Thailand - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 266 (76)

Train to Surta Thani

Monday 29th November

Our life on the road, such as it now is, can be full of very last minute surprises. We never really know where we are going to be tomorrow until today. True, we do have a rough itinerary of air route and we know approximately which country we will be in at any given season but we’re usually quite lucky to know several days in advance exactly where we will be in several days' time. Sometimes, such as today, the plans can change so radically and so swiftly that we can be strolling down the street at one moment, with not a care in the world, and then next thing we know, we’ve arranged to travel half way across the continent with the tickets already in our hands – but more of that in a moment.

I can’t remember if it was yesterday or the day before that I was writing about how I had made a miscalculation with our finances with the result being that I had to shave a few slices from some of our different budgets that I keep track of, in order to prevent us from running out of money before the end of the trip. The one big pot of funds that we have to keep us going has been sliced into individual budgets such as a daily allowance for each country (to pay for food, lodging, local transportation and so on), internal flights we may need to buy as and when the need arises, diving expenses that we expect to incur in many of the countries we are visiting, as well as a luxury budget per country, which we use to pay for big ticket items, souvenirs and the occasional pampering that we afford ourselves from time to time. The trip itself was never in any danger but cutting money from these other budgets also cuts down on the amount of flexibility and fun that we can allow ourselves. I went to bed last night with this very much on the back of my mind. I kept churning it over but couldn’t reconcile how I could be out by several thousand Euros with such a large gap now having formed in our budget after several months on the road already. I dreamt about this and at some point in the wee hours, it suddenly hit me. I awoke, sat up and dragged the laptop onto my lap. Since the last thing I do each night before nodding off is write up my daily journal of events, the laptop is never very far away and this time it was leaning against the head of the bed behind me. I opened it up and pulled open my budget spreadsheet to see if I could verify the epiphany that had just hit me. Sure enough, I found the error. In fact, we are not anywhere near running out of money after all – not yet at least. I found the original error that I made but the problem was that I compounded this original error by correcting for the mistake in the wrong direction. Yesterday, I had shaved quite a few chunks off of our diving, flights and luxury budgets and still I was predicting that we would be very close to running out of money before the end of the trip. Now, having finally figured out exactly where I was making the mistakes, I’ve been able to re-pad those budgets and even allow a more generous daily allowance for Australasia and Oceania as well as leaving a generous margin of funds to come back home to. Before we set out on this mission to see the world, I made doubly sure that we had a very generous budget so that we would have the flexibility to fully enjoy the trip without money having to be an issue. Over the past couple of days, I’ve felt slightly uneasy with the thought that this flexibility was no longer there but now I feel much more comfortable knowing that my original plan is still very much in place after all.

Even though I was able to complete the remainder of my sleep cycle without any more financial concerns, we were both struggling to finish off our full eight hours of slumber because of the irritating banging of some workmen that we using sledge hammers to demolish the building that buts up to ours. It sounded like they were deconstructing the building by knocking out each and every individual brick one by one and by around seven in the morning, they had reached the section of the wall they were working on that was immediately behind our headboard. I can tolerate a very high level of noise when I’m sleeping but Sandy has a lower threshold and was unable to sleep much more after this din started and continued unabated. By sometime between eight and nine, she had had her fill and was up and about. Naturally, then, it wasn't long before I had to get up too.

For breakfast, we went over to the same restaurant where we ate at last night. Sandy was sure that she recognised the name of the Dutch owner of this restaurant and after a bit of research on the Internet, she confirmed that this Fritz Mulder is the one and same Dutch broadcaster that she had heard of before. It really is a small world. At breakfast, I broached the subject and Fritz and this rather friendly and mild mannered man confirmed what Sandy had suspected all along.

Breakfast was just as enjoyable as the dinner we ate at ‘Fritz Restaurant and Bar’ last night. We had mentioned to the proprietor that we were still debating whether or not we should fly back to Thailand or take the bus down to the coast for a couple of days and re-enter Thailand from the coastal border near Koh Kong. I quite fancied the idea of seeing a bit more of Cambodia but whichever way we looked at it, it would mean several more lengthy bus journeys and neither of us are really happy with that idea. Fritz had suggested that we visit a nearby travel agent that also happened to be run by a Dutchman so off we trundled to try to find it. A ten-minute leisurely stroll down the picturesque riverfront area later and we found the travel agent in question. The staff there were very friendly and helpful and were able to lay out all of our options. Just out of curiosity, I also asked about the possibility of flying back to Thailand. With the angst of a very much tighter budget now having been lifted from my mind, I was less worried about the costs involved. A direct flight from Phnom Penh to Bangkok would set us back $110 (€84,61) each with the additional burden of the rather pricey $25 (€19,23) departure tax each. This would be slightly higher than the cost of getting to Siem Reap from Bangkok so we decided to think it over a bit first. There were three flights a day to Bangkok and the first was already fully booked so whatever we were going to decide, it needed to be done quickly. We thanked the travel agent for his advice and told him we’d think it over. We walked outside for all of two minutes before making the on-the-spot decision to not only take the flight back to Bangkok but to take this afternoon’s flight specifically. A few minutes later, we had booked the flight and were heading back to our hotel to pack and check out. Talk about making a quick and last minute travelling decision! One moment I was all set for another day of sight-seeing here in Cambodia with the possibility of moving on to see some more of the country; the next minute we were packing and getting ready to fly out of the country altogether. After changing up some more travellers’ checks, I paid for the tickets and we checked out of our guest-house. Although it was now gone one o’clock in the afternoon, our guest-house proprietor only charged us for two night’s stay instead of the three we should have paid for not checking out before noon. The total bill for the two nights in the very comfortable Bright Lotus guest-house was $28 (€21,54).

