Getting from Bangkok to Siem Reap by bus

April 30, 2018
by Dan

What follows is a story of more or less, what not to do. If you are looking to take a bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap, our advice is to take a through (direct) bus from Bangkok Station for 750 THB. This, however, is not what we actually did…

At the end of our stay in Bangkok we headed off to Cambodia, one day before our visa expired. Our first destination in Cambodia: Siem Reap.

There are a number of ways to get between the two cities, and based on these two articles it seemed like it would be an easy and straightforward process with lots of options. Nope! Those articles are way too cheery. But we didn’t know that going in, and under their influence we decided that the most flexible and economical method was to take a bus from Bangkok to the border, and from there figure out a ride to Siem Reap instead of doing the through bus (long story short: take the through bus!).

The bus from Bangkok to the border was fairly simple. We left from the Bangkok bus terminal near Mo Chit. But when we arrived at the bus station day of to buy our ticket, the departure we wanted was sold out so we had to take a later bus. The direct bus was also sold out when we arrived. Okay, 1 hour delay wasn’t a big deal. We made sure to get a bus that went to Rong Khlua market.

Our bus was about an hour late departing, but it was an uneventful ride to the market, and from there it was was a 1 km walk to the border. A shared songthaew was only 10 baht, but we were really on our last bits of currency and needed to make sure we could get from the border to Siem Reap, so we weren’t spending any extra money. It was easy and fast checking out of Thailand and checking into Cambodia.

We came prepared with a Cambodian e-visa after our scammy experience with the Laos border. The e-visa is more expensive that the on-arrival visa, but we didn’t have to put up with any border scams and it was stress free. There was a lot of poverty on display at this border and much more begging and conmen trying to “help” you out with your visa. Much more so than any other border crossing so far. But we got into Cambodia without any issue.

Then all we had to do was find a bus to Siem Reap. Cue the dark cello music…

Back to those articles I was using. They said that you can take a free shuttle to the government bus terminal. As far as I can tell, that is a scam and those authors don’t realize they got scammed. There is a free shuttle, but it will take you out into the middle of nowhere bus terminal where the supposed government buses charge $10. We had a tout following us through the entire immigration process, and he gladly helped us onto that shuttle.

But then he started saying something about the last government bus departure being at 3 pm and it was about 5 pm by that point. I’m not sure if he was lying about that, but I found some information that corroborated it online. The fact is that the buses leaving from the tour agencies are the same price or cheaper, and the supposed government buses will evidently let you off well outside of Siem Reap, forcing you to buy an expensive tuk tuk ride. The tout got the driver to stop at one of the tour agencies, but we wanted to have a look around unaccompanied, so we shook the tout.

We ended up wandering back and forth up the main drag and asking about buses at a variety of places. No one knew about any government buses or said that they had stopped running for the day. Taxis offered to take us to Siem Reap for prices around $40 USD. We tried to get a shared taxi for $10 per person, but it never showed up.

So eventually we went to a tour agency (Rith Mony and based on this experience and reviews that I read, avoid this company) with the first available bus out of town. We ended up paying $9, neatly using up our last remaining Thai Baht.

Note: the exchange rate is not favorable for using baht and we actually ended up spending the equivalent of $10 on this bus ride. Cambodia operates on a dual currency system. I’ve read about being able to use USD in other countries, but it seemed sketchy. It’s expected in Cambodia and often the exchange rate is in your favor. Knowing this, we would have hit the border with much more useful and sufficient currency in USD.

Anyway, we wait around for this bus, the departure time comes and goes. We’re used to this. In not too long a bus shoes up… but it’s not our bus. We wait some more, then a motorcycle with a side car shows up and loads us up with another Cambodian passenger to take us to our bus. If it wasn’t for this other passenger we would have been seriously fretting at this point.

We are taken to the KSO Bus station, which we almost checked out on our own, but it looked totally deserted. We get onto a bus that was half full of enormous bags of who knows what. We were the only passengers on there. Eventually the bus fills up, with more goods and people filling the aisle. We start several hours after the stated departure time which should have put us into Siem Reap at about 11 pm.

But eventually the bus gets moving. At the tour agency I was trying to be proactive and asked where the bus let off. I pointed to a major intersection in Siem Reap. Well turns out this was taken to mean that’s were I wanted to be let off and surprisingly this information was conveyed to the driver. Which is commendable, but that’s not actually where we wanted let off. It was 2.5 km from the hotel and we had no money at this point to get a tuk tuk and then as the bus drove away, we watched it turn down the street where we wanted to go. Turns out the actual bus stop was less than 1 km from our hotel.

