Coming home

I fly home tomorrow.   I can’t quite believe it’s been 6 months since I left NZ. 


And so at the end of my adventure I find myself in terrible financial shape having completely obliterated my savings.  My hair hasn’t seen the inside of a hairdressing salon in 6 months (and I am RELIGIOUS about my hair), and I’m pretty sure all the sun has prematurely aged my skin five years.  I’m out of shape (as I sit here eating chocolate cake) and desperate to go for a run, but given how destroyed I feel walking up a flight of steps I’m not sure my first ‘run’ will be much more than a brisk walk…to a café where they serve a good flat white.   


Disappointingly, I haven’t transformed into a nicer, more loving, giving and tolerant person.  Nope.  I didn’t ‘find myself’ either.  I didn’t need to and that wasn’t what the trip was about. 


I remembered some stuff I’d lost sight of and a few things were confirmed for me.  The thing I came to realise, as deeply unpopular as it is to admit this sort of thing, is that I really, really love working and preferably in hard, complex, high-pressure roles.  I love to think, to exercise my mind and solve hard, shitty problems.  I love the sense of satisfaction and self-identity I get from my work.  I will always be driven and possibly always work a bit too much.  I definitely left everything on the field in my last job and that feeling of having run myself into the ground was partly why I took this sabbatical.  You probably won’t ever hear the words “I’m moving to India to meditate and sell my macramé” cross my lips. 


Also – and I’ve always known this – I really, truly don’t want kids.  And I don’t care about getting married.  I don’t even care that much about being in a relationship.  I think I have a certain path to follow – my very own road less traveled – and sticking to this path when some people find it at odds with what a woman is supposed to do, want and feel, is one of my challenges.    


And so after six months, as well as being broke, I’m clear about who I am, happy, relaxed, excited, recharged, inspired and full of hopes, dreams and plans for my future.  I’ve made decisions I never would have made if I’d stayed in Wellington.  I’ve altered my direction and have clarity about what I want to do and be and the energy to make shit happen. 


Every so often I think about that Muslim man who sat next to me on my flight to Singapore and urged me to go and find ‘the truth’.  We obviously had different interpretations of what this meant, but I remember at the time being thrilled at the prospect of this challenge – the sense of there being something worth searching for; a destination or endpoint that would give me answers to all the questions I carry around with me. But over the last six months I’ve realized that what I really responded to, and what makes me tick, is the quest itself; the sense of there always being more to see and know and discover; the fact that this ‘search’ relies on you staying curious about and engaged in the world around you.  I kind of don’t want to find what I’m looking for because that would mean I’ve reached the end.  And where’s the fun in that?


The Art of Traveling

The inescapable truth is that when you travel, you take yourself with you.  You unconsciously bundle up all those quirks, worries, fears and habits and shove them in the suitcase, only to be somewhat surprised when they make an appearance at your destination.  I’m an introvert, I’m grouchy when I don’t get to linger over a morning coffee, I get stressed about logistics and I’m a little too focused on the destination rather than the journey itself.  These traits of mine show up uninvited whether I’m working in Wellington or traipsing through SE Asia.


But each of our character ‘flaws’ are challenged and tested – repeatedly – when traveling.  The sharp edges of your personality traits are exposed and chiseled back and you are, in this way, subtly altered through any travel experience, usually for the better.


When you travel you’re put in tricky, shitty, weird, foreign, awkward, uncomfortable and sometimes downright dangerous situations and environments; you feel exposed and vulnerable, and yet you figure it out and get on with it because you have to.  You discover that you’re braver and more courageous, resourceful and adaptable than you thought yourself to be.  You find and access parts of yourself you didn’t know were there – the part of you that starts to feel at ease in the chaotic filth of Cairo, or feel a profound sense of comfort alone in the desert in Jordan. 


