Ayutthaya, Thailand’s ancient capital

Yes, the blog design went through a serious makeover, improving not only readability, but also letting images stand out more. As a few readers noted, I am still catching up on older escapes and adding them gradually. This post is about Ayutthaya, Thailand’s ancient capital, which I visited during September 2013.

  • Ayutthaya (or Ayudhya) is perfect for a day trip from Bangkok and easily reachable by train.
  • Tuk tuks are ubiquitous around the city, some originally decorated. However, cycling is convenient and a healthy and cheap alternative to get around.
  • There are several Unesco Heritage temples, palaces, and museums scattered around the city and worth a look.

In 1700, Ayutthaya was the largest city in the world with 1 million inhabitants and served as the trading hub of the world attracting merchants from both East and West. It was Siam’s second capital after Sukhothai and its grandeur abruptly ended when the Burmese army invaded Ayutthaya during the Burmese-Siamese war 1765-67. Although initially the 20,000 Burmese soldiers were outnumbered 3 to 1, a tactic pincer movement allowed them to surround the city forcing the Siamese to retreat within Ayutthaya’s gates and prepare for a long and tiresome battle they’d eventually lose.

The war lasted till March 1767 and included naval battles outside the city walls during the rainy season. Eventually, the Burmese dug tunnels and mined the city walls after which they invaded the city. What followed can only be described as a Quentin Tarrantino-style slaughter during which thousands were killed and the city was burned to the ground.

September is the wettest month in Thailand with an average monthly rainfall of above 300mm. One weekend predicted clear skies and I hopped on a train to Ayutthaya to witness the remains of the ancient capital myself. The city features multiple temples and monasteries, most getting gradually rebuilt. Entry fee to the temples varies, but is generally 50-75 baht.

I first visited Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the largest temple with impressive chedis topping the landscape. Next to it, Viharn Phra Mongkol Bopit hosts one of the largest (~12.5m high) bronze Buddha images in Thailand.

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Inside Viharn Phra Mongkol Bopit, people pray and are shaking containers with fortune sticks. This practice is called kau cim (or kau chim), aka Chinese fortune sticks. The way it works is that you shake until a stick jumps out of a bamboo container. All sticks are numbered and you search for your number on a board covered with post-it-looking messages. Once you find the matching post-it, you can start deciphering the often vague and sometimes negative message. A colleague picked up the following “You are in trouble and unhappy. You face obstacles and interruption. You might have to take the fall for other people’s mistakes. No luck, you have to be patient and see it with wisdom.” Mine was more positive!

thai ice cream

Outside the temple, men are selling ice cream made with a sorbetière, a traditional ice cream maker relying on traditional laws of thermodynamics. Interestingly, you can extract heat from a sugary liquid by melting ice and eventually turn liquid in ice cream.

Image source: Pinterest.

I found Wat Phra Mahathat the most interesting temple and resembling some of the ruins of Angkor Wat which I had visited previously. The image below shows a stone head entangled in roots coiling more like reptiles than plants. Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?

Wat Lokayasutharam or the temple of the reclining Buddha features, well, features a reclining Buddha draped in yellow sheets. Ten toes, check.

In front of Wat Phu Khao Thong, a golden pagoda, a collection of colorful statues of chickens (roosters) keeps guard. The meaning of these statues is not entirely clear. Online research gives a broad range of answers such as:

“Kinda like an advertisement to get the customers’ attention that particular restaurant has the best roasted chicken” (Yahoo! Answers always proves to be extremely useful!).

“The future King Naresuan was heavily into rooster fighting when he was a prisoner in Burma.”

The latter seems most obvious, but I am open to other wild theories, too.

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Bang Krachao, Bangkok’s Hidden Garden

Click here, zoom in, switch to aerial view, and you will witness the BIG GREEN SPOT.

  • This green spot is known as Bang Krachao, part of the Phra Pradaeng District.
  • Often the Bangkok locals are not even aware of this place.
  • Lush, green forest is ubiquitous and serves as a perfect day trip a stone’s throw away from Bangkok.

I had previously written about Bangkok and its spectacular skyscrapers and bumper-to-bumper traffic. However, an urban oasis is surviving amid rising skyscrapers. Welcome to Bang Krachao!

