Monday, October 4, 2004

Pattaya to Bangkok to Cambodia by Bus

This is a multi-part article with photos about a trip taken in early October 2004. Things are changing FAST in both Cambodia and Thailand so be prepared for the unexpected!


  • Do not try to repeat this trip in a single day as night time travel on Cambodian roads is extremely dangerous and this trip requires at least 4 hours of pitch black night time travel. I only did it to see if it could be done but will never try to repeat this stunt again!
  • This trip took me exactly 15 ½ hours. 2 hours from Pattaya to Bangkok (90 baht). 4 hours from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet (164 baht) and the Cambodian border town of Poi Pet. Most of the remaining journey was at night.
  • Visa issues are always a problem. Make sure if you plan on staying in Cambodia for either business, teaching or just to stay longer than 30 days, you arrive with at least a 30 day, MULTIPLE ENTRY business visa. If you come in with a tourist visa you will have to leave the country and re-enter on a business visa. Border visas are always more that those issued at the embassy. Also make sure you request and get a multiple-entry as once you leave, you will not be allowed to re-enter the country. In the past all business visas were stamped “multiple-entry” but this has now changed. As of this mid-October 2004 what appears to be in place is multiple-entry business visas are only issued for 6 months or longer. On November 2nd, a 6-month, multiple entry business visa from Lucky!Lucky! Motorbikes on Monivong in Phnom Penh was $148. 3 months are available for around $70 but in reality are only a "single exit" as you can't get back into the country with it if it is issued in Cambodia.
  • Thai immigration posts seem to change their operation hours frequently. During this trip in early October 2004 they were closing at 5PM, compared to 8PM only a few months earlier. What is bizarre about this is that the Cambodian side is still open to 8PM!
  • Travel over both Thai and Cambodian roads are filled with far more checkpoints, both military and police or both, than ever before. Expect police and military to board your bus and ask for identity documents.
  • Be extremely careful about the money you take on the trip to use or the change you receive. You will have a difficult if not impossible time of exchanging US $100 bills with a date of 1996. You will also have difficulty in exchanging the older, smaller “faced” bills of any domination. Even Thai 1,000 Baht are suspect and often scrutinized. On several occasions I was informed this was because of the “Russians”, of which there is a large community in the Pattaya area.
  • There are many spellings for Thai words in English. Personally I have counted no less than 5 different English spellings on signs leading to Bangkok’s present International Airport, “Don Maung”. Words like Ekkamai can also be Ekamai. Sometimes they are separate, sometimes together such as Morchit/Mo Chit/Mor Chit, Aranya Prathet or Aranyaprathet.

Pattaya to Bangkok - First Leg

I awoke a bit before sunrise at the Diana Golf Resort just across from Pattaya Nua’s (North Road) "Pattaya to Bangkok Air-Conditioned Bus Station". Having used this hotel for many years as my base for adventures around Southeast Asia, today’s sunrise and brewing southern thunderstorms appeared to look like this journey might be another exciting one.

Gathering up my few things, I checked out and strolled across the small field separating the hotel from Pattaya’s north road and the express bus station to Bangkok and after arriving just after 06:30, I purchased my 90 Baht ($2.50USD) ticket to the “Bangkok Bus Station” (or as most foreigners call it, the Eastern or Mor Chit Bus Station).

As the next bus wasn’t leaving until 7AM and I had a few moments to kill, I grabbed my usual two bottles of water and a coffee. The newspaper stand wasn’t open just yet so I wasn’t able to pick up this morning’s Bangkok Post but as I was planning on doing a bit of writing along the way, this didn’t bother me too much.

About 10 minutes before the planned 7AM departure, I strolled over to the bus that was to be my ride north to Bangkok. Buses from this terminal leave every 20 minutes or so for either the western or “Ekamai/Ekkamai Bus Station” and the eastern/Mor Chit or “Bangkok Bus Terminal”. Things are always well organized and if you should have any additional luggage you need to check in the coaches’ baggage compartment, you can do so without worrying about someone snagging it as theft on these buses is practically unheard of.

