To Cambodia #2: Bangkok to Siem Reap

20130411-050435I try to plan ahead so that my travels remain relatively stress-free.  If something unexpected crops up, it can usually be dealt with quickly and  easily.  I journey cheaply and build in enough time between legs of the trip so that I’m not rushing to make connections.

Thus, I’d already planned to spend the first night of my Cambodian trip sleeping in the main Bangkok train station.  The hour delay on the bus didn’t bother me in the least and I arrived at Hualamphong with plenty of time to get cleaned up and eat a late dinner.  Most of the eateries were already closed by the time I arrived but the tiny KFC was still open.  My favorite item – the Twister – wasn’t on the menu so I decided to try one of the rice dishes.  The spicy chicken was quite good but pricy at 69 baht; I added a 16-ounce Coke for another 10 baht.

Once I confirmed the scheduled time (05:55) of the Aranyaprathet-bound train, I settled down for the long wait.  The cavernous waiting room of Hualamphong is a great spot – fairly comfortable chairs and huge fans to keep the space cool.  There’s even a huge television screen to watch once you become bored with looking at all the people.

Sleeping with the masses and the rats at Hualamphong Station, Bangkok.However, on this particular evening, everyone in the waiting room after the last train had arrived (about 11:30) were told to go outside while cleaning crews waxed the floor.  Hundreds of travelers then tried to find a small patch of concrete near the taxi stands on which to wait and sleep.  It was hot, it was crowded, and it was infested with rather large rats.  Needless to say, I didn’t get any rest at all and spent most of my time making sure I was as far as I could get from the rats.  They let us back inside shortly after three o’clock in the morning and I happened to stand in front of the first ticket counter to open.  I bought my ticket – 48 baht – and retreated to the comfortable seats in front of a giant fan.

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A couple of hours later, I wandered out to the platform and boarded the empty train, taking a seat in the car closest to the front.  Most of the seats were full by the time the train departed on time.  There must have been ten additional stops before we finally exited the city.  By then, there were already people standing in the aisles; most were there the entire five-and-a-half hour journey.  At each station between Bangkok and the border (at least twenty), hordes of additional passengers boarded and attempted to find a bit of space.  Most of these were crammed into the aisles and many more were sitting on top of other people on the seats or on the floor under people’s feet.

Overcrowded train, still not too bad at this point.I was rather displeased by the Russians sitting a couple of rows in front of me who had moved their backpacks from the overhead bin onto the seats next to them so nobody could sit there.  We were genuinely packed in like sardines.  I had fun looking out the window whenever we pulled into a station or crossed a road with stopped cars.  You could see the looks of amazement on people’s faces when they saw how overcrowded the train was.  If it had been India, they would have had hordes of people riding on top of the train as well.

The situation wasn’t made any easier by the numerous railway and Immigration police frequently checking for papers and rounding up a whole army of illegals.  They would then march them down the overcrowded aisles, shoving passengers out of the way as best they could and then handcuffing them to the handholds at the front of my car.  There, they attempted to photograph the thirty or more people who didn’t have proper identification or visas.  I watched them being loaded into police paddy wagons at the Aranyaprathet station.

Welcome to Aranyaprathet!Despite the overcrowding, we didn’t experience any real delays.  It even rained some en route and the day remained rather cool and pleasant.  We arrived at Aranyaprathet (which most people simply abbreviate to “Aran”) about 11:30.  After using the rather clean (well, based on other stations – bus and train – in Thailand) restroom, I exited the station area and quickly found a motorbike taxi.  The driver wanted 50 baht for the trip to the border which I agreed to without attempting to bargain; this was the price quoted on Wikitravel and I was happy for it.

As we neared the border, I saw a number of the visa offices mentioned on Wikitravel.  I knew these to all be scams in order to separate the unwary from their money.  I’d read that many of the taxi and tuk tuk drivers take you to one of these places where they demand exorbitant fees for what often turn out to be fake visas.  If anybody asks if you have a visa for Cambodia in this town, just say “yes”.  Some will demand to see the visa but you don’t have to show your passport to anybody except for the official in the passport control offices once you’ve negotiated the long lines.  You can obtain a Cambodian eVisa online for $25, plus a $3 fee; the official price for a tourist visa on arrival is USD $20 and you should only buy one at the Cambodian Visa Office at the border (more on that in a bit).

I’d managed to find an honest taxi driver as she didn’t try any of the scams.  I’d told her to take me to the market rather than the border so I wouldn’t appear as a tourist.  As we entered this area, she asked if I was going to Cambodia and that I could avoid “problems” if she dropped me off at the Thai passport office.  I said, “okay” and when she stopped, she pointed the proper sidewalk to the entrance.  Pleased, I gave her a ten-baht tip.