It was a surprise when I found out about Bang Krachao. I was exploring Bangkok on Google Maps and spotted a big green area below Khlong Toey market. I first thought it was strangely colored cloud, but zooming in, I realized it was a huge forest!

One week later, I sampled fruit and veg at Khlong Toey market and decided to walk down to Wat Khlong Toei Nai, a temple next to the Chao Phraya River where the most popular activity is feeding (very fat) fish alongside the river. The Klong Toey District (Toei and Toey are used interchangeably) is known for its slums but walking around I have never had any trouble, but one should obviously be streetwise and not flash any expensive items such as cameras. Alternatively, one can take the MRT to Khlong Toey MRT and then take taxi.

I followed locals’ indications to the Klong Toey Pier which is nothing more than a pontoon next to the river. A little “ferry” (actually a long-tail boat) brought me to the other side of the river for 5 baht (0.15 USD; one way).

Once crossed the river, I was dropped off at a pontoon next to a wooden house that is hosting little shops selling sweets and renting bicycles. I decided to walk but took note of the prices: cycling should not set you back more than 100 baht for a day or 50 baht/hour. The alternative is the omnipresent motorbikes which will happily drive you from A to B.

Bang Krachao is a collection of lush forest and mangroves. Traffic is scarce and you can follow narrow pathways on stilts snaking through the jungle while listening to, well, nothing. How refreshing for Bangkok!

A 30 minute walk brought me to Sri Nakhon Khuen Khan Park. Entrance to the park is free and many locals were picnicking in the shaded pavilions. I decided to explore the park a little more and walked into a labyrinth of dirt tracks lined with trees. The park is not well maintained with many wooden bridges damaged but still features in the middle of the park a watchtower from which you can spot tropical birds.

Getting hungry, I hopped on a motorbike to Bang Nam Phueng market, a floating market open during weekends. Surprisingly, this is the first floating market where I witnessed more locals than tourists. Indeed, the market is very popular with locals looking for curries, way-too-sweet coffee, and of course, Thai sweets. Everyday, I’m reminded that eating is still the Thai national sport!

After the market, dusk set in and a group of very territorial dogs seemed they were interested having me as desert. Hence, I decided to hop on a completely random bus which dropped me off back in the concrete jungle of Bangkok.

Bang Krachao is the rare, surviving green lung of Bangkok. The question is: for how long?

 

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Spectacular Views Over Bangkok

Many adjectives apply to Bangkok: dirty, noisy, busy, but especially BIG, HUGE, and MASSIVE!

  • I want to share some views of Bangkok’s skyline since readers in the West often don’t realize the dimensions of Asian cities.
  • For the sake of exploration, I climb the All Seasons Place Commercial Complex in Bangkok, Thailand.

  • Buildings as far as the eye can reach. This city never stops growing.

Attentive escape readers remember reading about the Sathorn Unique Tower, a 49 stories-high ghost tower in Bangkok’s city center. Clearly, not all large-scale construction projects have proven to be successful in the past. Today, however,  Bangkok feels again like one large construction yard with tower cranes dotting the cityscape.

One big real estate bubble according to an ex-Goldman Sachs banker I spoke. He explained, “Think about it. To me it’s common sense. You see construction projects being launched every day and some of the projects are even sold before before completion. However, take a closer look and you notice that the occupancy rate of these high-rise building is low, very low. I’d say up to 50% of these fancy condos are empty.”

He continued with a sigh, “Everyone has clearly underestimated the demand-side in this entire game. How many people can afford renting or buying a 100k USD apartment? The amount of expats is lower than expected. Bangkok is not yet Singapore. Of course, there is a select group of Thai people who can afford such apartment. However, wealthy Thai will typically only buy the newest apartments or will wait because they know that new apartment blocks are completed everyday. There is a religious factor, too. Thai homebuyers are reluctant buying or renting property where a death took place – either a natural cause, accident, suicide, or murder – because they believe that the property is infested with ghosts or spirits of the deceased previous homeowner. Interestingly, the death also affects the sale or rent of an apartment on the same floor!”

