10 May, 2010
Siem Reap, Cambodia

We decided to leave Bangkok after one day of walking around paying for temple admission fees under the unforgiving sun. The Grand Palace was closed to us because we were wearing shorts, but we got into Wat Pho to see the giant reclining Buddha. I guess it was pretty big. I dunno. Temples are okay, but not something I have a huge urge to go see, especially in sweltering heat.

Back at the hostel we decided to at least give Cambodia a shot before writing off South-East Asia entirely. A train leaves for the border every morning at 6 am, but buses leave a little later in the day, so we opted for one of those. At Wat Pho we’d run into a girl Chris used to work with, and her boyfriend, and we ended up hanging out with them later that night until about 1 am. So we didn’t drag ourselves out of bed until about 8.30, and we didn’t arrive at Mo Chit bus station unil just before ten.

Fortunately there was a bus leaving about ten minutes after we got there, so we climbed aboard and were on our way. It was about a four or five hour trip, which was particularly unpleasant since the A/C was broken and neither of us had eaten yet. It stopped off at a 7-11 around noon and I bought some shitty packaged croissants and cookies, which wasn’t much of a meal, but made my stomach shut up.

Everything I’d read or heard about the Cambodian border crossing warned that it’s one long, difficult slog through a human corridor of touts and conmen trying to fuck you over at every step. This proved to be correct. We were assailed by tuk-tuk drivers as soon as we got off the bus in Aranyaprathet, the town on the Thai side of the border. They offered 80 baht to take us to the border, several kilometres away, which seemed reasonable.

Of course, they didn’t actually take us to the border – they took us to the Cambodian consulate in Aranyaprathet, where an official-looking man sat us down in a garage-like structure next door and told us we would have to pay 1500 baht (about 50 AUD) for the privilege of Cambodian visas, stamps and immigration cards. Neither of us are particularly wily travellers yet, but this was an instant red flag, since everything we’d read said you could geta visa on arrival at the border. I told him this, and he claimed we were at the border, which we clearly weren’t.

There was a Danish couple nearby who’d also been taken straight there by the tuk-tuk driver, and the male in the pair (whose name I believe was Megan, lol) agreed that this was bullshit. The man insisted over and over that we were at the border and that we needed to pay for shit like immigration cards, which is not true anywhere in the world. “I don’t think that’s right,” I said. “We’ll go to the border and look ourselves. If we’re wrong we’ll come back here and you can laugh at us, but first we’ll go see for ourselves.” We had to repeat stuff along those lines several times, because conversations are always great fun when the person you’re talking to doesn’t speak English too well, but eventually he must have realised he was sprung because he went silent and was staring down at the papers on the desk. As we were about to walk away he called us back and quietly admitted that the border fee was really only 1000 baht. This sounded more like it, but I didn’t see the point in getting a visa there if we could get one at the border, particularly since this asshole had already been lying to us.

So both we and the Danes jumped back into our tuk-tuks and instructed the drivers (who were, of course, in cahoots with the “visa officials”) to take us straight to the border. Instead they drove us to the Cambodian consulate. The one that was next door, literally five metres away.

“What are you doing?” we said. “If we wanted to come here we would have walked. Take us to the border.” We had to listen to a whole spiel of “no, this place, you get visa, come inside, I take care you,” but we stood firm and eventually she relented and drove us to the border. She only stopped once more along the way at another fake visa office – this one a fucking stall on the roadside – but this time we didn’t even bother getting out. She drove us along the road another hundred metres or so, to the real border crossing, and begrudgingly accepted our 80 baht fare.

We went through Thai customs, convinced that it was the real one this time by the queues and counters and signs warning us against precisely what we’d just been through (which might have been useful back at the bus station, guys). On the other side we crossed a bridge and went through Cambodian customs, with a polite and helpful young man assisting us all the way. He spoke good English and seemed to be on the level, telling us many times that the Thai side of the border was crawling with rip-off artists, but that “Cambodia freedom” and that he was an official tourist bureau guide. This was, of course, a signal that he was eventually going to fuck us over. We got onto the free bus with him, which took us to the bus depot, with him yammering on the whole way about how we could use dollars or riel and how “Cambodia freedom.”

Poipet didn’t seem as seedy as I thought it would be. It was slightly dirtier than Thailand, and covered in casinos, but on the whole it wasn’t the third-world shithole I imagined in my head. Still a thoroughly undesirable place to stay any longer than you have to.

