Seven days in Bangkok. I hadn’t done much in that time. Still somehow, I was exhausted. I needed to get out of there, but I was finding it hard to drag myself away. Finally, early Sunday morning after I returned the hostel door keys to the office (long story as to how I had the office keys), I was able to get myself up and grab a tuk-tuk to the train station.
Bangkok Train Station
Southeast Asia is very popular for backpackers. With loads of culture, delicious food, breathtaking scenery, beautiful beaches, and a massive party scene all for relatively cheap, it’s not hard to see why. Depending on your tastes and agenda, it’s easy to live off of $10-15 US a day. That includes everything. Putting your monthly expenses at around $500 means you can actually travel around Southeast Asia for cheaper than you can live in most places in America. And backpackers are always looking for the cheapest way to get from point A to point B.
In Europe, it’s relatively easy to jump from border to border with the extensive rail network. Southeast Asia doesn’t have quite the same quality of transportation available. To get from Bangkok to Cambodia, there are a few options. 1: You can fly. This can be a cheap option if you plan far enough in advance, however, planning in advance is not my strong suit when I’m out on the road. 2: You can take the train to the border, cross the border, and then get a bus to your next destination. In the end this tends to be the cheapest option, but is generally not advertised very well and a little more for the adventurous person. When I was inquiring about the train, I was told I would probably be on the train with not just people, but animals as well. This turned out not to be true though. I believe the lady was just trying to convince me to travel by the third option so she could refer me to her ‘friend with a really good deal.’ 3: Book a bus straight through from Khaosan Road to Siem Reap. This way you pay all up front and don’t have to worry about catching other forms of transport while crossing the border, or so you’re told. This is one of the biggest scams in Thailand.
It happens like this. Cheap trips to Siem Reap are advertised. It seems like a good idea. Problem is, they will find a way to get more money from you. Once you get to the Cambodian border, you are required to get a visa. $20 US CASH is what is required. However, your bus will take you to a ‘travel agent’ who will inform you one of many things. Either the line at the border is three hours long, or you can’t get your visa on arrival or whatever they think you will believe that day. They will offer to get your visa for you for an extra charge. This usually ends up being twice the visa fee or more. If you tell them you would like to get your visa at the border anyway, often they will threaten to not take you to the border and intimidate you into getting your visa from them. Once you make your way through this hassle, you have to get across the border and take the free shuttle bus to the bus station. Here, you were told that a bus would pick you up and take you the rest of the way. Sometimes there is, sometimes you will have to wait another 2 hours or so for the bus. They will tell you to take one of the many minibuses. The minibus leaves in 15 minutes. Only $15. A word of warning: if this does happen to you, wait for the big bus. The minibuses are just vans packed with way too many people.
Anyway, the best way to avoid all that freakin’ hassle is to take the train. The train to the border is about $2. Then, if you happen to meet some other travelers on the train, share a tuk-tuk to the border. I hadn’t met anyone, so I decided to take a motortaxi. Basically, it’s a dude on a scooter and you jump on the back with your backpack and all. He then drives you to your destination, all the while trying to get you to wet your pants. Seriously. This would be the first time I would take a motortaxi. I took many more after that and they don’t get less scary. Those guys drive like maniacs. If you get lucky, your driver might even have an extra helmet for you.
My driver attempted to take me to see one of his ‘travel agent’ friends. I had already been prepped for the scam, so when the flashy guy approached me I knew what was happening. I didn’t get off the bike. I just demanded that the driver take me to the real border crossing. He could see that I was both serious and not getting off of his bike, so he reluctantly took me the rest of the way. At the border, it was simple. No lines. I paid my $20 plus an extra few dollars for a processing fee (read: bribe). Corruption. In the end, it’s only a few dollars but it’s something that I would have to deal with over and over again in Southeast Asia. It gets old very quickly. I took the same free shuttle that the others would had taken the scam service were taking to the bus station. Here they offered me the same minibus. I politely declined and took the big bus for a slightly cheaper $10. I ended paying about $35 or $40 to get to Siem Reap from Bangkok. I did it on my terms. And it cost me about the same as the others who took the scam route. My advice: Take the train. Much better experience.
Once you step foot in Cambodia, you are in a whole other world (even coming from Thailand). Very few streets are actually paved. Refrigerators are hard to find. I was told that Cambodia imports all of its electricity from Thailand and Vietnam. I never even knew that was even possible. The hostel that I stayed at lost electricity many times because of rain storms. Apparently it is a frequent occurrence. Oh yeah, it’s about 40 degrees celsius (above 100F) during the day. Ouch. But the hostel had a pool, so score one for that.
Ok, on to why everyone (and I mean everyone) visits Siem Reap. Angkor Wat and the surrounding temple complexes. Angkor was the center of the Khmer Empire from the 9th century to the 15th century. Medieval Angkor is thought to have been as big as modern Los Angeles. There are more than a thousand temples in the Angkor area, mostly constructed in a Hindu style, although the religion of the temples changed over time as religion shifted in the empire. The most famous is Angkor Wat, principally because it is the best-preserved.
I managed to meet up with a fellow traveler that I had met in Bangkok. He and I, along with a few others, decided to explore the temples together. We started off with a trip out to the temple complex and a short hike to watch the sunset over Angkor Wat. Not a bad way to start.
The next day, we woke up super early and headed out to the temple complex again at 4 a.m. in order to see the sunrise. Unfortunately, it was cloudy on that particular day so the sunrise was less than spectacular. We explored Angkor Wat and a few of the other major temples that morning. The temperature was hovering around 40 degrees by noon; I was just too tired to care anymore so we headed back to the hostel. You can get 1-day, 3-day, and even 7-day passes to the temple complex. I only got the 1-day pass and was quite glad I did. The temples were amazing, but after the first few temples, they all looked the same to me. Still, it was an amazing experience.
I spent the rest of my time wandering around the sleepy little town of Siem Reap. There are plenty of restaurants, night markets, and a bar street. Cambodian food is quite similar to the surrounding countries, but seemed to have a bit more of a Chinese flavor than Thai food. We ate a lovely meal together. Typical Asian style – the four of us each ordered something to share with everyone. A wonderful way of enjoying your food with friends.
Cambodia is not known for strict adherence to the laws. Drugs are illegal, but readily available. One of the easiest ways is to head to a local pizza place and order a ‘happy pizza.’ Beware that your pizza will contain marijuana. Choosing the right place can have a big effect on the quality and strength. That’s an adventure that you must take upon yourself. To be honest though, the pizza is quite good. Probably one of the better dining options in terms of price and tastiness of food. You can order happy pasta as well.
All in all, Siem Reap has a pretty cool vibe to it. It was fun to just stroll around the city and the night market, haggle with the street vendors, and eat some late night street food. Also, if you’re in need of a Vietnam visa, it’s easy to obtain here. Any travel agent can help you out and it’s actually reasonable. You will have to leave your passport with them for a few days, so make sure they look reputable.
After I had my visa for Vietnam and I had gotten my fix of Siem Reap’s dirt roads, I booked an overnight bus to Phnom Penh. Before my bus ride, I stopped by the pizza place for one more pizza. It made the bus ride very enjoyable and relaxing and a great way to wake up to the different world of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.
Next time on This Is My Travel Blog – Asia: The Chillingly Powerful Capital Of Cambodia – Phnom Penh