And then there are the perfect moments when you meet a kindred spirit, see or hear or taste something new and wonderful, realize that feeling you’re experiencing is contentment, feel moved to tears by landscapes of incredible beauty, learn something new about this world, find yourself with the time and headspace to ponder stuff you never get to muse about in real life.


I’ll always be restless for more travel.  I want to see the world, I want to know what each country looks, feels, smells and tastes like.  I’m curious about how and why other cultures and societies live.  I want to walk the Macchu Piccu trail, learn to surf in Bali, cycle through Myanmar, travel through Africa, dance in South America, compare Japan to the rest of Asia, dive in Dili/East Timor, road trip across the States, return to Egypt to climb Mount Sinai.  I know for certain that not getting to travel the world would be my one true regret in life.

No more authentic cultural experiences

The initial rush of love for Thailand fades quite quickly…for me anyway. Thailand feels like Cambodia and Laos but is far more developed and relatively prosperous. There are road rules people follow, more cars than motorbikes and the cheap government run buses we choose over ‘VIP transport’ buses are a hundred times nicer than the worst buses in Cambodia.  There are boutique art galleries and cafes in the side streets of Chiang Rai, wheatgrass shots, clever and subversive graffiti at building sites, Starbucks everywhere and overweight kids. It’s, well, kind of boring.

I’m nearing the end of my journey and feeling travel weary. Chiang Mai is known for its beautiful temples. I walk past one of them on the way to sit in an air-conditioned café and feel satisfied with my efforts. The 7 to 8 hour bus rides that once upon a time I would treat as a blissful retreat into daydreaming, reading and watching a different world go by are now greeted with impatience. Around Day 6 in Thailand I announce to Pearl that there will be no more authentic cultural experiences for me and no more roughing it on crappy public transport. When we have to spend a couple of nights in Bangkok to extend our visas I book a flash hotel with a lovely pool overlooking the Bangkok skyline and only venture out to the flash mall for essential toiletries and cupcakes. Instead of taking the overnight train from Bangkok to Krabi, I fly.

I decide it’s time to hit the islands and head to Koh Lanta for the last couple of weeks to laze around beachside and read. It sounds ridiculous, but there is such a thing as needing a holiday from traveling. The books I stock up on are biographies of Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright and a book called ‘The End of Poverty’. I’m interpreting my choice of non-escapist reading material as a good sign I’ll be ready for the mental stimulation that work brings. It’s about two and a half weeks to go and I’m looking forward to being back in our peaceful, uncorrupt, democratic, egalitarian and beautiful country where men call each other ‘bro’ and good wine is a-plenty.

The one where I negotiate a diplomatic solution to our status as illegal aliens

In Laos we chill out on Don Det island, go trekking in the Bolaven Plateau, get lost and shitty in Vientiane, go kayaking and caving in Vang Vieng, linger in beautiful Luang Prabang.  Our extraordinarily bad boating skills are exposed once again kayaking down the Mekong.  My poor attempt at navigating the boat have us heading face first into a clump of trees/bushes/cobwebs/weeds on the side of the river.  We lie flat back against the kayak as we get dragged underneath it; I swing out first and look up to see Pearl still sliding underneath this mess of plants and crap.  Pearl is super unimpressed but I think it’s the funniest shit ever and have to suppress my sniggering for the next hour.  Second half of the trip and Pearl chooses to go down some ‘rapids’.  Boat tips over, we go overboard, she loses a jandal and I lose my sunglasses.  Try to climb back in but I’m laughing too hard and it’s a complete failure and we fall out again.  We have to be rescued by the two blokes on the trip. 


We take the ‘slow boat’ from Luang Prabang to the tiny nothing-going-for-it border town of Huay Xai.  It takes 2 days and on the second day the boat gradually slows as it approaches its destination to make sure there is absolutely no chance of you being able to cross the border (a 2 minute trip across the Mekong River) before the passport office closes, so are forced to stay the night in Laos.