As I placed my small bags down on the curve and turned around, there was a lady standing there staring at me. I immediately recognized her as someone I knew from one of the ex-pat hangouts in Jomtien and thought once again what a tiny little village I lived in.

We chatted for a few moments and exchanged some pleasantries. She was headed up to Bangkok for the day (Sunday) to see her family and I assumed would be back at work at “Phukey’s” in Jomtien on Monday. There was one other farang (foreigner) standing there as well who seemed to be staring at the both of us. As I did not know if she was traveling with him or not and was feeling a bit uncomfortable, I quickly disengaged the conversation and placed one of my small bags into the luggage compartment and boarded the bus.

Fortunate in having a window seat, we soon pulled out of the bus terminal and turned north on Thailand Highway 3 (Sukhumvit or Main/High Street). I couldn't help but notice the building thunderstorms to the south with their frequent lightning flashes as well as the weather to the east, dark and ominous, with swirling, grey shadows across the land as the sun continued to rise.

Heading north the streets were alive with activity, even in spite of it being only a little past 7 on a Sunday morning. Already the Monks were making their rounds, rice pails in hand, blessing those and saying their prayers for the generous and spiritual.

The bus I am on this particular trip is more modern than most that ply the routes to Ekkamai and Mor Chit. The seats are a bit newer and properly stenciled with large white numbers behind each seat. The air conditioning is blowing cool air steadily from its vents and it has more the feel of a larger coach than the smaller buses I use frequently to Ekkamai.

Laem Chabang Industrial Estate and Port quickly appears fifteen minutes later and after a bit of a wait at the intersection, a few minutes later we make our first stop to pick up more passengers at what the sign indicated to be the “Roong Reuang Coach Company”, which just happens to be the same name of the company issuing the ticket to me in Pattaya.

Fifteen riders board from this station and they all appear to have seats and in less than 3 minutes, we are once again back on the road.

Shortly after this stop, we stop again and take on more new passengers followed by a turn east off of Sukhumvit into an area named “Ao Udom”, which is a narrow, winding lane connecting Highway 3 and Highway 34, the actual highway normally used for bus and truck traffic north. Once we turn north on Highway 34, I notice a sign indicating Bangkok is 94 kilometers away.

Highway 34 is a motorway of sorts, or what an American might refer to as “Interstate”. In reality it is neither. Although it is divided with a medium, there are countless entry, exit and U-turn intersections that can at times make for a harrowing ride. God how I love BIG buses!

About 90 kilometers from Bangkok or about 30 minutes into the trip, we go under the overpass for Highway 331, which is a shortcut to the large industrial estates on the elbow of Thailand’s Eastern Seaboard, the joint military/civilian airfield of Ao Tapao/U-Tapao (pronounced “u da pow) and the Thai naval air and sea bases at Sattahip. If you want to see Thailand’s only aircraft carrier and it military in all its glory, this is the place to go!

It is also interesting to note that on the north side of this intersection of Highway 34, you will see a junkyard that makes you do a double take for it is here that you will see two vintage DC-3s, wing tip to wing tip, only a few meters from the fence separating them from the highway. One can only wonder what these two aging, camouflaged ghosts could tell if they could only talk about their war so long ago called “Vietnam”. (I wonder if the yard still has their maintenance records? ).

The terrain beyond this point is actually quite lovely now with the surrounding steep and forested hills seemingly asleep in the early morning sea mist. It is such a contrast to your senses to be at one moment staring at these tranquil hills followed a moment later with the shrill sound of the busses’ horn jolting you back to the reality of Thailand’s sprawling urbanization. Unfortunately these small hills quickly disappear, and even though we are still a good hour out of Bangkok, the girth of the city is obvious.

