After the day we had yesterday I’m astonished to be sitting here in Battambang slurping coffee and planning our first full day in Cambodia.

We’d heard and read a bunch of nasty stories about rife corruption on the main border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia at Poipet, and since our fling on Koh Samet had put us closer to the ‘lesser used’ border crossing at Ban Pakkard, we decided that lesser used would inevitably mean less trouble, and so opted for that one instead.

Crossing a border with your own car in toe is nerve racking enough, but on a day when your stomach isn’t playing ball, it’s downright cruel.

After several toilet stops, several GPS led wrong turns, we finally arrived at what looked like a border; excellent progress, but how does this strange contraption work?

First to the customs office – a few napping chiefs were more than happy to use their stamps, and even make corrections on the incoming slip. Ok. Next to export ourselves, upto departures, passports stamped, great easy bit over, now get in the car and drive through the Thailand gate… STTTTOOOOPPP!! The passport guy runs out looking quite perturbed.

‘You did not tell me you have a car’ he says. Oh dear. We’re in trouble.

Joe spends atleast half an hour with him and the carnet, explaining that the incoming customs hadn’t issued us with the magical form he’s asked us to produce. After more waiting, we are finally allowed to leave, and we drive through the gate only be stopped again for a cursory inspection which involved the guy looking in the back and laughing with his mates about Joe’s Kite board.

We drive upto the Cambodian side and park (on the wrong side PS, in Cambodia they drive on the right). As we’re filling out visa on arrival forms, we’re told to go and see customs first about the car). There’s a gaggle of guards just hanging around, smoking cigarettes and chewing the fat, some in uniform, and some ‘unofficial’ guards who want to tell you what to do even though you’re not sure why they’re there.

As the inevitable confusion about the yellow carnet document unfolds, we’re told to wait in the yard (with the geese and dogs) while he makes some phone calls. Twenty minutes later, he comes out looking sheepish. ‘I cannot do here. Poipet. Poipet.’ He says, handing us back the unstamped document. I try to explain that we’ve already exported the car through Thai customs and he apologises for his English and another guy comes running over to try and translate, but the news is just as bad. He apologises profusely. I do my best ‘sad and desperate labrador’ face, but it only makes him feel guilty. They offer to let us through, but say that we will still need to drive straight to Poipet (200km away) and get the carnet stamped.

Tempting as that sounded, it’s better to try and do things by the book in these places, so we turn the car around and drive back into Thailand.

With exit stamps cancelled, carnet stamped with re-import, and moods at an all time low, we drive for 2 hours to get to Poipet, arriving just after 5pm (the border closes at 8, but with darkness setting in around 6, and still 120km to go to Battambang, things are looking bleak).

My anxiety levels are through the roof, and although Joe does his best to calm me, I can tell he’d nervous about the whole thing too. What if they don’t let us in? Will we be allowed to get back into Thailand? Will we have to go through Laos? And if we do get through, how long is it gonna take us to get to Battambang. We’re both exhausted and haven’t eaten since breakfast, baked from being in the hot car all day.

As we approach the border, the Visa touts are shouting and signalling, trying to get us into their makeshift shops and carparks to scam us into buying a Cambodian visa. We plough through them and onto our first stop. Customs – they tell us to go straight to the border.

We drive through chaotic hoardes of Cambodians and Thais walking through the border, men pulling wooden carts in bare feet through the muddy road, overladen with fruit and vegetables. We park up and walk through immigration, and get our passports stamped, no questions asked, and then park up again in front of customs. The carnet is once again scrutinised, and the same form (the one we didn’t have last time) is requested.

Luckily, as a substitute for the form, they also accepted a chunk of our time and 50 Baht.

We drive through the Kingdom of Cambodia gates and straight to Visa on Arrival. A sign above the door says ‘Tourist Visa $20 USD’, however, when we go to pay, the OIC says ‘$20 USD plus 100Baht each’ OR 800 Baht each ($26). Joe starts to have a firm word with the man about the mathematics of it all, and I give him the look that says ‘I don’t want to stay in Thailand tonight baby’ and we pay the guy 1600 Baht.

I know die hard travellers will say you shouldn’t encourage corrupt officials to overcharge because you set the example and you should always argue the toss, but these people haven’t spent a whole day driving up the Thailand/Cambodian border in unairconditioned landcruiser, wondering how many times they’re allowed to re-import their car into Thailand in one day, and frankly, I was both embarrassed to stand there and argue the toss about $5 with someone from a country whose standard of living is so starkly lower than mine, and desperate to get into their country – of course we were both pissed off about being blatently ripped off directly under a sign that said ‘Tourist Visa $20USD’ - but I knew that the visa fee was only the first hurdle for us and we didn’t have the time or energy to stage a sit in.

There have been several arguments between Joe and I on this point – Joe’s POV is that corruption is corruption, and if the price blatently says $20, then we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be taken advantage of. Which is fair enough in theory, but tricker to put into practice when they’ve got you over a barrel.

I take back naïve comments about westerners whinging about being overcharged when they can really afford it, I know that that’s not always the case. My sentiment is that I can easily understand how it happens, especially to people like me who want to avoid confrontations with authority at all costs. I agree, corruption is corruption, and if they want to make money out of us, they need to go about it the right way by blatently charging foreigners a higher fee like the Thais do, instead of displaying one price and asking for another. At the end of the day, I know its not right or fair or just – I guess I’m just not the crusader type. I think my other fault is that I’m oblivious to exactly what the impact is – I want to think he takes that money and injects it back into the Cambodian economy, but as Joe argues, its more a case of the rich getting richer, and perhaps our $5 would better be spent inside the country than on its outskirts. Just one day here and I’m already rolly-pollying all over the moral high grand.

What was I saying? Ok, so we get the visa and walk up to the customs window and the lady, before we’ve even reached the window she says ‘NO.’

A guy comes out from the room and Joe starts to explain ‘Car customs document. We need Stamp and sign for import car.’

The guy, who speaks perfect English, says, ‘Yes, yes, just get your passports stamped first, and then drive down about 100m on your left to the blue customs building past the roundabout and they can stamp it in there.’

Phew. The Cambodian passport stamper sings me a song while he processes my passport and we all have a good laugh (I think he was laughing at how scared I looked) and we drive out, straight out onto the wrong side of the road. Whoops. We spot the blue customs building and pull in. The final, critical hurdle. It’s going dark now and there’s noone official looking around, Joe wanders in and looks around, whilst I stay in the car, witnessing a minor skirmish in the street involving roughly 100 people. It’s chaos here.

15 minutes later, Joe returns, triumphant. He had spoken to the customs guy, who had walked out grumpily in his pyjamas, pointed to the clock and shook his head, before taking the carnet away, stamping it, and giving us the glorious privilege of driving into the Kingdom of Cambodia.

HURRAH WE HAVE ARRIVED!!!!!!

We drive for two hours in the dark, over bumpy roads, all four eyes bulging for motorbikes, pedestrians, dogs, cars and lorries (in Cambodia, lights are obligatory, not compulsory) and we finally arrive at the Asia Hotel, to the warmest welcome, an Angkor beer and a delightful tuk tuk ride out to dinner. I love it here already.