Lonely Planet screams warnings about not buying “scam bus trips” from Bangkok’s Khoa San Road to Siem Reap. Duly warned, I went to the Internet to find exactly how to get to Siem Reap and The Blog Travelfish.org published a helpful article detailing how to make the trip using public transportation and by-foot border crossings. Frankly, the things I’ve heard about Cambodia have not been encouraging. I’ve read stories about masses of cruel, begging children, scam artists around every corner and mass poverty.The actual Cambodia is not like that, but it’s still bad-ass.
After a five hour bus ride from Bangkok to the Rongklua Market border, I began my walk across a large crowded parking lot to exit Bangkok, get a Cambodian Visa, and enter Cambodia. On the way, I was touted many times, but ignored all of the men doing the touting. I refused a “visa in 20 minutes” offer for 500 Baht ($15) more than the visa price at a very official looking stand. At the visa office, the border guard requested a 100 baht “visa express processing” charge. I pointed to the price list stating $20 USD for the visa. “100 baht visa express fee,” he repeated. I gave him the “fee” from my wallet.
My passport stamped and with hope of being almost there in my heart, I reached the bus station where, according to Travelfish.org, a transfer bus would take me and other tourists to the station where I could get a shared taxi or the government bus. I saw the bus and got on and sat down. A group of Westerners, led by a Cambodian man with a lanyard and laminate tag on his neck, approached the bus. The man got on and, very kindly, told me to get off the bus, this was just for his group. The bus sat 30 and there were only ten. I asked him if I could ride along, but no, he would not let me on the bus. There were two more buses like this – only for groups.
It was a little ridiculous and I couldn’t see a solution. I was standing by another similarly dressed man who was like a bus attendant. He asked me a bunch of polite questions and then called over his friend, a shared taxi driver. This new player in the border-crossing drama offered me the front seat in a shared taxi (the preferred way to get to Siem Reap) with a Japanese couple for a good price – $15. There was something hollow in his eyes so I asked him to bring the Japanese couple over and I would go. They are at the border, he said, 15 more minutes. Uh-huh, I’d be stuck there until he wrangled more tourists so I passed on his offer.
Five minutes later and passed by another group, I was ready for another offer to get to Siem Reap. The bus attendant asked if I’d mind a shared taxi with Cambodian people. No problem I said and went with a young man on the back of his motor bike to the shared taxi station. As we drove I chatised myself for going off with a strange man to who knows where and began to plot my escape, but we arrived at a corner and 2 minutes later a Toyota Camry appeared with three Cambodians in the back and I got into the front seat. Cambodia’s landscape en route is more like India than Thailand’s clean, curbed highways. We drove on a two lane highway, which used to be impassable according to traveler lore, and passed farms, dusty towns, and many many motorbikes.
Even more evidence of Cambodia’s more bad-ass nature was the cargo that these motorbikes carried. On some there were pigs. Yes, pigs. Except they were not passengers or little piglets (that would be too cute for Cambodia).These porcine captives were strapped hip to hip on their backs with legs and snouts out. I thought they were dead and bloated until I saw one move. I made a mental note not to eat any pork in Cambodia. On another bike I saw a full display table with knives of all sizes ready for display and purchase, probably to use on those pigs. Cambodians are so bad ass they ride motorbikes with knives and dead pigs as passengers.
Another example of bad-ass was the road side vending options and subsequent purchase and consumption by the driver and one of the woman passengers. About halfway into the trip, the driver pulled the car over and some women came with baskets of food for sale. One woven tray looked full of fried something. As she got closer I tried to guess what it was, frog perhaps because it looked like an animal on a stick, a full-bodied animal on a stick. But it wasn’t frog. It was a fully breaded and fried bird impaled on a stick. And our driver bought one to eat, but I couldn’t see how he ate it because he did so outside the car. The woman inside the car bought four or five little birds, picking through the basket of birds like she was at the grocery store checking for ripe melons. The seller put her four choices into a plastic bag and she ate one while we waited in the car. Let me restate, she ate the whole thing- head, bones and all. Bad-ass.
Siem Reap is a tourist town, a very developed tourist town that’s a gateway to Angkor. And it’s a rich tourist town. I compare it to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. In that city, it’s still India and has maybe one or two big fancy hotels that serve the tourists who fly in and out for their picture of the Taj. Siem Reap has more of a “stay and spend your money” vibe to it. There’s fancy hotel after fancy hotel lining the main streets, spas and shopping centers, and pub street – home of Western drinks and food. In this area, everyone takes US dollars.
The taxi dropped me off and a tuk tuk picked me up. Or rather a young man and his tuk tuk picked me up saying that a ride to my hotel was included in my taxi fare. I was sure he was going to bring me to a commissioned hotel so I confirmed that we would go to a hotel of my choice. He agreed. On the way, he told me that my hotel choice was so expensive – $40 and not very good. I told him that I would look at it and then decide. The Popular Guesthouse was $7 a night for a good room with a TV. This man, Bo, would not give up and I did buy my 2-day tuk tuk tour around Angkor from him and his younger partner Gia for the next morning.
I had a noodle dinner for a dollar on pub street and then settled in early to some Animal Planet shows. My tour began at 5 the next morning for sunrise at Angkor Wat and I wanted to be ready for a day of touring. I feel asleep hoping the temples were a little kinder and gentler than what I’d already experienced on the way to the grand monuments.