Our first experience with Cambodia and scams occurred before we even crossed the border. We had lunch with a guy from Hong Kong, then the 3 of us got a tuk-tuk to the border. Only the tuk tuk didn’t take us there directly. Instead we were taken to a shack-like, well, shack where some men in uniforms gave us Cambodian immigration papers, then told us it would cost 1200 baht (about 40$) to get our visas. Jody and I already had our e-visas, but the guy we were with had to pay before they’d drive us the rest of the way to the border. Once we got there, I noticed the actual price of the visa on arrival was closer to 20$. Jerks.
After a long wait at immigration we got through were in Cambodia. Unlike Thailand and Laos, Cambodia doesn’t have any government-run public transportation system. Or maybe they do and we didn’t see it. In any case, we had to find our way to Siem Reap, about 2 ½ hours away. We got on a free shuttle from the immigration checkpoint to the bus station with 2 other white couples, where a local guy stood up and said that we should change all our money into riel (the national currency) because no one takes baht. We could use the US dollar but everything would cost more, because they can’t give change in US money (ie if we paid for something that was 2000 riel with a 1$ bill we wouldn’t get change. 4000 riel = 1USD). And of course, when we got a bottle of water from the bus station and Jody paid in baht he got a terrible rate. But we kind of expected this, right?
Have I mentioned Cambodia is notorious for ripping of white people?
Once we got to the station, we had a choice of taking a shared taxi, or a bus. The guys were trying to get us into a cab for 48$, and we said it was too much, even for 4 people (12$). We were told this was the best rate in town. The bus wouldn’t be leaving for 3 more hours. After threatening to leave, we got it down to 40$, all the way to our guesthouse. The rest stop we fuelled up at told us we could only use the bathroom for free is we bought something. Once we were near Siem Reap the driver stopped, said cars were not allowed into the city proper, and that we could take a tuk tuk for free into the city. The catch was, we had to book a temple tour with that tuk tuk driver the next day for 20$, or he’d charge us 5$ each. We argued, then decided we’d take the ride, then change hotels. The driver took us to a guesthouse, but I really liked it so we decided to stay (dumb move on my part). We told the driver we wanted him to pick us up at 9am, thought Jody and I already decided we wanted to go for sunrise. So we arranged with our guesthouse a tuk tuk driver to come very early, and a whole day for 15$. Sounds good so far.
So, at the hour of super-early we woke up and met our driver. We bought our tickets and headed to a small reservoir for sunrise. We heard Angkor Wat was great to see at sunrise, but had a tendency to be really crowded. So we decided to save it for last. When we arrived at Sras Sorong we were greeted by a crowd of children trying to sell us coffee, books and trinkets. They were pretty relentless, and when we politely declined whatever it was they were selling they would ask “Why you no buy?” Heart wrenching. The kids would even ask where we were from, and then reply “Canada, capital city Ottawa”. Great, but you probably can’t read the words Ottawa or Canada, or point out either on a map.
We visited about a dozen sites during the course of the day. We found the temples that had the most decay to be the most interesting. We saw temples with so much decay trees were growing around them. Amazing. Another, the Bayon, had all these faces carved in it. Angkor Wat, our last stop, felt anti climatic after everything we’d seen all day. The main facade was also under renovation, making it a bit of a eyesore to photograph. Fortunately, the back is very similar to the front, so we went there for pictures.
We headed back to the guesthouse for food and drinks. In one of the guidebooks we saw a bunch of pizza places that had names like “Happy Angkor Pizza” or “Ecstatic Pizza”. I wasn’t sure if Jody believed me when I told him it’s not uncommon to put marijuana on pizza here. In any case, we decided pizza would be a nice treat. The menu didn’t say anything outright, but when we made our order the guy asked if we’d like our pizza “happy”. When in Rome…
At around 6am the next morning I woke up and noticed Jody wasn’t in bed. He was at the door telling someone “It’s 6am, come back later and we’ll talk then”. It was the tuk tuk driver from 2 days ago! He’s come by the previous day and someone working at the guesthouse told him which room we were in. Needless to say, we changed guesthouses!* The driver was trying to tell us we owed him money because he’d come the day before and we weren’t there. I can’t remember what Jody said to him but we gave him a few dollars and he buggered off. That is, after we declined his offer to take us to a different guesthouse. WTF?
Once we find another place we visited a silk-production workshop. It was really neat to watch people prepare silk and use the looms all by hand. It was with a group that does fair trade artisan crafts. I picked up a small camera case, my old one had fallen into the depths of Lumpini stadium a few days earlier. That evening we walked around the night market and the appropriately named Pub Street. For a city of its size Siem Reap has a lot going on. Then again, it’s mostly for tourists.
Part 2 – Phnom Penh is coming up.
** The guesthouse was the European Guesthouse. It’s mention in Rough Guide, not Lonely Planet.
(We were in Cambodia April 4-9 2010)