Thursday, March 10, 2011

The good, the bad, and Cambodia. [Part 2]

“The money’s the same, whether you earn it or scam it.”

-Bobby Heenan

The good, the bad, and Cambodia. [Part 2]

My 30 day visa-free stay in Thailand was down to its last day. Rather than use government channels of transport as I had been, which are slow but honest, I was forced to rely on private commercial enterprises so as to not incur an immigration fine. The swindlers I fell victim to easily quadrupled any prospective overstay tax.

It was a boat ride from Ko Phi Phi, Thailand to Krabi town, an overnight bus from Krabi to Krung Thep (Bangkok), a morning minivan trip to the Thai-Cambodian border at the Aranya Prathet-Poipet crossing, a visa-on-arrival, and another minivan jaunt to Siem Reap, Cambodia. A full 30 hours of travel during which I was scammed on multiple fronts.

It began with the chartered bus from Krabi to Krung Thep. During the fourteen hour ride the bus stops twice, not counting the ninety minute interruption from a breakdown between towns. The two premeditated stops each include a restaurant with nothing else in the vicinity. No big deal until you notice the price for fried rice is three times that than you’ve paid anywhere else. And it’s cold. But it’s pay up or go without a meal. So, naturally, I order three servings.

What? We’re on a cross-country trip riding a bus without a toilet and the two places we stop at charge by the minute for bathroom use? I’ll wipe later.

Okay, fifty baht here, one-hundred baht there, no big deal. A bit of swindling is a time honored foreigner-in-a-foreign country tradition. You got me this time, but I’ll pack a lunch the next and take a stool stopper before getting on the bus.

Real-Time Travel Tip #4: If you’re in Southeast Asia and you’re traveling amongst a legion of Caucasoids not only did you overpay, but you’re going to end up paying much more along the way. It’s far better to be the only white person on the bus.

A side note: During one of the two restaurant stops the Thai purveyors were playing the first Jackass film. As I was waiting to pay for the privilege of using the bathroom the Thai toilet watchman and I were laughing together while admiring such bits as Stevo lighting a firecracker from his arse and another where a urine soaked snow cone is eaten. I’ve never been prouder to be an American.

A second side note: The bus was completely full. It was stuffy and humid. The last to get on, I ended up sharing the back bench seat with four women from eastern Europe. I was constantly awoken by bumps, jolts and engine backfires during the night, released from a REM-state to a beard of sweat, lakes of perspiration under my armpits, a head snoozing on my shoulder and another on my leg. I’ve never been more intimate with people I’ve said nothing more than ‘hi’ to.

Arriving in Krung Thep in the early morning, knowing I need to exit the country by the afternoon, I seek the aid of a tourist company. The first and last time I intend to.

The owners are so welcoming that I take a shower in their bathroom. All smiles, these are people I can trust to assist. Both parties are pleased with the transaction that transpires. Last minute transport to the Cambodian Border is arranged, along with visa service, transport after crossing into Cambodia, and the first night’s stay in Siem Reap, near the gates of Angkor Wat. At least this is what I believed my bargained for benefit to be.

At the Thailand-Cambodia crossing the clouds come out. Everything swathed in shade, especially our Cambodian ‘handler’ who we are, appropriately per his title, handed off to. His English is exceptional, his border crossing savvy unparalleled, before the undertaking he gathers the ten traveling Caucasoids together and goes through a laundry list of potential entry scams we may face. Trust no one. Except him, of course.

Many of these scams are also laid out in my guidebook, but during the huddle our quarterback warns of others. This is up-to-the-second intel; we’re being briefed by a Cambodian defector. Wait, what if he’s a double agent?

The handler tells us it’s preferential to trade baht for riel (Cambodian currency), instead of dollars for riel. We’ll get a much better exchange rate. On the Thai side I stock up on baht.

To help aid in processing our visas the handler will need more money. Upon inquiry we are assured over and over again that this is the only way, that without another thirty dollars each we will have to wait three days at the border for processing. Sir, they wouldn’t call them ‘visas-on-arrival’ if we had to wait three days, we explain to him. “No, no, no, you are all mistaken, if you want to enter Cambodia today you need to pay a processing fee. Border rules change all the time. Your books are not accurate.”

After warning us of such scams our handler is scamming us. If we don’t pay, however, the minivan taxis we already arranged for on the Cambodian side would not wait for us. An ominous threat in a country where transportation is much more difficult to arrange than in Thailand, where buses only operate once or twice a day in the early morning. The sun reached its zenith three hours ago. We’re likely to get stuck in the border town of Proipet, Cambodia, home to gangsters and brothels at a time when Cambodia and Thailand are engaged in border skirmishes over the ownership of a sacred temple farther north. Fear prevails. Thirty dollars is handed over. Our visas are processed, during which time we ask the Cambodian immigration officers about the visa fee and the potential wait time. We are assured that visas-on-arrival do not require a waiting period or any fees beyond twenty dollars, the amount we already paid for the service when booking transportation.

We meet up with our handler. He’s all smiles, welcoming us to his country. His grin goes unreturned. We begin accusing him of cheating us. All the sudden his English deteriorates, he can not understand what we are getting at, but remains adamant that, “Without me you would still be in line for processing and would have to wait much longer.”

