CAMBODIA IN A DAY: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY


This story accounts my first 24 hours in the Kingdom of Cambodia, a beautiful country at the tropics of mainland Southeast Asia. This is quite a long write-up but read on anyway to learn some tips in crossing the Thailand-Cambodia border.

DEPARTING FROM THAILAND


It was 4AM and I was scheduled to depart to Siem Reap to see the Angkor Wat. I grabbed my backpack, left the hostel on a Grab taxi and headed off to Mo Chit (North Terminal) Bus station in Bangkok to catch a bus leaving for Cambodia. The hostel was near Victory Monument and taxi fare to the bus terminal was around 150 THB. At the bus station, my options were to get the 5AM bus for 250 THB which would take me to the border in Poipet, Cambodia or wait for the 9AM direct bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Time was of the essence, and having in mind of getting a better chance to catch the sunset in Angkor Wat, I chose the 5AM bus to Poipet.

THE BAD 


After a 4-hour drive, we reached the Thailand border at Aranyaprathet. We queued for the exit stamp at the immigration office. It was a swift 15-minute process as there was no one else except for the 10+ passengers I was with in the bus. After getting cleared, I headed out after my co-passengers to the Cambodian checkpoint. It was only a block away but walking to it seemed uneasy if you are new to the place. There was not enough signs to guide the tourists and the place was rowdy with different transports coming in and out, sales people offering promos from the nearby casinos and trashes that are mostly within sight. As I took my first few steps away from the Thailand border, I had felt a glaring change in the environment – one that goes from good to bad.

And bad it was. We wound up at the Cambodian Immigration office which looked more of a well-enclosed neighborhood sundry store. It didn’t look like the other checkpoints you see in Singapore, Malaysia or Thailand. It was close to a makeshift. I just filled out the arrival form when it was my turn to get an entry stamp. As a Filipino, a Visa was not required for entry so I easily handed over my passport to the officer. He leafed through it and in a sudden asked for a 100 THB. The two Filipinos I was with who were ahead of me in the queue were not asked to pay for a 100 THB so I knew it was a scam. I understood that I was at the mercy of the officer and I could not risk not getting an entry stamp over a small sum of money. I paid for it and went on.

Cambodia Arrival Checkpoint

The entire process at the arrival checkpoint was a quick 10 minutes. After I got the entry stamp, I walked over to the free shuttle station which was only behind the immigration office. The surrounding was in shambles when I got there, besmirched by different vehicles which were parked almost everywhere. The place was dusty, arid and full of noise from the running vehicles and touts that would aggressively approach to offer you a taxi for 2,500 THB to Siem Reap. It was too much and I had to politely say “No, thank you” to each of them. I told them I was waiting for the free shuttle to the bus station for Siem Reap. Some of them were incessant that I had to transfer from one seat in the station to another.

The free shuttle bus station. At the far right is the police officer watching a video on his phone.

An hour was over and the free shuttle didn’t arrive, that was what I thought. I came near to the police officer and asked for the schedule only to be referred to one of the touts who were almost harassing me for a taxi ride. The tout spoke good English. I was told that the free shuttle was the green one, while pointing to the nearest bus and then started to convince me again to instead ride a taxi. I refused, took a seat and observed. The bus didn’t have a driver and no single passenger, even a local, approached it. After a few minutes, I decided to walk out and look for a friendly face that I could ask for information. I met a European after walking for about a kilometer. He’s been in Poipet for years already and certainly knew the trade around. I told him my trouble and helped me get a motorcycle driver to the bus station. After exchanging smiles, and thank you’s, and agreeing to the fare, I jumped in and we head out to the bus station.

The free shuttle.

No, not really. I was not taken to the bus station, but to a ticket office at the side of the road. Having read all of the awful scam stories from travelers, I was on guard for another  possible scam. I insisted to the driver to drop me off at the bus station and not to the ticket booth of any sort. When we finally got to the bus station, there was not a bus waiting for passengers. All 3 buses were parked and seemed empty. The place was flooded with mud water since it rained the night before so it was hard to move around to ask questions. I confronted the driver and almost got aggravated. The driver was calm while he called another local. I was told to buy the ticket from him and insisted that it was already the bus station and he had to leave me there. He wanted to double the charge for the 2 stops but I only paid for the fare we had agreed. He left after receiving the 20 THB. The local guy issued a ticket for $10 as the driver left and mentioned that the bus will arrive and I just had to wait. I asserted to only pay the moment the bus arrives. He agreed. After a few minutes, he stood up and got on to his motorbike. He asked that I ride with him to the bus. I was confused but had to ride on. He took me to another ticket booth by the road where a bus was waiting. There were several travelers and locals on it so I paid the $10 and went inside.

The ticket booth by the road where I was able to ride a local bus.

THE UGLY 


Getting in the bus was a total relief after hours of dodging scammers. I was triumphant over them. Yes, it may sound a little over the top but that was how it felt. I was comfortable at my seat taking on that amount of success when I noticed a small bug (a cockroach!) crawling to the strap of my backpack. Adrenaline came rushing and I flicked the helpless bug in a snap. Another triumph, I said it!

