Going Beyond the Velvet Rope in Cambodia, Part 1

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May 4th 2008
Published: May 4th 2008
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Our visit to Cambodia was about as varied as its mixed history which ranges from the splendour of the ancient Khmer civiliation to the tragedy of the more recent Khmer Rouge. I'm of two minds about what to think overall. Without a doubt, however, the true beauty of this place came through in the unconventional parts of the trip. But where's the humour in that? I'll get to that later. First, the negatives.

The Bangkok - Siem Reap Bus Scam

We had been warned about this a number of times. The scam is as follows: you buy your bus ticket in the backpacker area of Bangkok where they promise to take you all the way to the Cambodian of Siem Reap which sits right on Angkor's doorstep. The scam comes in two parts - first, they stop at a restaurant near the border and give you forms for your visa and offer to handle it for you for 1500 baht ($50 CAD) We learned from somebody we met that you can decline and do it yourself at the border. Granted the border guards are corrupt and will extort more than the official $20, but it's a heck of a lot less than $50. The second part of the scam is once in Siem Reap they take you directly to a hostel of their choosing, the one that paid them to bring you. They basically make you look at rooms, though you're not committed to stay.

We handled the first part beautifully but stumbled on the second. Once at the border restaurant, everybody except us and two ex-pat Canadians we met on the bus opted to shell out the $50 to have the bus company handle it for them. The guy in charge of the visas didn't appreciate this.

Now, I know I can get carried away and exaggerate (the Cebu Pacific office wasn't REALLY a refugee camp - it only felt that way) but I assure you this is exactly how it happened. Adrienne can verify.

The guy came up behind and started massaging my shoulders and neck and started asking us about our visas. Like we had been advised, we said 'no thank you' and told him that we would arrange it ourselves at the border. I squirmed forward to get out of his clasp on my shoulders. He wouldn't really take the hint though and as I leaned forward he just leaned in forward too, kneading away at my shoulders. After accepting that we didn't want him to do our visas and that I didn't want a massage, he went on to the next table and we were left with puzzled expressions. It got weirder later as we were getting ready to get back on the bus and as I was passing this same Visa Guy he reached down and gave me a good firm full-palmed slap on the posterior. I jumped in shock and wheeled around, he was just smiling back. I stormed back to the bus and immediately told Adrienne that the Visa Guy had just spanked me. Then things got weird.

He obviously didn't take rejection well and went into face-saving mode - once the bus stopped at the border, Visa Guy walked up the aisle and stopped beside and proceeded to tear a strip off me. It went something like, "So now we all have to wait for you to get your visa yourself! We could have done it for you and saved everybody time! You think it will be easy?!" I just awkwardly sat there, trying my best to smile politely and take it, but I swear he persisted, "Don't smile at me, sir! Don't smile!!!" He had snapped and gone from flirtatious to furious.

The bus was totally silent at this point and I was contemplating the international ramifications should I start a brawl at the border. Luckily he stormed away and we set about getting our visas with Tim and Ryan, the other two Canadians. The Visa Guy followed us for a bit and continued to act weird. He made fun of Adrienne for wearing glasses and I looked at him and said that I actually quite liked her glasses. He looked at me with pride and announced that HE didn't NEED glasses. I considered offering him high praise for such a spectacular feat, but instead opted to turn my back.

Of course once he got the hint and went away, the border itself wasn't easy either and we did have to pay off the border guard. Upon seeing that we only had US dollars, he said that we had to pay in Thai currency, of which we had none left. We pointed out that it actually says "20 USD" ON THE VISA, but he said thats just for the airport in Phnom Penh and for land crossings from Thailand you have to pay in Thai Bhat. We tried to stand our ground and kept saying $20 and poiting to the visa, but what could we do? He had all the power and we had nothing. So we offered to pay $25 USD and he gladly accepted that deal. Why wouldn't he, off the four of us he made a cool, illegal, $20 - apparently HE's willing to overlook that fictious Thai currency rule if we'll shell out enough dollars. Either way, we still paid half what everybody else on the bus paid. So we consider that one a victory. I never saw the Visa Guy again as he was going back to Bangkok and we got on a much smaller bus Siem Reap, on the famed "Boulevard of Broken Backsides". Once on the Siem Reap bus, a couple English guys were asking why he had yelled at me and I said I didn't know, only that he had been making advances on me a short while earlier. They laughed out loud at this, for after tearing a strip off me, they saw him shouting "Hey, handsome man!" to another wiry Westerner. I guess he has a type? If that whole experience was rough, the road ahead wasn't much better.