What fascinates me is the number of trucks. Yes there are cars everywhere as well, but trucks dominate the highways. In particular, pickups of every design and manufacturer ply the roads of Thailand and unlike Europe, where they are no where to be found, they seem to mirror the economic and regulatory realties of their respective economies.

Having spent many years in both Europe and most recently Germany again, the contrast between their existence on the two continents is an icon for the differences in their respective economies, ways of thinking and laws. Thailand being highly entrepreneurial and not regulated whereas Germany's rules and regulations are daunting at best.

With these thoughts in mind, we once again make a broad, looping turn onto the intersection of two highways merging north. Just to the north of this intersection is where the famous Thai German Institute (TGI) is located. A few minutes later, the 4 candy stripped smoke stacks of a large power generation facility looms up from the horizon. At this point you know you know you are half way to Bangkok.

It is now 8AM and unlike the buses to Ekkamai, the buses to Mor Chit climb up onto the elevated tollway part of Highway 34. If you remain on the ground under this monstrosity of engineering achievement, your trip into Bangkok is free but the traffic will be far heavier and of course your trip much slower.

Shortly after climbing this engineering marvel, signs are now pointing to Bang Na and we soon cross a large river filled with ocean going vessels as well as barges both berthed along the banks of the river as well as tugs pulling heavily laden barges up river to Bangkok.

It is now easy to seem many kilometers in every direction from this height. Although the area is now dead flat, it is very lush and green from the seasonal monsoon rains. Massive warehouses and housing flats dominate the landscape and it isn’t long before another towering complex comes into view through the early morning haze and smog.

It is one of the newer, more famous university campuses that seem to be cropping up all over the region with a soaring skyscraper in the center of its campus. Closer to the highway is a very large and rather ornate Wat, with colors of red, yellow, green and of course, the ever present glistening gold roof.

It is now an hour and a half into the first two hour segment of this journey and the first of multiple, huge road intersections appear. This one happens to be the junction for the new international airport being built to serve the region. Signs point to a name that most farangs find either difficult to pronounce or impossible to read, “The Suvanabhumi Airport”. I wonder what genius selected this name, knowing this facility was being built for the sole purpose of tourism for the eastern seaboard as well as serving as the regional hub for destinations beyond Thailand. I guess “Eastern Seaboard Regional” would have been a bit too simple. I guarantee you there are going to be many confused travelers and travel agents both booking and arriving on planes into the Kingdom!

The bus soon stops and pays its Class 7 toll of 110 baht and we soon start our decent from “heaven” onto the streets of “hell”, where if anyone has spent anytime in Bangkok trying to move about the city in anything other than the Skytrain or brand new Subway, know what I mean.

Here of course is where the perpetual road construction is most obvious. I use to joke year ago about this in Germany and their Autobahns, but they couldn’t hold a candle to the Thai style scope and frequency of construction and expansion.

It is easy to see, even on this early Sunday morning, with countless cranes, workers, steel and concrete everywhere why so many Thais work as construction laborers around the region and in the middle-east.

In spite of the ongoing construction, the traffic is relativity light this Sunday morning which is the main reason I chose today to make this trip, always preferring to make long and difficult passages across the region on a Sunday or holiday. With a little luck and a strong back, it might be possible to complete this journey in one, very long day.

Billboard advertising in Thailand, and particularly in and around Bangkok is everywhere and the boards themselves are massive, reaching a dozen or more stories into the sky. Although Thai culture always wants things to be “beautiful” and Thais hate things that are ugly (including people), the boards are horrific monsters of bolted steel frames, many of which are empty and fouling the cityscape, awaiting their next “victim” mobile phone, cosmetic or airline company.

At a little before 9AM we glide down off the elevated highway and make our circuitous turns into the Eastern Bus Terminal, less than 2 hours after leaving Pattaya. Not bad for a Pattaya to Bangkok run and the first leg of this journey I would say!