I arranged for a tuk-tuk driver to drive us back and forth between the guest-house and the travel agent as well as for the twenty-minute or so ride out to the airport. We negotiated a $2 (€1,54) fee for all of this and even thought this wasn't very much, I still think this was probably over the going rate for the distances involved. We trundled along towards the airport in the heat of the day with our feet up and just absorbing Phnom Penh as it glided by. Life was good and everything seemed to be going our way.

In the end, we spent just two days and nights here in the nation’s capital. Phnom Penh is not a particularly big city with just about one million residents and a scattering of interesting sites. We didn’t get to see everything that there is to see but we knocked off those things that I specifically came here to see nevertheless. It was a shame, however, that we didn’t get to see any of those blatant fast food franchise rip-offs. Apparently, the fast food junky can eat to his or her heart’s content at such establishments as Pizza Hot, Burger Queen and my personal favourite: KFC (Khmer Fried Chicken).

Cambodia is a very poor country with emerging infrastructure and people living a subsistence way of life. Anyone wandering through Phnom Penh’s international airport, however, would have no way of knowing this. The inside of the very small yet quite modern international airport looks just like that of any developed country of your choice. The prices in the shops and restaurants inside the terminal building are on a par with other Western airports too.

Bangkok Airways does have a very comfortable waiting lounge for its flying guests and there are several complimentary Internet terminals there that are free of charge. I took advantage of this generosity and sent an e-mail to Sea Dragon down in Kao Lak to see if we could book ourselves onto the Surin Islands live-aboard three-day/three-night diving trip. It is our plan to fly into Bangkok, go straight to the train station, catch the next overnight sleeper down to Surat Thani and then book passage on a minivan over to Khao Lak. By the time we get there, we should have about three days before the Surin Islands boat departs. It would put a bit of a damper on things if we got there only to learn that there were no more berths available on the departing boat so I will be on tenterhooks until we get word back from them that we are confirmed passengers. Whilst e-mailing, I received a message from one of the German passengers from our previous live-aboard. They are now back in Germany where she tells me that it is freezing cold and she has had to go back to work. I told her I was no longer familiar with the ‘W’ word since I’ve not had to use it is so long. We exchanged a couple of e-mails whilst we were waiting to board our flight and I had fun teasing her about the fact that we were still on holiday whilst they were back home, freezing and working hard for a living again.

Our boarding call sounded and we boarded what looked like a brand new Boeing jet aircraft. We were airborne and back down on the tarmac at Bangkok again before we knew what hit us. Our little jaunt over to Cambodia was now formerly at an end. We never did get a chance to use our Laos visas so we’ll just have to come back to Asia again at some point in the future.

Upon deplaning at Bangkok, the thirty-degree Celsius air was the first thing to hit us. It made me feel like we had once again arrived at a new place in a hot climate and the feeling that we had just started our holiday once again came over me. Life is good.

We passed swiftly through all the usual airport arrival procedures and received another thirty-day allowance of time stamped into our passports. With our backpacks and our trolley, we navigated the minefield of uniformed taxi touts all aiming directly at us and made a beeline for the airport bus stand just outside the main terminal building. For just 100B (€1,92) each, the bus would take us pretty much directly to the train station for several hundred Baht less than the expensive taxis they were all trying to sell us. With our bus tickets safely in hand, we went back into the terminal building to grab a bite to eat before the next bus arrived.

Although we travelled slowly through the rush-hour traffic, a drunken Indian passenger kept us and another couple of travelling Brits entertained with his goody attempts to stand up and talk. From what we could gather, he was a lawyer and had just come back from Myanmar, where they apparently like a bit of a tipple. I felt certain that we would be able to book passage on at least one of the nightly departures from Bangkok’s central train station even though the bus did pull in later than I had hoped. It was just gone seven-twenty by the time we reached the ticket window but by this time, the very last train of the evening that had a sleeper carriage had only just departed. Oddly enough, there were a couple more trains due to depart for down South later on this evening but none of them had a sleeper carriage and we would have to content ourselves with a reclining chair instead. Fortunately, there were at least plenty of seats on the next train out, even though we would have to wait another couple of hours before we could board it. Our train departed on time at five minutes to eleven with an anticipated arrival time of eight a.m. in Surat Thani. My only concern now was the transfer from Surat Thani over to Khao Lak. The minivans usually leave quite early in the morning for these cross-country runs so it was anyone’s guess as to whether or not we would make the connection in time.

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