Finally, he joked. “In this country, you should always monitor the health of your neighbors because once they die, it can influence the value of your apartment! What is true, is that there are some town houses for grabs, but only Thai can buy them. Anyhow, if I’d have 100k USD and would have the choice between buying a house in Europe and Bangkok, I’d choose the latter. At least it’s sunny.

It reminds me of Dubai where the real-estate market completely collapsed between 2007  and 2010. There is a reason why the Burj Dubai was rebranded Burj Khalifa. We all too often forget this.

Back to the streets of Bangkok. Surprisingly, Bangkok is still remarkably walkable and a public transport system (BTS and MRT) serves the modern part of the capital, especially the shopping malls. Thou shall shop.

One of Bangkok’s highest skyscrapers is the All Seasons Place Commercial Complex, just next to the Conrad hotel. Some security staff wanders the building, but nobody really seems interested asking questions.  Hooray for lousy security!

Enter a random elevator.

Select highest floor.

Exactly 49 floors higher, I exit the elevator and see that the top floor is (update: was; seems that a company has decided to pay the sky-high rent for the sky-high office) completely empty and could easily host a 500-person army of office workers. The 360-degree view is amazing and includes the Baiyoke Tower II -nicknamed BMW Tower because the tower consistently displayed BMW advertisements across its 85 floors- Bangkok’s highest skyscraper.

 

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Catching Incredible Seafood in Southern Thailand

Sunny skies for the weekend and jumping fresh seafood – what else?

  • You don’t contribute to the local Thai economy by staying in international hotel chains or shopping at 7-Eleven. A homestay allows you to explore the local lifestyle and locals to earn a small income.
  • A unique homestay in Southern Thailand offers you the opportunity to enjoy incredible food with a true straight-out-of-the-wok taste. 
  • Activities include fishing, cooking, eating, Muay Thai boxing, long siestas, swimming, and relaxing in the natural surroundings.

First, the weather forecast looked simply A-M-A-Z-I-N-G.

It’s always good to escape from Bangkok, a 10-million metropolis with concrete highways and sky trains flying over your head. On a late afternoon, the party took off for a fishing trip in Southern Thailand, more precisely in Ban Laem, a small fishing village in the vicinity of Nakhon Si Thammarat. The latter is located around 800 km south of Bangkok and can easily be reached by train. It’s a slow journey, but beautiful and cheap – just how I like it.

Then you need some creativity.

I have been to a couple of remote locations, but the Ban Laem Homestay is really off the beaten track. In fact, it is almost impossible to find. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Although a strong language barrier exists, we managed to organize a telephone call between the Ban Laem Homestay owner and our Songtheaw driver. It appeared to be a 20 km drive to the north of Nakhon Si Thammarat. The approximate location is here and the village is part of the Tha Sala District.

Once arrived, we were welcomed by the fishing community with hot sweet coffee and snacks. We were also given local names because the villagers were unable to pronounce our name.

This is definitely not the place where you ask for the wifi password and an iced latte. And even a trained stomach might turn upside down after eating steamed rice with shrimp paste as breakfast. However, the village offers simple, but clean accommodation and several activities while enjoying the natural surroundings. Interesting though to see that technology is quietly sneaking in. You can spot villagers with cheap candy bar phones, but the village chief was already a proud owner of a knockoff iPad! It’s only a matter of time that they will create they will start using Facebook and start browsing the web. Actually, the homestay already has its Facebook page.

Mr. Taksin is 39 years old and acted as our guide in the village and during all activities.  He or one of the locals drives you around with a little motorbike. Taksin also runs a little burger place next to the regional road, just a stone’s throw away. He will be honored if you try out his burgers.

Ban Laem is the prime spot to enjoy seafood so fresh that it is nearly jumping on your plate.

At the crack of dawn we took off in a traditional fishing boat. The wooden fishing boats are built in the village’s workshop and it takes about a month to build one. The village also sells them for 60,000 THB or about 1,400 EUR.  Fishing is mostly done with nets as the water is muddy and shellfish were our target. We fished and swam for hours and then sailed back to the fishing village with our catch.

Then the real fun started!