So after a full day of travel that started 6 am and this rather frustrating  experience, we walked 2.5 km in the heat (past midnight it was amazingly hot still) to our hotel Panda Angkor Inn. The manager stayed up for us (Han is wonderful) and upgraded us to an A/C room which was everything we needed at that time, that really made our day. We were in bed before 2 am.

Overall it really wasn’t a terrible experience and we are used to these sorts of delays, over-stuffing, and confusion, but it was annoyance after annoyance. And based on multiple accounts that I read, it seemed like it should have been a much smoother process. Taking the direct bus from BKK to SR would have absolutely been worth the small additional cost (if we had booked it in advance, of course, remember it filled up). The price for the through bus is 750 baht per person. I think we paid just over 500 baht for our journey, but it was a huge hassle, and I think things could have easily gone awry and cost us more at the border.

The other unexplored bus alternative was a direct bus service from our hostel for 400 baht. It seemed too good to be true so we didn’t trust it. But all the hotels in Siem Reap listed direct bus services to Bangkok for the equivalent of 470 baht… So it makes me think that you can find direct buses for less than what we paid mucking about at the border (probably with their own set of problems of course).

We spent our first few days in Siem Reap doing just about exactly nothing except for consuming noodles and papaya salad. We were a bit burnt out, so we rested up in preparation for a special visitor aaaaand the epic ruins of Angkor! Coming Next!

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Bangkok, week(ish) 2: shiny shopping malls, Muay Thai, and a big gong!

April 19, 2018
By Christina

After our Thai massage course we decided to stay at Krit Hostel as we continued to explore Bangkok.

Something we did that was very Bangkok is visit a series of shopping malls. These included Platinum, MBK, and Terminal 21. Most of these malls are located in a part of town that possesses a lot of tall buildings, sky train lines, and traffic. There are also a lot of elevated pedestrian pathways (sky walks) and colorful lighting and billboards. In the evenings it felt like a happier version of Blade Runner’s 2019 Los Angeles. I loved it.

An interesting cultural phenomenon that we noticed in these public spaces was flow of pedestrian traffic. In Thailand, traffic drives on the left side of the road, but pedestrian traffic is to the right. This was incredibly confusing to us. In India, with traffic on the left, the pedestrian flow was the same, with people dodging left to get around each other when necessary. Similar to how most of the time in the US people will dodge right instinctively to get around each other on foot. In Thailand it’s oppo… most of the time. While most markings were for people to keep right, there were distinct occasions when flow was reversed and everyone went left. It was baffling.

The day after our massage course finished, we went on a Sunday to see a Muay Thai bout. While the more well-advertised Muay Thai will cost you around $30 a ticket, the Channel 7 Stadium that hosts the regularly televised fights is completely free, every Sunday, you just have to get there early because it gets packed. It’s located a short walk from the Mo Chit sky train station, the same one you take to go to the Chatuchak market.

The fights usually start at 1:30 pm, but the Sunday we showed up it started at 2:30 pm for reasons that were probably posted in Thai, but that we couldn’t read. Foreigners or “farang,” have their own seating area, which is actually pretty nice because it’s behind the fancy seating area, so no one stands in front of the front row, a thing that happened in the local seating areas, causing a domino effect where everyone had to stand to see.

There were a total of four fights, with each bout lasting about 30 minutes. As mentioned, it’s a televised event and so there’s a camera crew roving about, and occasionally featuring farang from the audience. The surprise was the size and age of the fighters. The first pair looked painfully young, maybe 15 years old, and their weight class was stated as around 100 lbs. In the third and biggest fight, the weight of the fighters was only 138 lbs. Walking past them on the way out, I was nearly a head taller than them (I’m 180 cm/5′ 11″).

The fights were interesting to watch. I’ve never seen boxing before, and sometimes things happened so quickly it was difficult to keep up. There were four rounds to each fight, with the first two passing pretty calmly, the fighters almost dancing around each other to the band playing drums and flute. Things tended to go berserk round three and then climax in four. The crowd was amazing, they would go wild, cheering and screaming at each strike, the roar was deafening at the critical moments. Betting was also rampant, with wrists and fingers flicking to put in bets at a distance.

