The Long Road to Siem Reap: Part II (Welcome to Scambodia) / by Heather

(continued from Part I)

Okay, I stole the title of Part 2 from a blurb in Lonely Planet, which uses the rather ugly term “Scambodia” to warn readers about the many scams set in place in parts of the country for unsuspecting tourists. It’s a somewhat unfair moniker as the vast majority of the country is made up of lovely people, happy to smile and help you out. But it’s almost inevitable if you’re crossing the border from Thailand to the ugly Cambodian town of Poipet that your trust and your wallet will be a little manhandled, with a bitter taste left stinging in your mouth.

That was our experience, unfortunately, entering Cambodia. Our train from Bangkok lurched to a stop in Arunyapratet, the Thai border town you have to pass through before you can enter the Kingdom of Cambodia. Now forgive me, because I have to interrupt myself with a quick digression. You see, I had studied the process of getting through the Cambodian border, very, very hard. I knew there would be a lot of scams to get through and so I had memorized this extremely detailed guide to order to hopefully make the transition into the country quick and successful. I felt I knew every step of the way, knew what to expect and what to say. Well you know what they say about the best-made plans. Yeah, they went completely to shit the second we stepped off the train and I realized the start of the guide didn’t really go over what to do when you don’t actually arrive right at the border.

Now coming in by train doesn’t seem like it would be that big a deal. Just find a way to get to the border from the station and continue as planned, right? Well it turned out not to be as simple as that. As we stepped off of the train, we were immediately pounced upon by a torrent of tuk-tuk drivers. I shook them off and ended up leading a small group of other backpackers to one side of the station, where we deliberated on what to do from here, while the tuk-tuk drivers circled menacingly around us, occasionally throwing out prices to take us to the border. I knew in the back of my mind we should avoid the tuk-tuk drivers, though in my tired brain (we had been up since 4:30am to catch the train), I couldn’t remember exactly why.

Which is another important point when it comes to traveling….everything seems straightforward and obvious until you’re actually there and you’ve been up the past 7 hours, having awkward conversations with people on trains, trying to find the best spot for your butt on horribly uncomfortable benches while choking on the slash-and-burn ash pouring in the open train windows and now you’re in some strange, dusty town, with a bunch of people yelling at you and asking you what to do, and you have this article from the internet in the back of your mind, but it didn’t say anything about the train station and all the locals have already jammed themselves on the one truck that had a hand painted sign that said BORDER and it’s leaving and another one isn’t coming and 80 BAHT EACH IS WAY TOO EXPENSIVE FOR A TUK-TUK RIDE STOP ASKING ME AAAAAUUUUUGGGHHH.

So maybe I wasn’t in prime mental condition. But we had to get to the border somehow and so even though I didn’t feel good about it, we haggled down a tuk-tuk driver, each of us backpackers splitting off into pairs. Asia and I had made friends with a British couple so that we could split a taxi with them from the border to Siem Reap and we waved bye to them, planning on seeing them again very shortly at the border. Poor, stupid us.

Our tuk-tuk driver drove us past a security booth and to a large white building that had a VISA sign on. We made our way inside, with me bristling and suspicious, on guard for scams like people offering to ‘help’ us fill out visa forms. But as we entered, a man with a badge around his neck simply gave us the usual immigration forms and instructed us to fill them out at a table nearby. I surveyed our surroundings, still feeling a little…off. The forms looked right and there was a good number of other tourists getting their visas processed, but several things gave me pause about the situation. None of the employees were wearing uniforms, as officials at the border should and the interior of the room was too colourful and comfortable. There were some couches in the corner and big signs welcoming us to Cambodia with large maps of the country. Not like the usual stiff and formal environments that most borders boast. My gut was telling me that maybe this wasn’t where we were supposed to be, but my brain kept waffling, unsure.

As we were filling our forms out, a young Cambodian man in a purple polo shirt came up and sat down with us. He was one of the employees and he had a lanyard with a badge on it. I tried to subtly read it to figure out where we were, but unfortunately it got flipped backwards. He was the kind of guy that you could tell was putting on the extra charm to sweeten us tourists up, but a genuinely playful and friendly attitude also shone through, so although I didn’t trust him, I liked him. We’ll call him Chhay (a Cambodian name meaning ‘charming’) for this story’s sake.

Chhay asked where we were all from and made small talk with us, all warm smiles and jokes. Then, as we finished our forms, he told us how much the visa cost….1200 baht ($42). Inside I jolted up. That was double the price of what a visa should cost and even though everyone should expect to be overcharged a bit, that was way too much. On the outside I tried to keep more relaxed.

“I heard that a visa costs $20,” (you are normally supposed to pay in US dollars, as that is the main Cambodian currency and if someone tries to charge you in baht, it’s to round up the exchange and get more out of you).