We turned almost every critter from the sea into a dining feast, from barbecued clams to fried shrimps and succulent chili crab. There was also soup of magical black chicken (not from the sea) and diverse curries.

This is a true down-to-earth, no frills, cook-yourself experience that you enjoy while sitting on wooden benches and trying to prevent mosquitoes from eating your legs.

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The Quest for The Best Baguette in Vientiane, Laos

What is the capital city of Laos?

  • Chances are that you don’t know just as I didn’t.
  • The capital city of Laos or the Lao People’s Democratic Republic is Vientiane. Now we all know.
  • There is not too much to see in Vientiane. But it can serve as a damn good destination for a food pilgrimage. Let’s dig in.

The first morning rays were consuming the weakening moon when the Bangkok – Nong Khai train chugged through a Thai landscape of floodplains and bamboo plants. Its passengers heard a frightful growl at arrival in Nong Khai, the last train station before the Thai-Lao border. The train hit two stray dogs.

A short tuk-tuk ride brings you to the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge where you can obtain a visa on arrival for US$30. Cross the bridge and hop on a local green bus with a large sticker “From the People of Japan”. Number 135 drives you to Vientiane, Laos’ sleeping capital.

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Tourism in Vientiane is only nascent and this translates in incredibly bad English (forget about French, their colonial language) and above all, quietness. Yes, my first impression was definitely the calmness of Vientiane. No bustling chaos, no permanent gridlock, no… well, just nothing.

A little stroll through the city center indicates the strong preference for certain brands as Pepsi and Beeline. Beeline is a Russian telecommunications provider that entered Laos in 2011. Also Pepsi has been historically stronger in communist countries whereas Coca-Cola has been more reluctant working with communist states. I decided to have a Pepsi next to the Mekong river under a discolored sign claiming “Any Weather is Pepsi Weather”. River is also an overestimation, the  rainy season had clearly not kicked in yet and the Mekong was reduced to only a little stream.

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Travelers typically check off following sightseeing spots in Vientiane:

– A victory gate called Patuxai on which bees and wasps are happily building their nests,

– The oldest temple in Vientiane, Wat Si Saket, where you find hundreds of Buddha statues.

– A shiny, gold-covered stupa, Pha That Luang. More kitsch than Wat Si Saket.

– The Buddha Park or Sala Xieng Khuan next to the Mekong with various Hindu and Buddhist statues. You can witness everything from a reclining Buddha to a larger round structure that represents earth, hell and heaven. Dan Brown’s interpretation would be inferno, purgatorio and paradiso. Dante is well alive in Southeast Asia. You get there with the small, ramshackle public bus number 14 departing from the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge.

I think it’s all not super impressive after having seen Angkor Wat, for instance. My top picks would be Wat Si Saket and the Buddha Park. A couple of impressions below.

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A clear relict of the French colonialism in Indochina is the baguette. And we should be very grateful for this.

Discovering the perfect baguette wasn’t exactly straightforward. But where there is a will, there is a baguette! Besides, everything that comes with brick walls around should be good, no?

As mentioned previously, the Laotians haven’t exactly mastered the English language and have long forgotten their colonial language, French. Finally, we found the restaurant, PVO. Now here is one thing: there are apparently two PVO restaurants in Vientiane, and only one serves the mystical baguettes. I believe it’s here.

I had previously sampled sensational sandwiches in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. They most often go under the name bánh mì with something added to it, typically meat. These sandwiches are hawked from little food stalls on every street corner and some even cater to the Omega-3 foodies.

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Back at PVO, I scanned the menu.

It looked great.

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The menu cited a sandwich with everything. And salad. Well, that’s exactly what I was in for.

I told the waitress, “I have traveled from far to sample your sandwich. Bring me the one with everything! Don’t forget anything.”

While anxiously attending the sandwich, I asked myself what defines the perfect sandwich?

I knew it.

One Word. Freshness.

The “Special Pork Sandwich with Everything and Salad” arrived.

I carefully examined the stuffing and spotted pâté, pork belly, fresh vegetables as cucumber, carrots, cilantro, and lemongrass.

I took a bite.

It tasted great.