Next morning we try to leave.  Turns out we didn’t get an entry stamp on the way in – long story, but I kind of knew it at the time, figured it might cause us problems later but thought the lovely Laotian people would be quite forgiving about it.  This passport official isn’t.  He calls us illegal aliens and tells us we have to pay $100 US as we are breaking the law.  There’s no way we’re paying this, and don’t have the cash on us anyway, so we have a fight with the man.  He tries to keep our passports.  Pearl reaches in and snatches her passport from the desk and storms off.  He is very, very unimpressed.  Some further negotiation follows and he halves the figure and tells us we can go use the ATM.  We try to head out of the passport control area but the man in the other booth won’t let us past because…we don’t have an entry stamp into the country.  We’re doomed to seethe in anger in the tiny patch of riverbank of No Womans’ Land.


My approach is to stage a sit-in.  I figure they have no real interest in having us stuck there.  I sit directly across from his booth and gaze wistfully across the border to Freedom.  I think about Tom Hanks in that movie where he isn’t allowed out of the airport into the US but can’t go back home coz his country doesn’t exist anymore.  Admittedly his international airport lounge is a somewhat more attractive place to be detained than this shitty, grubby riverbank.  Despite an hour and a half of intense wistful gazing, the man shows no sign of caving in.


It’s about this stage when Pearl and I diverge on the best approach.  Pearl advocates trying to jump on a boat and flee the border and hope that the official in Thailand (a) won’t check for a departure stamp or (b) will take a cheaper bribe than this crowd.  I can’t begin to tell you how much I don’t want to do this.  Tempted as I am by the picture of us running to the boat, throwing money at the boatman and screaming at him to get us the hell out of there, I simply can’t bring myself to make a scene.  I’m also unconvinced Thai passport control is totally useless and/or less corrupt.  So I make a last ditch effort to negotiate the price down to the cash we have in our wallets.


I try to rationally explain our situation to the man.  This approach does not work.  He lectures me for the hundredth time that when you enter a country you need an entry stamp, and bangs on about Pearl snatching the passport and that this is Very Not Good.  He tells me they have many illegal aliens and these people ask him, the nice man, to help them and he helps them, but no, that bad lady snatched the passport and that is Not Good.  I walk away fuming and reconcile myself to Pearl’s plan.  We slink down to the riverside.  The officials stand around watching us.  That is, until I get summoned by Man #2.  He tells me to go see Man #1 and that I must say I’m very sorry and ask for him to please, please help me.


OK so THIS is clearly where I’ve gone wrong…I’ve never been that flash at the whole simpering and asking for help thing.  I swallow the bile rising in my throat and go see Man #1.  I simper, apologise and plead with him to help us.  He insists I send Pearl to see him so he can ‘talk’ to her, which I know to be code for asking for the same apologetic bullshit from her.  I say No – No, she is very, very sorry and only snatched her passport because she was very, very SCARED - we are ladies in a strange land - and I will make sure she knows what she did was wrong.  I think it best to keep them apart.  It’s not that I think Pearl would punch him in the face.  Nope, I think she would lean in, grab him by the collar, drag him out through the window, throw him on the ground and kick him repeatedly until he vomits blood.  Am quite keen to avoid that scenario right now.  


He agrees to a fine that’s a quarter of what he originally demanded and is all the money we have on us.  I refuse to give him the money until he stamps and signs our passports.  He is amused and slightly outraged at my lack of trust.  We cross the border. The Thai official can’t find the departure stamp and asks me where it is.  I show him.  He lets us through without asking for a ‘service fee’. 

We heart Thailand.  

Getting to Laos and the most embarrassing boat rescue ever

Our trip from Cambodia to Laos is the classic 3-stage SE Asia event, starting with the oft-complained-about trip where they stuff as many people into a minivan as possible.  In our case it was a modest 22 people in a van designed to seat 13, plus backpacks and huge sacks of Stuff.  We’re then dropped in the middle of nowhere and told to wait for the Big Bus to take us across the border.  Happily, it arrives.  Crossing the border only incurs a small ‘service charge’ of $2 (“Why?” “It’s Saturday.”)  Final stage of the journey is a dangerously overloaded wooden boat to a small island in the 4000 Island area in the Mekong delta. 