He smiled wide at me and ensured me that this was the price that we had to pay the government. I tried to haggle him down and joked that we were poor backpackers and couldn't afford 1200 baht. He laughed hard and related the joke to his supervisor, who didn't laugh at all. Even though he kept insisting on that price, I could tell he liked us and thought we were funny. Chhay apologized and said that the government couldn't give discounts and that’s what it was. I tried my sternest you-know-that-I-know-that-you’re-bullshitting-us soul-searching glare, but apparently I need to practice looking more intimidating and serious because he just kept laughing and joking with us.

What I should have done was as soon as he said the price was proclaim that that was absolutely NOT the price of a visa, grab my stuff, and leave. But it was tricky. I didn't know where to leave to. After he tried to get us to pay, I stalled a bit and said that we had friends who were supposed to have met us here and wandered off to go look for them. I walked outside around the building, trying to survey the area, but there was just a parking lot behind us and the main dirt road in front. I tried to look down the road a bit, but couldn't see far enough to know where we might be. It’s hard to gain the upper hand in a situation when you’re lost. I tried talking to other tourists who were milling about, but everyone just seemed confused and dazed. So finally, I went back inside and begrudgingly paid. I was worried that we were going to get scammed completely and not receive a proper visa for our money, but within a few minutes, we had legit visas in our passports.

Once we were settled with our visas, Chhay then pushed towards us a menu full of taxi options for getting to Siem Reap. I bristled when I saw the prices. A shared taxi with 4 was priced at 600 baht ($20) each and I knew we could get a government association taxi at the border for $12 a person (if we ever found the border). Now though, I was already annoyed at having been ripped off for the visa and was more dead set on getting the correct price for the taxi. So again I stalled, citing my missing friends, and said we would let him know later if they showed up. Chhay eased off us a little and instead gathered up a group of tourists and insisted we go outside for a quick introduction to Cambodia and a ‘free’ shuttle bus to the border. As he gathered up his little group, I whispered to Asia, ‘We need to get out of here” and we made our grand escape.

Unfortunately, our grand escape consisted mostly of hiding around the corner of the building from Chhay and trying to figure out where we were. We rapidly concluded that we didn’t know anything. I poked my head out around the corner to peek at Chhay lecturing the group about what kind of currency Cambodia uses. He looked over and I quickly ducked my head back around the corner.

“Miss! Miss! We’re over here!”

Shit.

We reluctantly dragged our feet over to the group and listened to the rest of the basic orientation. Untrusting and antsy to get out of this tourist trap and to the border, we had managed to slowly back away from the group again, but as the lecture winded down, Chhay saw us standing by ourselves, debating on what to do next and came over.

“Look,” he said warmly, leaning in, “I can get you taxi for 550 baht ($18) each. Special. Just for you. Don’t tell anyone. I couldn’t inside, because my bosses could hear. But 550!”

Oh ho! So now he could magically give discounts. Asia and I looked at each other out of the corner of our eyes and tried to hide our bitter smiles. I brushed the offer off, saying it was still too high. I then looked at him in the eyes and asked point-blank, “This isn’t the only place we can get visas, is it?” Chhay’s normal large smile dropped and a slightly uncomfortable one took its place. He shifted his weight.

“No…”

“There are lots of different agencies that pull in tourists before the border, aren’t there?”

He didn’t say anything but looked at me and I could see the truth in his eyes.

“And they’re all government run since they can issue visas?”

“Yes….” He waved his hand furtively at the office. “My bosses….”

He trailed off and as I watched at the way he looked at the office and spoke, I suddenly felt heart-wrenchingly bad for him. I’ve had some unfortunate jobs so far in my lifetime, but never have I had to cheat and lie to confused people day in and day out to make a living. This job must be one of the best you could get anywhere around Poipet and he must have worked hard to learn English and get it. And yet the work was so underhanded and, in a roundabout way, demeaning.  My hostility dissipated immediately.

That was one of the fascinating things about Cambodia that I discovered. Even with all the scams, the begging, and the pushy sales, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the people. The have a positive and enduring quality to them that time and time again took us in and amazed us.

I immediately lightened up with Chhay and he too, seemed more at ease, still offering us the taxi once in a while, but understanding that we wouldn’t take it. He insisted we take the free shuttle bus to the border with him and after we asked about ten times whether or not it was really free, we agreed.

What had happened to us up to this point is that our tuk-tuk driver, like many of the drivers at the border, dropped us off at a tourist agency, because he gets cut for bringing us there (hence, my gut feeling in the beginning that we shouldn’t take a tuk-tuk). These agencies, many of which are not clearly marked, are scattered all throughout the town and filter in a vast amount of tourists before they ever even reach the actual border. It’s all run by the government, which was fascinating to me, that they have their (mostly) legit processing at the actual border and all these traps to part tourists with their money.

