The Trails and Trials that Led us to Cambodia

I admit, I knew next to nothing about Cambodia before I came. Even as I first stepped foot in Cambodia, all I knew was what I could read in the first couple of pages of my Lonely Planet guide book. I had an idea that Cambodian people in America were more likely refugees than immigrants, but I only knew one Cambodian-American boy who was born and raised in America.

Brian and my first experience on Cambodian soil (or headed to it) was not pleasant. We took a slow train to a border town in Thailand from Bangkok (I’m talking six hours on a standing room only train, with no conditioner, to travel about 150 miles—the distance from San Diego to Disneyland. Granted, the ride only cost us each $3, but still, it was bloody uncomfortable). A man on the train was so hospitable and kind as to offer his seat to a couple of travelers on the train. So many times, I witnessed Thai people being gracious and friendly to travelers.

Unfortunately for Brian and I, we look like locals, so we didn't benefit from this hospitality. On the flipside, we were treated fairly as locals as a local would be, rather than as a tourist might be ripped off… again, probably due to our dark, ambiguously Southeast Asian features.

As long and cramped and uncomfortable as the train ride was, the views of rice fields and railway towns were beautiful.

When we finally arrived in Aranyaprathet, we had to board a tuktuk and go to the immigration office of Cambodia. It was a bit stressful having so many people herd, hustle, and steer us toward certain taxis and tuktuks, wanting our business. We gave up on trying to share a taxi with a group and rode a tuktuk as a pair.


The driver took us to what I immediately recognized to be a scam visa office. He pulled up to the office and a man in business attire cheerfully greeted me and gave me some BS about us having arrived at the place where we should get our visa. I refused to get out of the tuktuk and told the driver to take us to the border. They argued with me for a while, but I was stubborn. A couple of other tuktuks arrived with foreigners onboard—I waved them away and called to them that this was not the immigration office. When the businessman realized that I was scaring off his customers, he waved our tuktuk driver away, and that was that. Our driver then took us to the real immigration office, we paid him, and he left.

Next, Brian and I walked a few hundred meters to the immigration office. Many men lounging about in the streets helpfully tried to point us in the right direction, but after the experience with the fake visa place, we didn’t know who to trust anymore. We eventually found what seemed to be the right place—a very plain, rundown building run by men in police officer-like uniforms. The price for the visa was posted as $20 + 3,000baht. The last part was handwritten. It was obvious that these police officers were scamming off of tourists for an extra fee, equivalent of 3USD. I was disgusted, but I overheard many other tourists in front of me try to argue away this unlawful fee and fail, so I just forked over the money.

Applying for and attaining our visa took about 5 minutes; waiting in line at the border took another 15 or so. If we had applied for our visa online ahead of time, we could have saved ourselves $3 each and the stress of getting scammed, but the wait time was no difference for those with an online visa and those with an upon-arrival visa.

 After we cleared immigration, we waited for a charter bus to take us from the border to Siem Reap. These bus companies wait at immigration until the bus fills up, at which time, it departs for yet another bus depot. At this bus depot, Brian and I met a few tavelers, and were roped into converting some of our USD to Cambodian dollars. We were again scammed and ripped off—we were told Cambodian shopkeepers accept both USD and Cambodian dollars but that we would save money in the long run by having our money converted. Total BS—every shop and restaurant accepted both USD and Cambodian at equal prices. We lost another $20 or so.

After we got off that second charter bus, Brian and I were again bombarded with tuktuks looking for our business. We already had a hotel reserved and we knew that these tuktuk drivers wanted to take us to certain guesthouses with whom they had deals for directing customers their way. We wondered how we could find an honest tuktuk driver who would just take us where we wanted to go.

Luckily, a Filipino family who was sitting with us on the bus stepped in and helped us out. We chatted a bit on the bus about being from the Philippines; it turned out that one of the family members now lived in Cambodia as a teacher. He has a personal tuktuk driver who he calls up whenever he needs a ride; after one phone call, we all squished onto the back of his tuktuk and we were taken directly to our hotel.

The hotel cost about $20/night, much more than the typical $3/night guesthouse that you can find in Siem Reap. It was comfortable, with wi-fi, breakfast, and—rejoice!—an air conditioner in the room.

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