We get to the island and I’m gutted to see heinous cheap and nasty backpacker bars built over the River and a bunch of young things sunning themselves on the small ‘beach’ littered with their BeerLaos bottles and cigarette butts.  I’m back in Backpacker Hell.  I can’t get out of there fast enough and we power walk/sweat to the other side of the island where – thankfully – we find a grown-ups paradise in Mama Leuch’s Bungalows; basic huts with hammocks and a gorgeous common area next to the River with amazing food and coffee.


We spend 2 nights here but it feels like a week.  There’s a lot of lying around in hammocks and cycling around the islands remembering why I love Laos so much.  We play badminton in the coolness of the fading red sun.  A young boy from across the way takes up his post as observer.  We lose a shuttlecock in a palm tree and he retrieves it by throwing stones into the leaves.  I go to pick up a stone to assist and he stops me.  This is clearly boys’ business so I let him do his thing.  He takes over Pearl’s racquet and it’s fair to say the game slows considerably.  Then he tells me to give my racquet to one of the young girls.  I oblige (none of them can speak English – except for the word ‘no!’ – so we’re communicating in sign language).   Pearl and I are sidelined from our game.  That is, until they decide we should throw the shuttlecocks for them to hit.  We oblige.  I make the mistake of kissing the filthy shuttlecock once for luck (gross I know, but he brought out the showman in me) and the boy makes me kiss it every time.


Pearl and I decide to take the wooden construction they call a boat out onto the River.  The boat has two rectangular bits of timber that pass as oars.  I believe the words “Ever-Swindell twins” crossed our lips.  The kids think this is great fun and hop into the other boat and race us around for a bit.  And maybe they win every time. 


Then Pearl and I manage to lose control of the boat and are drifting downstream in a reasonably strong current.  My desperate paddling to turn us around is futile.  I admit it – I’m on the fast train to Panicsville.  The kids give us instructions (this consists of them yelling “No! No!” when they think we’re doing something stupid.)  We are clearly not following instructions; they read the situation for what it is and the oldest girl - she is all of about 10 years old - jumps out of their boat (turns out we’re in knee-deep water…it looked much deeper, truly) and pulls us to shore.  I’m thinking Oh Thank God, Pearl insists it was all under control.  We get out of the boat, the kids understand that we feel indebted to them and tell me to scoop water out of their boat.  I oblige.  Then the boy tries to get us to imitate his hoochie-mama dance moves for their amusement.  Pearl obliges.  On the way back to our bungalow the youngest girl decides to test just how stupid these white ladies are, picks a leaf from a tree and tells me to eat it.  I go to put it in my mouth (I was just humoring them).  The oldest girl takes pity on me, says ‘No!’ and grabs it from my mouth to save me from being poisoned.  We have to tell the owner the boat is parked up further around the island. I decide it’s time to retire from all physical activity and slink off sheepishly to my hammock. 





Cambodia xx

Cambodia.  Get used to constantly filthy feet and unladylike sweat patches.  Love the brilliant red sunsets.  Try not to think about the pollution that causes these sunsets.  Don’t walk on the footpath; you will step into rubbish, puddles of filth, down holes and into randomly parked motorbikes and their drivers.  Hold your nose through the markets.  Avoid thinking about the meat that sits out in the heat all day and how many flies crawl over it.  Be prepared to laugh at yourself because the Cambodians certainly will.  Become immune to people spitting and picking their noses in public.  Wonder whether the women mean to wear pajamas as daywear.  Understand the only road rule is to beep at people/bikes/buses/animals that might veer into your path.  Enjoy the strong Cambodian coffee.  Get used to seeing faded beautiful gold temples and orange-robed monks everywhere. 