Bangkok to Aranyaprathet/Poi Pet - 2nd Leg

Bangkok’s Eastern Bus Station to the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet and the Cambodia side, Poi Pet.

Although the signage in front of the bus terminal indicates it is the “Bangkok Bus Terminal”, most folks refer to it as the “Eastern” or “Mo Chit” bus station as it is on the east side of Bangkok as well as being located next to the largest and most famous market in Thailand, Mor Chit. It is also the area where you will find the terminus of the Skytrain and an interconnect point with Bangkok's new subway.

I have traveled the world and have ridden every form of transportation known to man, including days on buses across Turkey (which has some of the largest bus terminals I have ever seen), but nothing compares to the scale of this terminal east of Bangkok. As such it can be overwhelming and intimidating, as it was for me the first time I made this trip to the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet.

The secret however is to realize that there are TWO terminals, one for arrivals and one for departures, just as there are in most modern airports. Once you know this, the rest is easy although if you have some heavy bags, the walk to the bus departure terminal is a bit of a hike as there are no carts to ease the journey between terminals nor are there any porters to assist you.

As I had arrived right at 9AM, I quickly grabbed my laptop, rucksack and small bag and quickly made my way down the long, winding, fenced corridor that separates the terminals, crossing the entrance way for departing buses. The signs now however are referring to this area as the “Eastern Bus Terminal” instead of the Bangkok Bus Terminal.

Although you will find literally hundreds of windows, each with a destination in either Thai or English or both, you need to head to the large, centrally located Information Kiosk and directly opposite that you will find a “blue window”, labeled with the number 26 to Aranyaprathet.

You should be aware that the difference between the orange and blue windows is mirrored in the colors of the buses as well. Typically, blue means “express” with orange translating to “local”. In reality, this simply means that the blue buses are express in that they won’t normally be picking up passengers randomly as they travel their route (although they will make stops at pre-designated points) while the orange buses will. As far as dropping off passengers is concerned, either bus will drop you wherever you want whenever you want.

I am also fortunate this particular morning as the next bus to Aranyaprathet departs at 09:30 and after indicating my preference for a window seat and paying my 164 baht , I get my ticket and am told that the bus will depart from “116” which just happens to be located just outside and behind this window.

As this is my last day in “civilization” for awhile with all its franchised junk foods that Cambodian doesn’t have (including ATM machines…) , I scan the numerous signs in the terminals for KFC, Dunkin Donuts, etc. and opt for the early morning donut route. After 76 baht and 4 donuts later, I drop off my small clothing bag in the baggage hold and board the coach. One of the bus stewards escorts me to my seat and after climbing over a uniformed Thai Air Force airman, I settle in for the 4 to 5 hour trip east to the border. At 09:37 after another ticket check the bus backs out and we start the second segment of this day’s journey to Phnom Penh.

The bus is completely full (how do they do that every time?) and only a few minutes later the bus steward is dispensing our free boxed breakfast of hard toast, condiments and water. Once again, as we exit the city east we are under another elevated highway and as I watch out the window and notice a lone Thai Air Force F-16 Falcon climb out of Don Muang Airport and turn east into the early morning haze. I’m thinking that’s not a bad way to spend a Sunday morning…

Fifteen minutes after leaving the terminal, we are passing the numerous airport terminals that line the road east out of town and the runway from the which the Falcon had departed from. Once again Bangkok’s commercialization and urbanization is overwhelming with western franchise after western franchise lining the roadway including Maserati, Mercedes and Ferrari dealerships as well as the expected KFCs, Office Depots, Swensens, etc.

At 10:05 we come upon a huge “super mall” at a large crossroads with countless stores around it. This particular one is call “Future Park Rangsit” and it is here we make the first stop of what I know will be countless others. Here another 15 passengers board and as all the seats are full, there is nowhere to go but the aisle. One woman assessing the situation quickly, plops herself onto the roof of the toilet which is at the side entrance of the bus from which these folks entered. I just wonder how far these people are going and what they are going to pay for the privilege, but I suspect no free breakfast meals or water will be forthcoming.