Thailand's exit/entry arch at Aranyaprathet.Aranyaprathet Passport Control.  This is where you queue up in order to receive your exit stamp from Thailand.

As it was now noon, the line was interminably long and slow.  It took almost a half-hour even to enter the building and it was extremely hot outside.  Around this time I noticed that my cheap-ass Thai backpack (brand new) was splitting at the seams.  I would have to cradle it in my arms the rest of the way to Siem Reap so that my clothes wouldn’t fall out.  I knew what my first purchase in Siem Reap would be!  While waiting in line, one person (Thai or Cambodian, I’m not sure) asked the person standing in front of me if he had a visa.  When this person responded in the negative, the local said he needed to go with him to purchase one and that the cost would be 1200 baht (USD $20 = 568 baht).  The scammer then turned to me and I said I had an eVisa but that the ones at the border were a better deal, hoping the foreigner in front of me would get the hint.  He did.  The local gave me the “evil eye” and moved on to find his next victim.

Friendship Bridge at Aranyaprathet, Thailand.I finally exited Thai Immigration, having been stamped-out of the Kingdom, at 13:00 and soon crossed the very short Friendship Bridge.  I had read that the Cambodian Visa Office would be on the right side of the road after the bridge.  But I needn’t have worried as there were clearly-marked signs (erected by Thailand) and I soon spied the building right before the Khmer-style arch that marks the midway point of the between-borders no-man’s land where all the casinos are.

Now, the official government-set price for a Cambodian tourist visa (good for 30 days, can be renewed only once) is $20, payable in US dollars.  If you pay in Thai baht at the Cambodian Visa Office, they will charge you 700 baht (the current exchange rate is 568.40 baht).  You will also need to bring a passport-sized photo; if you don’t have one, they will charge you an extra 100 baht.  The officials here have realized that most people are exchanging their baht into dollars before arriving at their little office so they now have a new scam:  the visa costs $20 in US cash, PLUS 100 baht in Thai currency.  I saw the hand-lettered sign and said “I have a photo already, what is the extra 100 baht for?” and was told that was the price to “make dollar to Cambodian money”.  Hogwash, NOBODY uses Cambodian riel in Cambodia except for change of less than $1.  Another scam I’ve heard about at this office is the occasional posting of hand-lettered signs stating that eVisas are not permitted, forcing one to purchase a visa at the border even if they have already done so online.  Gotta love the greed amongst bureaucrats in this part of the world.

Signs telling you where to go, approaching the Cambodian border.Khmer-style entry/exit arch for Cambodia.Cambodian Visa Office to the right of the entry arch as you walk towards Cambodia.

At any rate, I filled out the form and paid my money (luckily, I still had Thai baht I was going to use on the return portion of my trip) and waited perhaps ten minutes for them to scribble my details onto the visa and paste it into my passport.  I then exited the office, and continued walking down the right side of the road towards the Cambodian Passport Control office.  Along the way are numerous casinos.  Gambling is illegal in Thailand (ha!) and Cambodia so the casinos are placed in the no-man’s land between the two nations.  I poked my head into one, thinking to put a couple of dollars into a slot machine but I didn’t see one.  Seemed to just be table games.

Casino just past the Cambodian Visa Office.Yet another casino in Poipet, Cambodia.The last casino before Cambodian Passport Control (on the right) spans the road.  Get your entry stamp here.

The wait to stamp-into Cambodia was again a slow process, hampered in part by the large numbers of Chinese in front of me.  Many did not bother to fill in the arrival/departure cards before getting to the head of the line and would not leave when the official told them to go to the sides in order to write their information.  Many of the these visitors tried arguing with the official (why only one window open?) and he ended up filling in several himself.  I think he was very happy to see I had all the spaces completed on mine when I finally had my turn.  I didn’t even have problems with the finger scanners as did many before me.

Nearing two o’clock in the afternoon now (two hours since arriving at the border on the Thai side – that’s probably fairly average), I just wanted to get on a bus to Siem Reap and relax during the ride.  I had prepared myself to just accept the final of the border scams – the overpriced “government bus.”  Now, there are many bus companies that operate from Poipet (the town on the Cambodian side of the border).  But you have to walk a fair distance into town to find their offices; most of the tuk tuks and motorbike taxis in this area won’t take you (well, for a fair price anyway) because they are in cahoots with the bus scam.  That, plus the fact that most of the less expensive buses from the Poipet offices only leave in the early morning which would require spending the night in this do-nothing dusty, ugly little town causes most to just opt for the “government buses.”

