That Time I Think I Snuck Into Cambodia

That Time I Think I Snuck Into Cambodia

When traveling through South East Asia you’ll quickly find that there is a more or less established backpacker’s route—while you and your fellow travelers may be hitting the same spots, it’s likely you’ll be going in various directions and orders. Usually this makes it fairly simple to learn how to get from place to place—wherever you’re going next, chances are someone in your hostel just came from there. This is why I was so surprised to find it insanely difficult to get information on the best way to get into Cambodia from Laos by land.

Basically the only piece of advice I could get was “Take the best deal you can,” which was always inevitably followed by some horror story of scams, theft, and abandonment. Nevertheless, I figured if they survived I could certainly do better…right?

After having spent a good deal of time in Laos, I’d decided that Angkor Wat was next on my list, so early one morning my traveling buddies and I headed to the bus station in Vientiane to book tickets to Siem Reap, a journey that takes roughly 24 hours if all goes smoothly. Getting the right tickets was simple enough, but information on the visa process was both scarce and confusing. Luckily, a friendly stranger at a picnic table said he could get us through process cheaply and painlessly. All we had to do was drop our passports in his duffel bag, give him $22, and fill out the visa application which he had run out of. Not to worry, my new pal assured us, he’d have more soon. He then left us, saying he’d meet up with us again at the border.

Yeah, I know, handing over your documents to a sketchy stranger who is clearly conning you probably isn’t the best decision, but we’d definitely all heard worse beginnings that ended alright, so I figured there’s a chance it would be worth the risk.

As we boarded our bus, the driver exchanged our tickets for those we’d need at the next stop. While we knew we needed to switch buses at the border, we were told our next set of tickets weren’t actually for Siem Reap, but for a town I’d never heard of with a train to Siem Reap. At any rate I knew that if it turned out to be a lie, at least I’d be stranded with an entire bus worth of people and not alone.

Thirteen uncomfortable hours later, the driver ordered us off the bus and told us to walk across the border, and when we got to the border patrol & customs check not to stop at the window, just walk around them and take the ladder or ramp up a wall. Leery about leaving my luggage behind but seeing no other option, I followed the small crowd into no-man’s land when everyone suddenly stopped dead. An officer had come out yelling “HEALTH CHECK” in English, while about 30 feet ahead of us stood a man roughly 3 feet tall with a hump and a googly eye, waiting.

Seeing as how my friends were clearly a bit freaked out (and rightfully so) I figured I may as well go first and see what they’d actually do—turns out the little dude just takes your temperature and sends you along. At least I was first to use the public thermometer.

After passing through we easily spotted the wall we’d been told about and over we climbed to find a handful of stalls with people hocking bus and van tickets of their own. It was here were learned that—big surprise—the train station we were headed for didn’t exist and our tickets were worthless from that point on.

So here’s the rundown: We’re stranded on the side of the road in the blistering heat of Cambodia with no luggage, no passports, and no transport.

Pooling what little cash we had (and paying in multiple currencies) we were able to secure van tickets to Siem Reap, with the promise that they’d be air-conditioned and wifi-capable.

After standing around for another lifetime, a motorbike eventually showed up and the driver dropped off a plastic shopping bag full of passports, which other passengers and I began reading out names from and passing around. We did indeed find new visa stickers inside, with our information hand-written on top, not looking anything close to legit, and signed by “Jeff”.

Eventually, a caravan of passenger vans showed up, some carrying our luggage and others waiting to take us to our next destination. Turns out “air conditioning & wifi” is often code for “overcrowded and full of live chickens”.

At my next hostel I met a guy who had done the visa process by the book on his own, and while he saved $2 on his visa, the trip also took him 12 hours longer.

I would be no means recommend taking the route I took, and I’m sure there are plenty of options out there. I’ve heard that while the visa prices have increased in recent years, so have transport options and the border itself has become more streamlined and less corrupt.

My advice?

Take the best deal you can.

– Ashley

5 Weirdest Superstitions Encountered Abroad

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So you’re bumming around Cambodia and happen to piss off the wrong person—word gets around that a hail of bullets may be in your future. Do you:

Call the cops? Nope.

Invest in a Kevlar wardrobe? Nah.

Make a beeline for the nearest tattoo parlor? Bingo!

Traditional tattooing in Cambodia is commonly believed to hold mystical powers, with their “Yantra” tattoos being able to bring both good luck and protection. If someone feels their life and health are at risk the may seek out magic tattoo artists, a practice especially popular among both soldiers and kickboxers.

While snagging yourself some magic ink may sound appealing, just remember that each one generally comes with a set of rules which, if broken, can decrease or eliminate its power. Common rules include abstaining from alcohol, avoiding bridges, and of course promising not to use its power for evil.

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After narrowly escaping Cambodia you stop over in Thailand, where you sit around on oxen sipping Ovaltine with your friends Bank, Letter, Ping Pong, and Apple. As your colleagues Fork and Spoon approach, you turn to them wondering if it’s all just a fever dream—only to finally learn those aren’t their real names at all (no way!).

It was once a frequently held belief in Thai-Buddhist culture that calling a child by their given name made them an easy target for evil spirits. While these spirits could be powerful they apparently held the IQ of a potato, because not knowing a kid’s real name was enough to utterly confuse them while kids with boring or unflattering names were simply overlooked.

While most Thai people still use nicknames, they are often more playful or creative in the younger generations. Still, don’t be surprised if Thai locals insist on giving you a new name “for your own protection”.