I looked around and the bus started to smell awfully pervasive. It was coming from the curtains so I had to move to the next seat away from the window side where it was freely flailing. I come from a third-world country where things can be worse so I know I could get by with the smell. It was an easy peasy sort of inconvenience, an idea that I kept pushing myself in not knowing that I had to hold on to it as we went through each stop that came with its unique surprise. Each surprise was worse than what came before it.

Cooked birds.

Fried bugs.

The first stop was when we had to wait and wait for passengers when clearly there was no people around. The second stop was a restaurant where you can find locals selling buttered birds and fried crickets with flies hovering around. The third stop was when the driver loaded 20 jackfruit inside the bus. The fourth stop was another scene of loading cargoes inside the bus, that time it was 5 sacks of goods which had to be inserted under the front seats. The fifth stop and the last was when the driver had to carry a motorbike inside. The situation we were in was crazy!

A pile of jackfruit inside the bus.

Truly, the entry process to the Cambodia checkpoint was figuratively ugly, but I did not expect it would extend to the local bus. It was already 4PM, after 11 hours on the road from Bangkok, when I arrived at Siem Reap.

A motorbike in between the front seats of the bus.

THE GOOD


The bus dropped us off at the city center of Siem Reap. At the time, my impression about Cambodia was shrouded with all the bad and ugly things I experienced since I traveled from the border. I was ready to experience the worst, but Siem Reap turned it the other way around with its gentle and pleasing nature. Its city center was clean and orderly. It was lush with greens clustered at the sides of its walkways. I was impressed and in awe at the same time of the stark contrast between this beautiful province and the other provinces near the border.

Sundown was closing in and I had to quickly head to the hostel. I was met by Mr. Lem, the tuktuk driver I had arranged days ago for my Angkor Wat tour.  He was all smile, embraced me with gladness as he said,”It’s good to see you, boss.” It was a comforting moment especially that I was traveling solo in an unfamiliar place. I bid that he give me a few minutes to get settled before heading out to the ticket booth for the Angkor Tour.

Monks at the steps near the moat enjoying the sunset.

I was the 999,345,204th person to buy the ticket as the marquee reads at the Angkor Wat ticket booth. I was pleased to know that I could use the ticket the following day and still would be allowed to go inside Angkor Wat for the sunset after the purchase.

Mr. Lem was quick to bring me to the Angkor Wat complex which was 10 minutes away from the ticket booth. As soon as we got to the place, I hurried myself to the causeway leading to the entrance of Angkor Wat. Its magnificence fall before me. I was struck by its massive scale! It was gorgeous and full of life. I reckoned, just having a glimpse of its beauty was one of the best moments in my travel life.

I scouted for a good vantage point to capture the sunset. I let the camera roll and take a time-lapse photo while I sat at an old step near the moat. I let out a big sigh and said to myself: “This is what you came for. You had a long day, enjoy the moment.”

Me at the gates of Angkor Wat.

TIPS FOR TRAVELERS


While going through the bad and ugly side of Cambodia makes for an affective travel story, being in the situation is definitely nerve-racking especially for the inexperienced traveler. It is my intention to help, so here are a few takeaways out from my experience:

  1. The safest way of crossing the border is to go by plane. If you have the budget, go for it for a hassle-free experience.
  2. If going by plane is out of the option, the next best thing is to get the 9AM direct bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap at Mo Chit bus station which would cost around 750 THB. Avoid any travel agency in Bangkok offering a direct transfer as there are many accounts from travelers being scammed by these agencies.
  3. At the border crossing, don’t depend on other people to get through the process. Perform all the necessary steps by yourself. If in doubt, read the signs or ask the person in authority.
  4. Most of the scams and bribery happen while getting a Visa at the border. If possible, process an e-visa online using evisa.gov.kh website.  If you are required of a Visa at the checkpoint, ready your documents, bring at least 50 USD and have a passport photo with you.
  5. As much as possible, avoid getting on a tuktuk near the crossing. They are the start of a complex scam whereby the transport takes you to different places where you would have to spend money on.
  6. Be tough if you are traveling solo. The border can be confusing if you don’t pay enough attention. Some people may look innocent and are ready to help or may appear as an officer, but sadly are part of the massive exploit. If you already feel unsafe, walk out politely from the situation and go to where you feel comfortable. Look for a friendly face whom you can ask for better information.

MR. LEM – MY TUKTUK DRIVER


As a way of giving back, I am dedicating a space in this post to Mr. Lem, a father of two kids who was my tuktuk driver in going around the temples of Angkor. He was kind, always on time and very accommodating. My experience in Siem Reap was smooth and easy all because of him.

If you are looking for an affordable Angkor Wat tour. feel free to contact Mr. Lem through the information below:

Offered tours:

  • Small circuit day tour – 25$ for 3 persons
  • Big circuit day tour – 30$ for 3 persons

PS: I don’t get any commission from Mr. Lem. I respect the guy for his hardwork and so this is my way of helping him out. A tip, I was able to customize my day tour by selecting temples I wanted to see for each circuit. Mr. Lem was able to accommodate my request for a very affordable price. 😉

The gates of Angkor Wat at sundown.

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