We could have flown from Bangkok to Siem Reap and saved ourselves 10 hours of traveling, but what fun would that have been? Especially in unfamiliar countries it’s been tempting to spend the money to get to our destinations quickly and relatively hassle-free, but we’re finding that the journey itself is part of what this trip is all about. This overland leg didn’t disappoint in terms of getting a backpacker’s travel experience, and we got to interact with local culture in ways that are decidedly different than simply passing through airport security checks.
Our journey started by waking at 4 AM to leave our Bangkok hotel and catch the 5:55 AM train from Bangkok’s central station to Aranyaprathet, near the Cambodian border. Despite the fact that every taxi in Bangkok is metered and every guidebook will tell you to insist on the meter or get out, our taxi driver feigned a broken meter as we were pulling out of the hotel driveway. I quickly balked at his 200 Baht request and countered 80 Baht, which was in fact generous. I only offered that much because we had to squeeze in with 6 of us, which is not quite legal. At the station he then asked for less than his original 200 Baht, but still more than 3 times the going rate, at which point I left him with 80 Baht and with no uncertainty about how I felt about his service. This was not the best start to a full day of travel ahead of us, but unscrupulous taxi drivers seem to be go with the territory of world travel.
The train to Aranyaprathet only has 3rd class seats so you buy a ticket ($1 each) and everyone just finds their spot within the tired looking coaches featuring open windows for ventilation and ladies who regularly ply the isles selling various food stuff out of woven grass baskets. The clickity-clack journey must have stopped at least 20 stops and small villages along the way, but the relaxed transition from the concrete grit of Bangkok at dawn to the rural countryside of Thailand in 90-degree heat can only be described as authentic. We exited the train in Aranyaprathet a hot and sweaty family of 6 with windblown hair and clothes smelling like smoke from all the burning trash we had travelled through along the way.
Once in Aranyaprathet everyone got off the train. Here you have to take a tuk-tuk another 6 km to the Thai-Cambodian border. Just like the guidebooks warn, the enterprising tuk-tuk drivers often try to take you to the “official” visa office, which is a very official-looking building along the way. Although you can get a visa here, they sell them for highly inflated prices. Ours did just that, so we simply heeded the advice of Seat61.com (our favorite resource for traveling by train) and insisted on going directly to the border. There you’ll find another office hoping to sell you inflated visas. Ignore the touts advice again and hand-carry your bags to the Thai border control.
After getting through the Thai border control, we walked another 100 yards across the border, and here, FINALLY we arrived at the real visa office. We dutifully filled out the applications, paid $20 USD (and an extra 50 Baht per visa “processing fee”). The visas took only about 30 minutes once at the visa office, but then you need to get an entry stamp from the border patrol (another 30 minutes). Once allowed into Cambodia, we were shown another shuttle bus, which is a free bus that takes you to the tourist bus terminal where you can arrange for onward transport to Siem Reap. There we boarded our final bus for the 2-1/2 hour ride to Siem Reap.
Once in Siem Reap, we hired what they call a torque-moto (a motor bike towing a carriage) to take us the final 8 km to our hotel. All said and done, the trip was 14 hours and was deserving of a cold round of beers for Vivian and I, and ice cream for the kids. Unlike our 12 hour VIP bus from Trang to Bangkok which featured “Cowboys and Aliens” in Thai, the only entertainment on this multi-modal transportation adventure was the view out the window. It was not the easiest way to travel with 4 kids in tow, but traveling at ground level has its benefits, not the least of which was also saving about $1,400 in air fares.