If you do this, as I did, be careful.  Read signs, listen to announcements, pay attention.  Right outside of Cambodian Passport Control is a waiting area for a free shuttle to the Poipet International Bus Terminal – a fancy name for a non-government-financed business.  If you didn’t already see the signs for this or the words on the buses waiting here, there are plenty of well-dressed young men who will steer you to a chair.  Some actually tell you to pay money for the free shuttle bus.  I was quoted $5 but just pointed to the “free” sign and otherwise ignored the dude.  Packed onto the bus like sardines (but not so bad as the train), we journeyed far out of town – seven kilometers, I’ve read – to the bus station.  Only the scam (read: expensive) buses and minivans use this.

Free shuttle buses to Poipet Internatial Bus Station. Scam central.Free shuttle buses to Poipet Internatial Bus Station. Scam central.The less expensive buses are found about a 10-minute dusty walk past this traffic circle in Poipet.

Well, I found the ticket counter okay and was pleased to see that the prices were clearly marked on it.  I’d expected the $9 fare to Siem Reap (typically, about $5 from one of the companies in town and noted the bus would depart at 15:00 (just a half-hour wait).  I confirmed all of this when the clerk sold me the ticket and the departure time was written on the ticket.  He even pointed out where the bus would be.

After a short wait, another man started yelling, “everyone for bus to Siem Reap, follow me” and so I got into the line with the other passengers.  We were taken outside and told to get on the minivan waiting at the curbside.  Several people mentioned, “this is not a bus,” to which they were answered, “you go to Siem Reap now.”  Okay, so we all crammed into the tiny minivan.  I hate minivans in Asia and try to avoid them when I can so I wasn’t too pleased.  I also had a brief argument when they tried to throw my damaged backpack into the back, pointing out the ever-widening tear at the top.

Once we were crammed into the minivan, the driver gruffly demanded to check our tickets.  We handed them up and he started yelling at me and a couple of others, saying we we didn’t pay enough!  What?  Then he pointed to the picture of a bus on our tickets and the picture of a minivan on somebody else’s ticket.  He said we needed to pay more money for the minivan.  I asked what time the “real” bus would be there and he said, “Oh, maybe five o’clock, maybe eight o’clock, maybe tomorrow.”  Ouch!  Basically, they extorted us each for $6 more.  It was either that or wait for who knows how long in that awful concrete enclosure where there was nothing to eat or drink without paying super-inflated prices.

I was getting worried.  Would the entire trip be like this?  I was already off of my carefully-calculated budget and hadn’t even arrived at my destination.  My fears were compounded when we arrived at a rest stop just 15 minutes outside of Siem Reap (our only stop).  This was a shop where we were told we would wait for 20 minutes and we could use the restrooms.  However, once anybody did use the facilities they were besieged by employees upon exiting:  “You use toilet, now you must buy something!”  Sample price: a luke-warm can of Coke was $3 (in Siem Reap, I usually paid 40 cents and the most I saw one priced was 75 cents).  Luckily, I have the constitution of a camel and didn’t need to pee.

During much of the journey from Poipet to Siem Reap, I was attempting to contact my guesthouse to arrange for the free pick up.  Since different companies drop off their passengers at different locations, I needed to let them know which company I was using.  But I couldn’t connect to a network at all; others had the same problem.  Upon arrival in the town, the minivan dropped us off literally in the middle of nowhere (somewhere between the airport and the town limits) where several tuk tuks were waiting.  They wanted $10 which was way overpriced.  I walked about five minutes further down the road and found one that quoted me $4.  Upon arrival at my guesthouse, he didn’t have change for the $10 note I tried to give him.  I ran inside the guesthouse to make change and explained to the owner I’d tried to call but I couldn’t get my phone to work.  He asked how much the tuk tuk was and then said, “I’m sorry for your experience.  I will give you the money to pay him.  Why not?”*  Wow!  I’d just met Mr. Why Not, the proprietor of Angkor Wonder Hotel.  My journey was truly wonderful from that point on…

Highly recommended!!

*NOTE:  I did pay back Mr. Why Not, just as soon as I got change.  It was the right thing to do.

Thursday, 11 April 2013
Train Ticket (Bangkok to Aranyaprathet): 48 baht/USD $1.69
Three bottles of water at Hualamphong Station: 21 baht/USD $0.74
Motorbike Taxi from Aranyaprathet Train Station to border: 60 baht/USD $2.11
Cambodian Visa: USD $20+100 baht/USD $23.52 total
Bus Ticket (Poipet to Siem Reap): USD $9.00
Minivan Surcharge (Poipet to Siem Reap): USD $6.00
Tuk Tuk to Guesthouse: USD $4.00
Dinner at Viva Mexican Café, plus tip: USD $6.50
New Backpack at Old Market: 540 baht/USD $19.00
Total Spent: USD $72.56


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