A trip to Cambodia

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Having been in Cambodia for not even half a day, already the feeling has come up that every local you meet is trying to make money off of you; that you have to constantly be on the lookout for scams while the scammers know every trick in the book to make it impossible for you to find out whether you are really being scammed, or not.

Prices in Cambodia are, across the board, higher than in Thailand. Cambodia has one major tourist attraction, Angkor Wat. There, three day passes to this world heritage site go for a whopping 40 USD. So, obviously, if you come to visit Angkor Wat, you have money and are fair game.
Cambodia is also a USD based economy. I suspect that, even in the very recent past, Thai Baht was accepted almost as easily, but with the border skirmishes at the Prea Vihear temple, where Thailand really is pulling the shortest straw, the Baht is now only, seemingly, accepted at the border.

Driving from the border to Siem Reap, the rice fields stretched endlessly on both sides of the mostly rocky dirt road. In, or is it ‘on’, the water soaked fields, kids and teenagers were swimming and fishing, casting their nets for the evening’s meal, or perhaps to make an attempt at making a living.

At the end of the day, walking around Siem Reap, all the restaurant menus I checked were priced in USD. As were the goods in a convenience store just around the corner from my guesthouse. Not a 7-11, put painted in their colors to make you think so. There, I used an ATM to withdraw money. My bank card didn’t work, so I tried my credit card. A two dollar fee, no doubt on top of a fee from my credit card company, followed by the choice of how much I’d want to withdraw.
I was given a cap of 2000 dollars, and for a second I figured that the local currency, the Riel, might just be using the same sign as the dollar. But, no, according to the current exchange rate, this would have meant that the machine, if serving Riels, would allow me to withdraw less than one USD. I keyed in my desired amount, expecting the equivalent in Riel… but received actual USD.
Paying in USD, you typically get your change in USD as well, except for the small bits. At the earlier mentioned convenience store, .05 USD in change I received in two or three Riel notes.

I’m staying at Babel, a new guesthouse, fairly central, in a street with a dozen or so guesthouses. Decent, the place has many details which are just a little bit off, like the lock on the door occasionally jamming, a tiny TV (but with cable), wrapped up, but crappy, bars of soap in the bathroom, a toilet seat which fits almost perfectly and hot water which runs out after one or two minutes.
Now, I don’t mind this much. It’s a nice place, the bed is good, the room is fairly large and affordable and they have good food. What is annoying is that a major reason I chose the place was their claim of having “WIFI in the lobby” and “WIFI in the room”.
This is nominally true, but only because there’s a semi-public network blanketing the city. You need prepaid scratch cards to access the service, and no one knows who’s selling the cards! Everyone points to the actual service provider’s office, a mere two kilometers away.

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For posterity: traveling from Bangkok to Siem Reap

With, seemingly, scammers around every corner, I know I would have been helped by more background information on this journey. So here goes.

Everyone, including the Lonely Planet, advises against taking the bus tours from Bangkok to Siem Reap, advertised on Kao San Road. They’re informally called ‘scam busses’: Once in Cambodia, they drive so slowly that you have no choice but to stay at the guesthouse of their choosing. Then, if you make a fuss, you get a much larger fuss thrown back at you. One person I spoke to on this even mentioned she and her companion were physically threatened when they wanted to go somewhere else.

So, I took a regular public transport bus from Bangkok’s northern bus terminal to Aranya Prathet, close to the border crossing with Cambodia. I booked two days in advance, but this didn’t turn out to be necessary. The bus wasn’t even a quarter full when it left on Sunday morning, 8:30am. However, two Canadians I met at the border had taken a bus 30 minutes earlier and ended up with a bus so crowded, some travelers had to stand in the isle.
I paid 250 Baht for this trip, around 5 euros. The bus was air conditioned. With the pouring rain during the first half of the trip, this was actually quite fresh.

Arriving in Aranya Prathet, a good four hours later, I had started chatting with an older local passenger who turned out to be working in the road from the border to Siem Reap which, as everyone can tell you, has been in notoriously bad shape ever since Cambodia opened up for tourism after the Khmer Rouge was kicked into submission.
The man had been working on the road for the last two years. Work had now stopped because of the border skirmish but he was convinced that in 8 months or so, the road would be completely finished. He told me that the first 50 kilometers or so were now in good shape, but that the last 100 still needed the hard top. He figured a drive from the border to Siem Reap would take three to three and a half hours.

When I got off the bus in Aranya Prathet, tuk tuk touts tried to get me on their vehicles, though they weren’t overly aggressive. It was still some six kilometers to the border, so walking really isn’t an option.
The gentleman I spoke to earlier showed me that, half a block away, converted pick up trucks drive passengers to the border for 15 Baht (0.30 euro).

