Crossing the Thailand-Cambodia border at Chong Chom-Osmach

I wanted to make sure to record this because I scoured the internet for more detailed information about the crossing and couldn’t find too many recent reports. Most tourists doing crossing this land border go through Poipet. Reading about how to navigate the crossing without getting scammed is insane. The wikitravel guide has pages walking you through the procedure complete with maps. They begin by overcharging you for the visa then forcing you to pay an extra stamping fee. Someone even mentioned the bus company giving them slightly different continuing transportation (you walk a across the border even with bus transport booked through) stickers to show whether or not they paid the extra fee. If you need transport on the Cambodia side, you’re herded on to busses by police to take you to a more expensive bus station rather than the local one.

Since Nang Rong was equidistant from Chong Chom and Poipet we decided to go to the less crazy but onward transport more uncertain border. The Chong Chom crossing was closed for a long time due to fighting with the Khmer Rouge, which lasted into the late 1990s. Now, this border sees more Thai tourists hopping the border to gamble at the casino resorts directly at the border. Gambling is illegal in both countries for their citizens, but in Cambodia, foreigners can gamble. At Friday midday, the casino traffic wasn’t too bad.

To get to Chong Chom, we took a full bus toward Surin after an hour of waiting, but ended up getting off early realizing we could save distance/time by transferring at Prasat instead. There, we caught a minivan to Chong Chom. There’s no baggage storage in those cars. Our huge packs rode in our laps. Then, they fit three people in the two seats next to us.  Thankfully the ride wasn’t too long.

The border crossing was uneventful. A taxi driver we wanted our business sheparded us through the crossing, although it was pretty straightforward. We managed to only pay the $30 visa fee each without tea money. The shared cab was a bit on the pricey side. We ended up paying 1500 baht for a two hour ride to Siam Reap.

Unfortunately, he dropped us 3km from the hostel with a tuk tuk driver for a “free” ride to our hostel. We decided to walk as it was a nice evening and we had been sitting all day.

Enjoying small town life in Nang Rong

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Eating our food stall finds at the hostel. We have a box of doughy little green onion cakes and some grilled sticky rice with banana triangles that came wrapped in banana leaves. The latter were amazing! We made a special trip to get more of these for our bus ride out.

Rob and I spent two nights in Nang Rong so we would have a full day to visit Phanom Rung and other Angkor sites nearby. These were neat, but what I remember about our visit was the food. Rob fondly recalls his 20 baht coconut ice cream served in a coconut shell with a bit of fresh coconut meat and sweetened condensed milk (it didn’t last long enough for a pic). We had our best Thai style papaya salad in the night market (2 chili’s was just a tad too much) along with a tasty oyster pancake/crepe thing. Then on a morning walk to find a water machine we discovered a lady selling grilled banana leaf wrapped sticky rice with banana. So good! We initially bought two, ate them then walked 2 blocks back to get another 6 at 5 baht ($0.15) each.

To visit the temples, we rented a manual motorbike. It was really hard to start. Sometimes it took Rob over ten tries kick starting for the engine to finally turn over.

Our first stop was Phanom Rung, a temple built on top of an extinct volcano.

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Naga bridge at Phanom Rung

Then, we visited Prasat Muang Tam, another Angkor style temple. It has a number of large brick towers. The outer wall encloses 4 ponds and the inner sanctuary.

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We finished our temple tour with the pretty much deserted Wat Khao Angkhan then ate a Korean BBQ restaurant on the Nang Rong reservoir. I wanted to get the BBQ but Rob wasn’t feeling it. When the food came, we definitely regretted it. Note for future selves: We should have ordered what everyone else there had gotten.

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Plant birds and reclining Buddha. Other than us we saw only 2 monks.

The next morning, we had some other local fish curry and more banana sticky rice before catching the bus to Cambodia.

Stopover in Korat

Since we had to change busses in Korat, we went ahead and decided to see the town highlights. Traveling with Matthias, one of the Germans from our Khao Yai tour, we got on the bus to Bangkok by accident, but we were able to fix that mistake when they checked tickets. Arriving in Korat, I think we got off one stop too early and instead ended up outside of town rather than at a bus station. A couple dollar cozy tuk tuk ride made this an easy mistake to fix.

The driver let us off in front of the town’s main attraction, a statue of Thao Suranari, a woman who saved Thailand from an invading Laotian army. Her statue is commonly worshipped and apparently if your wish comes true, you hire performers to do a special dance on a nearby stage. After seeing the statue, we walked to a “special effect” diorama show of the tale.  Sadly none of the sound and light effects seemed to be working. The diorama pretty entertaining in a kitschy way.