Bargain hard but politely.  Avoid massages that do more damage than good from unskilled, untrained and uninterested Cambodians.  Get used to crossing roads by striding into oncoming traffic confidently; they will go around you even if it’s by a whisker.  Hear ‘Gangham Style’ being played everywhere you go and little kids dancing to it.  Be cheerful and polite to thousands of tuk-tuk drivers who offer you their services every hour of every day.  Get used to people seeing you as a walking dollar sign.  Take advantage of the $1 beers and $3 cocktails.  Prepare yourself for long uncomfortable bus rides with frequent use of the loud horn, blaring Cambodian music and a family of four crammed into the two seats next to/behind you. 


Notice the poverty and dirt.  Avert your eyes from the rivers, streams and fields used as rubbish dumps.  Bite your tongue when you see people carelessly throw rubbish onto the street, footpath, anywhere.  Feel sick seeing little kids picking through the rubbish.  Feel despair that it’s China pouring money into this country and Cambodia seems to be following its example of unsustainable development, corruption, lack of transparency, booting people off land wanted by developers, a widening gap between wealthy and poor and a shady justice system.  Feel hope at the number of people and organizations here trying to make a positive difference.  Marvel at the gentle nature of the land and its people despite their horrific history.  Find that you love the people and their country much more than you thought you would. 



Sihanoukville is the beach town on the southern coast of Cambodia.  It’s a strange town, awkwardly spread out with satellite neighborhoods growing up around each of the beaches and taking on distinctive personalities.  The local industry is tourism and that’s about it.  Lots of big half-finished construction projects and empty fields between each neighborhood surrounded by falling down stone walls being eaten by the jungle and that don’t seem to be surrounding anything.  Victory Beach is where the old ugly lonely men go to find “company” which never fails to bother me.  It is, I know, a way out of poverty for these women but…  Serendipity Beach and its neighboring beach are where the backpackers doing the South East Asia tour congregate.  Lots of cute young things with bad tattoos and poor grammar.   I find this whole ‘scene’ to be my own personal hell-on-earth and want to do nothing more than flee and have a nice strong cup of tea to calm the nerves.


This is the place where we finally rent motorbikes and spend days zooming around the countryside.  A Very Fun Time is had by both of us.  I’m told to wear my helmet (unlike every Cambodian) because the police target tourists with random fines.  My mastering of the motorbike controls is less than flawless – I accidentally accelerate when I’m supposed to brake and vice-versa.  I’m off on a wee adventure and zooming down the main street when a cop walks out into the road waving his orange traffic-directing thingy at me.  I mistakenly accelerate instead of braking and fail to stop.  I look back and he isn’t chasing me so I figure it can’t be too serious.  I’ve probably only escaped some stupid made-up fine that will just pay for his cigarettes.


We head to Koh Rong Saloem, a largely undeveloped island 2 hours off the coast of Cambodia.  It’s one of those untouched places yet to be ruined by development and we stay in a very basic but lovely place on one of the pristine beaches ringing the island.  Golden sands, clear water, no power during the day, no hot water and no wi-fi.  Only us, maybe 16 other people and a long, lovely beach to ourselves.  It’s a rare place of undisturbed tranquility.  We frollick in the waves – I’d like to say like a mermaid but I think perhaps more like a sea lion – play board games, sit around gazing at the horizon, play badminton and have to call a drinks break after about 4 minutes.   I love it and feel privileged to experience it before the island turns into some stupid resort spot that groups of Russians will flock to.