A satisfying first bite! First came the crust, both crisp and crunchy. Then an explosion of tastes. Restaurant PVO has clearly understood the art of baking a perfect baguette and how to pack it with delicious ingredients.

I ordered a second sandwich as souvenir and afternoon snack. Also the fresh passion fruit juice and ice coffee are excellent additions to your meal. And did I mention it is all incredibly inexpensive? The sandwich goes for 18,000 Lao Kip or a little less than 2 euro. And trust me, the local currency, Lao Kip, is like monopoly money: useless outside the game (country). You better spend it on great sandwiches.

To every good trip (and baguette) comes an end. My crush for healthy, tasty sandwiches started when I discovered Taste in Sydney, Australia. But Vietnam and Laos set an entirely new culinary benchmark for sandwiches. And that’s exciting.

Laos goes under the official slogan “Laos, Simply Beautiful”. Let us rebrand it to “Laos, Simply Great Sandwiches”.

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Climbing The Sathorn Unique Tower: Bangkok’s Ghost Tower

In 1997 the Asian financial crisis hit.

I was unaware of the existence of this crisis due to the fact that (a) I was too young to realize, and (b) Western world’s education system unevenly distributes weight to, well, Western world study topics.

Thailand’s economy had been growing at an average annual rate of 9% and had been the fastest growing company worldwide for ten years. This Asian economic miracle led to a variety of real estate projects and Buddhist temples ceased to be the highest structures in Bangkok.

Then things got nasty.

Triggered by a strong exposure to external shocks and collapsing asset prices, the 1997 Asian financial crisis struck Thailand with great force.

The deadly mix of a credit crunch, currency depreciation, bankruptcies, couple of IMF bailouts, and massive layoffs, put many real estate projects on hold. Numbers colored blood-red:

  • The Thai stock market took a nosedive and lost 75% of its value.
  • The Thai currency, the Thai baht, lost 40% of its value in 1 year (to the US$).
  • The Thai GDP decreased 40% from US$ 170bn to US$ 102bn in 1 year.

Next, the crisis quickly spread out to Indonesia, South Korea, Philippines, and Malaysia.

Today, more than 15 years later, most real estate projects that had been started before 1997 have been completed. However, we can still trace relics of the 1997 Asian financial crisis in Bangkok. The most notorious reminder is the Sathorn Unique Tower, aka Ghost Tower. When finished, it would have looked like the adjacent State Tower with a shiny golden rooftop dome and fancy restaurant. Indeed, the lebua hotels and resorts group has installed the highest open-air restaurant called Sirocco and accompanying Sky Bar at the top of the State Tower.

As for the Sathorn Unique Tower, the project was abandoned but offers equally spectacular views of Bangkok’s skyline and the Chao Phraya River. Without the cocktails. Climbing this tower has been on my bucket list from the moment I landed in Bangkok. I decided to rope in a colleague, packed water and food, and caught the skytrain to Saphan Taksin BTS station.

We managed to gain access to the Ghost Tower through the adjacent parking tower and started climbing stairs. Many stairs. The skyscraper counts 49 stories and the elevators are obviously not working. But where there is a will, there is a way (up). What struck me was the blissful silence, a stark difference with Bangkok’s constant bumper-to-bumper traffic. Calm in the chaos.

The tower has a very particular architecture with Corinthian columns and distinguished balconies. Some floors were nearly finished and already equipped with bathtubs. But the tropical climate is replacing the concrete jungle with the real jungle. Time stopped in 1997 and nature is slowly taking over again. Years of decay have silently peeled off the concrete exposing its metal skeleton and somehow providing a fertile substrate for plants. We even spotted several trees growing out of cracks. The tower could easily serve as an excellent case study for Alan Weisman, the author of The Wold Without Us.

The real star attraction is of course the rooftop. It is not exactly the place where you would like to be during a thunderstorm, but the view is magnificent.

The Sathorn Unique Tower proves to be an excellent billboard for Coca-Cola and Mitsubishi, but how long will it be lording over Bangkok? Torrential rain already brings down chunks of metal and concrete, and the tower will surely face stability problems.

Bangkok seems always under construction and you can spot advertisements for new condo projects everywhere you go. The real estate madness continues with tower cranes dotting the horizon. Same mistake all over again?