As we travel Highway 7 out of the city we pass places with names like Krung Kavee Estate and Golf Course as well as the campus for Eastern Asia University at 10:20. We seem to be paralleling a long and straight canal (klong) as well which was most probably at one point not in the not too distant past, the main “highway” in and out of the city from this direction.

At 10:30 we make a stop to let someone off and only 7 minutes later, we do it again. Oh how I hope this doesn’t continue as it will be a very long trip indeed.

At 10:50 we stop the parallel track with the klong and do a 90 degree turn that within moments deposits us at a huge police checkpoint where we once again pull off, wait a moment and than move forward a few hundred meters and stop again, this time for the lady steward to starting selling 90 baht tickets to those standing in the aisle. I guess standing is cheaper than setting as my ticket cost 164 baht but hey, I got some free toast and a water!

This takes about 10 minutes and after she completes her work, she exits out the side door, re-enters in the front driver compartment from the outside and we continue. I just wonder why she couldn’t have done this while we were heading to our destination on the road as no one got on and no one got off, except of course for her.

The bus is deathly quiet except for some Thai tunes coming from the speaker above me as is typical of Thai buses and most public transportation including city buses and the Sky Train. This fascinates me as Thais love to make noise and love their music LOUD! One might think they work long hours and long days and they want to use these trips to relax and unwind. Not really sure although I do remember one incident some years ago where an American friend of mine and his Thai girlfriend were chattering away for a good hour in their seats on the way to Pattaya from Bangkok where the man in front, turned around and told them to shut up, he was trying to sleep. I guess that could be it…

At 11:20 we veer off the divided highway and once again, we make a brief stop where folks are both getting off and on. So much for the concept of “express”. Sort of reminds me of the word “direct” in the airline industry which as most seasoned travelers know means we can stop as many times as we want as long as it is on the way to where the plane is headed. English is a funny language…

At 11:25 we stop at a "formal bus station" where of course no one seems to get on or off. Why go to the bus station when you can get on in front of your house? Makes sense to me but I don't think that was what was intended with the concept of an "express bus".

A few minutes later we back out and head back onto the the road, doing a Thai-style U-turn. Never have really been sure what this town or bus stop is called as there are no English signs anywhere! Guess we are off the beaten path a bit...

At 11:30 we are back on the divided highway, now 2 hours into the second part of the trip to Phnom Penh. 15 minutes later we make another stop at a quiet round-a-bout with folks playing chess under a rather large shade tree which dominates the intersection.

The road narrows now and we are soon seeing numerous government and military facilities along the roadway. Noon comes and we make another brief stop but at 12:15 we make an unusual stop in that it is a police checkpoint where the drivers of each bus coming and going along this road must make an entry into a log book located in front of the small police station. From what I can see however, there are no police anywhere to be found.

It is also interesting to note the white, spray painted outline of a motorcycle and driver painted onto the highway just in front of the log book stand. This usually indicates an accident and a dead victim. Wonder if someone didn't stop in time and got stopped permanently....

Five minutes later we make another brief stop and a young girl exits the bus....a minute later we stop again while we wait our turn to cross a railway under repair. Geeeee.....with only 75 people left on the bus, at a minute each to let off, we might make it to the border by dark! This is really beginning to get ridiculous and I really don't remember it being this bad before. Is it because it is Sunday?

At 12:30 we once again pull into our second official bus terminal along this segment of the journey and once again, there are no signs in English to indicate where we are. Even the bus routes on the side of the buses are only in Thai.

It is here that I determine enough is enough and I exit to use the toilet as the aisles have been jammed and it is now or never as far as I am concerned. I am aware however that this driver isn't going to be here long so after waiting patiently for the 15 or so departing passengers to exit before me, I rush to the toilet seeing the bus driver exiting the toilet and heading for the bus. Obviously, with his own door, he was able to get things done far quicker than us mere mortals in the back.

