Bidding a rushed farewell to my parens and sister, we left Phuket Town on a bus bound for Kao Sok National Park.
The journey was set to take four hours yet was costing us less than the 20 minute Taxi ride from “The Billet” to the Bus station.
I can solemnly declare that I wish the Phuket transport mafia all the ill will in the world and hope to hear soon that they have joined Luca Brasi in sleeping with the fishes.
With our Kao Sok accommodation coming in at £10 per night, we were once again in backpackerland and even though the weather in the hills had deteriorated into a persistent drizzle, I was happy.
Pushed for time, we didn’t get to see a great deal of the park, but managed to fit in a canoeing trip which wound its way downstream between soaring limestone peaks and steep canyon walls.
Of course, “The Boy” was true to tradition and slept for most of the journey, but this was his loss as he didn’t get to watch the kingfisher that would time and time again wait for us to catch up before darting off in a flash of brilliant blue as if charting a course for us downstream.
Actually, we almost didn’t make the journey at all.
Just as we had unloaded the canoe from our pick up truck and with the vehicle engaged in a 3-point turn on a blind bend as we stood at roadside, a truck came hurtling towards it, horn blasting whilst the female proprietor screamed a desperate warning at the driver.
The driver slammed on his brakes as the oncoming vehicle swerved around him, with the outcome that the pair missed colliding by no more than a couple of feet and we were saved a high-budget hollywood ending to our trip.
Thankfully, only in my imagination did the pick-up roll, bounce and tailspin down the embankment before exploding into a raging ball of petrol fuelled flame.
It really was close though.
Following our river trip (which was a far more serene affair), we then had an eventful and sleepless 24 hours as we dashed all the way around the bay of Thailand in under a day via a combination of minibus, tuk-tuk, taxi, and two long-distance buses.
I’m still annoyed about getting scammed £20 in the horrid town of Surat Thani where our plans to get an overnight sleeper train were thwarted and then overpaying for VIP bus tickets on a departure that didn’t exist, I almost ending up in a brawl as I held the culprits mobile phone as collateral whilst trying to get our money back.
L story S, fight avoided, but my cynicism is now back on full alert;
Trust no one, not even small children with big, toothy smiles.
After resting up in the surprisingly atmospheric Thai town of Trat and getting back on budget track via a £4 room, it was to be onward to Cambodia the next day.
Forearmed with knowledge that the Cham Yeam border staff were renowned for being corrupt, but also steeled with a determination not to be scammed again, we were strapped in for a car crash with officialdom.
On passing through Thai immigration (I’ve always thought it should be emigration on the way out, right?), we crossed the dusty expanse of no-mans land flanked on our right by the Gulf of Thailand and on the left by a steep wooded hillside.
As we paced towards the Cambodian side we were immediately besieged by porters, “assistants” and assorted helpers all looking to make a quick buck or ten from a naïve and stressed Westerner.
Politely declining all offers of help and cynically double-checking our every move, we agreed to enter the office for issuing visas.
The senior desk hand was an officious looking woman who peered from beneath a pair of thin-rimmed spectacles as if calculating our net worth before making her opening gambit in Thai Baht of 1200 per visa.
That was quite a compliment I felt.
The quoted fee equated to a massive 100% mark up on the actual Cambodian Government rate of $20 USD, but from her stern gaze, she wasn’t one for budging and would insist on that being the correct price.
After four months on the road we must still look relatively affluent. Either that, or we looked like a pair of dumb suckers.
My first move;
The Rough Guide to Cambodia, August 2011 edition, page 289, boxed section on “Border Scams”.
“Look, it says here that you would try and charge me more”
Her play “Guidebook old”.
My return “Guidebook new, guidebook say $20 or me speak to Ministry of Tourism and take name of you”
Her counter agrument “Old information, today price 1200 Baht”
Me, pulling out my iphone screen shot “No, information new. Internet yesterday say $20. Today price same, same, about 600 Thai Baht”
Her “OK, OK today 1000 Baht for you”
Me, scrolling to the next screenshot of The Cambodian Ministry of Tourism site “No. $20 correct price today”
Her “700 Baht”
Me “Visa always dollars”
Her “OK $20 each, quick, quick”
Ten minutes later and after our passports had been inspected by one official, the photos collected and cropped by another, the Visa sticker peeled and adhered by yet another, and $60 USD in cash counted by a man with lots of badges and stripes, Mrs Corruption checked our visas for accuracy and then passed them back to us.
That was around about £40 they had attempted to cheat us out of, and you know what? As we waited for our biometrics to be completed at the next window, we realised we were the only tourists who had questioned the rates and been willing to stand our ground.
I suspect that many visitors don’t want the authorities looking too much into their reasons for visiting the country, this area in particular being infamous for paedophilia.
Everyone appeared to be handing over 1200 Baht to a middle man who would then assist them in filling in the simple, English language forms, before handing the money and passports through the window of the office within which we had been negotiating firmly twenty minutes earlier.
In the thirty or so minutes it took us to complete the formalities, I reckon on them having scammed perhaps ten people at £12 a pop, so that’s a cool £120 in half an hour to supplement the salaries of a privileged few bent officials in a country where the average salary is approximately £400 a year.
Welcome to what we used to call The Third World.