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Welcome to Scambodia!

It was still dark when the 6 am train from Bangkok’s Hualamphong main train station to Aranyaprathet, the last Thai station before the Thai-Cambodian border,  slowly departed.

Train travel in Thailand is dead slow, but a cheap and convenient way to get around and see the country. I usually don’t bother, but you can have a Thai person calling to check the availability of tickets to your desired destination. Mind that the trains will be fully booked during peak Thai holiday periods! Most notoriously during Songkran, the Thai new year, trains will be crowded and you should definitely book your tickets in advance. But every great escape involves some chaos and uncertainties, that’s why you should map out a few itineraries, and go for whatever is available. In this case, to Cambodia. Let’s go!

In Bangkok, all long-distance trains depart from the Hualamphong train station. Main online resources are the State Railway of Thailand and the Man in Seat Sixty-One. Following the latter, I learned that Aranyaprathet is the last Thai station before the Thai-Cambodian border. Tickets for third class wooden benches go for a ridiculously low THB48 (USD1.6 or EUR1.2), and you can also catch the train at a further train station as Hua Takhe. Alternatively, if you miss the train, you can find buses and taxis driving you to the Thai-Cambodian border. Expect to pay 50-100 times more for the taxi (first asking price around THB4,5o0).

The train ride is an escape from the chaos in Bangkok to a more colorful landscape of rice paddies and palm trees.  The first light of the rising morning sun also enabled me to continue a great book, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Price winner and Princeton professor Daniel Kahneman. It’s definitely one of these books you should read every year to remind yourself how ignorant and irrational we are in our decision-making processes.

We finally limped into the Aranyaprathet train station after a 6-hour train ride during which we barely covered 250 km. This is definitely not a Train à Grande Vitesse, but at least you see some scenery, not just the departure and arrival hall of airports.

The title of this post says “Welcome to Scambodia!” and we will hereafter explore the most important scams. The fun starts from the moment you get off the train in Aranyaprathet.

 

Scam #1 The fake visa application office

 

Be extremely vigilant with the tuk-tuk drivers driving you from the Aranyaprathet train station to the Thai-Cambodian border. It’s simple: they don’t bring you to the border, but to a dodgy consulate close to the border. There, you will see a sign “CAMBODIA VISA BORDER” and the the tuk-tuk driver will instruct you to apply here for the Cambodian visa. The entire scam is incredibly well set up, and everything looks very official with a neat office, a visa application form, and arrival/departure cards. The truth is that this is the Cambodian consulate and not the Thai-Cambodian border. The price you pay for your Cambodian visa is higher and they will also try to add extra costs for passport photos (OK, fair enough, they also try this at the official border).

The fact that this office is a sad scam, became clear to me when I noticed that the visa application fee was higher (THB1,000 or USD30) than the official fee (USD20) and the extra cost to take passport photos was ridiculously high  (you should always carry a stack of passport photos in SEA). Always check some sources beforehand in order to learn about the common prices, scams, etc. The online, independent, open-source, and free travel guide Wikitravel is a good starting point.

Of course, the tuk-tuk drivers are getting their fair share in the scam and have every interest in repeating, “Yes sir, you need to do visa here!”

Walk away from this scam and firmly ask your tuk-tuk driver to drop you at the border and otherwise refuse to pay. In my case, the tuk-tuk driver and middlemen reacted extremely hostile, and when I tried to take some snapshots from their office, I was brutally pushed away and told that my camera would be destroyed.

Then there is the story of a Russian hip hop gangster, a stolen iPhone, the search on a fishy second-hand phone markets, flashing knifes, etc. But that would bring us off-topic. Let’s continue crossing the border.

Scam #2 The extra fee for passport photo at the official Thai-Cambodian border

Next is the Thai-Cambodian border.

The visa on arrival (VOA) officially costs you USD20 and you need to attach a passport photo to the application. I didn’t have a passport photo so the border officer asked me for an additional USD5. In this case, I always ask for a receipt as I know this money just disappears under table, and is used to buy cheap whiskey at night. By asking for a receipt you have a chance that they drop this bribe. Also flashing fake United Nations or other official badges can work.

