I wanted to go to Cambodia for one reason only – to see the Angkor Wat Temple Ruins in Siem Reap. Reputed to be among the most beautiful ruins in the world, Angkor Wat has been discovered by tourists in the last few years and each day they descend upon the complex by the bus load. The Cambodian government is doing little to protect the ruins and damage is occurring; it is only a matter of time until parts of the site are closed to tourists in order to preserve these valuable antiquities.
Most people who make the side trip from Bangkok to Siem Reap fly but the $350 airfare would have blown my budget. Instead I decided to take the bus for $60 round trip, booking through the tour desk at the Royal Hotel where I am staying. The tour desk employee booked me through a company named Unseen Travel (should that have been my first clue that something was fishy?) and said the bus would pick me up at 7:30 a.m. in front of the hotel and that I would arrive in Siem Reap around 5 p.m I was dutifully waiting in the hotel lobby at 7a.m., but by 8 a.m. no bus had arrived. Finally, one of the hotel transport drivers called the company for me. Within a few minutes a short, round man with a Fu Manchu mustache and two-inch long fingernails arrived. Manchu grabbed my suitcase and headed across two major highways to the waiting bus, with me trailing behind. “Hotel street one way – bus not go,” he explained. An inauspicious start, but as long as I made the bus I wasn’t worried.
The Thailand part of the journey was without incident and around 12:30 p.m. we reached the border. That’s when things started to go wrong. I’d been watching the highway signs and saw a sign for the border, with the arrow pointing to the left. Our driver turned right instead. A few blocks later we pulled into a restaurant and hotel, where we were all herded off the bus. A short man in tan shirt, black pants, and a wide palm leaf hat seemed to be in charge. His eyes were invisible behind large mirrored sunglasses. With every few words he sniffed loudly and rubbed his nose, like a coke addict the morning after a binge. He collected all our tickets, explaining that he would issue new ones for the Cambodian part of the trip, handed us immigration forms to fill out, asked for all our passports, and demanded we each pay him $35 for the visa fee.
“The visa on arrival fee is $20, not $35,” I said. I had read all about these scams on Lonely Planet’s web site and they advised not to pay.
“No you pay $35. I take form and passport to border and bring back visa for you,” he insisted. Some of the people on the bus stated to fill out the forms and pay the $35 dollar fee but those of us who held ourselves to be more savvy travelers were adamant in our refusal.
“This is not right. You are trying to cheat us.” Somehow I had become the spokesperson for the rebel contingent. What I forgot, however, is that you must never make an Asian lose face. There are ways to go about these things and ways not to go about them, and I apparently crossed the line.
“OK, you take suitcase off bus and stay here. Maybe you stay overnight. Maybe you get taxi back to Bangkok.”
“I’m not taking my suitcase off the bus and staying anywhere. I paid $30 to go to Siem Reap and that’s where I am going. The visa fee is $20 and that’s all I am paying.” I realized his employees were writing new tickets for everyone and asked for mine. “We have no time for you now. We are busy, must work. You wait. Maybe 20 minutes we give you ticket.”
Those who had paid the $35 fee were transferred to cars and taken to the border to go through Thailand Immigration and Cambodian entry, thereafter to be put on a new bus. The bus change is necessary because in Thailand they drive on the left hand side of the road and the steering wheel is on the right side of the bus. In Cambodia they drive on the right side, which necessitates changing to a vehicle with a left-hand side steering wheel. We renegades were told we had to wait ‘about an hour’ before we could leave for the border – a punishment befitting our crime.
At 2:30 p.m. we boarded the bus for the half-mile trip to the border and, once aboard, I was finally given a new ticket for the Cambodian portion of the trip. An employee of the firm accompanied us, explaining that we might be able to get on the same bus as the rest of our group if we could pass through the border quickly. “Officers at border not make so much money, must not make problem if they ask more than $20. Sometimes you pay less than $35 but this take lot of time – you must hurry to make bus, pay fee they want.”
When the bus pulled in to the border crossing area, my nemesis with the sunglasses, whom by this time I’d dubbed Mr. Snorts, immediately tried to separate me from the group. He sent the rest in one direction and told me to follow him in a completely different direction. I refused to leave the group, instead following them to Thai Immigration, where I had my passport stamped. I had officially left Thailand but now where to go? As I stood in the middle of a squalid dirt street riddled with muddy puddles, a no-man’s land between two countries, dozens of street urchins began grabbing at my clothes, trying to get money from me. I hotfooted it to an archway across the road that read ‘Kingdom of Cambodia’ and found a tiny ‘Visa on Arrival’ office tucked into the corner of the arch, where I joined the other passengers. No sooner had I begun filling out the entry paperwork than Mr. Snorts reappeared. Again he again tried to separate me from the group, all the while admonishing me to hurry or I would miss the bus. Meanwhile he had taken my passport from me and given it to the visa officer, who demanded $23 instead of the required $20 to “expedite” my visa. There was no negotiating this time. I could either pay the $23 and get on the bus or pay $20, wait three hours for them to process my visa, and miss the bus. I paid without argument. Snorts gripped my arm, led me to a motorized cart, and told me to wait.