Something interesting about the fights was the level of sportsmanship displayed, with the fighters hugging at the conclusion of the matches, sometimes even chatting with their opponent’s coaches. In the third climactic match, it was clear by round three who the victor would be. The fighter clad in blue had taken a beating and was on his feet, but starting to stumble as round three finished. And in round four, instead of going for a vicious take down, his opponent largely danced around him and mostly staying on the defensive as he wound down the clock to victory.

Second to seeing a Muay Thai match, a visit to Khao San road is probably one of the most popular tourist “to do’s” out there, and we visited a few times. Khao San has been referred to as “the center of the backpacker universe” and “a tourist ghetto” depending on who you ask. It is packed with food carts, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, and clubs. There are people from everywhere and it is a big party for sure, people wandering around with buckets (of booze) or 660 mL bottles of Chang, dancing in the street, buying scorpions on sticks, and stumbling around. It’s fascinating for its novelty, I’ll give it that.

Our first visit to Khao San was to check out Brick Bar, which has live ska music most nights. Brick Bar is tucked away a little bit, but aptly named with exposed red brick covering the walls along with vintage looking decorations including antique bicycles and black and white photos of 1950s movie stars. It’s two level, focused around a stage where the band was. They played a lot Thai-language ska covers of popular American pop music. The crowd was young and appeared local as best Dan and I could tell. Bottle service was in vogue, and the tables were littered with bottles of liquor, tonic, drinks, cell phones, but that didn’t stop patrons from dancing on them. It was a fun scene.

Another night Dan and I decided to split up and hit the town, because time apart is a good thing when we spend most of our days glued at the hip. I bought a large bottle of Chang and wandered the street. One of my favorite spots was where two bars had amassed such a crowd in the street that the two groups blended together forming a solid mass that had to be pushed through to pass, but still divided roughly down the middle by who was dancing to which song blaring over the opposing speakers.

And at some point, I got adopted by a trio of local women. I think they thought I was cute, in that stray confused puppy kind of way. They were all Bangkok locals and evidently visit Khao San regularly to party on the weekends. One of them had major dance moves, wearing white converse with her plaid halter top dress, and making friends with the people she ran into as she moved wildly about. Her younger sister and their friend were more talkative and less dance-ative, and we all chatted a bit.

Buckets are a thing on Khaosan, maybe Thailand in general, there were definitely buckets in Haad Rin on Koh Phangan, and they ordered a bucket of mojito and invited me to join them. Along with the bucket, the waiter brought a folding table and stools, so we had our own place to sit and drink, or stand and dance. When the mojito was finished the dancer order a large Chang and poured it over the ice. When I asked, I was told this is “a thing drunk people do”. I had a great time hanging out with these gals, they were a ton of fun and very welcoming.

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And of course Dan and I dove face first into street food. Pad Thai is very common to find at street vendors, and can be found for 30 THB (~$1) for an egg version, fried up right in front of you with noodles that have been prepared in advance. Papaya salad is another great one if you likely spicy food, prepared in a large clay bowl and pounded with a pestle to bruise the ingredients and get the flavors to mix. Not to forget either, is mango sticky rice, best hand carved and served up fresh, rather than packaged and sitting out for a while, no surprise there.

We also discovered a dish called “yum nai” that Dan went crazy over. Spicy and garnished with peanuts, it’s a mix of fried chick pea meal, strips of tripe, and herbs.

Then of course there are noodle soups galore. Fried noodles, fried omelet over rice, and fried chicken are also very popular. And there is a standard set of condiments that go with these dishes: sugar, ground peanuts, chili flakes, pepper infused vinegar, and a bottle of squid sauce. Most soup and noodle dishes can be found for around 40 to 50 THB.

We got some exercise in, visiting Rommaninat park south of Krit, and Bangkok’s largest park, Lumphini. Like Saranrom park, they also had outdoor weight areas, though the one in Rommaninat was 30 THB instead of being free, still a very small fee though. There were lots of runners in both parks. Overall, Bangkok seems like a pretty fit city, with good park spaces for exercise at little to no cost to use the facilities.

We went to visit Wat Saket, the temple of the golden mount, a conveniently short walk from Krit. It’s located on a small steep hill, with many bells (and a gong!) to play, and free reign to do so. No one scolded me once! It was great. I rang so many bells. You can go up onto the roof of the temple, and it has a spectacular view of the Bangkok skyline from all sides. Entry fee was 50 THB.