The readers digest version of the story: Lao army attacks town and takes captives. Thao Suranari, the heroine, has women captives seduce soldiers and make weapons. She lead the attack repelling the Lao army.

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Bloody scene from the diorama where she defeats the Lao army.

After all that excitement, we ate an entire rotisserie chicken for lunch with sticky rice. When we bought it, the lady kindly removed the head and feet before chipping it up with a big ‘ole cleaver. Note to future self, rotisserie chicken is a messy take away food, get napkins. Rob and I almost needed a shower after the meal. After a few more sights, we caught the bus to Nang Rong.

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The remaining original town gate.

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The downtown park where we had lunch.

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Church decorated with salvaged cave pieces

Animal spotting in Khao Yai

Departing the chaotic mess of Bangkok was a relief. After a few hours on an air-con bus with water and snack provided, we arrived in Pak Chong, the gateway to Khao Yai National Park. Our guesthouse picked us up and soon we were headed for the hills.

On the way to the guesthouse, we passed two different smoked meat restaurants. The first actually had a bunch of Texas roadhouse signs. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to stop and check it out.

We used the Greenleaf Guesthouse recommended in Lonely Planet. The reviews on trip advisor were on the good side of mixed so we went for it and actually stayed in the slightly more expensive bungalows at the next door hotel (there’s a gate in the back fence). It was 500 baht ($14) for our little fan cooled cabin with TV, fridge and large private bathroom. We did have an impressive train of ants parade across the floor for awhile and a half dollar size spider above the toilet but that’s life in a rural tropical climate. I would say it was worth a bit extra for the nicer room that’s farther away from the busy road.

Rob and I arrived just in time to grab lunch before our half-day tour (only an extra 300 baht after the day tour). The food at the lodge is pretty decent with all plates under $2. Our tour group was almost entirely French as it is a holiday period there. The half day tour began with a circle of the guesthouse grounds to see some critters: geckos, spiders and a couple bigger lizards that live in the gutters, followed by swimming in a spring fed pool.

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Spring pool filled with tourists.

With all of us cooled off, we descended a couple flights of steep steps into a large cave with shrines inside. Some folks balked and refused to go down when they learned the cave is full of bats. And there were tons of bats. Our guide showed us all the best guano and explained some of the locals make good money collecting and selling it.

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Bat cave that we were allowed to visit.

Finally it was dusk and time for the real show to begin. We drove to a field near another cave where 2 million bats take 45-60 min to exit for their night’s meal. From our spot, we watched as winding ribbons of bats twisted across the sky blazing with the orange hues. A few birds of prey danced around the ribbon attempting for a bit of bat for dinner.

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Ribbon of bats.

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Winding motion of the bat ribbon.

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Rob photographing the bats.

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It's the bat stream.

As the stream died down, we walked to a nearby field to enjoy the sensation of bats rushing past us to feed. Our guide joked offered free beer to anyone who could catch a bat in the air. Needless to say, no one did as the bats are much too fast for us (although they certainly buzzed close enough to our heads to reach).

The next day we did the full tour into Khao Yai National Park to search for more animals. They loaded us onto large flatbed trucks with covered beds and benches along the sides, this was the preferred transport in rural Thailand instead of buses or vans.

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Our transport.

After a good drive into the national park we made our first stop at a scenic overview with lots of monkeys who hang out and try to steal food.

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According to our guide, each male has 8 females.

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The grooming buffet.

At this point we put on our leech socks which are heavy enough to prevent leeches that fall into your boots from being able to bite you. Since it was the dry season we didn’t see any leeches, but it was nice to have the socks just in case. Only the tourists bothered to wear them. Seeing the hordes clad in the white covering had me imagining a field guide entry for tourists.

Markings: Distinctive white droopy calf coverings. Variety of head coverings possible. These creatures had large back pouches where they store water.

Spotter’s guide: These creatures are found in large groups with one male leader carrying a monocular on a collapsible tripod. Most often found along roads and trails.

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Next, we found a couple Great hornbills breakfasting in a fruit tree. Our guide said the secret to finding animals is knowing which fruit is ripe and where the corresponding trees are located. You can tell the sex by the eye color. These photos were taken through the scope, so we didn’t get a great feel for their size, but we’re told they’re quite large.

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The guy.

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The girl.

