Wednesday, August 5, 2015
Our guide and driver arrived at 6:30 AM to escort us to the airport. We were going to the Chiang Rai airport, which was a new destination for us, as we had come to the area overland. The fine people at Anantara Resort packed a boxed breakfast of fruits and pastries for us so we wouldn't starve during the hourlong drive to the airport. We ate our pastries, napped and enjoyed the scenery. Greg had to make a pit stop along the way, and our guides knew the perfect gas station with a bay of toilets in a detached building along the back side. It was no Buc-ee's, but it got the job done.
The international airport at Chiang Rai is small and tidy. We strolled right up to the check-in; there was no line. The Bangkok Airways representative looked harder at our paperwork than anyone else has so far. She pointed out a “problem.” She noted the August 4 date stamp on our passports, and today is August 5. She intimated that we had overstayed our alloted time in Thailand. (Tourists get 30 days without a visa for visiting.) I was proud of myself because I actually understood where she was going wrong. I pointed out that the date she was looking at was actually the Thailand exit date stamp that we received yesterday when we crossed into Myanmar. When we crossed back into Thailand, we got new entry stamps. For the land crossing, we got another 30 days (starting yesterday) so we were well within the allotted time. It always makes me a little nervous at these entry and exit points. It's good to be on vacation, but it's good to be able to go home too! After she took a second look, she agreed with me, gave us our boarding passes and sent us on our merry way.
We were even able to get all our Thai exit immigration paperwork done at this airport so that when we land in Bangkok, we would simply have to make our connection and go onward to Siem Reap in Cambodia. They put a blue sticker on our shirts so that we would be clearly identified as having passed through immigration and thus get sent to the right place at Bangkok's monstrous airport.
Our flight left on time and we said goodbye to northern Thailand. We enjoyed our stay there but were looking forward to seeing Cambodia. Bangkok Airways is very efficient. In terms of their airplane fleet, think Southwest Air. In terms of their service, it's much, much more. On the hour long flight, they served us a meal, water, coffee, tea, juice, with a moist towelette for before and after the meal. It was very civilized.
We had a three hour layover in Bangkok so we found a little pub to have a snack and a beer while we waited. Perhaps we were addled or sleep deprived, but it took us a little while to figure out how to find the entrance to our gate. There are various concourses, and we found the right one. The concourse had levels, and we got on the wrong one. We could see our gate but could not figure out where the entrance was. Eventually we figured out that we had to go up a level and back through another set of metal detectors and x-rays to be able to enter the gate. We lost another water bottle in that transaction.
The plane to Siem Reap was even smaller, with two seats on either side of an aisle. They served us yet another meal on a one hour flight. My diet is shot to hell, but I will worry about that tomorrow. Thailand is not the place to try to live a low-carb lifestyle. Noodles and rice are the mainstays of the day.
Cambodia requires a visa, and we had gone to a lot of trouble to get evisas online before our arrival so we could avoid the “visa on entry” line. There were plenty of agents on duty, and it did not take long for our turn to arrive. They required each of us, even Genene, to approach the counter separately. I went first. My evisa worked perfectly, and I was on the other side in no time flat. The baggage carousel was already turning, so I ran over and started looking for our bags. I wrestled all three of them off and was so proud of myself. Then I turned and looked across the room and noticed that Genene and Greg had not been permitted to pass to my side. I had to roll the three bags back across the hallway. It's hard to roll three bags and carry a backpack and a purse. I got as close as I could, but Greg was too far away to be able to speak to me. By his gestures, I understood that Genene was being required to get a visa. The forms clearly state that children under 12 are not required to have a separate visa and may travel under one parent's visa. We had put Genene under Greg's evisa, but apparently the immigration official was having none of it. Genene told me later that he just kept repeating “no visa, no visa.” It scared Genene because there she stood by herself with the immigration official, whose English was apparently limited to the words “no visa.” Greg came up to the counter and got nowhere when he told them she was 11. We had another problem. I had gone through the immigration area with Greg's backpack because he was gallantly carrying my much heavier backpack, filled with camera gear. That meant that I had his cell phone, the extra passport photos, and most of the money on me. He had a nice big bag full of camera gear and diarrhea medicine. The immigration officials turned a blind eye while we leaned way out and stretched our arms across the barrier. I handed Greg some money and his cell phone. It was a nuisance and a time waster, and it cost us $2 to get Genene a separate visa.