Then, during the walk from the truck stop to the Thai border post, the hassling started. The two Canadians I bumped into a bit later as well as myself, both of us were being trailed by a, what I think was a Cambodian, constantly making remarks about what we needed to do and where we would have to do them. All bits and pieces of information completely useless; I could see where the immigration was.

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The Thai border crossing was hassle free. The Cambodian crossing is a few hundred meters down, after a stretch of road with huge casinos on either side in, what I assume, is basically a lawless no man’s land.
The two Canadians had gotten their Cambodian visas at a place that might have been a consulate in Aranya Prathet. Their visa had the price on it, 20 USD, which is the same amount the Lonely Planet claims it should be. However, they paid around 1200 Baht, which is closer to 40 USD.
Back at immigration, I got my Cambodian visa from a guy in the appropriate border police uniform, in sight of the actual immigration post, where your passport is stamped but where, I assume you can not get a visa. I had to fill in a few forms, while my minder was yakking on one side of me and a new minder was trying to get me to use his bus service, yakking away on my other side. Both these minders were wearing an official-looking badge, while I was doing the paperwork with the border guard, in sight of the immigration officers.
I also had to pay 1200 Baht, though my visa doesn’t mention the fee. It is quite possible that, with the border skirmish going on, the price in Baht has gone up (twofold!) while the price in USD has stayed the same. It is equally possible both the Canadians and I were scammed out of 20 USD.

After I got my passport back and had it stamped, the second tout was back to greet me again. I had tried to get some information on onward travel from the official who stamped my passport, but with little success.
The Lonely Planet states that free transport is supposed to take you to the Poipet Tourist Lounge, some five minutes away. The free transport we got took us to an exchange booth, 90 seconds away, next to a shop which claimed to be a bus and taxi stop. The tout had already made it clear that bus trips to Siem Reap would cost 500 Baht, 10 euros. The Lonely Planet mentions 40000 Riel (which, at least at the time the Lonely Planet was printed, was 10 USD). At this bus ‘station’, I also asked for the price in Riel, which was quoted at 45000 Riel.
By then, the Canadians had exchanged money at the cambio, for 3000 to the Dollar. With the financial crisis currently going on, as well as the border issues with Thailand, it was impossible to say whether this was a scam or not. However, later on, in Siem Reap, we learned that the exchange rate is actually still 4000 Riel to the Dollar. So, although the price in Riel for the bus to Siem Reap might just have been the actual going rate, the price in Baht most certainly wasn’t. With no, or overpriced Riel at our disposal, this, however, didn’t matter, both prices being too high.
Meanwhile, this is for a 150km trip, just having driven some 250 kilometers on the Thai side of the border for half that money. And, we were told, the bus would take six hours… or more.

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It was here, at this bus ‘station’, where I also chatted with three tourists who had taken the Koa San bus to Siem Reap, the infamous scam bus. What had they paid? A mere 200 Baht. For the whole frackin’ journey. I pitied them, though, because, indeed, this would mean an unpleasant six hours in the next bus, which they were waiting for, for it only departed at 3… or 4… in the afternoon and it meant they’d most likely have to deal with an unpleasant arrival in Siem Reap.

Taking a taxi was also an option. Quoted at 600 Baht per person, with four in a car, we were told this would take only 3 hours. 2400 Baht, 50 euros, for the whole vehicle, quoted by the Lonely Planet at 40 to 50 USD.
We managed to pay 1800 Baht for the three of us, with the ‘risk’ that the driver might pick up an extra passenger along the way. And, indeed, a chatty young woman took up the front seat for some 40 kilometers of our journey.

But, at least, we were on our way. We drove into Siem Reap a good three hours later, only for the taxi driver to halt right on the edge of town. A bunch of guys in carts resembling tuk tuks gave us what felt like a bogus story on the taxi not being allowed into town, because of its license plates. We had to switch to the tuk tuks which, after some back and forths, were said to be part of the deal, that is, at no extra cost.
Two local-style tuk tuks, the Canadian couple in one, myself in the other. We made it appear we were one group and going to the same guest house, though only I had actually made a booking. The head-tout was driving with me.
At first, he wanted to push a ‘happy smoke’ (hash or weed) and then he wanted to push a tuk tuk or taxi for visiting Angkor Wat. A tuk tuk (for two people) at 15 USD per day, a taxi at 30 USD per day. Indeed, not overly wild prices, but both myself and the Canadians were already strongly considering biking the temples.

Arriving at the guesthouse, Pie, for that was his name, tried his ploy on the Canucks, but with no success. He then did a spiel on not having gotten anything from us, while he had to pay for gas to drive us there. Interestingly, he seemed seriously dismayed and though I in no way felt responsible or wavered on my desire to rent a bike, on a human level, I did feel some pity for the boy: you can’t begrudge a man’s desire to make some money.