I asked for a receipt for the additional passport photo fee. Didn’t work.

I then tried to attach a friend’s photo. Didn’t work.

I then told them to get lost. Didn’t work.

I then brought down the price from USD5 to THB100 (little more than USD3) as I didn’t want to push it. I was traveling in group, and was clearly slowing down our trip.

Interesting fact: they never took any passport photo.

Like in many banana republics, the preferred currency isn’t the local one. No difference here: you are highly advised to pay the visa in USD since every other currency will result in an inflated price at a ridiculous exchange rate (more money to buy whiskey at night – Keep Walking). They also seem to dislike euros or anything to do with Europe.

Scam #3 The fat border officer and the VIP queue

Then there is the huge queue before entering Cambodia.

A fat border officer is waddling around and stops to have a chat.

He smiles and says, “Good luck, very long queue today!”

“Oh really,” I reply.

His smile broadens and asks, “VIP? Only 200 baht for you! Sir, special price for you!”

I politely refuse and off he goes to find other victims. I was surprised to see so many people paying the bribe. There is, however, a good reason that we will explore under scam #4 below.

Scam #4 The “government” bus from Poipet to Siem Reap

There is absolutely nothing to see or do in Poipet, the first town after crossing the Thai-Cambodian border. Except for touts. Wikitravel even mapped out the major tout zones.

After the lengthy and tiresome border crossing you find yourself in Poipet. There are several options to continue to Siem Reap, the closest city to the Angkor Archaeological Park. The scams here are extremely well-organized. Watch out.

From the moment you step foot in Cambodia you are pretty much pushed on a free bus to the “government bus terminal” a couple of minutes away. Official-looking guides, including laminated badges around their neck, will tell you to hurry as the bus will leave soon, and only a few places are left. It all looks very genuine and even random people will advise you to get on the bus that departs from the roundabout. “Yes, Sir. Cheapest bus! No other option.”

Don’t forget, they are all in cahoots.

I failed, however, to figure out this one because I didn’t have much time for my online research before the trip.

The free bus brings you to a bus terminal where you hastily need to purchase tickets before they stuff you in one of the minivans. The baby pink-colored ticket says “Support Tourist Association & Transport” and costs USD10. This is twice as expensive than the other buses to Siem Reap.

Anyhow, I was stuffed in a Toyota minivan with a driver who appeared to be a policeman. This shows that literally everyone is involved in the Poipet transport scam. C’est le centre de la corruption.

A fat woman was pushed to the front by an unfriendly man screaming, “You too big, you go sit in front!” She was indeed seriously obese and the party was relieved that she wasn’t taking up the rear seat habitat. Soon, the minivan was filled to the attics and we departed for Siem Reap.

How you should do it? The cheapest way to travel to from Bangkok to Siem Reap is most probably by bus. However, as the border crossing takes ages, you might end up missing the bus (they seem not to care whatsoever). I witnessed several anxious-looking tourists paying the VIP bribe to the fat border officer we met at scam #3.

The most flexible and cheapest option from Bangkok to Siem Reap is:

1/ Train – THB48

2/ Tuk-tuk to the border – THB30-40

3/ Bus to Siem Riep – the cheapest ticket should go at USD5

There are many trucks at the border, so I expect this to be an excellent hub for far-distance hitchhiking, which I might try out in the future. Mind that no trains pass the border.

How to return to Thailand? Double-decker buses leave on a regular basis from Siem Reap to Bangkok. Tickets are sold at most ho(s)tels and should not cost more than USD15. At the border, you will be stickered to indicate your final destination. I’ve seen different colors and city codes: dark red with BK for Bangkok, PY for Pattaya, light blue stickers, etc. After the border, minivans drive you to your final destination.

Scam #5 The food, accommodation, transportation, and actually everything in Siem Reap

The government mini vans originating from Poipet will drop you in Sieam Reap at either a selection of ho(s)tels that pay them a commission, or out-of-town where tuk-tuks are eagerly waiting to squeeze the next dollars, baht, or whatever currency, out of the Western cash cows. Hallelujah!

Welcome to Siem Reap.

