Monday, April 6, 2009

SE Asia Chapter 4: The bumpy road to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

I've got tardiness and laziness combining against eachother to get these last couple of entries out as quickly as possible, so I can go back to actually telling you about what I've been up to in South Korea since the new school year began in March. That, and I can't find my travel journal at the moment, so I'll do my best to be accurate and specific, but I make no promises.

We left Bangkok early, determined to make our way to the Cambodian border and on to Siem Reap without getting caught in the all too common "Bus Scam" that local tourist agencies book most land travellers on. What happens is you pay a pretty cheap price and the agency will tell you that you ride is in a comfortable bus that you only get off to go through the border and then it will take to you directly to your guesthouse in about 10-11 hours. What actually happens is they put you on a legitimate bus to the border, then arrange with someone on the other side to pick you up and take you to Siem Reap. Your ride from the border to Siem Reap is more likely to be in the back of a pick-up truck or in an over crowded minivan, and the ride that is supposed to take about 5 hours could take anywhere from 10-15, ensuring that by the time you get to Siem Reap you are too tired and exhausted to complain about the overpriced, shoddy guesthouse they've dropped you off at (the guest pays a commission to the travel agency to have you dropped there).

We walked a block or so away from Kho-San road in order to find an honest taxi driver who took us to the bus station and ta-dah! We were on our way to the Cambodian border. There, that wasn't so bad right? Not so fast, girls. We were dropped off in a small town on the border at a 7-11 and some tuk-tuk drivers agreed to take us to the border. Unfortunately, just because they've got numbered vests doesn't mean they're honest. Instead of taking us directly to the border we were diverted to a station to get our "express" tourist visas for Cambodia. The very friendly gentleman who spoke excellent english explained that if we wanted a regular tourist visa we would have to wait about 6 hours for processing. However if we paid to 200 baht more, he could get the visa's processed in only a few minutes. And naturally, if we needed a ride to Siem Reap from the border he could arrange that too. We saw other tourists arriving and leaving with their visas and their passports, so we agreed to the "express" Visa's and declined the travel arrangements. Within about 10 minutes we were back on the tuk-tuk's and dropped at the border (which incidentally, we could have walked to from the 7-11 if we'd had a map or something, our guide books made it sound like the distance required motor transportation). As we waited in line a Thai border guard checked our Visa's, and smirked "How much did you pay for these?" We told him and gave a knowing nod, "Next time just come straight here." Ok, ok. It's only 200 baht (approx $6.50), at least we're finally getting into Cambodia! We walk across to the Cambodian guard station and wait in line some more for our stamps (this office had a giant tree growing through it BTW, they just built the office around it!). Our guide book advised us to take the "free goverment run transport bus" that would take us to where we could arrange a bus or taxi to Siem Reap. We're now sweating in the exhausting, dust filled heat with our bags watching tourists get tagged with coloured post-its. These tourists had pre-arranged their travel plans with an agency (or that guy who got us our "express" visas), and we felt pretty smug watching them get corralled and shipped off by eager guides. We had to wait alittle longer but at least we weren't suckers.

The government shuttle didn't take too long to arrive and once on board, our guide with his fancy vest and photo-ID told us all about the free-shuttle program and how the government runs it. And oh, by the way, things have changed quite a lot in Cambodia in the last year (you know we have a pretty turbulent history) and, besides boarder towns, no one really accepts US cash like the travelbooks say, so you should exchange your money now before you head further into the country. Maybe you will find a bank that can help you, but maybe you won't. Don't worry, we have conveniently arranged to take you to a currency exchange office before you choose your travel arrangements to Siem Reap. Suddenly, I wasn't feeling so smug. We were not taken to any kind of official bank office or ATM, just a guy in a seedy looking office with a calculator. At least two of the other girls I was travelling with had waited to take money out because our guidebooks assured us we could get money in Cambodia without a problem, all they have was a few thousand Baht leftover from Thailand. I had a small amount of US cash so I exchanged that and it was enough to pay for the other girl's taxi fares.

We arranged two taxis (Del from France, shared one with us) and our friendly guide assured us that our driver would take us directly to our guest house in Siem Reap. Our taxis were 15 year old toyota corollas, but atleast there was air-con. In the car, we finally had a chance to catch our breath and take a look around. Only a few minutes from Thailand, Cambodia feels like a completely different world. The kind of world you (sadly) "expect" from the media and movies you might have seen around the region. There are a few cars, but mostly it's motor cycles and bicycles and these mingle easily with ox-carts and cattle being driven on the side on the side of the road by skinny, shirtless 10 year old boys. The "highway" to Siem Reap from the board was a dirt road constantly under construction and lined by bamboos huts on stilts. Young children in clothing made red by the dust dart in and out of their homes and behind them lush green fields and palm trees stretch out across the country side. No pavement, no familiar trademarks, no street lamps or stop signs.
We were all starving when we stopped for gasoline, and as delicious as that pineapple was, I wasn't too happy to find the prices of course much much higher than you should ever pay. The shop girl was very friendly though and wasn't shy about asking if I had any Canadian money she could look at (the shop being the driveway of someone's hut with a meager spread of snack foods laid out and some soda's on ice). I did have some coins and was happy to give her a quarter and tell her about what a moose is.

The sun was setting as we drove into Siem Reap. What a difference tourism makes! Suddenly there was smooth pavement under us, street lights lit our way, and beautiful hotels began to appear on the sides of the highway. We were so close to a comfortable bed and some good food, hurray! It was now, as I tried to show our taxi driver where our guest house was, that I realized he spoke no English and didn't care where our guest house was. He dropped us off at a tuk-tuk stand on the outskirts of the city and drove away. Through gritted teeth, we listened to the one guy who could speak any English tell us that if we wanted a ride into the city it would cost 30, 000 riel. Or only 10, 000 riel if we went to a guest house he recommended instead. Or free, if we agreed to hire the same tuk-tuk driver for the day tomorrow. We paid the 30 000. Just get us to guest house, please!

Thankfully, the Red Lodge guest house was a beautiful old house with marble floors and big wooden doors and hammocks in the backyard. We gratefully dropped our bags and raced for the showers. It was an easy walk to the restaurant/market area frequented by foreigners where of course we found tonnes of ATM's and currency exchange banks and menus listed in US prices. Our buddies at the border had given us about 66% of what we should've gotten on the dollar. But even a good meal and a cleansing shower couldn't wash away the stress of the day. We all ended the day bitchy, with frayed nerves and clenched jaws. To avoid taking it out on eachother we made a firm committment to spend the next day doing nothing but resting, eating and relaxing. Angkor Wat could wait.


  1. A quarter has a cariboo on it! Not a moose!!

    Lisa I hated traveling for that reason!! You always get so husseled, but you're right, you can wash all that stress away! Good for you for not getting too down by it!

  2. Sorry,

    I posted that last comment as my roommate! It's Jen following your travels from Canada now!