Adventures with fake officials, scamming tuk tuks and taxi mafias on the Thai-Cambodian border
"Do you want to go to Cambodia?" I asked Avery as we sped down a highway in Krabi Province, Thailand in a van full of foreigners. "It makes sense." Outside, the limestone karsts rose above the jungle, like sand castles made by giants.
We had planned to head north from the islands to Chiang Mai, looking forward to the cooler temperatures and rugged terrain of the north. Then the girl next to me asked to see our Lonely Planet guide. We exchanged travel routes. "Oh, we're doing that too -- just backwards," she explained. They were heading to Cambodia once they reached Bangkok. By heading to Cambodia first, they'd be missing the sickening March/April heat of the hot season. By then, they'd be in the cooler northern reaches of SE Asia.
Avery and I had a little chat, and it was decided. We'd reverse our travel route, hoping to save me from some massive heat rash and the perpetual 95 degree days of Cambodia in the hot season.
Buses, Trains and Scams
The bus ride from (somewhere around) Krabi to Bangkok wasn't too bad. Except for the overweight French couple (I thought French people didn't get fat?), who kept waking me up with their butts every time they got up from their bus seat. We arrived in Bangkok around 4:30 a.m. and headed for Khao San Road, fabled backpacker ghetto. At this time, we thought everything would be closed up. But, oh right, this is Bangkok. Fueled by booze and Asian strength drugs, the partiers of KSR were going strong into the night. The 24-hour bar was blasting their American Top 40s, and the beer was flowing. We walked over to the 24-hour bar. "I need to stay awake," I said to Avery. There would be no sleeping at this establishment.
We chatted with a French guy who had accompanied us all the way from Railay Beach. He talked about his travels, including his time in northern Vietnam. After having his camera stolen on a bus there, he is a permanent hater. "They treat you like a dog," he said and made the poo-poo motion that only the French can make. (Say that quote in a THICK French accent, much better.)
The server never came over to us, so we never got a drink. Then at 5:20 a.m. we said good bye to ze Frenchman and headed to Samsen Road for a cab. But first we stopped at McDonald's so I could satiate my grease craving. Ah, Micky D hashbrowns.
We went through three cabs before we found one that would turn on the meter. First guy wanted 200 Baht, next one 100 Baht, the last one turned on the meter and we paid 53 Baht. Scammers. I'm sure they were waiting for the drunks, not sober backpackers.
We bought two tickets at the train station to the border, 48 Baht each. That's like $1.60. On the train, we met a couple from Canada who were living in Bangkok and going on an visa run to Cambodia. The guy (didn't get his name) had been in the Philippines doing research for his grad paper about the media there. The Philippines has the second highest rate of murdered journalists. One of my favorite parts about traveling this way is talking to people you meet along the way. It's really opened my mind to the myriad of opportunities that are present in the world. There are so many more ways to live, work and learn than I had imagined.
Our First Border Crossing
We arrived to the Arapaythet/Poipet border after five hours on the train. As soon as we disembarked, there was a bevy of annoying tuk tuk drivers waiting to take weary travelers to the border. "Tuk tuk to the border, miss?" an incredibly persistent driver asked as he followed me around. Annoyed, I shot back, "Okay, how much?" "Eighty baht." "Okay, let's go," I replied.
Off we went, passing buses, scooters and tuk tuks as we cruised down the red, dusty road. He stopped at a unofficial looking building. "Border. You get off here," he said.
Now, this was not the border. It didn't look anything like the border. I've been to Canada. I know what a border crossing was. For anyone attempting this border crossing, listen up. The drivers will take you to this building, where someone in a uniform will ask you to come inside and receive your Cambodian visa. DON'T GO IN THERE. That is not the crossing, and they may give you a visa. But you will pay way too much for it. I think they charge 1,000 Baht. It should only be $20.
"This is not the border crossing," I said. "Please take us to the border."
"Yes, this is the border."
"No, no it is not."
"This does not look like a border," Avery added.
