You only have to do a quick google search on the Thai/Cambodia border to bring up a whole load of results on how you should be careful about scams, be prepared for a long day and beware of your stuff getting stolen. So we left Bangkok feeling a little apprehensive to say the least, especially when someone tried to scam us within 5 minutes of finding our mini bus. The main con is that even though a Cambodian visa should only set you back $20 on the border, they will constantly try and convince you otherwise. Before we set out that day I knew some of the tricks they would try and use. The mini bus driver told us that it was an ‘express pass’ and we would skip the queues if we bought it off him. We knew it was a lie and so successfully turned him down insisting we would get our visa at the border and at the border only.
We boarded our mini bus (an hour late – pretty standard for Thailand) and I was extremely happy to find that not only did we have the more spacious seats at the front of the bus but that it was only half full. After my experience travelling from Koh Chang to Bangkok shoved in the back corner of a crowded mini bus this meant a lot! The first few hours of our journey were relatively stress free. We then reached a cafe where again we were asked to buy our visas. We refused yet again and so we were told that if we didn’t buy our visas with them they wouldn’t take us on the bus on the other side of the border. Blackmail. So far we were pretty unimpressed. I read a few articles online about how the taxi from the border to Siem Reap would cost us a couple of dollars and it may be hard to navigate to a bus, and so in the end we gave in and bought the visa with them, knowing full well it was a scam but being too scared of being stranded in the middle of nowhere to do anything about it.
It cost us 1200 baht (around £25) which was around £10 more than we would have paid at the border. We knew this but thought it might be worth the risk. A tenner might not seem much to people at home but that is a lot of money out here. We felt better when a guy on our bus told us his had cost that much and he ordered his online, so it wasn’t a massively bad deal, but there was more scamming to come that day.
At that point they took our passports, we waited around 40 minutes (which I can only assume was just waiting for them to queue up and get our visas instead of us doing it) and they came back with our visa stamps in tow. We were driven to the border and that’s where the fun really began. Now while I packed my backpack very carefully into a 50l pack (which isn’t even full) and a 15l daypack, Jess wasn’t so careful, She has a 100l backpack and it’s absolutely massive! (she refuses to compromise on less outfits whereas I would rather bring less and have less to carry – both have their advantages and disadvantages as I have found myself with nothing clean to wear a few times already!). There was a lot of carrying to be done that day – in extremely hot temperatures. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever sweated so much in my life.
We had a 15 minute walk before we even reached the border office and before we could go in our ‘guide’ stopped us for a 20 minute talk on what to expect from Cambodia. We had no idea it was going to take so long and so kept our backpacks on our backs the whole time in the blistering heat (they’re not easy to take on and off) just praying he would shut up before we passed out! I was barely listening to him, thinking if I wanted to know any of this I could easily look it up, but I did listen for long enough for him to tell us the best thing to do was convert all our money to Cambodian Riel. We had been told they used both currencies but dollars were more widely used. We soon realised our guide was yet again telling lies to get more money into the country. For a start, converting or drawing money out at the border is a bad idea – they charge a massive commission and you can lose a lot of money, Of course the guides encourage this, as do they encourage drawing out riel which has a lower value than dollars. We soon realised this when we entered cambodia (we only drew out around £20 worth of riel as we were a bit suspicious) and realised that everywhere charges in dollars. However, when you pay in dollars they will give you riel in change and when you pay in riel they will give you dollars – with an awful exchange rate they are constantly making money off you.
Just when I was debating murdering the guy so he would finally shut up and let us move to somewhere with air con, we moved on to the first queue where they checked our visa. This took about 5-10 minutes. I was hoping there would be a convenient bus waiting at the other side of the office. I was wrong. Around 30 more minutes of walking later (past a whole load of casinos for some reason – very surreal) and we were in another queue. This time it was in a hot, sweaty building with about one fan and masses of people. It was very uncomfortable. We queued for around an hour (so much for the ‘express pass’) before finally getting our stamp and exiting on the other side. By this point I felt like my arms were going to fall off.
I think both Jess and I had a moment where we wondered why we were doing this. Why were we in this office, sweating and uncomfortable when we could be at home, saving money and lying in bed? I thought to myself, I can’t do this. It’s too hot and I don’t want to do it any more. I want to go home and be comfortable again. Of course that’s not an opinion I have 95% of the time I’m travelling and I know full well the good times make up for the bad, but you have momentary dips sometimes where you just wonder why the hell you’re putting yourself through it.
We were then ushered onto a bus that we knew was the free shuttle bus to the bus station – that we could have easily got ourselves. It was at this point people started to complain to our ‘guide’ and he told us he had been protecting us from getting our stuff stolen etc. He hadn’t even stood with us in the queue and as most of us were obviously well-travelled I think we knew how to protect our belongings (my two hand luggage bags never leave my sight). We were ushered through the bus station (but not before they told us to exchange money again at ridiculous rates) and rushed onto another bus. I needed a wee and we were starving and thirsty but didn’t think we had the time to buy anything. An hour later the bus left the station and 4 hours after that we reached Siem Reap.
Luckily the bus station was swarming with tuk tuks and we grabbed the first available driver. He spoke good english and asked us for $3 to take us to our hotel. At that point I think we were past caring about what things would cost and just wanted to reach our hotel. 12 hours after we left Bangkok we were finally there. It really was not the best introduction to Cambodia and we were left feeling angry and suspicious of Cambodian people, something we still haven’t managed to shake. Luckily our hotel room was pretty amazing for the $7 we paid for it (around £5) – two double beds, ensuite and a lot of space, but to my disappointment no air con (I can’t deal with fan rooms in this heat). That evening we were so unbelievably exhausted that we ate in the hotel restaurant, spent a bit of time on Skype and for the first time in a while I got to sleep with no problems. But not after we changed some of Jess’ thai baht at the hotel reception for some dollars, got an awful exchange rate and were told we couldn’t pay with any of the money they’d given us. I had a $100 note and a $50 note which apparently were too big to pay with anywhere. Very useful. My impression of Cambodia at this point really wasn’t good and I hoped someone or something would change my mind. A few days later and I’m kind of getting there, but I’ll write about that another time.