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!
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.
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.
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.