By the time Greg completed Genene's visa paperwork, the line was virtually non-existent, so we really lost only a few minutes. Once Genene had the paper visa, she was waived through immediately. They accepted Greg's evisa for his entry. It was more unnerving than anything. Genene told me that it had frightened her because the immigration official had her separated from me and from Greg, and she said his command of English was pretty rudimentary. It wasn't the smooth start we had hoped for, and it was more annoying because we had done our homework in advance and still ended up in the “visa on entry” line.
The airport was fairly small, and as soon as we went out the door into the bright sunlight and wet heat, we saw our guide Borin. He introduced himself, smiled broadly and said, “Thank you for coming to my country. You are giving me a job for a few days, and I am very happy. This is the beginning of the rainy season, and my work is not as busy.” We felt better immediately. We told him the problem we had experienced, and he said, “The immigration officials just want more money.” He also theorized that Genene is very tall for her age, and perhaps the man at the counter simply did not believe she was 11. He could have done the math. Her birthday is on her passport.
On the 20 minute trip into the city, Borin told us a bit about the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge and its brutal leader Pol Pot and the “genocide” (his word) that occurred from 1976 to 1979 in his country. Over 3 million people were killed. After Pol Pot had to retreat into the countryside in 1979, civil war ensued. Orderly government was not restored until his death in 1998. Cambodia is nominally a kingdom, but real power rests with the prime minister, a member of the Cambodia People's Party who has been in office since an “election” many years ago. The youth of Cambodia believe this prime minister has too much power and that new elections need to be held. The future is uncertain, but for now, the country appears to be stable.
We got to our hotel, the Shinta Mani, in the heart of Siem Reap. We were greeted the moment we hopped out of the van and handed cold, moist, fragrant towels. The manager said, “This will be your home while you are here in Siem Reap. Welcome home!” Every person from the bellboy to the manager to the housekeeper greeted us with hands clasped together at their faces as if in prayer. Heads were bowed, and the traditional Khmer greeting–which sounds like “joam reeb sue”–was given. We felt like royalty. We had practiced the greeting on the airplane and returned it, to their obvious delight. Learning a simple greeting in the language pays such awesome dividends. Genene has an excellent memory, and we can depend upon her to lead the way and remind us of basic words, such as hello, thank you, and please.
We unpacked our bags and rested for a few minutes. Tonight we were in for a special treat. My law partner, Taylor Goodall, married a very fine lady back in February. His wife Mariana de Barran is Mexican, and their wedding was a blow-out, all-night party in San Miguel de Allende. I remember some of the evening, which included a LOT of champagne and a dance party with a midget! Why am I telling you this? Because at the wedding, we had the excellent fortune to meet the bride's parents and became instant friends. They were quite busy with the wedding, of course, but we learned that they like world travel as we do. We kept in touch through Facebook and learned that they were taking an Asian vacation at the same time we were. We compared itineraries and found that we would in Siem Reap on the same evening. What a fabulous coincidence. We had to have dinner together!
We met Leopoldo and Amparo at the Foreign Correspondents Club, a nearby restaurant. It was a wonderful evening. We talked about Taylor and what a hot mess he is (my words; they would never talk about their son-in-law in that way, but they may have smiled when I did). We talked about their beautiful daughter Mariana. We talked about past trips and travels to come. It was magical.
As we sat there enjoying the evening, the French family we met at Thai Elephant Home last week came into the restaurant and sat down at the next table! The city of Siem Reap has a population of 170,000. According to Trip Advisor, there are 583 place to eat there. What are the chances we would run into our Thai Elephant Home friends? What was it that Rick said in “Casablanca”? “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” We waved to them, and at first you could see their confusion as they tried to place us. After all, we were reasonably clean and not wearing a mahout uniform. We exchanged greetings and discussed where we had been and where we were going.
Both our bellies and hearts were full. We had enjoyed a great evening with fellow travelers. We said goodbye to Amparo and Polo and watched them climb into a tuk-tuk and motor away. They are going to Angkor Wat at sunrise tomorrow and then will head Kuala Lumpur. We will stay in Siem Reap a bit longer and take in several temples. Hand in hand in hand, we strolled back to our hotel.