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Laos people aren’t all that concerned about personal space—it isn’t uncommon for someone you’ve just met to pet your arms or shoulders, while complete strangers see no reason not to lean up against you at the market or on the bus. Yet, strange as it seems, they do indeed have a personal bubble—it just only encompasses their feet. While the head is outright holy, the feet are considered dirty. No matter how often you scrub your tootsies, they will always be seen as offensive to the point that so much as pointing at someone with your feet—let alone touching them—is incredibly rude. However, keeping track of your feet is also practiced for your own protection—if you happen to step over the legs of someone older than you, you’ll be cursed with bad luck for the foreseeable future.

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Superstitions are generally beliefs held-over from a time when faith in the supernatural was commonplace, with many dating back thousands of years. Superstitions in Korea are no exception, with their most common conjecture dating all the way back to the 1920’s.

Wait, what? How could the same decade that blessed us with both penicillin and PEZ also have let loose a new and dangerous mystical power into the world? Indeed, a demon was unleashed: The Electric Fan.

“Fan Death” is considered a true threat in South Korea, as locals believe sleeping with your fan or AC on can lead to sudden and inexplicable asphyxiation. Most fans are equipped with a timed, automatic shut-off in case you doze off with your death machine running. Korean adrenaline-junkies know no greater rush than sleeping at a comfortable temperature on a hot night, cheating the Reaper even in their sleep.

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Okay, so you’ve dismantled your air conditioner, invested in a full-body tattoo, changed your name, and aced your exam on foot etiquette, but you’re still feeling unlucky; fear not, my friend. A quick trip to your local Thai food market can offer a quick solution.

Oftentimes you’ll find buckets of turtles tucked away in the fish markets, which many horrified travelers assume will be eaten. If your hippie-heart is aching to rescue one of those cuties and grant him glorious freedom at the nearest riverbank, then consider your bad-luck woes a thing of the past!

It turns out the Thai people aren’t heartless turtle-murderers at all—caring for a turtle and setting it free is said to bring good luck and longevity. By collecting those unintentionally caught in fishing nets merchants can basically sell luck to their customers—but with so many strange and unexpected superstitions out there, it may be worth the price!

– Ashley

#TRAVEL – Laos: Alluring Luang Prabang

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In 2014, an old man selling books on the side of the road in Bangkok tried pitching me a tattered guide to Laos by telling me of his time spent working in Luang Prabang. Intrigued by the notion of a city reputed to have greater rustic appeal than much of the Asian countryside, I found myself booking a flight to Laos just a few weeks later.

After a nerve-racking flight in a prop plane, I arrived late morning as countless monks were retreating from collecting daily alms. I checked into my hostel and crashed, waking up just in time to get a taste of city’s nightlife.

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Confession time: I’ve been to way more than my fair share of bars throughout Asia. Naturally, each creates its own distinct atmosphere, but Utopia in Luang Prabang has by far the most relaxing and chill vibes of any I’ve been to. Utopia is an open-air bar overlooking the Nam Khan River, filled with shin-high, candlelit tables surrounded by stacks of pillows. During the day they offer yoga and volleyball, while at night you can enjoy great food, drinks, music and shisha pipes, or startup a friendly board game tournament with fellow expats—believe me, Giant Jenga is harder than it looks!

Of course, Utopia closes at the town’s 11:30 PM curfew so you can always call it a night and get an early start in the AM. For those brave expats willing to break curfew there is one place open for another three hours—a 16-lane bowling alley. A parade of tuktuks begin carting off truckloads of travellers from every bar to a venue that in all honesty is a fairly run-down barebones bowling alley…not so much as a poster on the wall. However, when the crowds from different bars and hostels begin mixing it turns into a party every night, showing how it’s often the people and not the place that matters.

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4 Kuang Xi Cascade

Naturally, there’s much more to Luang Prabang than bars and bowling. One of the biggest tourist draws are the Kuang Xi Waterfalls, and for good reason.

The falls themselves are breathtaking, with tier after tier of warm, deep pools perfect for swimming and vast enough as not to be crowded. The largest fall is over 60m high—the climb to the top is indeed difficult and the trails are extremely steep and slick, but once you’ve reached the top you won’t regret it. Standing at the edge of a 200ft drop as the water rushes round your ankles tugging you forward is just as terrifying as it is exhilarating, finding yourself transfixed by the turquoise expanse below you.

5 Haw Pha Bang

If you’re looking for a bit of Laos culture, the Night Market in Luang Prabang is a great place to start. Beginning around 5:00 each evening, the market consists of a huge, horseshoe-shaped setup of tented stalls on a kilometer-long stretch of road. Here, you can peruse literally thousands of handicrafts, clothing, and souvenirs, sample whiskey and wine, and watch artists at work. One of their most famous products are paper lanterns filled with pressed flowers, adding a unique ambiance. The crowd and crafters themselves are much more mellow than many of the hectic, bustling markets one usually encounters, with no one hawking their goods or aggressively haggling and competing.

In a city brimming with temples, choosing where to start can be difficult, especially if pressed for time. However, some are not to be missed:

Wat Haw Pha Bang is located on the palace grounds, housing a 14th-century Buddha statue covered in gold leaf. Of course, the palace itself is beautiful—containing everything from the Crown Jewels of Laos to a piece of moon rock, it also functions as a haphazard museum.

Wat Chomphet is a small, tidy building that more resembles an old prairie house than a temple, yet it need not be flashy to be impressive. Most memorable is the experience of arriving via a 123-step staircase near the edge of town, a climb more than worth the view.

Wat Pa Phon Phae is a great stop for those feeling burnt out with the similarities between temples—its distinctive form is reminiscent of adobe-style architecture and it is filled with elaborate murals.

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1 Kuang Xi B

Luang Prabang can easily be overlooked on the backpacker route, yet its diverse historical, urban, and natural landscapes allow it to appeal to the most colorful of crowds.

 

– Ashley