Friday, 18 May 2012

Day 55 - A disgustingly luxurious night spent in No Man's Land. (Border crossing Thailand to Cambodia)


We had expected the drive from Bangkok to Aranya Prathet/Poipet (Thailand/Cambodia) border to take a couple of days, but we managed it (thanks to the surprisingly good condition of the Thai roads) in one. The Thai side of things ran pretty smoothly – they checked our Carnet (even though Thailand’s not in the Carnet system), stamped our passports and on we went. We paid the 25Bhat (80c) “fee for our car” and went onto the Cambodian Immigration office where we were asked for US$20 + 100Bhat each for our visas. We paid the US$20 that the visa actually costs and told them we wouldn’t be paying their “service fee”. They weren’t overly happy with this, but it was just a matter of sitting it out until they got bored.

At this point we were struck by what can only be described as South East Asia’s Las Vegas, located in the No Man’s Land between the two countries. Between the humble towns on either side of the border there were a dozen or so casinos. We were one of the very few vehicles on the road that wasn’t either a brand new, unregistered Humvee, Escalade or other type of luxury 4x4, or a hand-made wooden push cart, piled high with cargo and being pushed and/or pulled by its hot and dusty owners.

We had been advised by our friends in Bangkok that these casinos can be a good place to look for cheap accommodation because they’re for Thais who want to gamble, and not at all for tourists. So we thought we’d have a look, and sure enough we found that each of the casinos was offering different deals. The one we found to be the cheapest was offering double rooms for 1,000Baht (approx $30), but they gave you 500Bhat in chips on arrival. The chips were "promotional" so couldn't be cashed in straight off, so we sat at a baccarat table for a few minutes, hedging each other's bets, until we had real chips that we could exchange for cash. So in the end we got a proper 5 star hotel room for 250Baht each(approx $8).


Being in the awkward location of No Man’s Land, we weren’t sure until we arrived what currency they’d be using though, so we thought we’d just have to use a credit card or withdraw from an ATM.  We had not foreseen however that they wouldn’t accept a credit card, considering the magnitude of these businesses, and after asking in almost every casino we discovered that there weren’t even any ATMs in No Man’s Land.

Uh oh, by this time it was almost 7pm, already dark and we were stuck with no money. We realised we were going to have to enter Cambodia to get money out, then try and re-enter No Man’s Land. This could be a tricky thing to get past Cambodian Customs, but we had no choice. Ben waited with Trevor in No Man’s Land (just in case we couldn’t get back in and he’d have to drive into Cambodia), and we approached the Customs Officials to try and explain our situation. They told us it was fine, we just had to leave one passport with them which we could collect on the way back. So on we went to the border town of Poipet, from where we could still see the lights of the casinos. Carrying nothing but our bank cards and two of our passports, we walked along the dirt road, trying our best to avoid the children’s hands grabbing at our pockets and the insistence from everyone that we either give them money or buy their goods. The only light on the streets was that from the casinos, and the contrast between rich and poor has never been more evident to me. Eventually we found an ATM and took out the money we needed, and on our way back to the border, just hoping that we’d get my passport back with no bribery or patting down involved, we passed the confronting sight of a cattle truck driving into the police station, stuffed to the brim with people.

Back at Customs I was returned my passport with no problem, until he then decided I needed to get it stamped into Cambodia. We couldn’t be sure if he understood that we were crossing back into No Man’s Land, and the fact that he only wanted my passport stamped was curious. And we were carrying a very uncomfortable amount of cash. Eventually some more people came and said stuff and yelled at each other, and we decided it was best if we all got our passports stamped then.

We had a great night, living up the luxury of our hotel at what for us is a very affordable price, knowing it would be a long time before we stayed somewhere that comfortable again. All the while though, aware that just outside this climate controlled paradise, there were people on the street, homeless and starving.

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