Friday, 2 March 2012

Dodging Scambodia

If you google search "Bangkok to Siem Reap", you will quickly come across many horror stories about the overland journey. Most of the problems are related to scams - being overcharged for visas, transport taking far longer than promised, and general frustrations at being surrounded by dishonest people trying to con you out of your cash with lies. This worried me, and I started having doubts about Cambodia, especially after I hearing that this sort of behaviour was countrywide, with people starting to call it Scambodia.

Shoving aside temptations to just skip it all with a plane flight, we decided to give the Aranya Prathet - Poipet border crossing a go. I was reasonably confident about navigating the known traps, hoping to avoid all of them. Our travel day started with a 4am alarm. With sleep still in our eyes we walked through the not-quite deserted streets of Chinatown (Bangkok, another city that doesn't sleep) to the train station. We arrived early to ensure train seats, bought two 3rd class tickets to Aranya Prathet and then waited for our train to arrive. We drowsily boarded the train when it finally rolled in, finding two hard seats facing each other and made ourselves comfortable for the 5 hour ride. Pretty soon many more people boarded the train, so our seating arrangements had to be amended to allow an elderly lady and her two grand children to occupy the opposite seat. Although the ride was starting to look a bit cramped, it was great seeing the children's constant fascination with the scenes passing our open windows.

Out the window - 05:55 train to Cambodia

The sun rises as we make our way to Cambodia - Outside of Bangkok

Out the window - Train to Cambodia

Not being big eaters at 4am in the morning, we hadn't had anything to eat yet. There were people walking up and down the train selling miscellaneous things in baskets, but there was nothing that we fancied, and we kept hoping another basket would come along with something more appetising. That was a mistake. Our bums were sore from the hard seats and our stomachs rumbled as we staggered off the train at lunchtime.

Our first challenge over, we now needed to get to the actual border, which was still 5 kilometres away near the Rong Kleu Market. Many drivers approached us, but we soon found a tuk-tuk driver who quoted us the right amount. It was suspiciously fuss-free, no haggling required, but we went along for the ride anyway. We stopped at a white-washed, official looking building. We were about to get out when a man approached the vehicle with forms in hand asking whether we had visas. Ah, suspicions confirmed; this was one of the first scams that I heard about. A simple one, where they insist that you need to purchase a visa before heading to the border, for much more than the official rate. Being prepared for this, we remained in the tuk-tuk and said that we already had a visa. We didn’t actually have them yet, but we knew that we could get them at the real visa office on the Cambodian side of the border. Cheated of her commission, the driver gave us an annoyed look before wheeling the tuk-tuk around and continued to the real Thai customs building, identified by typically Thai gold decorations. The rest of the Thai side was easy and we were stamped through.

We walked across no-man's land, accompanied by dozens of other tourists. Border trade was bustling as well, with truckloads going from Thailand to Cambodia, and human-pulled overloaded cartloads going from Cambodia to Thailand. It was a stark change in means of goods transportation, and it still baffles us as to how much one skinny person is able load onto a cart and then pull over a rough dirt road.

We located the Cambodian visa office and paid the required US$20 fee, plus an extra 100baht each for “processing”, before we had visas. While I was being stamped into Cambodia, I observed, for the first time, a bribe being transacted. The customs officer was given a Thai passport to process, in which a few hundred baht was surreptitiously placed. I don’t know what that was for but it seemed to go all smooth for them, and I started to worry that I might be asked to do the same. Not today though; it all checked out and we were in Cambodia!

A helpful young man approached. We were on our guard, but he did lead us to the free shuttle bus that we needed to catch. Joining us on the bus he started chatting, asking questions about our different backgrounds. Soon he started talking about the benefits of converting US dollars to Cambodian riel, and how terrible it would be for us to be stuck in Cambodia without any riel. As per the scam we read about, we were dropped off at the taxi stand, where his friend was running a currency exchange window, with some very awful rates. We had enough money to take us to Siem Reap and also knew that the US dollar was accepted, sometimes even preferred, pretty much everywhere. He realised he would not get any commission from us today, but he still had the balls to insist on a tip!

We ganged up with a friendly Irish couple from New Zealand and split the taxi ride to Siem Reap. We weren't dropped off at our hotel as we expected; instead we were transferred to a “free” tuk-tuk, accompanied by another friendly man, that would take us to our hotel. The friendly man sensed our doubt, and insisted that it would be free. We had already booked and paid for the hotel online, so we figured we could survive another dig for a commission. On the way to the hotel it became obvious why the ride was free - he wanted us to hire him to show us around the temples the next day. Tia asked a question, “How old are the temples?” to test his knowledge, but his reply was not satisfactory, “Uh, older then me I think”. Sorry mate, not the answer we needed.

We finally arrived at our hotel in the late afternoon, starving and tired. Despite several attempts we managed to avoid all the scams and with a sigh of relief we headed out looking for some Khmer food. I noticed a push bike rental store nearby that had some good mountain bikes. I think we just sorted out transport for tomorrow.

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