But ah well. The truth became clear too late and there wasn’t anything to do but learn from it. Our little group headed off towards the border. Asia and I quickly discovered why the free shuttle bus was indeed free….because it was imaginary and by ‘free shuttle bus’ Chhay meant “now we will walk 10 minutes to the border.”

When the actual border came into sight, I wanted to slap myself in the face. There it was, big, official, and obvious. If I had left the tourist agency and walked down the road, just a little bit, I would have seen it right away.

Lesson- Don’t part with any money until you see this building:

(and even then, it's dodgy)

 We made it through the actual border very quickly. Chhay would direct the group through, then come back and chat with Asia and I. He told us a little bit about himself and with a cheeky smile said that if we didn’t want to take a taxi, we should stay in Poipet until he got off work and come party at the clubs with him and then he would drive us down to Siem Reap. I shuddered inwardly at the thought of staying in Poipet a second longer than absolutely necessary and politely joked away his offer.

While waiting in line to get our visas stamped before officially entering Cambodia, Chhay encouraged the group to pay a small fee to go through the fast line…aka bribe a guard to put you at the front of the line. I declined and told everyone around us not to give them any more money. At this point, the whole group had realized the scam and we were all feeling sore and abashed, so everyone was happy to stubbornly stand in line and clutch their wallets to themselves.

Asia and I made quick friends with an older Norwegian couple in line so we could be taxi buddies and all split the price. The taxis are run by the government as well, except they in this case, are the more direct and honest option, which makes everything all the more confusing, as there is no clear line of what you can or cannot trust from the government. As we settled a taxi, a tout tried to convince me that we had to change our money here (at outrageously inflated rates) because US dollars were no longer accepted in Cambodia. I very politely told him to get lost.

We even saw our original British taxi-buddies from the train and were happy they had made it through, but as they were set with their taxi and we had our new couple in tow, we just wished each other well and went on our way. The taxi driver collected our guesthouse addresses and we were finally saying goodbye to the border, several hours after we had arrived.

The two-hour ride to Siem Reap was fairly uneventful. I tensed up when our taxi stopped a couple times (the non-government association ones have been known to kick their passengers out halfway there) and our driver got out and looked at the back right tire for a while. But whatever trouble our car was having apparently didn’t warrant too much attention, because he just got back in and keep driving without a word each time.

We finally starting getting into the edges of Siem Reap, as huge, palace-like hotels grandiosely lined the main avenue into town and everyone breathed a sigh of relief as our grand adventure was winding down. But that sigh was quickly sucked back in when the taxi abruptly stopped in the middle of town at another taxi association headquarters…not our guesthouses.

We looked around in confusion a little bit as our driver got out and taxi association men started opening the doors, motioning us to get out.

“Ah, I heard about this,” lamented the Norwegian man. He and his wife had also been scammed at the border by a different agency, so we were all used to being abused at this point. Except by now, I was pissed. I had already been tricked out of an extra $20 dollars, I had paid my $12 dollars for this ride, the association had made a whole big show out of getting our addresses, and damned if we weren’t going to get our money’s worth. I wasn’t going to spend a cent on an extra tuk-tuk ride to our place when they had said they would take us all the way there.

Several association men leaned in through the back door.

“You come out now. This is where taxi stops.”

“No. We’re not getting out. We were told we would be taken to our guesthouse.”

“No, it’s okay, you get out here. You can take a tuk-tuk to your guesthouse.”

“No, we paid to be taken to our guesthouses. Take us there.”

The men kept trying to assure us that everything was fine, this is just how it worked. But we doggedly held our miniature sit-in, not budging from the back seat as the men got less and less patient. Some even went around the back, open the trunk and started pulling out our bags. The Norwegian man, resigned to his fate, got out of the car and I grimaced at him for breaking rank. But I continued to argue with the taxi mob until one finally asked what our guesthouses actually were. The Norwegians told them theirs and they cried that it was too far away, 4 kms. I asked how far away our place, Prohm Roth Guesthouse, was and they said 2 km. I insisted again they take us there and now the excuse was that they couldn’t take us to two different places.

That’s when inspiration struck. I told them to just take us to one place then. They looked at us three women in the back, not moving and glaring at them, and finally resigned. Okay, they would take us to one guesthouse. Now, this was a little sneaky on my part, because I knew they would take us to the closest place, which was mine and Asia’s. But I figured that even for the Norwegians, it would be a little better because they would be at least 2 km closer to their own hotel. So amazingly enough, all our bags were piled back into the trunk, I barked at the Norwegian man to get back in the car, and several minutes later, we were arriving at the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen…our guesthouse. We said goodbye to our taxi-buddies, who stayed in the car and were hopefully able to bully the driver into taking them to their place and then, we were finally able to rest. We were free from the hassle and abuse of this country.

That is, until later that night when we got a whole different kind of abuse from some of its youngest members...

Continued in Part III.