When we got out at the bus station it was about four o’clock, and we had the option of either taking the slow bus to Siem Reap, or taking a much faster taxi. With four of us we figured we could get a pretty good price for a taxi, but Mr. “Tourist Guide” placed himself as our intermediary, and insisted that each of us pay 500 baht (16 AUD, a ridiculous sum). He went on about how petrol was expensive (despite the fact that the car clearly ran on LPG) and how the taxi driver was starving and so on. We eventually got him down to 300 each, and were holding out for 250, but he wouldn’t budge. I was willing to relent, since Chris and I had exactly 600 baht left between us, but the Danes were more stingy.

Our alleged benefactor was getting increasingly frustrated with us, as we told him we couldn’t afford it, and he asked us how we could afford to be travelling. Which is a fair point. I don’t like the idea of haggling with poverty. I’m spending $20,000 on an ultimately selfish backpacking trip, and 50 baht equals about $1.50. That’s nothing for us, but it’s a lot for them. I wasn’t too cut up about it, though, since the guy had essentially lied to us about who he was and what his job entailed. I was just tired of arguing and wanted to get into Siem Reap. Eventually we convinced the Danes that $10 each for a two hour taxi ride is a pretty good deal, and we were on our way.

The road between Poipet and Siem Reap was sealed last year, so it was a pretty smooth trip. Apparently it used to be a rocky road covered in landmine craters. Now it’s one long stretch of bitumen across the plains. Well actually I think they were fields, although nothing seemed to be growing in them, and the gathering storm ahead of us was whipping up huge clouds of topsoil.

We passed a lot of motorycles performing Herculean feats of load-bearing. A whole bunch of dead chikens, two dead pigs; one even had huge boxes covered in tarps suspended on either side, an entire ute tray worth of cargo balanced precariously on a motorbike. We also saw a lot of kids. I can’t remember the exact figure, but a huge percentage of Cambodia’s population is uner the age of 25, I guess because most of the baby boomer generation was killed off by the Khmer Rouge in the 70’s.

Cambodia is also, incidentally, the country with the worst rate of child sex slavery in the world. It’s entirely a market for Western pedophiles who fly here to take advanatage of it. There’s posters up about it and a hotline you can call and everything.

The thing is, even if I saw someone whom I was personally convinced was a Western sex predator, I still wouldn’t be able to call that hotline. What if you were wrong? You’d need absolutely damning evidence before bringing that down on a person.

Anyway, the scamming wasn’t over yet – the taxi took us straight to a stand of tuk-tuks, who gave us a free ride to a commission-paying guesthouse. It was actually a pretty nice guesthouse, though ($6 US each for for an air-con twin with wifi and private bathroom), so we agreed to stay there. Then we went out for dinner and came back to find that despite the air-con having been on full blast for an hour, the room was still stinking hot and the ceiling fan screeched when you turned it on. The wifi was also weak, although I suspect that’s going to be the case everywhere.

We needed some form of cooling apparatus, so we lugged our backpacks down the road to another place, where a nervous young man fiddled with the keys to our new room for about ten minues before we could get in. I was in the shower when Chris came back and announced that this guy didn’t normally work here and couldn’t tell him the wifi password or how to get the air-con working properly, so we were leaving. I towelled myself off and followed him down the road again, a looming thunderstorm threatening to break out any minute.

We found a place just in time called the Family Guesthouse, or something. It’s in a pretty crummy building but it’s nonetheless better (and cheaper) than our digs in Bangkok. The wifi is still weak and the room not as nice as the other two places we tried, but the air-con manages to struggle feebly against the heat, which is the most important thing. We’ll probably try to look for a better place tomorrow morning. For now we just need some sleep. Our hostel in Bangkok had the air-con stuck on the most freezing setting and our mattresses were rock-hard, so last night was not very refreshing.

One final irritation to round off the day was that my Mastercard has stopped working. God bless you, Bankwest. It worked just fine two days ago on Khao San Road. They better be able to fix it, or I’ll be relying on Chris all through Cambodia.

Incidentally, the de facto Cambodian currency is the US dollar, which is the first time I’ve ever seen one. They sure are stupid – they’re all green, so you can’t tell them apart at a glance, and they’re all the same size, so I don’t know how blind people are meant to tell them apart. Plus they’re made of paper. Get it together, guys.

This was a really boring blog entry. Having people treat you like the biggest rube on the planet isn’t much fun, but I doubt reading about it is either. I’ll try to do something more interesting tomorrow. We’ll be visiting Angkor Wat sometime over the next few days, which is the first thing on our very loose itinerary that I really want to do, so that should be good. Until then I can sleep satisfied knowing that we made it through the gauntlet without being scammed too heavily.