July 30th, 2006

Days 5: From Bangkok, Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia (Home of Angkor Wat)

OK. Day five of the trip (day one was Jul. 25 in Kyoto, Japan):

We woke up and headed down to the Northern bus terminal in Bangkok to get the 4-5 hour bus to the border town of Aranyaprathet. The guesthouse we stayed at in Bangkok, by the way, the Soi1 Guesthouse, was fantastic, and I highly recommend it for a cheap and nice place to stay in Bangkok ($6.25 a day).

So, getting to the bus terminal was not a problem, and we paid around $6 for the bus to Aranyaprathet. The bus ride was long and boring. There isn't much to see of the Thai countryside, at least on the road to the border. The roads are in great condition in Thailand, though, and the ride was very smooth. The people in the smaller towns were lower class, but we were not seeing any extremely poor people on the way there (remember this for later). There were a lot of rice and grain fields, though.

We finally got to Aranyaprathet, which is a dusty little town that looks like something right out of a Luis L'amour western, and had a bite to eat before we left for the border.

This is where the scams began. We KNEW about all the scams I am about to tell you about, we even knew as they were happening to us, but yet we still walked right into them.

After eating, a Tuk Tuk driver (evil evil Tuk Tuk drivers) beckoned us into his Tuk Tuk for a ride to the border. We talked him down to 100 baht (about $3). So he drives us, not to the border, but to an old office building with "Cambodian visas and tour buses, etc." on the side.

Mistake #1: we got out of the Tuk Tuk.
Mistake #2 (and this was MY fault): I paid the Tuk Tuk driver.

Once paid, he left, and we were sucked into the office. Mateo was too angry at me for paying the guy to realize that we were walking right into scam #2, which ended up costing us much more than 100 baht.

We sit down and the man at the desk tells us that we can get our visas and a bus here, and that we had good timing, since a bus was just about to come (in 5 minutes, this is important).

So we fill out some forms, and...

Mistake #3: we give him our passports.

Then he asks for 1500 baht and US$5. We knew that the visa should only cost us 1000 baht and no US$, but we were too busy being upset about the departed Tuk Tuk driver to mind about that...until the man went into the back room with our passports.

He comes out and tells us his driver will be here in about 10 minutes. Uh oh. Driver? 10 minutes? Wasn't it a bus in 5? Hmm. Now we are worried. On top of things, the man then goes away and eats his lunch leaving us sitting there alone. Usually, the travel agent would talk to you about this and that to ease your worries.
That and the place was called PLOY SIAM TOURS... This is about the time we realized we were being duped.

We wait the 10 minutes and a white van pulls up with no one in it. That is freaky, since if there were others in the van, at least we would be being duped together, but no. Just us.

Mistake #4: We get in the van.

Actually, we first ask for our passport back, but he lies and says that our passports are at the "embassy" at the border...

First there is no embassy at the border, and second I can see the passports hidden in a plastic bag in the driver's back pocket. But like the fryers we are, we get in the van anyway.

This is where it gets scary. It is us and a driver. About halfway to the border, he gets out (taking our passports "hidden" in a plastic bag) into a creepy where house leaving us for a good 5 minutes alone in the car.

We were getting more and more freaked out by the second. Are we about to be kidnapped? All our money stolen? What?

5 minutes pass, we see a cop enter the building and our driver leaves with our passports. He says it is all OK, but we are still nervous. He drives us another 2 km to the border and tells us to walk the rest of the way, and gives us our passports with Cambodia visas in them.

I am still not convinced that the visas are real, but what can we do. We head to the border and get our stamps out of Thailand. Now we are in the 100 yards of no man's land in between Thailand and Cambodia. We are approached by a guy that is talkative and friendly.

Mateo really trusts him, but I am put off since we just got taken. The guy is actually nice enough and we go on his free open air trolley to the passport window on the Cambodia side. It turns out our visas ARE real and we enter the country without issue.

I still don't trust this guy, but Mateo thinks he is AOK, so we go with him on a bus to the town of Poipet. There is a Tourist bus about to leave to Siem Reap (where we are going), and it is full of foreigners, so we deem it OK. The guy brings us to a money exchange stand (a couple of dudes and a stack of money), and tells us that e have to exchange our money into Cambodian Riel, since no other money is accepted in Cambodia. And we are hurried to do it, since the bus is leaving soon.

So I change over all my money (about US$90), and Mateo changes over some. Then we pay another guy 40,000R (about $10) to ride the tourist bus (we were overcharged on that, we should have been paying around $3-$5 is what the guidebook we bought said). Then on top of that we both gave the man that helped us out a 10,000R tip.

As we later discovered, not only is Riel, not the only currency accepted, but US$ is the currency that EVERYTHING is listed in at Siem Reap. And not only that, but we got a horrible exchange rate for it! Mateo exchanged some Japanese money and got HALF of what it was worth in Riel.

Mistake #5: We exchanged a bunch of money...at a street side vendor.

The Riel, by the way, seems to be pegged to the US$ at 4000R/US$1, yet we still got ripped off, mainly because things were moving so fast (the bus REALLY was leaving in mire minutes, we were the last ones on a full bus).

The leads us to:

Mistake #6: We got on the bus.

It usually takes 3-5 hours to get to Siem Reap from Poipet, but the Tourist buses take 6-8 hours with an hour long lunch break and a 15 minute toilet break. This is because their scam is to have you arrive SO tired to Siem Reap that you will want to stay at their Guesthouse, which will overcharge you. We knew this getting on the bus, though, and were not going to be suckered a 7th time! Fool me 6 times...fool on me...do!