A bit too much information perhaps (or, TMI as the kids say)

We head from Siem Reap to Battambang, a laid-back, riverside town with picturesque, decrepit French colonial buildings and great cafes.  Our activity of choice here is hiring old-fashioned bikes with bells and baskets on the front and spending hours biking through the countryside.  We are disgustingly happy.  We take a half day bike tour through villages, stopping to see various village industries – rice paper making, dried banana, rice wine and a fish paste factory which is the most disgusting thing I’ve seen in quite some time.  I stand by a pool of maggots to take photos of this house of horror, try not to vomit and resolve never to eat anything with fish paste in it ever again.  Pearl rides up the front with the leader and teaches him Kiwi slang.  He practices on me, turning around to yell “Wassup sister!” and “Kia ora bro!”  He masters this third language quickly with a flawless accent and Billy T giggle.


We’re in Phnom Penh, the capital city, for a couple of days.  Everyone seems to dislike this place but I love it, it’s a curious and cool mix of old and modern.  My experience in South East Asia of sites where acts of war or atrocities were committed (OK, Vietnam) is that the ‘story’ told is exaggerated, the message is highly politicized and you’re force-fed the emotions you’re expected to feel, however the story at The Killing Fields is told in a reasonably measured way and I find it a moving and strangely peaceful place to be.


We book into an Ecolodge just outside of Kampot.  It’s an idyllic, peaceful place run by a couple of French hippies with views to the river and mountains.  Our room is a thatched hut on stilts overlooking water buffalos wandering through rice fields.  There are hammocks underneath our hut and reggae and NZ roots music playing in the common area.  This is all very beautiful and wonderful.  And then we both get sick.  Like, quite sick.


First night I’m in bed by 6pm because it hurts to be upright.  Trying to sleep is a bit pointless though with loud techno music from the next village then the call to prayer at 5am from the nearby mosque.  In the middle of the night I’m given no warning I’m about to get the runs and stumble blindly down our steep steps to the toilet hut.  It’s a failed quest and halfway down I shit my pants.  In fact I basically shit everywhere including managing to get it on my jandals (my feet weren’t in them, I swear).  I spend the next day in bed feeling extremely sorry for myself and wondering if I’ve caught malaria.  Pearl manages to maintain a bit more decorum but can’t venture more than a few steps from the bathroom.  On our second night of misery we go to bed clutching our travel medical kits to our chest and vowing never to book a room with ‘shared bathroom’ again.  It’s just asking for trouble.    

Angkor Wat and a bit of drinking and carousing

Siem Reap is our first experience of Cambodia.  It’s a touristy town servicing the Angkor Wat crowd.  We’re greeted everywhere with “Lay-deeee, HELLO lay-deeee, buy someting from me lay-deeee, where you want to go lay-deee? Want a tuk-tuk lay-deeeee?”  And occasionally the odd “Hello Sir!”  Hard to know if it’s dodgy English or because all white people look the same to them whether they be male or female.  The names of the streets are “Street 1”, “Street 2”, “Street 3” and the tourist thoroughfare “Pub Street” displayed in a massive neon sign.  I think this is quaint and then I get to Battambang where they have Street 1, Street 1 ½, Street 2, Street 2 ½ etc.


We head to Angkor Wat at sunrise along with a million other tourists.  It’s a circus and not a fun one.  Any magic you might have been able to derive from the moment is lost thanks to thousands of camera clicks and flashes around you and Japanese tourists who stand RIGHT in front of you blocking your view and shot.  We get fed up and take off early, speeding to the other side of the park to escape the tour groups.


Angor Wat is MASSIVE.  There is no way to convey how impressive this place is in words or pictures, but it’s spectacular, beautiful and magical especially in the early morning light.  The light, look and sounds are that of a mystical jungle with these mysterious, decaying, beautiful and unique buildings scattered throughout a huge area.  It quickly leaps into my Top 5 Favorite Places on The Planet.