Rumour has it that an airline flying directly to Siem Reap has bribed the government to delay the paving of this common road since a reasonable road route from Bangkok to Siem Reap would take business away from their flights going straight to Siem Reap. As a result, you have a road often cited as one of Asia's worst when it's dry. When it's wet, the whole thing becomes a mudslide. At one point our entire bus was 45 degrees off centre of the road but we continued to slide forward for about a half kilometre. Many smaller cars were stuck and we saw hordes of young men muddy from head to toe for pushing the cars out of the mud. This is a major thoroughfare! One truck had lost its grip completely and pulled a Matt Vaughan Maneuver (for those who don't know, that involves rolling the vehicle over).

Either way, we got there at around 9am, a full 14 hours after having left Bangkok. We were so tired that the $3 rooms at the place they took us to ac tually seemed appealing. And this was our biggest blunder.

I'll say without a pang of guilt that the hostel was called The World Lounge and I advise anybody in Siem Reap to steer clear. They sell their rooms at a bargain because they make their money elsewhere. For instance, in order to properly see Angkor you need to hire a tuk-tuk driver (a tuk-tuk is basically a motorcycle pulling a small carriage). The guy on the bus from the border to Siem Reap who worked for the hostel offered to be our driver. He seemed like a nice enough guy and over breakfast he laid out all the prices and why we should go with him. Long story short, we over paid by roughly 100%. Furthermore, he took us according to HIS itinerary which included lunch stops at restaurants where he was no doubt on the take. It was so bad that on the second day when we informed him we wanted to break route to go visit the Canadian-sponsored Landmine Museum, he got irate and yelled at us for not trusting him. We apologized to him (which in hindsight seems a little backwards), but still insisted we get to the museum. Quick tangent: The Landmine Museum is worth seeing. You can't walk around anywhere in Cambodia without encountering the landmine problem. I forget the figures they cited, so let me tell you this. Walk down any street in any Cambodian city and you will see at least one maimed landmine survivor. The museum was started by a former Khmer Rouge child soldier who himself planted many mines. In the 90's he became a de-miner for the UN and now estimates he has personally deactivated over 50 000 mines. Needless to say, one doesn't leave the Landmine Museum feeling particularly warm and fuzzy about humanity.

Anyway, the situation with our driver came to a head when he asked where we were going next and we said Battambang, Cambodia's second biggest city. It wasn't an original destination, but it was highly recommened by a Dutch couple we met in Manila. I've found that when getting travel advice, the source of the information is as important as the information itself. When somebody tells you to avoid Place A or to definitely go to Place B, both Adrienne and I have learned it's worth considering whether the person who told you is looking for temples or discotheques. We spent a couple evenings in the Green Mango Inn with this Dutch couple and they seemed to be of a similar mindset, so their advice seemed worth taking.

The man at the hostel in Siem Reap told us that bus tickets were $9. We had heard $5, so he was clearly marking it up. Since it seemed so steep, I asked him if there were other companies that sold tickets for a cheaper price. He got defensive once more and accused me of accusing him of lying. I again apologized for no reason, but this time we didn't trust him. So that evening after dinner we went to the bus station and lo and behold we found tickets for $5. It was also then that we met another traveling pair and learned just how much we had overpaid. That night we went back to the hostel and called the driver on his mobile phone and chewed him out for lying to me about tuk-tuk prices and requested he take us to see sunrise at Angkor Wat for free. He actually agreed and met us at 5:30 am. It was an awkward ride, but we didn't care, sunrise at Angkor is highly rated.

The next morning after the sunrise he asked us if we had decided about the bus to Battambang, we lied and said we were going to go into town to look for cheaper tickets, even though we had actually already bought them. He snickered and said we wouldn't find anything and that we were making a big mistake. He was of course lying and exhibit A was a cheap ticket in my pocket. We insisted that we didn't want to book through him. Why would we? Every time we had we had been lied to, ripped off, and when we questioned what was going on he would intimidate us. So at that, we set off "in search of cheaper tickets" and went straight to the bus station, never looking back.

Oh well, at least he wasn't flirting with me.

NEXT TIME: Part 2, why despite all that I still fell head over heels with Cambodia.

For now, off to Saigon to meet up with my Uncle who's there on business. Next post will be coming soon, I hate falling behind!


4th May 2008

So, can I have the names and last known whereabouts of the Visa Guy, so next time I drop into Cambodia I can destroy him? I'm glad the Landmine museum was a good sidetrip, and that you insisted on seeing it. When watching that Digging for the Truth special on Cambodia, they really brought the landmine issue to the forefront. You keep telling those pushy people who's the boss.
4th May 2008

I'll ignore the unauthorized use of my name/maneuver for now, because I'm still in the early phases of the patent process. But be warned, my friend. Be warned.
6th May 2008

It's the same in any language...
I made the mistake of reading this post while sitting in the law library here at Osgoode... when I reached the part about you getting hit on by the visa guy and his type being (apparently) "wiry westerners" I actually burst out laughing. I'm glad to see that some things - like your hilariously well-documented history of being hit on by dudes - transcend borders and cultures. Hey, if you'd played your cards right he might have gotten you your visa for less than $25...

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