Armed with replacement malaria meds and antibiotics, we left Bangkok to travel to the fourth country on our 9-month itinerary: Cambodia. While planning our rough itinerary back in the states, we came across several warnings regarding the border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia in Poipet. The border was said to be full of tourist visa scams and it was recommended to obtain a tourist visa in Bangkok before arriving at the border. Given the fact that we were a few days behind our original plan due to my ankle sprain and John’s stomach issues in Koh Tao, we opted for saving time and getting the visa at the border. We did some research regarding the visa scams and even found a YouTube video which explained the appropriate steps for entering Cambodia. We took photos of the video so we could be sure we used the correct visa office and quizzed each other on the steps we needed to take to avoid the scams. Once we were satisfied with each other’s responses, we headed to bed so we could get some sleep before a 4:30am wake up call.
We got up bright and early and checked out of the Merry V hostel at 5 AM to search for a taxi to the train station. Our research had shown that we should pay no more than 100 baht (~3 USD) for a ride there, so we shopped around for a few minutes until we convinced a tuk tuk driver to take us for that price. He dropped us off at Hua Lamphong train station where we purchased train tickets to Arranyuprathet for 48 baht each (~1.50 USD). We got ourselves a nice seat on the 3rd class train and departed at 5:55 AM for our six hour journey. The open air train stopped every 10 to 15 minutes and was surprisingly packed with locals. Thais burn their trash and we were cruising through the countryside along several trash burning sites. The result was pieces of ash accumulating all over our clothes and arms. Because of this, we spent the time snacking on our 7 Eleven breakfast items and trying to stay awake because we were afraid that the massive amount of trash ash floating around would get into our potentially open mouths while we slept. It wasn’t too difficult to stay awake because we were excited for our border crossing adventure and we ended up sharing our seats on two separate occasions with a grandmother and their grandchild. The first time this happened, an adorable Thai boy sat down next to me and his grandmother sat down facing him, next to John. He bowed to us and said Sa Wa Di Ka (hello) and proceeded to be intrigued with John. At one point, John took his sunglasses off and put them in the front of his shirt and the little boy followed suit with his sunglasses. It was pretty darn cute. They shortly got off at one of the many stops and we were again joined by a grandmother and her granddaughter. The little girl again bowed to us and said hello in Thai. We talked to her through a series of hand gestures and smiles until she fell fast asleep using the armchair as a pillow.
Right before our final stop, we struck up a conversation with another farang (foreigner) named Alex and learned that he was also trying to cross the Cambodian border. He was from Colorado and had been living in Thailand teaching English for the past 6 months. We figured it was best to stick together to conquer the border crossing, so we departed the train together and found a 100 baht tuk-tuk to the “border”. As expected, we arrive at our first scam opportunity of the day. The office we were taken to was extremely official looking. It even has nice signs printed out which point tourists to a “Cambodian visa office”. The idea is that unknowing tourists will go into the office and pay 20 USD for a fake visa and will then head to the border and realize they have to buy a real one. Of course, the scammers then pocket the money. Since we knew this would happen, we demanded to be taken to the border and when we were refused, we simply walked away. The border was only about a 5-10 minute walk away and we found the real Thailand exit office which we recognized from the YouTube video. We waited in line for about an hour to get stamped out of Thailand. We then proceeded to find the real Cambodian visa office where we were given an official visa for 20 USD + 100 baht. The visa really only costs 20 USD and we were warned that the officers would just pocket the 100 baht. We protested and weren’t getting anywhere, so we just paid the 100 baht because we also read if you don’t pay it, they may hold your visa for a long time before letting you go. We figured it was worth 3USD to just get out of there. Smart move on their part.
Then on to the next step! We were funneled into another office where we waited about 30 minutes to get our fingerprints taken and turn in our arrival cards. After this, we were allowed into the country. What to do next was up for debate on the online blogs we had read. We could do one of two things. 1-find a private taxi to take us 2 hours to Siem Reap or 2-take a legit free shuttle to a bus/taxi stand. Several people had said the shuttle is not a scam, so we got on and were taken to an office where we could exchange Thai baht and buy a ticket to a Siem Reap. We could take a big bus, mini bus, or taxi. My gut said taxi, but we could only take the mini bus because we didn’t have enough people for the taxi to go. The ticket guy assured us the mini bus would take us directly to our hotels and our driver would speak good English. We figured we would give it a shot, since it was also much cheaper than taking a private taxi. We got on the bus with 7 others and made the 2.5 hour trip to Siem Reap. As we got into town, John went to the front of the shuttle and told the driver to take us to our hostel, Hak’s house. It is at this point we discover that the driver, in fact, does not speak English, or confidently decides to pretend he doesn’t. The driver pulled into a parking lot with several tuk-tuks waiting for fresh meat. We got off and protested that we were told we would be taken to our hotel. They definitely did not care so we were pleased to negotiate a $3 tuk-tuk ride to our new home. We were pretty sure this would happen, so we weren’t too mad about it. We even ended up coming out ahead money-wise than if we took a private taxi. So, after 14 hours of trains, busses, and tuk-tuks, we arrived safely at Hak’s House where we were taken to the nicest room we had stayed in thus far! All for the outrageous price of $7, including breakfast! Note that I am giving prices in USD because Cambodia actually uses the US dollar. The ATMs even dish out US money, a small taste of home.