Knowing this joker isn't going to wait, I quickly find my 3 baht for the toilet's caretaker, do my thing and rush out only to find someone yelling at me the bus has left and to head the other way out to the parking lot! Shit man! More Thai high drama! It seems however that common sense prevailed with this cowboy as other people were missing and running to the bus as well but we seemed to manage to get everyone back on board and were once again, plying our way slowly to the border.

After the massive exodus at the last station, we now only have a handful of standing patrons. The aircon is working, I've got a seat all to myself, a few donuts in my stomach and if all goes well, I'll be back in the Kingdom of Cambodia by night fall. Life is good!

I do wonder however if it is still a Kingdom with no King? Since King Sihanouk abdicated this week and as there is no constitutional replacement to select a new king, Cambodia has once again, rode to the top of the world's political drama and intrigue.

As this lumbering hulk of a bus speeds up and slows down and weaves its way around slower traffic, jerking itself back into the eastern bound lane only seconds before colliding with the oncoming traffic, it does at times feel like I'm in an amusement part ride although I wonder if I have to pay extra when we get there?

The ever present police posts seem to be magnets for people loading and unloading from these buses and once again, at 1PM, we let off even more passengers followed by only moments later pulling into the third "real" bus station, which this time has a sign in English declaring it the "Sao Kaeo Bus Station.

Once again, you better not leave this bus and driver if you are continuing on as within moments of stopping and letting the doors open, we are pulling out and heading for the highway. It was amazing that the single, boarding passenger, a Monk in his gold robes, even had time to step aboard....

As I am watching the concrete road markers go by (slowing!), I notice that the first one we come upon indicates that the border and Anyaprathet is 51 kilometers away. It is soon after this that the intersection for the road south to Chantaburi comes up as well.

A rather nice golf course appears quickly followed by some type of Thai military installation. Guess the two go hand in hand.

We are finally getting close to the border and at 1:30, for the first time ever on this trip, we are both stopped and boarded by a Thai military ranger who goes down the length of the bus, looking at faces and checking identity documents. Times have changed....

As near the border for the third and final leg of this trip, I have taken my passport out of its waterproof waist pouch, put $30 or do into one pocket for small money and a couple of thousand baht into another pocket for the the anticipated taxi to Phnom Penh.

As the US dollar is the actual currency of Cambodia (riel is used but only as "coinage"), baht is also used, especially on the borders as you might expect but the farther you get from the border, the worse the exchange rate will be.

You should also be very aware that counterfeiting is a huge problem, not only in Cambodia but in Thailand as well, especially areas frequented by Russians (...such as Pattaya). Presently 1996 series $100 dollar bills are unacceptable to most money vendors, whether they are good or not. Usually bills in larger dominations with "smaller faces" or worn bills will not be accepted as well and as this is the very last place you will be able to use your ATM card before entering Cambodia (...they have none, zero, zilch!), you better make sure you not only have enough cash but it will be accepted!

The Thai Queen's 3rd Infantry Battalion or the "Queen's Guard" comes into view at 13:45 and I know we are close. We weave a bit more, going around construction and a short time later, we pull into the bus station on the outskirts of Anyaprathet.

As the border is still a few kilometers away, I find a motorcycle taxi and after refusing to pay the posted sign rate (outrageous), I settle on something more acceptable, grab my bags and head for the market area at the border.

The driver dumps me in front of an area that requires me to walk a few hundred meters to the immigration posts and what I refer to as "no mans land" or "DMZ" between the two kingdoms. It is from this point forward, you better have your wits about you and act (even if you don't) like you know what you are doing because if you don't, you will be overwhelmed with touts, beggars and hustlers. Although the two countries and peoples are truly wonderful, this area between the two is the slime of the planet...

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