Siem Reap-Off

[Written Friday, March The 16th, Night]

The Aranya Prathet/Poipet Border Crossing is, by many accounts, kind of the Mos Eisley Spaceport of Southeast Asia. “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.”

I’d read up in the guidebooks. I’d studied at the Internet. I’d dotted my “I”s and I had crossed my “T”s. I, Informed Traveler Guy, would not get scammed! And then? Like a featherweight schmuck fresh outta nursery school, I done got scammed. But only for about $5; so I’m actually rather counting my blessings.

The day began at 4:45 in the AM. Yikes! Have not arisen so early since…I guess since my still-not-regretted decision, a few years back, to stop accepting Breakfast shifts at work. Good practice, I guess; ‘cause to really get the most out of Angkor, one is supposed to greet the new day at 4:00 in the AM.

Trying not to awake my dormmates, I slipped out, went downstairs, turned in my key, and crossed the street to the train station. The ride was kinda smoky, as we were going through some burning areas. Also, not as scenic as I’d been led to believe it would be. And I need, before my bony ass stages a goddam rebellion, to figure out some sort of cushioning system for these third-class train trips (whose insanely low prices I’m genetically incapable of passing up). But, basically it was fine – and we arrived in Aranya Prathet more less on time.

Got I ride with a lady Tuk-Tuk driver. Only the second I’d ever seen; the other had been just recently – I think it was in Nong Khai. She was happy to accept the price I’d read is the going rate. Maybe could’ve offered lower; but, what the Hell?, gotta support the lady Tuk-Tuk drivers, innit?

She drove me to “Passport Control”, and attempted to drop me at the “Visa Border” shop. Not sure exactly what goes on here; but I gather it’s something to do with frightening wide-eyed border-crossers into believing that their documents are not in order, and that the shop’s services would set it to right.

The real crossing is a few hundred yards down the street. I requested the lady Tuk-Tuk driver to drop me there instead, and she proceeded to do so, no questions asked. I think the Tuk-Tuk drivers receive a cut of the take from every person dropped there; but I guess they don’t really feel like pressing the issue. After all, the rider could always get out and walk the rest of the way.

Okay, deep breath. One scam successfully avoided.

Kind of a lot of walking between stations at this crossing, compared to others I’ve visited. But, get stamped out of Thailand, apply for the Visa-On-Arrival, wait a few minutes for approval, no real problem. The fee was $20 for the official charge, plus an extra 100 Baht for…the officials’ pockets, apparently.

So this is something of a scam; but carried out by uniformed officials, so not easily avoidable. The fee appears to be negotiable, but as the guidebooks and sites talk of haggling it down to $5, 100 Baht seemed not to be worth risking the pissing off of the men with my passport in their hands.

Plus, they were all super-friendly and helpful. So, so far: maybe a little scratch, but nothing like a mortal flesh-wound. But then this is where it began to get confusing.

I stowed my passport away, thinking I’d not again be called upon to produce it. Walking to the next station, which I’d thought was the free shuttle-bus to the Depot, was joined by a gentleman explaining that I still needed to get stamped in to Cambodia, after which I could get the shuttle-bus, and then choose the means of transport to Siem Reap.

And, I couldn’t figure out if he was a scammer or not. It seemed like he probably must be; but his uniform looked pretty official, and he was as super-friendly as had been all the other government officials. And, he was certainly correct about needing to get stamped in at a separate station from that which issues the Visas. Besides, he left me there to queue up, and I figured that was the last of him.

But after the stamping-in, and the exiting of the building to now head for the shuttle-bus, he magically appeared again, and escorted me to the waiting area, where he’d a partner rounding up those who’d been in line before and after myself.

Pointed out the large sign explaining that the free state-run shuttle-bus departs every five minutes, and had us sit down and wait. There was a green bus there at the kerb, and I didn’t really understand why one couldn’t just board straight away; but, okay, whatever.

So then after a few minutes, the green bus up and drives away. I made a kind of half-assed attempt to run and catch it, to no avail. Turning to the helpful agent with a What Gives? look in my eye, I was told that this departing green bus was for the 2:00 run (or some shit I didn’t understand), and to just sit down and wait five more minutes.

Okay. Then a van showed up, the agents herded a bunch of us onto it, and off we went. During the five-minute ride, the agents made friendly chit-chat and taught us some basic Khmer language skillz; and soon enough, we were at the depot.

We were then shewn to the money exchange booth. During the ride, the agents had said that it’s more efficient to exchange Baht for Riel, because there isn’t a commission on this exchange, as there is with exchanging dollars. Wanted to get rid of some of my smaller-denomination Baht anyway, so I did it there.

Oops, I’m finding that this long day has rendered  me fairly damned groggy; so, To Be Continued…

[Written Saturday, March The 17th, Morning]

So at the Depot, you can purchase either bus or share-taxi tickets to Siem Reap, Battambang, Phnom Penh, Sisophon, and other destinations. There’re supposed to be four or five companies selling these same two services, but only one seemed to have its windows staffed.

