Scanning the signs in Thai and English, my eyes finally landed on Aranyaprathet, the Thai border town next to Cambodia. Lexi, my travel partner in crime, and I walked up to the counter and asked to buy two bus tickets. Happily, the middle-aged Thai woman behind the counter pointed to a bus schedule to our right.
“2:00pm,” she told us.
I looked down at my watch. It was 12:30 pm. We had been promised by online travel forums, our hotel’s concierge and our own wishful thinking that the buses from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet departed every 30 minutes. Carefully reading the schedule, I saw that yes, the buses do leave every 30 minutes – except for the two hour window from 12:00 – 2:00pm. Perfect.
“How long will the bus take?” I asked slowly, feeling my heart beat a little faster.
Recognizing we had no other options at this point, Lexi and I handed over 500 baht for our two, first-class bus tickets to Aranyaprathet.
“The Thai-Cambodian border closes at 8:00 pm. Will we have enough time to get across the border?” I asked, hoping for a positive, concrete response.
She shrugged. Instead, she handed over our tickets and goodies, replying with a brimming Thai smile, “Here, water and snack.”
• • •
11:45 am: Sky Train
Backpacks stuffed with recent Bangkok purchases and snacks for the journey to Siem Reap, Cambodia, Lexi and I wiggled our way onto the Sky Train near our hotel in the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok. Attempting to avoid bowling over any other train passengers with my bright green backpack, I shuffled to one of the open seats on the train. I reviewed the instructions I had printed on how to get from Bangkok to Siem Reap overland. We reached our stop: Mo Chit station.
12:15 pm: Taxi #1
Realizing that the Mo Chit bus station is actually no where near the Mo Chit Sky Train station, Lexi and I haggled for a taxi to take us to the bus station. All I can think is, “Thank God we didn’t attempt to walk.”
12:30 pm: Hurry up and wait
After learning that we could not actually leave Bangkok until 2:00 pm, Lexi and I made ourselves comfortable in the Mo Chit bus station. Finding two metal seats in which to camp out, I took in the scene. There were some other backpackers and adventurous travelers, but the population was overwhelmingly Thai. There was an old couple sitting in front of us who proceeded to stare at us for the following hour and a half. There were at least four monks, draped in orange robes, traveling to different parts of Thailand. There were little kids running up and down the aisles between the chairs. The wait passed quickly.
Monk in Mo Chit: This is the scene from our wait at the Mo Chit bus station. Monks sit amongst other travelers, patiently awaiting their buses.
2:00 pm: Bus
After throwing our backpacks with the other luggage, Lexi and I jumped on the bus to border town Aranyaprathet. As we made the journey towards the border, I couldn’t help but feel like I was home in Florida as I looked out the window. The highway was nicer than some I have been on in the United States. Palm trees jutted out here and there, and the landscape was green and flat. Pick up trucks dominated the roads. I was only reminded that I was in Thailand when I heard the other passengers speaking Thai around me or when I attempted to read signs, only to be met with a confusing jumble of symbols. It offered a weird sense of nostalgia and homesickness, to feel so close to home yet so far away at the same time.
During the 5 hour journey, we made a number of stops. Once we stopped for snacks and a bathroom break. Another time we stopped for gas. Then we stopped to pick up a group of students traveling home after school. Then we picked up a family of about eight. They sat on their boxes and bags at the back of the bus. As we made each stop, I incessantly checked my watch, seeing the minutes tick by. After my watch hit, 7:00 pm, I had mentally let go of our plan to make it to Cambodia that night. We would stay in a hotel in Thailand and make the crossing the next morning.
7:15 pm: Tuk tuk #1
Unexpectedly, the bus turned into an undercover bus stop, and passengers started to unload. Lexi and I rushed off the bus, grabbed our backpacks and jumped in one of the many tuk tuks (an open air, three wheeled baby taxi) lined up to take passengers to the border crossing. Two other pairs of backpackers jumped in tuk tuks, and we thundered towards the border.
Wind blowing through our hair. We can make it, I thought!
7:30 pm: Walk the line
Breezing past the touts attempting to sell the visa rip-offs we had been warned about, Lexi and I marched to the Thai border officials with our passports, departure card, and Cambodian e-visa in hand. After smoothly clearing Thai immigration, we found our selves in the 100 yard Land of Oz between Thailand and Cambodia. There were stringed lights, casinos, hotels, and restaurants. It looked like a classier version of Atlantic City. We searched for signs of where to enter Cambodia with our e-visa.
This Land of Oz, I believe, is meant to be confusing. Hoping to lure you away from your next destination and into the casinos and restaurants, there were practically no signs of actually how to get out of this no-man’s-land. Looking at my watch and starting to get frantic that we have lost sight of our own Yellow Brick Road, I asked border guards sitting in plastic chairs where to go if we had an e-visa.
“Keep going!” one man answered, pointing to his right. “Hurry, the border is going to close!”
At this point, Lexi and I started running (which is quite challenging with a 15 kg backpack). Finally, we found the nondescript office where we clear Cambodian immigration. Immigration officials stood around chatting and relaxed as the two of us, disheveled and panting, bust into the room. We hand one official our e-visas and passports. Smiling, he makes small talk as we attempt to catch our breath. He stamps our passports. Clicking the heels of our ruby red slippers three times, we are in Cambodia!
8:00 pm: Taxi #2
After befriending two German/Sri Lankan backpackers, the four of us jumped in a taxi from the Cambodian border town of Poipet to Siem Reap, our final destination. We make small talk, learning one traveler is a medical student and the other wants to be a special education teacher. I look out the window, squinting to see the countryside through the darkness. We pass through farmland and small towns. In small homes and shops, families huddle around lamps, eating dinner and chatting on the floor of their homes. The minutes slip by, and we come to a stop in the outskirts of Siem Reap.
10:15 pm: Tuk tuk #2
Bidding farewell to our new friends, Lexi and I take the final seats of our journey in a tuk tuk and hand the driver directions to our accommodation. With our backpacks in the seats next to us, we whip through the lively town of Siem Reap. We pass night markets illuminated by hanging lightbulbs and the famous Pub Street teeming with guests from all over the world.
Overwhelmingly, the patrons were all wearing green. Of course, I was reminded, it was Saint Patrick’s Day, a holiday celebrated around the world. Even here in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
10:30 pm: Made it
Our tuk tuk pulled to a stop at our hostel, Siem Reap Hostel, in the Wat Bo area of Siem Reap. We stepped out of the tuk tuk with wobbly travel legs, donned our backpacks for the final time that day, and walked inside.
Traveling in Asia, I have learned to let go of control. Thankful for the many people (and vehicles) along the way that guided us from Bangkok to Siem Reap, I laid down in my hostel bed and reviewed the complexity of our travel day. Thinking back, the many steps of the journey may seem a bit crazy. But, to be honest, I felt safe and calm most of the journey, and I was able to see a authentic side of Thailand and Cambodia that I would not have been privy to if I had taken a flight along with other, more impatient tourists.
We were lucky on our journey that day. From Sky Train, to taxi, to bus, to tuk tuk, to taxi (again), to tuk tuk (again), we were delivered to our destination without a scratch. Remembering the date, perhaps it was just the luck of the Irish.