had a $100 USD bill so was trying to break that to pay for a $4 ticket...as you can imagine it went poorly and he didn't get all his change so he was all up in arms about the ripoff, blah, blah, but the bigger problem was that the little jerk didn't even think that maybe now that he has some local change maybe it would be nice to pay me back the two bucks I gave him to save a sleepover with the border guards...didn't even think of it which again, I was more violated by the principle than the cash! Also I was blown away during the ticket buying process how many of the tourists on our bus had absolutely no freaking clue what the exchange rate was between their home currency and the local currency...is this not something you make a point to figure out BEFORE you get to a country?! Haha Bridger would call me, perhaps rightfully so, self righteous as I always think that other people should think of all the stuff that I would think of!
Anyways, we were headed over to the island with only our USD float which had gotten pretty small given that Cambodia operates on USD so it's easy to just pull bills out here and there instead of go to the ATM and pay ATM fees. Once we had our tickets the indifferent, slightly assholeish people at the travel company just pointed down the street and said basically "the pier is over there" and sent us walking in the blackness to somewhere unknown. Sure enough there was a pier and all ton of us and our bags crammed on one boat in the pitch black and then my mind started to drift to Titanic and then I got really scared and sad and at this point, man was I ever happy to have my inflatable lifejacket after counting 4 lifejackets for a boat full of tourists in the dark in a place I've never seen before. Little naive Canada decided that NOW would be a good time to burst out his guitar and start singing on the boat and even though his intentions were good and he was just young, naive and trying to make friends and be the quintessential "traveling guy", after a long travel day, Bridger and I were about ready to punch in his guitar.
After a short boat ride, we did make it to land, to our little island called Don Det in the very southern remote tip fo Laos. And being so savvy, we had made hotel reservations assuming that our bus would be several hours late and we might arrive after dark, tired and exhausted of people. We clamored off the boat, up the sandy beach that was the "pier" and headed to our booked accommodation about 9 pm...only to find it totally abandoned and dark with not a soul in sight. Eventually we found someone in her pajamas who seemed to be associated with the place but after disappearing for awhile, she came back to announce that she has no keys so turned out we were just as good as the people who didn't have any reservations at all hauling our pack around a new place at 9 pm hoping to find any lousy place that is good enough to lay our heads until the next day when we could get our bearings in light...glorious sunlight! We took a fan room at the first place that was half decent (ok tolerable) that we came across but it turned out that the windows didn't even lock so the room was totally unsecurable at all and I went to pee and the whole toilet seat was not actually secured to the toilet so just slid right off...and it was SO hot. So right away we switched to an AC room where Bridger had to kill a big spindly leg spider on the roof but otherwise was fine enough. We left and went out for a long overdue dinner. While we were sitting there, this local guy came up and stared at Bridger. And after about 30 seconds he got up and just sat right beside me and said and did nothing--we literally could not make out what he wanted, whether he was drunk, high, special needs or just hungry but either way he sat a bit too long and had his hand a bit too close to his crotch for comfort that it just got weird staying so we paid our bill and left. To this moment I feel a bit guilty and I hope he wasn't just a local guy with special needs but we really felt pretty uncomfortable so had to get out of there. Welcome to Laos!
All in all, today really reinforced my general travel rules of a) never arrive to a place after dark (though in this case it was unavoidable as we were late and there were no other options) b) Always have a USD float of a few hundred in smaller bills on you (thanks Sally's dad, I'm sure that came from him!) and c) always know the home/local currency conversion before you arrive to a country! Woo, long day and not a great intro to Laos! Hopefully it turns around here, otherwise, I think we made a big mistake...