Another major tourist item is the Jim Thompson house. This is located right on the canal and easily accessible via the canal boats. It’s a house built by the architect, silk trader, and (possibly) spy, Jim Thompson, that is now open to the public for a fee of 150 THB a ticket. Jim mysteriously disappeared in Malaysia in 1967, and some time later his home was made into a museum. The grounds and the architecture are beautiful, with the art being interesting but not the main attraction in my opinion. The Jim Thompson Foundation administers the house and is dedicated to the preservation of Thai culture.

One of our final acts was to go visit Chinatown, which has many sprawling pedestrian markets, some roofed, some not. It was murderously hot though, and since we weren’t really interested in making purchases, our experience there was kind of “eh”. Not bad, but nothing we were particularly excited about.

We had a final meal of yum nai before packing up our bags and moving to another hostel close to the bus station on our last night in Bangkok. We moved to Pillow & Bread up near Mo Chit. We weren’t very impressed with it, but it was only a 60 THB, 10 minute taxi ride from there to the bus terminal.

So in the morning, we bid Bangkok good bye after eighteen days, and set off for our next adventure: Cambodia.

 

 

 

 

Garlic peels!? Thailand WTH?

April 19, 2018
by Dan 

Let’s talk about garlic peels. Warning: rant ahead.

I believe leaving garlic peels in food to be possibly the most grievous error in cooking. Like, you’re not even trying anymore. What is the point of even cooking with garlic if you don’t remove the garlic peels? A bit of eggshell in an omelet is unpleasant, but I understand how that sort of mistake occurs. With garlic peels, no.

If you begin the process of peeling, then you finish the job. It’s not difficult to see the peel. If you don’t want to peel garlic, then just don’t use garlic instead of cooking the peel. Garlic peels are an entirely unpleasant tactile experience and have no taste. It’s not like a bay leaf or clove or cardamom which adds flavor to the food, it’s just all the way unpleasant.

But everyone in Thailand seems to disagree. Just universally. Okay, maybe it’s just the people who cook food, but still. They smash the clove and then toss it into the frying pan, peel and all. And so you get a whole mess of peel in your noodles or soup. And God forbid you mix up your noodles before hunting down the peel, because it will just get spread everywhere and it’s miserable.

I don’t know if the locals pick out the peel or eat it. I can’t imagine encountering a garlic peel without making the most sour facial expression in response. Nor can I imagine swallowing a garlic peel without pretending to suffocate to death. This is a cultural difference that I cannot bring myself to adapt to. I’ll put up with it, but I refuse to stop bitching about it.

Bangkok: Street food, the reclining Buddha, and Thai massage

April 10, 2018
by Christina

We packed up and bid our lovely cabin at the Ocean on Koh Phangan to set off for Bangkok. We negotiated a tuk tuk ride for 100 THB each, something I learned that isn’t too hard to do even though many drivers start out asking 150 THB. At the Thong Sala pier we bought a package deal to get to Bangkok: 700 THB for the ferry, taxi, and overnight bus to get to Bangkok.

We had to hustle and we almost missed the boat, but they let us on even though they had already closed up the tail gate. The ferry was about 2 hours, with a snack bar (ramen! Dan found his favorite Cup Noodles flavor ever, Moo Manao) and a pretty comfortable seating area. Though I might argue some people got a little toooo comfortable. Looking at you foot girl!

It was a cramped and bumpy ride in a minibus from the Don Sak pier to Surat Thani where we got dropped off at Holiday Travel to wait for our overnight bus.

We got dinner nearby from a street vendor who sells what Dan and I have come to refer to as “stick food”, and it’s very common in Thailand. The vendor has pre-skewered things like hot dogs, meatballs, fish cakes, vegetables, etc, and will either fry or grill them up for you. Very similar to one of the meals we had in Laos, but typically fewer veggies.

After dinner we were still waiting… and our bus never came. In the old days i.e. at the beginning of our journey, I might have been up in arms, the bus is an hour late, where is it? But when you have an overnight bus ride that’s supposed to arrive at 5 am? Who cares, let the bus run late! Eventually a handful of us got put on a tuk tuk and taken elsewhere to board a bus that took only the 6 of us that were in the tuk tuk. Like… a huge multi-story bus largely unoccupied. Not sure what happened.

We got into Bangkok and there were a ton of tuk tuk drivers circling in vulture-like fashion. A second bus showed up with the rest of the passengers from Holiday, and there was a bit of milling about as some people negotiated fares, walked, or did what Dan and I did and ordered an Uber… which turned out to be an actual taxi. I guess when it’s slow driving for Uber in your taxi makes sense?