That night we are heady and excited at being here and seeing this wonder.  There’s a soccer game on and pubs have brought out the big screens and lined up chairs outside for all the British hooligans to watch it.  We decide this looks like fun, join them and get a bit smashed on cheap cocktails.  We can hear good dance music down the road and the dance floor is calling our names.  I get into the club wearing jandals, my quick-dry Northface travel shorts, a dirty singlet, nothing but greasy sunscreen on my face and I haven’t washed my hair for longer than I care to admit.  I get some male attention and make a mental note to try this outfit out at home as it’s proving to be a bit of a success.  The songs get a bit stink so we walk to a ‘discotheque’ down the road from our hostel called “HIP-HOP” because we think the name sounds promising.  On the way Pearl bellows “I LOVE YOU ASIA!” randomly and forces extremely reluctant men minding their own business on the street to have their photo taken with her.  I tell her this is great material for my blog and she tries to invoke the “what goes on tour stays on tour” rule.  She clearly doesn’t realize I am an artist and that she is my muse, hence everything is fair game.


We find ourselves at Hip-Hop.  That is, after having our bags searched and being patted down.  We’re the only westerners there among a few hundred young Cambodians.  There’s a lot of strobe lights, girly screaming at anything the DJ yells and some quite bad mixing going on.  We’re quite conspicuous and I am sober enough to know that it’s not in a good way.  Also, I’m now feeling somewhat underdressed and the clusters of boys and girls are not responding enthusiastically with us trying to dance with them.  It’s time to call it a night, so I pull on my nana-pants and call Time Out before we get kicked out. 

The road to Siem Reap, or, the one where Pearl and Justine narrowly avoid being scammed

So we decide to head into Cambodia first, requiring us to make the notorious trip from Bangkok to Siem Reap.  It’s a 4:45am start and a dog down the road makes sure we don’t miss our train by howling non-stop from 3am.  Flag down a taxi; realize I don’t have the piece of paper with instructions written in Thai; Pearl sprints back to the hostel while I try to stop the driver buggering off.  We feel like we’re on The Amazing Race but without the fighting.  Yet.  The train is 3rd class hence the bargain price of $2NZ for a 7-hour trip.  I love it - it’s got cushion seats and big open windows you can lean out of.  

We arrive in some crappy border town, catch the tuk-tuk to the border.  We’ve been warned a hundred times about the scams that happen on this trip so are on High Alert – as high alert as you can be when you’ve been awake since 3am and sitting on a train for 7 hours.  Tuk-tuk driver drops us off at the ‘Cambodian Visa Office’.  It looks super official and is packed with other tourists so seems legit.  Though halfway through we feel uneasy and leave.  The helpful man tells us ‘it is up to you but you will not be let through the border without the visa’.  We make it across the border.  We go to the actual visa office where it costs us half what they were trying to charge us on the other side.  Though, naturally, the uniformed men demand another 100 Thai baht.  I get bold and ask what the 100 baht is for.  The dude doesn’t even bother to answer.  We both know I’m not going to pick a fight with the 20 officials it clearly takes to process my visa.  Regardless, we are feeling super smug at not going along with the visa scam and at being such savvy travellers. 


Next: long queue to get visa stamped by Cambodian officials.  I’m half expecting them to require an unexplained “service charge” but they seem content taking an unnecessarily long time to do anything and telling Pearl she is “pretty pretty”.  We emerge and are shepherded into a ‘free’ tourist bus that takes us to the place where buses and taxis leave for Siem Reap.  It’s miles out of town to ensure you have no other options.  The gang of little men assure us they are only there to help us, which takes the form of insisting we must take taxis (most expensive option) because the buses are full/not working/we don’t have enough people.  Fine.  After a 2-hour drive the taxi drops us off 3km outside of Siem Reap and we’re told the tuk-tuk drivers will take us to our hotels for free.  We are entirely unconvinced and refuse to get in the tuk-tuks.  The man asks us ‘don’t you believe me?’  We say No We Don’t.  We are tired and filthy.  The lovely man from our hostel picks us up.  The trip has taken 12 hours from start to finish but there is a pool and a new country waiting for us.  We are all good.  And still quite smug.