The tuk tuk driver knew we weren't going to be fooled. Again, I demanded, "Where is the border?" He shrugged and pointed down the road. We paid, even though he did not take us the border. Then as we walked by, we were verbally assaulted by several uniformed people telling us to get inside for our visas. Ha, not today suckers! It's a good thing we read up on this crossing.
Then, we spent forever looking for a bank to exchange our Thai Baht into US Dollars (main currency used in Cambodia). All of the banks refused. UGH. We had read the Cambodian side was notorious for ripping people off during exchange. But no one in Thailand would do it.
We then set out for the crossing. My new rule is when in doubt, follow the locals. They all headed for a very poorly marked outdoor hallway that led to the border. We got in the foreigner line, which was long and filled with backpackers. And then, fast forward: stamp out of Thailand, welcome to Cambodia where we don't use signs to tell you which way to go, Cambodian visa ($20 plus 100 Baht that the custom officials pocket), take your picture, stamp your passport, okay now Welcome to Cambodia.
It was a long long process, but we did it without getting (relatively) scammed.
Illegal Taxi or Legal Taxi?
Next step was to find a way to Siem Reap. In Poipet, the taxis are run by the mafia. Once we passed through Immigration, we were accosted by a pushy, albeit friendly, representative of said mafia. With sparkling English, he told us to please take this free (woopdeedoo!) shuttle to the bus station. The tourist bus station, mind you.
I was pretending that I didn't hear him and kept walking. Then a guy came up to me and said, "Here, you can take a legal taxi or you can take an illegal taxi." I'm guessing he was the illegal taxi. I was never able to find out my options because the mafia rep ran up to me and pretty much verbally hauled us on the "free" shuttle.
At the station, we were presented with an overpriced taxi. Okay, it was only $12 each for a two hour ride. But that's a lot of dollas for this area of the world. And there are no negotiations. So we paid our fare and waited for the next taxi.
We waited in the cab for the two other occupants, who turned out to be two very disgruntled Canadians. "We paid for a private taxi," said the wife, obviously annoyed. Avery and I shrugged.
Turns out, the Canadians were actually very nice people. They had been to Cambodia in 2001 and were back again for more exploring. They pointed out all the things that had changed since their visit. Hospitals had been built, roads had been paved. "It looks like they're doing very well," she kept saying.
We talked about the US and the financial crisis. A lot of the older people meet always ask us about our political views and how we feel about Obama and the way the country is moving. It's interesting to hear foreigners' opinions. But they definitely love to hear what Americans think. The conversation is never a happy one.
Then, the car suddenly stopped at a food stall on the side of the road. A Khmer woman opened my door, "Hello, the car driver alway stop here to wash car. Please come in and buy something."
We watched a guy briefly spray off the hood with a pressure hose, while the shopkeeper kept trying to sell her overpriced wares. Here, drivers get commission for bringing unwilling travelers to their shops. I think this is the fourth time this has happened to us.
Two hours after Poipet, we reached Siem Reap. The taxi was supposed to drive us to our hotels. But instead, he delivered us to the hands of some ravenous tuk tuk drivers. We said good bye to the Canadians, who were whisked off in a tuk tuk to their posh Siem Reap resort.
Our tuk tuk driver said he did not know where our hotel was, despite us having the address. Siem Reap is not that big of a town. Another told us the address was too far out. He wouldn't take us. We did not have a phone or internet access. It was so incredibly frustrating. Stuck outside Siem Reap with a bunch of uncooperative tuk tuk drivers.
It was so frustrating because they did know where it was. They just refused to take us there, hoping we'd cave and be driven to one of their "suggested guesthouses," where they would then collect a nice commission. If a driver says he knows a nice place, don't listen. Usually it will be crap and not like it is in the photos.
Eventually we got to Hak's House, which is a very lovely guesthouse. I'd definitely recommend the place if you're ever visiting Siem Reap.
Then, we had some dinner and fell asleep. After all, we had just traveled from the south of Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia in 26 straight hours. Plus, we were getting up at 4:30 a.m. to visit Angkor Wat!