He dropped us off at Mascot Hostel where we had a reservation for a few nights. The place is sort of cartoon themed, you could say? The staff let us in early and allowed us to have breakfast while we waited to check in. The breakfast, dorms, and bathrooms were pretty nice (and a free dinner on Friday!), but the common spaces were very limited and I had to squeeze yoga in to the aisle of our dorm, not what I’d call optimal.

On Sunday we went to see the Chatuchak Weekend Market. To get there we took a canal boat and the sky train. Yeah, so awesome. I’m always excited about alt transit, and canal boat as public transportation has got to be one of the cooler things we’ve seen, right up there with the gondola cable cars in Medellin. The boats are really fast too… forwards and backwards. Watching the drivers re-position the boats is really impressive, they’re not small and they’re super nimble.

The Chatuchak market is pretty cool, but in the hunt for Dan’s new shoes, we found ourselves frustrated. Dan thought there would be cheap knock offs of good quality, but alas it was not so. The cheap knock offs were poorly made, the nice knock offs of things like Tigers were 2000 THB or about $70, and even the used authentic shoes were in poor condition with prices around $15. (Did find a pair of crossword puzzle shoes… lookin’ at you Chuck!). While at the market we got some yummy treats including coconut ice cream, pork dumplings, some fortune-cookie-like dough with sweet toppings, thai iced tea, etc.

After shopping we went to relax in the Chatuchak park nearby, where you could rent mats to sit on, and had alarmingly big fish in the pond. Like, this big, the fish, THIS BIG. It was murky, but easily a meter. Pond fish should not be that big.

Dan and I decided to sign up for the 30 hour Thai massage class offered by the traditional medical school Watpo school. The 30 hours was broken up over 5 days in 6 hour chunks from 9 am to 4 pm with an hour lunch break. While massage services are offered inside of Wat Pho, the school is outside of it. The class cost 9500 THB (~$300 USD) per person, and includes an exam on the fifth day in order to get the certificate of completion.

We were told to arrive at 8:30 am to sign up for class, and required to provide three passport photos to be used for the certificate and their records. Only they couldn’t be shiny, they had to be stamp-able and Dan’s were to slick for the ink to stick, so he was required to provide different photos, though allowed until the third day to do so. We were given course materials and shown an introductory movie with four other students, then taken across the street from the office to the classroom, which was lots of the thin massage mattresses lined up in two rows on the floor.

Instruction was given in pairs, typically two students and one teacher, with the teacher massaging the students and the students massaging each other in order to learn and practice a 5 step massage routine that in its entirety takes 2 hours to complete. So it’s a lot of memorization. The massage we learned is performed clothed with no lotions or oils, and as such involves more pressing and stretching than rubbing.

Our teacher was a woman named Praphai, pronounced an awful lot like “Pop Eye” the sailor man, and she was emphatic that her name was not “Papaya, like the salad”. She was a wonderful teacher with a hilarious sense of humor. While watching Dan or I massage the other, she would also massage one of us almost absentmindedly, and just when you thought her attention was elsewhere, she’d catch you doing something wrong without even looking, or so it seemed. She even caught me failing to tuck my toes while massaging her when she was lying FACE DOWN. If you messed up you might get a growl, a good-natured spank, and told “Thai boxing!” which I think meant she was going to Muay Thai you if you didn’t clean up your act? She was great.

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Dan and I had moved to Krit Hostel to be in walking distance of the school. It was still about a 30 minute walk to school, but it was reasonably priced with free breakfast, good food options nearby, and, my favorite, an enormous open-air common space on the roof with a sun roof, complete with Thai massage mattress! We made use of the mattress to practice our massage routine the night before our last day, nervous for our exam.

Walking to and from class everyday, we took advantage of the proximity to Wat Pho and went to wander the grounds and see the famous reclining Buddha. There’s a variety of temples on the grounds, and tons of interesting architecture and statues. The entry fee is 100 THB and you have to cover up your shoulders, and it was a very pleasant visit.

Also nearby we discovered the nearby Saranrom park with not only a running track, but a free weight gym! We stopped there one evening, and I got in a short run, handstand practice, and pumped some iron (squats and power cleans!). YES, I was very excited! I’ve never seen a free weight gym before, and for free it was pretty freaking awesome, though open air and therefore sweaty as sweaty gets!

Saturday was our final day of class and our exam. We both passed! After getting our certificates we celebrated with a Taro pudding on the way back to Krit.

Coming up: another week+ in Bangkok! Muay Thai, pad thai, and more Thai (stuff)!