The room was extremely comfortable and the service pleasant. Yet I was not able to sleep properly. I was quite tense. The disappointment at the Vietnam border kept playing on my mind. I kept on mulling options in case I was refused entry into Cambodia with the car. I knew that the Laos border would not present any problems. Many reports on the Net talked about all around corruption at the border posts. Would I be able to handle that? There weren’t any reports about driving a personal car, from other than the neighbouring countries, into Cambodia. Therefore, the documents required to be presented to Immigration and Customs to get the car in were not known. Despite the Cambodian Embassy in New Delhi confirming that the Carnet alone would suffice, I was apprehensive. The Vietnam Embassy in New Delhi had given similar advice with disappointing results. These thoughts as well as the fact that the schedule would go completely off sync with financial implications, due to pre-booked hotels, kept building up the tension. After midnight sleep completely deserted me. I had nothing much to do too and an idle mind is a devil’s workshop, I experienced. The tensions only built up more. Finally, I had a bath at 3am, to ‘kill’ the situation. And then, I slept for a couple of hours!
I had scheduled to stay this day at Stung Treng, on the Cambodian side of the border. The drive was less than 230 km. I deliberately chose the location for two reasons; I did not know how much time it would take at the borders and the roads in Cambodia was another unknown element. Considering that the borders would be freer if I reached there close to 10 am, once the morning rush had been dealt with, I checked out of the hotel after 6.30 am. The road condition was quite good and the traffic on the road was sparse. I reached the Lao PDR border much earlier than anticipated at a quarter to 9 am; it took me only 2 hours of relaxed driving from Pakse. When I was getting the Immigration formalities done on the Laos side I observed the Cambodian border post with trepidation. What hurdles lay across that? After stamping my passport the immigration official asked if I would give him $2! I said I would complete the Customs formality of stamping the Carnet and get back to him. After the Customs officer had stamped the Carnet he too asked for $2, which seemed to be standard fare. When I gave him Lao Kip, he gave me change after keep the equivalent of $2; so much for honesty. I walked back to Immigration and satisfied his request too.
I passed through the Lao PDR border post wondering if I would have to return as I had to do in Tay Trang, Vietnam. The quarantine officials on the Cambodian side asked me to park the car at a designated spot and go to the Customs first to check if they would permit my car through. Palpitation increased and my legs felt leaden. I took the Carnet, supporting documents and passport to the Customs booth about 300 metres away. Those 300 meters felt like 3 km; my mouth went dry and I walked very slowly. A young boy manned the Customs counter and he looked at the Carnet and didn’t know what to do with it. That was additional reinforcement of the Vietnam border experience. He got up after a while and approached a senior person who was talking on his mobile animatedly. He looked to be in a jovial mood; all such details are accounted for by the brain in such tense situations. He took the Carnet and, still talking on the phone, affixed rubber stamps on the Carnet and put his signature on it. I was surprised that he had not asked for either the registration certificate or the International Driving Permit. He only asked to see my passport and took down what looked like the visa details. Later I realised that he had taken down my US Visa details! All this happened in less than 5 minutes.
I was so relieved when I walked to the Immigration counter, where I got the visa stamped. The immigration official asked for $2 and he accepted $1 when I said that that was all I had. When I was at the immigration counter I saw a chap from the quarantine department spraying the wheels of the car. As soon as I was finished with the immigration I was summoned to the quarantine booth where I was given a certificate for their work and was asked $3. I gave them 20,000 LK I had on me ($2.5), the last of the Lao Kip. With that all formalities for entry into Cambodia had been completed – both borders detained me for a total of only 30 minutes. That was swift work. As I was about to leave the booth an elderly gentleman asked where I came from. His eyes lit up when I mentioned India. He said he had worked with the Archaeological Survey of India in New Delhi for many months when the Indian Government was involved in the restoration of a few temples in Angkor Wat. He is currently the Chief Guide of the complex.
I had less than 60 km to get to Stung Treng, where I was to halt. I started calculating if I could drive through to Siem Reap, another 300 km, instead of staying in the one horse town. I briefly abandoned the idea when I encountered rank bad roads more than half way to Stung Treng. I located a hotel on the highway and checked if I could stay there. They were fully booked except for the VIP room that was available for $40. It was only 10.30 am and I decided to take the chance and left for Siem Reap. The road condition turned out to be quite good and I hit the outskirts of Siem Reap by 1.30 pm. And then, Google Maps took me on a wild goose chase in search of roads that did not exist. After a while I got a bit desperate because the roads got very rough, there was no one in sight and fuel was running low. After about 30 minutes or so I saw a house in the middle of nowhere. I drove to it and got directions to get back on the main road.
As I was in the city I was waved down by what looked like the Police and the Military. The young man in military uniform asked to see my papers. When I showed him the Carnet he was immediately convinced that I was in the country with the car legally. He did not want to see anything further but he had a few queries. He wanted to know what work I was engaged in back home, the purpose of my visit to Cambodia and why I was travelling alone. He was convinced about my responses to the first two and he himself supplied an answer to the third, “Lady, yah?” I told him that I have come looking for a companion in Cambodia! To this he said, “Don’t waste your time here, friend. They are not good”!
I got to the Royal Crown Hotel without any hassle and requested the reception for a room. I had booking at the hotel from the 1 April. I had reached a day early. They complied soon and I was shown to my comfortable room by the Bin Barang who was in charge of guest relations at the time. He suggested a relaxing massage at the hotel, which I booked. The young lady suggested that I take the massage in the room without any additional charges, which I agreed to. Barang suggested what I could do in the next two days and places where I could sample local cuisine in the vicinity of the hotel.
It was hot and the ideal weather that would dry clothes quickly. I had quite a bit of laundry to do and got through it while having a couple of cups of coffee. I was hungry since I had not had anything other than biscuits, dates and plenty of water on the drive from Pakse to Siem Reap, where I had reached at 3 pm. By the time I was done with the laundry the masseuse arrived with the towels and oil. Over the next one hour she worked to untangle the knots and tensions. The Khmer massage is different from the Thai one; the former is softer and does not use as much pressure as the latter.
By the time the massage was over I could not contain the hunger. After a shower I walked across to the Khmer Charming Restaurant and ordered the special food of the day which consisted of mango salad, noodles and pork, sticky rice and mango and orange juice. But Angkor Beer had to start things off, naturally. As I was leaving the hotel for the restaurant I requested the reception to change USD into local currency for me. When I mentioned that it was to pay for the food they told me that USD was widely accepted almost everywhere, especially in hotels and restaurants where the tariff and rate cards are in USD! I found it so in the Khmer Charming Restaurant, where the change was returned in a mix of USD and local currency.
As I was walking back to the hotel I found a Total gas station where cars were being serviced. I had done close to 9500 km and thought it would be a good idea to service the car as I had an extra day. I walked in and booked a slot for 7 am. Since I had all the oils and replacement spares I was told that all I needed to pay was $5 to the mechanic for the servicing! The servicing would be completed in an hour, he confirmed. That was a lovely end to a wonderful day, which had begun with plenty of tensions.