Then, we found a squirrel (not like the squirrel we’re used to, these have different tails) and a family of gibbons. The other sure way to spot animals here is to pull over whenever you see tour groups or other people stopped to look at animals. We were amazed by the number of independent tourist groups that didn’t bother to stop. I guess that’s who the National Park reviews that complain of not seeing any animals come from. On our own, we wouldn’t have seen very much.

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Gibbons, described to us as monkeys without tails. They have a distinctive call and are not able ground walkers so they stay in the trees.

A quick stop at the visitor center was next. Rob saw the water monitor lizard on a display and wondered if we would see one. Five minutes later meeting at our truck, the whole group was watching a large water monitor lizard hang out on a log.

A jungle trek would occupy the next few hours. Thankfully, they had split the tourists into three smaller groups in the morning, so we had the young, angle bodied set. While a well-marked and traveled trail existed, our guide took every opportunity to cut off of it onto smaller parallel sections that followed the river more closely. We saw a pit viper and a crocodile in addition to many birds and butterflies.

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Crocodile!

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Pit viper. He was hard to spot even when you knew where to look.

At last we reach the end near one of the famous waterfalls and lunch! It was 1:30pm at this point and we had started at 8 am. Then, I couldn’t believe it when the slower groups piled into the lunch spot a half hour or more behind us. They must have been even more ravenous.

Exploring the waterfall was nice (it appeared in some movie with Leonardo DiCaprio). Although in the dry season, it’s not as spectacular.

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Heo Suwat waterfall in the dry season

Then, snack time and on to elephant finding. We had to wait until late afternoon to do this. Well, it took us about 10 minutes to find an elephant. Unfortunately, we barely got to see it before it ambled away, but we were on the right side of the truck so Rob got the money shots (and emailed them to the rest of our tour group).

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They are able to move surprisingly well through the thick jungle.

Since we saw an elephant so quickly our guide had to figure out what to do with us for the rest of the day. Normally they spend hours looking for elephants. We walked to a wildlife observation post and stayed awhile without seeing any big animals.

Finally, we went back for dinner (Rob got an amazing Tom kha gai) and an evening hanging out the the Germans and an older Dutch guy from our tour. The next morning Rob and I would head to Nang Rong via Korat.

Bangkok

Rob and I arrived in Bangkok at 2 am. This time I convinced him that we should get a hotel and cab there. A cab was under $10 and was especially fast because traffic was sparse. We ended up at a nice clean budget hotel near the Phra Ram 9 metro station.

The first day we slept in and relaxed until 1 PM then ventured a couple stops down the metro to Suhamvit station. Terminal 21, one of the new fancy malls has an amazing food court on the Fifth floor called Pier 21. This was a cheap but clean and orderly introduction to Thailand dining. We had a spicy papaya Som salad with crab, steamed buns and chicken and rice followed by the best food ever, mango with sticky rice covered in sweetened condensed milk with a crunchy brown topping. Afterward, we walked to the Jim Thompson house, the home turned museum of a fárang silk trader who disappeared mysteriously, for one of the last tours of the day.

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Rob in the Jim Thompson House Garden.

The garden surrounding the house had large potters with fish and floating plants in them.

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Golden Teardrop exhibit at the Jim Thompson House


After, we strolled to the Chinatown area for dinner. It was a bit of a walk but the Bangkok MRT and BTS systems weren’t convenient and we weren’t in a hurry. Coming from Tokyo’s busy but well-ordered streets, walking in Bangkok felt a bit like Frogger. Despite the hassle, exploring at slower pace was nice to see ordinary life in the city. Bangkok is a city of such contrasts between the glitzy new malls with international stores to shacks made of wood and corrugated metal.

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Street fair at a temple. We saw the lights and went to check it out.

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Random kabuki style show we passed by.

The next day, we set out to the major historic sites along the river. Steffen and Audrey mentioned the ferries as a good way to go, so we took the MRT to the end of the line in Chinatown. After checking out an extremely valuable solid gold Buddha that had been hidden in a plaster shell for along time, we picked up a boat to the Grand Palace area.

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Our hotel's tuk tuk with free transfers to the metro.

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Solid gold Buddha

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Standing on the ferry.

By the time we arrived, the Grand Palace was mobbed, but since many were with tour groups, they didn’t clog ticket lines. The dress code is highly enforced, but you can rent clothes for a deposit or buy some cheap clothes at the vendors outside.

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Dress rules for the Grand Palace. Rob had to borrow pants, which was the longest line.

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Standard tourist garb.

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