Please refer to Real-Time Travel Tip #4.

At a Cambodian currency exchange counter I notice a dollar gets 4,000 riel while 30 baht--one dollar converted to Thai currency--will only garner 3,000 reil. To trade baht for reil is to lose a third in the conversion as compared to dollars, completely contradicting the handler’s advice. I stuff all the baht I bought two hours ago into my backpack. Now I have to carry a bunch of Thai currency around the next couple months until I return to the Land of Smiles.

How about something you’ve already surmised. I’m not smiling now.

We’re bused to the minivans for transportation to Siem Reap. Unfortunately, the minivan service we booked is having difficulties. Oh dear. We’re a good two kilometers away from the port of entry and the company will not be able to accommodate us today. What luck, an alternative presents itself. We can pay more money for ‘upgraded’ vehicles from a different company. Some pay. I refuse. Now I am unable to understand English that well and the reason for the additional expense. I am let onto one of the ‘upgraded’ vans anyway.

During the three hour ride the van stops once. It’s at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. I pay three times us much as usual for the cheapest thing on the menu, fried rice, but urinate on the side of the road.

Even the kids are in on it. As soon as we exit the van for the restaurant young girls surround us. Several of them begin tying bracelets to my wrists before I even set a foot on the ground. “For free,” they promise, then stick their hands out after garnishing me with pink and purple souvenirs. “You have Thai coin for me?” No. “Need money for school, mister.” No, no coins. “Really want to learn, mister.”

You wouldn’t believe these faces. Four year-olds with doe eyes looking up, their pupils filled with heartrending hope. Optimism infused with desolation, eyes that say with a little generosity you can do so much. Irises that were born for begging.

It works. I’m so forgetful. I do have a few leftover Thai coins.

“Dollar, mister.” A chanted demand. The words are sung. “Just one dollar. Really want to go to school and learn. Really want to be smart like you, mister, and bring help for my family.”

Seven expectant hands reach out.

Rather than taking us to our prepaid hotel as promised during the booking process the van stops six kilometers outside of Siem Reap. Conveniently, we are disposed of at a tuk-tuk (motorcycle taxi) service station. “Would you like to buy a ticket for transport into Siem Reap?“ The sun is setting. We’re in a foreign country where the people seem to be far less moral than the one we left. We’re tired, hot and frustrated. Yes, we’ll buy a f***ing ticket.

Please refer to Real-Time Travel Tip #4.

The prepaid hotel, he’s never heard of it before, our tuk-tuk driver tells me and the Dane I’m with, our knees pressed to our chins in a carriage made for midgets as the motorcycle is perilously steered between a few cars, a ton of bikes and infinite cyclos. I look at the receipt. The name of the hotel is written in sloppy scrawl, identified as ‘T-Mark’. I’m thinking the driver is probably right. It probably doesn’t exist. I was stupid not to have recorded detailed hotel information upon booking. Instead I simply stuffed the receipt into my pocket, excited at the time that everything was working out so well. We stop at an internet café and make a phone call to the travel agency. The travel agents, the pleasant couple whose bathroom I used in the morning, can no longer understand English in the evening. Nonetheless, I remain adamant. I’m talking to a dial tone.

Another call, this time unanswered with no option to leave a message.

International calls end up costing 2,000 reil per minute, not per call, as I understood before dialing.

Hmm. How much would it set me back if I smash every computer screen in the internet café?

The travel agency is registered with the Thai Tourist Authority. I’ll make another more-expensive-than-I-expected call to report the business. With enough complaints their license will be revoked. They’ll have to pay a few hundred baht to change the name of their company and apply for a new Tourist Authority certificate.

I’ve already covered their dissolution and re-incorporation expenses three times over with a steak dinner to spare.

The thing about getting scammed is that it’s a fantastic bonding experience for the victims. Nothing brings about more camaraderie than a mutual antagonist (or antagonists--it’s us against the continent). We celebrate our successful entry into Cambodia in the sense that we did, in fact, enter. (Unless this is a scam as well and I’m still in Thailand. If so, they’re really good and deserve all the money in my bank account.) We gripe about being swindled in one of the world’s poorest countries, where on the van ride to Siem Reap we witnessed children walking naked amidst scrap metal housing unfit for a strong wind. We looked out at unattended toddlers playing in sludge-filled trenches. We laughed at squealing pigs as they were tied, bound and transported on the back of a motorbike, their stomachs hanging off the sides of the backseat. We make plans to visit Angkor Wat together in the morning.

I don’t go with the group. I wake up early and move to a guest house several kilometers away. I know better.

Please refer to Real-Time Travel Tip #4.

Keep drifting.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, the world's largest religous building.
An intimate moment caught just outside Angkor Wat.
Bayon of Angkor Thom, home of over 200 sculpted faces.
Bayon, where you're always being watched.
Ta Prohm, a Buddhist temple dedicted to a Khmer God-King's mother. Also, where scenes from Tomb Raider were shot.
Preah Khan, the Temple of the Sacred Sword. Or, the place where I pretended I was Indiana Jones for two hours.
A 20,000 riel note, a very intimidating currency. You're looking at $5.

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