Imagine a small town, only a stone’s throw away from a large collection of ruins. Then, Western people started to visit this collection of ruins near Siem Reap and flooded the town with tourist dollars.

Things only got worse. In 1992, when the Angkor Archaeological Park was declared UNESCO World Heritage. Tourism skyrocketed, and Westerns are considered walking ATMs since.

High-volume tourism changes places.

Google Public Data Explorer indicates that Cambodia’s GDP per capita is lower than USD1,000. Also Hans Rosling’s Gapminder (hit play) doesn’t exactly rank Cambodia top of the class.

Clearly, The Kingdom of Cambodia is an underdeveloped country that survives on textiles (check your wardrobe) and, in the case of Siem Reap, tourism. A general elevated price level and a strong preference for the USD instead of the local currency, the Khmer Riel (KHR), make a trip to Siem Reap and the Angkor Archaeological Park relatively expensive for Southeast Asia.

You can choose from a wide variety of transportation options, tuk-tuks being the most flexible. For USD5 per person per day, you can find a tuk-tuk driver driving you around in the Angkor Archaeological Park. The 5 dollars will include the main temples on “le petit circuit“. If you go outside the little circuit, your tuk-tuk will ask for a bonus, which seems fair to me.

Street food is good and cheaper than in most restaurants, although you often pay the “white price”. The à la tête du client pricing can be avoided by a simple trick that I have applied all across Southeast Asia. First, watch carefully what locals are paying for their meal. Next, quickly point to the meal you want and shout, “Same same!” If the vendor tries to overcharge, point to the local customer and firmly say, “I eat same same, I pay same same!” This should suffice to make clear that you know the correct price of the meal and don’t expect to pay more. You can also try to just push the right amount of money in the vendor’s hands and walk away. The same trick also applies around the temples: try to eat at the tuk-tuk restaurants and use the “same same” trick. It pays off having some local currency because often amounts will be smaller than USD 1 and no change will be given. Never, ever, change money at borders, but budget, and change in advance in major cities.

You can stay at clean and safe hostels or homestays for less than USD5 per night, or splurge on expensive hotels and golf resorts.

 

Then the temple complex.

Wat is Khmer for temple and there are many of them. The Angkor Archaeological Park is 400 km² in size and reflects the wealth and power of the Khmer Empire during its peak in the 12th century.

These are not the colorful, and sometimes kitsch temples that you can spot in Bangkok. No, the adjectives that apply here are raw, massive, gray, and simple. The setting reminds of Indiana Jones-quality temples. You can imagine Indy, including fedora and leather jacket, zigzagging between trees shouting, “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” or, “Don’t call me Junior!”

Contrary to Indy, don’t even think you are alone. It takes time and patience to photograph the ruins without tourist hordes disturbing your lens. Let’s take a look at the main highlights.

We kicked off the day with a postcard-sunrise at Angkor Wat, the most famous and largest religious site in the world!

 

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Next, was King Jayavarman VII’s Angkor Thom, the new Khmer capital he constructed. Prasat Bayon, or simply Bayon, is a temple known for its stone faces surrounded by a dense jungle.

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Angkor Thom also includes Ta Prohm or “Tomb Raider”. In fact, Ta Prohm is a tree-strangled temple that was the chief location to shoot the movie Tomb Raider (2001), based on the highly popular video game series Tomb Raider. It’s here that Lara Croft is involved in heavy gunfire with stone statues while running through the ruins bound by the massive roots of fig and silk trees. From that day in history, the Ta Prohm temple goes under the name Tomb Raider.

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The Angkor Archaeological Park is definitely worth the long journey and scams. It is unique in every sense and lived up to my expectations. If you remove the tourists, you can feel like the French botanist Henri Mouhot in 1862 when he discovered Angkor Wat.

You can readily spend days (weeks?) exploring the secluded temples. As for me, one day was sufficient to be templed out by the heat of an overabundance of dark, sweltering ruins.

Oh yes, don’t accept any of the bracelets that the monks try to tie around your wrist. They will surely ask for a few dollars. I spotted at least 3 monks with iPads. Religion takes a modern turn.

All pictures courtesy of a friend-photographer.