The bus is $9 for a three-hour tour, and its departure was an hour away (though they’re known to often depart later than promised, hence my preference to use the taxi option); the taxi is $12 for a two-hour tour, leaving as soon as four riders have purchased tickets.

For some reason, the “guide” was quite insistent that I purchase a bus ticket, though I preferred the taxi option. The guide successfully scare-tactic-ed me into purchasing a bus ticket by saying that the taxi was unlikely to fill up, and that if the 2:30 bus did fill up, I’d have to wait ‘til the 5:00 bus.

So I bought the bus ticket; during which, the other “guide” came up to me and happily showed me that another guest had given him a $5 tip. So, after finishing up the purchasing of the ticket, the “guide” handling my “case” said, “Okay, I’m heading back to Thailand now…do you have anything for me?” Meaning a tip. I gave him a dollar, and sat down to try to figure out just what was going on.

The other “guide” unsuccessfully attempted to shame me into giving a bigger tip, by telling how pitiful their wages were, and cetera.

So, sitting waiting for the bus, and seeing a number of official government shuttle-buses show up confirmed that we’d indeed been transported by touts – but, the “official” buses had touts as well, leading people through the same routines. Huhn.

Got to discussing the matter with a German couple with whom I’d shared the train ride, and we couldn’t really piece together why the touts were so insistent that we purchase bus rather that taxi tickets, given that each company offered both services.

Upon reflection, my guess is that perhaps the state requires each company to offer both services, at the price determined by the state (all the companies have the same prices for all services); but that the bus service offers a higher rate of profit. Dunno, but this explanation seems plausible.

Another American showed up, and I watched him go through the same routine of wanting to purchase a share-taxi ticket, but being conned into getting a bus ticket. I lamented that the same’d happened to me, but, oh well. He said that he’d been told he could exchange for a taxi ticket even after the purchase of the bus ticket.

Intrigued, I confirmed with the clerk that this was possible, asked the Germans if they wanted to share with us, and we were brought to the taxi. Easy as that. A government official asked our nationalities, and at which guest houses we’d booked, and we were off.

The taxi driver was a broadly smiling fellow; and the music he was playing on the way here was really great — I rather prefer it to both Thai and Lao music, both of which I quite liked.

We stopped to get gas, then stopped down the road a piece, at “My home…my home.” I joked that he must have a peanut-butter sandwich waiting for him, which joke elicited a huge laugh from the other three riders. Much to my surprise, I must say, ’cause I had considered it a pretty lame attempt at humour.

The driver got out, opened the trunk, and gave his wife a bunch of burlap sacks and $20, and we were back on the road.

The American is an engineer from DC, who began his trip in September with short stays in Seattle and Vancouver. The Germans are traveling their way toward Australia, where they plan to spend a year working and/or WWOOFing.

During the ride, I began to wonder about the money exchange window. It hadn’t looked terribly official, now that I thought about it. Pulled out my phone and looked up the exchange rates; sure enough, the rate offered at that depot is quite a bit poorer than it should’ve been. Luckily, I’d only exchanged the 460 Baht, so only got gypped out of about $2.50.

Seems to me, however, that this is the most dangerous entrée in the scam buffet – though I didn’t see it mentioned anywhere in the guidebooks or on the websites.

We arrived to Siem Reap in the advertised two hours. At the edge of town, we pulled over, and met up with the driver’s brother, who speaks English, and who lives in Siem Reap. We were to get Tuk-Tuks to our guest houses, free of charge.

When my driver got me to his Tuk-Tuk, he asked me how much I was planning to pay him for the ride. I said that I’d been given to understand that it would be free of charge. Oh yes, of course it’s free of charge. But if you want to tip, you’re more than welcome to. Ah-ha. Then he took a fairly circuitous route to my guest house, had me for a minute or two thinking he was going to drop me off in the middle of no-man’s land, saying I could get back into town only if I paid a generous tip.

But at last, we did wind around back into town, he dropped me off at my place, and I tipped him two bucks.

So, I reckon the scammers took me for $1 to the guide, $2 to the Tuk-Tuk driver, and $2.50 at the money exchange window. And the taxi ride had actually been pretty enjoyable, with the good company and the awesome music. Could’ve been a lot worse.

There was also the 100 Baht at the Visa window, and the bus/taxi rates were about double or even triple what they probably ought to’ve been for the distance covered – but as these are “official” scams, and thus unavoidable (unless one is willing to fly in), I don’t really count these in the scam damages.

Huhn. This may be the most boring blog post ever written by any human! But, I’ve now done and written it, so may as well go ahead and press  “publish”…

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1 Response to Siem Reap-Off

  1. Lindsay says:

    Hey Eddie, really enjoyed this post. I just re-crossed into Cambodia last week and was given the run around. Why must entering Cambodia always be so hard? I came through Hat Lek/Koh Kong this time. So far the easiest crossing is Ban Pakard/Prum, although getting to Battambang from there is a haggling bitch.

    Hope to catch up with you some time – you ever coming back to Asia? 🙂

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