Enough about scams though. Let me tell you about the bus ride to Siem Reap, which was an amazing thing to experience.

Cambodia is a POOR country. Thailand is not. The instance we crossed the border, you could tell the difference. The dirt roads were pockmarked and unmaintained, so even if we were going fast, it would be a very bumpy ride (but we were not, see about scam).

The most interesting thing about the bus ride is the extreme poverty we saw as we drove by. People were living in propped-up open-air huts with grass roofs in marshlands, so that the wall-less huts had to be on stilts to avoid being in the water. The people were clothed in dirty pants and the men rarely wore shirts. Most babies ran around naked. People slept in hammocks in some places, but most just laid on the floors of their huts. There was little electricity, and once night fell we could see some candles burning in some huts. Once in a great while we would see an electric light, and I noticed one hut with a TV in it.

As we got closer to Siem Reap, the tourist center of the city due to its proximity to the wonderful Angkor Wat temple, the huts improved. We saw more actual houses, and more cars and motorbikes. An interesting thing about cars and motorbikes was that there were no gas stations as we know them. Instead there are stands where families have old soda bottles full of Gasoline and a metal funnel to fill up vehicles. That was very surprising to me, but there is just no infrastructure for Gasoline stations here, even in Siem Reap proper, the most prosperous city in the area.

We got to Siem Ream a bit after 11 pm, and the bus driver told us that we could not go to the bus station because of "traffic jams" (a blatant lie, there is NO traffic at 11 pm in the city), and instead took us straight to their guesthouse as Mateo and I were expecting. They told us to leave our bags on the bus, but this time we were privy to the new information, see? We took our bags off the bus and left right away, even though there were at least 3 men trying to talk us into coming inside. I was determined to leave this bad situation and went into robo-trv mode and walked straight out of there, ignoring the men's words. Mateo is more polite and conversed with them, but I would have none of that.

We got a Tuk Tuk (for 4000R, or US$1) and had the driver drive us to our guesthouse we had reservations at (through hostels.com, oh how I love hostels.com) where we promptly got our room and crashed (they let us pay in the morning).

We were a little concerned about the Tuk Tuk (since we had just had a crappy Tuk Tuk experience), but this guy was on the up-and-up. And the guesthouse we are staying at is good. We have a private 2-bedroom room with bathroom/shower for $3/day. It is awesome (it is called the Jasmine Guesthouse, if you are looking for a good one).

End of Day 5.
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Day 6: Angkor Wat

Day 6. Today we went to Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is an old and quite large Hindu Temple in the heart of Cambodia that once was the seat of government during the greatest times of the Khmer Empire from the 9th Century CE to the 12th Century CE. It is so important hat it is featured on the national flag of Cambodia.

In the morning we woke up and rented a couple bikes from our guesthouse and headed off to the temple. Angkor Wat is actually only one of a great variety of Hindu and Buddhist temples in the area. The second temple we really wanted to see is called Bayon, inside the Angkor Thom complex. Bayon is a grand temple created by a king that converted to Buddhism, so the temple has large carvings of Buddhist heads (as tall as I am) engraved into the sides of the large towers of the temple.

Angkor Wat is amazing. The temple is in great condition thanks to many international conservations efforts led by UNESCO and various nation states. The best part about the place, by far, is that you have free reign to the place. We wandered all over there temples, and climbed to the very top of a couple, were we had a magnificent view of the city and forest around us.

One ruin that we went to, the first capital temple, had an amazing view from the top, and the ruins were virtually empty. So many tourists just go to Angkor Wat and Bayon that the other places are very low traffic, which is all the nicer.

One thing about the place is that there is a constant stream of little Cambodian kids trying to sell you stuff around the bigger temples. The children's English is very good, but you can tell that they have been trained well to say certain set phrases to warm you up. For example:

Kid: What's your name?
Me: Trevor.
Kid: Churevaa. OK. Where you from?
Me: America.
Kid: Oh, your capital is Washington DC. What state you from?
Me: California.
Kid: Oh, I'm from Sacramento. You buy from me, OK? Remember me.

That was a common transaction. Although I didn't buy anything, the kids are pretty cute, albeit persistence.

They even know some Japanese. I told one of them I was from Japan and they conversed a little in Japanese with me. I suppose it is good to know simple phrases in many languages when you are working in such a popular tourist area.

Speaking of that, I was surprised at just how many tourists from around the world are at Angkor Wat. There are very few Americans. The most common seem to be Germans and French, but there are people from all over that are visiting here. It is a shame more Americans don't come out. I fear that we breed Xenophobia in our part of the world. Our fellow Americans just don't travel the world as much as our international counterparts.

We ran into a couple from Germany that have been touring on motorbikes for 11 months, started in Germany and intend to end in Australia, riding their bikes all the way.

All and all, it was a very good day. We ate dinner at an outdoor stand and had some good food for $0.75. All our meals are cheap over here, although there are fancy hotels and restaurants in the area; we opt for the local cuisine, complete with fly-ridden tables and sort-of clean plates. But even with all that, it is GREAT food. V. Good Times.

The buddy I am traveling with is a vegetarian, so I have also decided to go vegetarian for the trip. It is a fun challenge and it has the added advantage to being usually the least expensive things on menus. :)

That's it for this time. Tomorrow we are going to explore town, so until then, take care and good night.

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