Friday to Monday, November 30-December 3, 2007
– Siem Reap, Cambodia
Another early morning! We had researched how best to get to Siem Reap, Cambodia from Bangkok and had determined that the overland route is cheapest and most interesting. With this route came some interesting challenges. In travelers lore, much is written about the trip to Siem Reap from Bangkok. Both of our guidebooks talked of scams and scams upon scams. Hmmm, sounds like a challenge. No other options for us. Scam one, the reason other scams become possible. There is a suspicion that Bangkok Airlines, the only airline that flys to Siem Reap from Bangkok, is paying some people off in various places to make the overland trip as difficult as possible so that tourists will be intimidated and pay rather hefty fares to get to Siem Reap. Siem Reap is the town in Cambodia that is closest to the Angkor temples (some of the most incredible in the world – if not THE most incredible). The road from Bangkok to the Cambodian border is good, paved and safe. There are frequent buses and they aren’t too expensive. Once you hit the border the fun starts. Crossing is one thing, but the road on the other side is still dirt and has pot holes and washboard that are bad enough to destroy a Hyundai in one trip. To this we now testify. The scam upon the scam comes with the “offers” of transport to Siem Reap offered in Bangkok. For 500 Bt. you can purchase a ticket that will pick you up at your hotel and drop you at your hotel in Siem Reap. Too good to be true. Yes! Apparently, the drivers are supposedly in cahouts with Bangkok Airlines and sometimes take an alternative border crossing with worse roads. Once on the Cambodian side you are shuttled in poor quality minivans and dropped at a guesthouse that happens to sponsor that particular van. After 12-15 hours on the road (bad roads) they assume you won’t want to go look for another place and will pay thier higher prices for a lousy place. So, we opted for the 3rd track. We found a web site that describe a process by which you can avoid these pitfalls and get there in about 10 hours for a decent price and on your own terms (sort of). So we got the 7 a.m. bus to the closest Thai town to the border. No problem. We got a tuk tuk the 9km to the border, where we were dropped and then had to walk across the border. All went well. We passed through the Thai customs and headed for the Cambodian visa office. Next, we were warned about all the poverty stricken “pickpocket” kids in the no-mans land between customs offices. They came at us, we smiled watched our stuff and made it through. We were also warned in the article on the web site that Cambodian Immigration officials would try to extract more than the prescribed cost of the visa. We fought off all the touts (people willing to help for a fee) to get to the visa window and pushed through our passports and completed application forms and $40 US (20 for each visa) and the guy shook his head and said “No, 1000 Bt each” (about $33 US each). We were warned about this and stood our ground. No $20 dollars we said. No visa, he said. No, the tourist police told us only $20 (a lie). He said, new rules, you pay in Bt. $1,000 Bt. This went back and forth for a couple of minutes and he closed the window. We stood there and looked at him. He came back. He said okay $20 plus 200 Bt. each. We said $20. Window closed again. We pulled out 200 Bt., he noticed. He came back to the window. We said $20 each plus 100 Bt. each. Done deal. An additional $5 to grease the skids. Now the transportation challenge. The web site author described several bad options to get from the border to Siem Reap. Bus, leaves when full and takes 5-7 hours. Back of pickup truck with at least 25 others (we saw them — even riding on the roof of the truck) breathing dust and bouncing all the way to Siem Reap. Hire a taxi to drive you, but fight your way past the “mafia” taxis to get to an independent driver and hope he gets away before the mafia drivers get to him. We went with option 3. We had a plan. After leaving Cambodian customs there are motorcycle taxis (more on them later) that will take you through the hell hole of a town that is Poipet, Cambodia to the place on the opposite end of town where the independent taxis gather. They aren’t allowed in town. We hopped on the MC taxis and raced through town. I forgot to tell Sheree about this part and she was a little surprised when I suggested we hop on and go. I think she thought Ted had come up with another crazy idea for adventure – motorcycles on dirt roads for 4 hours to Siem Reap – good one Ted. We made it through and were met by a herd of taxi drivers. We struck a deal for $20 to Siem Reap and headed out in a Toyota Camry with AC, dusty inside but comfortable enough. The road was as bad as advertised and it took us about 4 hours to make it to Siem Reap. We saw some incredible things along the way. Cambodia is a very poor country, just coming out of many years of terror and war and the people live simple lives. It was fascinating to see them fishing, cooking, harvesting rice and doing many of the required things to keep them alive. We arrived about 4 pm and after a bit of searching found a nice hotel (Shadow of Ankgor Guest House) in the “french quarter” of the town, ate a wonderful dinner of typical Cambodian foods and went to bed. The next two days were to be spent visiting the Angkor Temples.
We hired a tuk tuk driver to take us around to the temples over the next 2 days. They are spread over a pretty large area, mostly north and east of Siem Reap. After the 2 days roaming around in the tuk tuk, we determined this was the best way to get around. We were in an open air compartment, traveling slow enough to see things along the way, but fast enough to get around the huge area. The temples were amazing. On the first day we saw Ankgor Thom, Bayon, several smaller temples and then arrived at Ankgor Wat for sunset. Ankgor Wat is the best known and most grand. It was a great day and we were hungry for more. On the second day, we saw Preah Khan, Banteay Srey and another more distant temple Bantey meley (sp). I won’t go into detail to describe them, but most were built from the 900-1100 ad and many are in amazing condition. We have visited many archeological sites around the world and these are by far the most impressive we have seen. Sheree may choose to add in some detail about these later. We definately shot lots of pictures and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We ran into a senior missionary from Phnom Phen at one of the temples and had a chance to visit with him. He told us about church in Siem Reap that was not listed on the web site, so we decided to go to church the next morning before heading out to the temples again. Bonus, it was only 2 hours and started at 8. It was great. The rest of the day was spent at some of the temples that are farther away from Siem Reap. We traveled through the countryside to get to them and were able to see more of the local life. Really interesting.
The return trip was rather uneventful. We reversed the process and made it back to Bangkok by about 4pm and checked into our luxury digs again. One of the amazing things about Cambodia and of course other countries where they have to make do with what they have, are all the modes of transport for people, but also stuff… every kind of stuff. We saw 200-300 pound pigs (even 3 smaller pigs tied on the back upside down with feet in the air) on the the back of motorcycles, 5 people riding a single motorcycle (a honda or yamaha 100), handcarts piled 20 feet high and much more. There were all kinds of Mad Max type vehicles cobbled together with engines and wheels from various things. We definately need to go back and spend more time.
posted Wednesday December 2007