We freshened up and headed out to take a $1 tuk-tuk into town to get dinner with our new friend Alex, who also ended up staying in a room at Hak’s House. We wandered around Siem Reap and explored the many night markets. We found a good looking place to eat and shared our first Cambodian meal. We had amok, khmer curry, and a chili chicken dish with rice. Everything was delicious! We immediately recognized that the dishes in Cambodia differed from Thai dishes in that they were more savory rather than spicy. It was a nice change from the tear inducing hot foods we had been eating for the previous 3 weeks. When we finished, Alex decided he needed to try a snake from one of the street carts, so we watched as he ate an entire (albeit small) fried snake! He offered us a bite and I explained that it was tempting, but I would have to pass.
We headed back to the hotel shortly after because we would have another 4:30am wake up call the next morning. We had heard that one of the highlights of Cambodia is waking up for the sunrise over Angkor Wat so we arranged a tuk-tuk for the day for $15. The driver picked Alex, John and I up at 5am and escorted us to a ticket office to get our official tickets, complete with picture, to visit the temples in the area. We thought, “this is going to be awesome, we will get there before the crowds!” We couldn’t have been more wrong. As we pulled into the parking lot at Angkor Wat, we saw floods of tourists heading for the temple. We were also greeted by kids selling bracelets and post cards as well as Cambodian men and women trying to sell us coffee. We declined everything and found a spot to set up the camera amongst the crowd. We soon learned why it is so popular to come see the sunrise here, it is nothing less than majestic, even with all the people. The weather was clear and we were able to get some fantastic shots. No doubt some to blow up and hang on our future wall, wherever that may be.
We spent the rest of the day hopping around from temple to temple via tuk-tuk. We explored the grounds of Angkor Wat, the faces at Angkor Thom, and the temple from the Tomb Raider movie. We also stopped at a few smaller temples that were gorgeous in their own right but we often felt like we were risking our lives by walking under certain structures in them due to their ridiculous instability. We met some more locals near the temples and had some really funny conversations. We were sad to see how many young children were forced to beg for money and make a few bucks by selling various goods to tourists. By talking to some of the younger kids, we learned that American tourists are very rare in Cambodia. Whenever a local would try to guess where we were from, they would guess Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, but never the US. We had to tell them where we were from nearly every time. We also learned that you can get incredibly ripped off by buying some of the goods if you don’t haggle. A 16 year old girl told us she charges 7 times what we paid for a small souvenir to people from Japan because they rarely negotiate. Noted.
After a 10+ hour day of walking around temples and touring Siem Reap (props to my sprained ankle!), we returned to Hak’s House for some chill time before heading back out on the town to grab some dinner and check out the night life. Alex once again impressed us by eating an entire fried tarantula while a crowd closed in around him to watch. We washed his tarantula down with a beer during our hunt for a well deserved fish foot massage after a long day of walking. We found the tank for us, negotiated 18 minutes for $1, and hovered our feet over the tank mentally preparing for entry. And in we went! I was laughing so hard I could barely control myself. As I was laughing at the fish tickling my feet with their bites, I remembered a sign I saw on a fish tank the day before which said “if our fish don’t make you happy, you don’t pay!” Now I understood, these fish definitely made us all happy. Thirty minutes later, we were told our time was up and we returned to wander the streets of Siem Reap once more. We came upon what can only be described as a Cambodian tourist block party in honor of St. Patty’s day. We spent the next hour or so chatting with local Cambodian tuk-tuk drivers and dancing in the streets until we were too tired to stay awake. After almost 24 hours of sight seeing in Siem Reap, we retired to our comfy little room. Cambodia, you’re all right. Thanks for the amazing first day in your beautiful country.