“You still have my passport,” I reminded him.
“Yes, no problem, I bring to you. Car not go until I bring to you.” As he walked away, the cart driver started his engine and began to drive away. “NO, NO, NO!!!” I yelled. The driver stepped on the brakes looked back at me. I jumped off with my suitcase in hand, determined not to budge until my passport was returned. Snorts hurried over with my passport, telling me everything was OK, and not to worry. I had to find a way to take charge of this situation and figured the best way to do that was to beat them at their own game.
“Excuse me. I am sorry for being so upset. But I am an older woman and I am traveling all alone. I am like your mother. I am scared. You understand scared? I am really, really scared. I have never been to Cambodia before and I don’t know how this works. Can you help me like you would help your mother?”
“Yes, yes, Mami. I help you,” Snorts relented. The cart delivered us to yet another line where I filled out a second form, had my picture taken, and showed my onward ticket. Finally I was stamped and through. Snorts led me to a bench and told me to sit. Twenty feet away, all the people from my group were boarding a bus while Snorts continued with his scam: “Now Mami, you see I help you. I pay for you to get you through border.” He wasn’t going to let me board the bus until I coughed up some money.
Again my self-preservation mode kicked into high gear. “I don’t feel good. I think I am going to be sick. Is there a hospital in this town?”
“Hospital? You need hospital?” he asked.
“Yes, I think it is the heat. I am really sick. Maybe if I get out of the sun and into the bus where it is cooler I will feel better.” In a heartbeat, I was on the bus.
At 4:30 p.m. the driver finally started the engine, clunked into gear and headed down the road…two blocks. He pulled into a parking lot filled with ankle-deep muddy water, where we had to disembark with all our luggage and wade over to the replacement Cambodian bus. Although the bus we’d been on to this point had been less than comfortable, it seemed a rolling palace when compared to the old blue Cambodian bus. The seats were so close to one another that I had to sit at an angle. Even so, my knees butted into the seat in front of me. My seat-mate, Paul, couldn’t get in at all and had to make the entire trip sitting sideways with his knees out into the aisle. The space was so narrow that I couldn’t put my backpack on the floor, so I had to ride with it in my lap. The driver motioned for us to close our windows because the air conditioning was running, but the A/C was spewing tepid air so most of us reopened our windows. Finally, we took off for Siem Reap on the absolute worst pothole-filled, ungraded dirt road I have ever seen, jouncing and rattling along, weaving in and out of a steady stream of traffic that raised clouds of ochre dust, all but obliterating the surrounding landscape. It soon became apparent that the windows had to be kept closed because of the choking dust rising from flat, featureless, arid land stretching for miles in every direction.
The further we traveled, the worse the road got. Windows rattled in their metal frames, chirping like a million crickets locked up in a single room. Wipers beat a steady rhythm in a futile attempt to clear the windshield of dust. In the oppressive heat, the stench of ripe bodies mingled with an astringent scent of Wet Wipes. Every so often I had to ‘turn the other cheek’ because my butt kept falling asleep. Including an hour stop for dinner in the absolute middle of nowhere, this 156-kilometer trip (about 95 miles) took slightly more than five hours.
Just outside of Siem Reap the bus pulled over to pick up a ‘tour guide’ who said, “Welcome To Cambodia!” You could have heard a pin drop. Our guide explained that all the roads in Cambodia are very modern, with the exception of this one between Thailand and Siem Reap, adding that Bangkok Air pays a lot of money to the Cambodian government to keep the road in poor shape so that everyone will fly their monopoly route rather than take the bus. We would be arriving in Siem Reap in 15 minutes and the bus would stop at his hotel first so we could check out his rooms, equipped with TV, fan and hot water for only$10 per night. The pressure to stay at his hotel continued until we arrived – three blocks down a dark, smelly alleyway off the main drag. I wasn’t interested but we’d come to the end of the line. Those of us who didn’t want to stay at his hotel had to pay to be taken elsewhere and the guide insisted that all the other hotels in town were either fully booked for Cambodian New Year or were very expensive. Not believing his stories for a second, I insisted upon being taken to the Borei Angkor, a modern hotel with a pool and Internet. All the way there he harped that a room at the Borei Angkor would cost $180 or $200 per night, and that he could take me to another place that would be very nice for much less money. Fortunately I held my ground; despite the holiday, a room at this lovely hotel cost only $40 per night, including breakfast.
I’m glad I came here on the bus because it was an experience I will be able to look back on and laugh about for many years to come. But I’m not enough of a sadist to do it twice. Tomorrow I will check into flights back to Thailand.
Want to read more fascinating stories about dealing with authorities in foreign countries? Check out Lonely Planet Blog Carnival #4, a collection of posts written by the LP Blogsherpa Bloggers and hosted this week by Georgia at GingerBeirut.com and devoted to the subject “rubber stamp.”