After two uneventful nights in Bangkok spent recovering from our flight and visiting stuff, we decided that we would head over to Cambodia to visit the temples of Angkor Wat. But instead of flying, which would cost about $110 per person, we took a bus. The experience that followed was a stressful crash course in scam economics.
We began our day with a quick skytrain ride from Nana station to Mo Chit station, the station closest to the Mo Chit bus terminal. The bus terminal was much farther than we had been led to believe, but the walk was pleasant, since most of it was through Queen Siskrit Park. I had been told before my trip that any sin of which I was guilty, from improper clothing to just being an American tourist generally, could be absolved with a big smile. So for my first few days in Asia, I was grinning like a complete idiot – big ear to ear smiles for any passer-by. So the people working in the park – cutting grass, pruning trees, picking weeds – must have thought I was some kind of sociopath, or maybe a prison escapee, carrying 30 lbs of stuff and THRILLED about it. I was just SO HAPPY to be in a park.
After another 15 minutes beyond the park, we arrived at Mo Chit Bus Station. The station agent told us we had missed the “direct” bus, and that instead, we would have to take one bus to Aranya Phatet and then pick up another one on the other side of the border to Siem Reap. So, we bought our $20 tickets and boarded bus #1. Of course, we noticed other passengers getting on with little “Siem Reap” nametags. We kept our eyes on them for our border crossing to see if they got any different deal than we did. (We never did end up figuring out how much they had paid for their indirect direct bus tickets.)
The bus stopped near the border at a nondescript office building, where they told us to get out and fill out little Arrival cards that we would need at the border. They also told us it would be 950Baht, or about $40, for our Cambodian visas. That’s when Rebecca and I ditched this little operation, knowing full well that a visa to Cambodia was $20, not $40, and warned others to do the same. We started a little trend, apparently, because we learned later that one of the guys that was apart of the racket flipped his lid at the other passengers, saying they should listen to him and that we were doing it the wrong way. I suppose we cost him a good day’s wages in scams, so if I were him, I’d be pissed, too.
We got to the visa office on the Thai side armed with our passports, a passport photo, and the arrival cards that we had filled out at the bus office with the name and address of our hotel in Siem Reap. The passport photo, we had learned in previous research, would save us $1 and just made it take a little less time to get through. Despite signage above the window that said the visa was $20US, the visa people wanted it in Baht, and said it was twice as much. We had US dollars, so we just paid the $20, plus the required bribe (if that’s the term to use – kickback?) of 100Baht ($3). Thusly, we avoided scam #2 for the most part, eating the $3 begrudgingly.
We left the visa office and entered the Thai side of the actual crossing, an official office with police officers inside that asked for no bribes or extra money – very by the book. They stamped our passports as having exited Thailand and we moved on to the next stage – the Cambodian side.
At this point I will tell you that the border crossing from Aranya Phatet to Poipet is chock full of casinos where people go just over either border to bet, hopefully make a few bucks, and head home, avoiding some taxes most likely. Thais looking for a quick opportunity to gamble travel up there and cross with no problem, since they know the drill and are Asian. For tourists, it is a little harder, and scams are plentiful. In such a homogeneous area, white people might as well be carrying a banner that says, “Hello, I am a tourist with lots of money, please take advantage of me.”
So we get in the massive line to get our entry stamps for Cambodia, and I notice a bunch of people being ushered past the line. What was that line? “Those are VIPs, a shorter line,” said the Cambodian hanging outside the passport line. “$10.” Ugh. Scam #3.
That is the basic takeaway here. In Cambodia, and I suspect in Thailand too, the best way to expedite this is to pay for it. $10 here, a few extra there, and you can change your stars. Now if you are stubborn like we are, and don’t have the money to pay off everyone, you wait. And wait. And wait.
We got our visas stamped and departure cards stapled to our passports (no fee!), and then we waited to board a free government bus, which takes you to the Poipet bus terminal. (Lots of people get talked into taking taxis – don’t do that. It is long and expensive and constitutes scam #4.) While you are on the bus, the government employee guide tells you lots of interesting facts about Cambodia, how to get around, and how to say hello and goodbye. Then they tell you about the currency. Cambodians take American dollars, and their change is in Riel, the national currency. So if something costs $10.50, you give the person $10 American, plus 2,000 riel, equivalent to $0.50. It is a strange system, but it works. Only be prepared to pay $1 for basically everything, unless you want to haggle constantly, since people really do not want you to pay in riel.
Of course, he doesn’t say it like that; he insists you get both. And then, the first place you see when you get off the bus is the money exchange counter, ripoff central and scam #5. To avoid it, as we did (again, since Rebecca researches everything), take US cash in small bills with you over the border, and then hit an ATM once you are in Siem Reap or wherever you want to go.
Next, there is a bus or taxi ride to Siem Reap. The bus is $9 and doesn’t leave the station until it is full, so don’t expect punctuality. In fact, don’t expect things to be punctual much at all in Asia. We have been here over a week, and, excepting the sunrise, not a single thing has happened on time. The radiator on our bus “had to cool down” for 45 minutes at a restaurant somewhere on the road, so we had to get out and get food. This too was probably part of some kind of racket, but at that point, we didn’t care, and meals were $3 a piece, so we bought food.
After 12 hours of traveling, worrying, and looking at everyone as if they all intended to rip us off (and feeling a little like a secret agent, trusting no one), we arrived in Siem Reap, exhausted. Not just from the length of time, but also from the emotional toll that constant suspicion takes on you. It is not worth it. If you buy into the “Scambodia” myth, you will wind up isolating yourself even further, and worrying about things you shouldn’t. The people living in this country get paid virtually nothing to do their jobs, so naturally, they are going to try to make a quick buck any way they can. And it costs you very little.
So here is my advice: Fly to Cambodia to save time. If you really want to do it via land, do your research and know what the process should look like. But once you have the proper paperwork and enter the country legally, just let it go. So you paid too much for a visa. So you lost a few bucks exchanging money you didn’t need. Let it go knowing that you did your part to help out the local scam economy. And be honest – is this the only place you have ever been ripped off? Ever bought a beer at a baseball game? Or a Dodger-rita? I rest my case.