For those of you simply reading my blog for entertainment, this post is probably not going to interest you greatly. But you lucky few with the cojones to venture out to SEA will ultimately feel compelled to visit the ancient ruins of Angkor Archeological park in Siem Reap, Cambodia and may find this post helpful. Even though the distance may seem short compared to some jaunts within only Thailand, this particular journey is riddled with pitfalls. So this is the bit of travel advice I can offer to those wanting to make the trip. All those who have convinced themselves that that a trip to SEA is not possible, you can simply wait for my next post which will showcase pics and descriptions of all the amazing things you are cheating yourself out of.
My travel experience to Siem Reap was by land, which is also the most affordable way, but this path is laden with booby traps waiting to trip you up, some even government sanctioned. If you have the greenbacks, I’ve heard it’s much simpler to fly to Siem Reap, albeit more expensive. Most backpackers and flash packers will enter Cambodia much the same way as i did, with the horror that is getting there by land. The journey began smoothly enough in Bangkok. After a little online research I decided to take the train instead of the bus, and since I was in Khaosan the night before I certainly didn’t catch the early train. I opted for the 1:05pm train to Aranyprathet, realizing and accepting the fact that the border crossing into Cambodia closes at 8pm, so if the train was delayed (as they typically are ) I may be staying overnight in Aranyprathet or Poi Pet. Luckily the train faced no serious delays and I was at the Aranyprathet station by 7pm. It is at this point where you have to be smart and keep your head on a swivel. You will be approached by numerous tuk-tuk drivers who want to take you to the Poi Pet border crossing for anywhere between 20 and 80bht. You do have to take the tuk-tuk, but just beware, they will purposefully take you fake Cambodian Visa stands in hopes of getting a kickback from their friends that run those operations. It will most likely appear fishy from the get-go, so just refuse to exit the Tuk-tuk and ignore the tout that approaches you from the fake Visa stand. Request firmly that the driver take you to the real border crossing (or Night Market). You know you are in the right place when you see the proper government signs and channels for immigration to Cambodia. To assist you visually, the market will be on your left and the border crossing is right between the two huge casinos next to the market. Don’t get out of the tuk-tuk and don’t talk to anyone untill you see that gateway and those casinos. I arrived in as the sun was setting and as Obi-Wan Kenobi once said, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy”. Seriously Poi Pet is terrifying, you are being approached by touts in all directions and there are literally rats scurrying from one trash heap to the next; just put the blinders on, stare straight ahead and do not acknowledge their existence. The first stop is the Thai customs, it’s indoors and you will see signs, no one needs to lead you there as you will enter via several guardrail channels under signage marked for immigration. They check your passport and send you speedily thru to the no-mans-land that is the Casinos. After leaving Thailand head directly to the Cambodian Visa building to get your visa. It will be on the right side of the street before the first casino. It should cost you $20 or 800bht and remember to bring a passport photo with you or else you will be charged an extra 100bht. Once you have the visa proceed past the casinos on the right side of the road and enter Cambodia where they will check your Visa and stamp your passport. Whew! But it’s not over yet, now you face the Next wave of scammers waiting to ferry you from Poi Pet to Siem Reap.
I heard from multiple sources that the best part about Poi Pet, Cambodia is leaving Poi Pet, I wholeheartedly agree. However, in your rush to get out, don’t make a hasty decision about your transportation to Siem Reap. There is a huge and well know government sanctioned bus scam, so avoid the buses or anyone offering to take you to a bus station. Your best option is to use good judgement and common sense to find a reputable cab driver that will take you directly from Poi Pet to your Hotel in Siem Reap (if you don’t have a hotel booked, just say the Pub Street). The cost for this cab ride should be somewhere between $20-$50 depending on the quality of the cab, after all it is a 2 hour drive. If traveling alone its best to try and find some others to split the cab fare with, try to find someone while in line during customs. I paired up with the only other English speaking couple crossing the border that night and we found a questionable, but not totally dodgy driver that offered us a ride in his Toyota Camry for $35. The 2 hour drive to Siem Reap went smoothly enough, until we got close to the town and the cab drive took an abrupt turn off the main road and into what appeared to be a shady tuk-tuk junction. He informed us that the tuk-tuk will take us from here to our hotel for free. We proceeded to inform him that this wasn’t the arrangement we agreed on, that he promised to take us all the way to the hotel. Again, just be firm and persistent, but don’t lose your cool. They will ultimately cave and do as they promised. This little hiccup is simply a way for the cab drivers to hook up their tuk-tuk buddies with business for the next day by having them ferry you the last few miles to your hotel and tell you how they can give you an Angkor tour the next day. Probably no harm done, but in the dark in Cambodia its best not to take chances.
Once you are in Siem Reap and ready to purchase a one day, 3 day, or one week pass to Angkor Archeological park, your best strategy is to purchase your pass on the day before you plan to start, at 4:45pm. So find a tuk-tuk driver around 4pm and negotiate a deal for the evening transportation of a few hours, it should only be around $5-$8. By purchasing your pass at 4:45pm the day before, you will get to visit the complex from 4:45 to 5:30 that evening for free, taking in a complementary sunset. I reccomend you take in that first sunset at the ancillary temple of Phnom Bakheng, saving the main Angkor Wat temple for a sunrise and subsequent mini-tour or grand tour via tuk-tuk on a full day. You want to be sure you get to the top of the Phnom Bakheng temple before the cutoff time of 5:30, so head straight there after getting your pass at 4:45. If you want to save you first sight of Angkor Wat for sunrise, simply avert your gaze and don’t look to the right as you head to Phnom Bakheng. It takes about 15 minutes to walk to the top where you should promptly get in line to climb the temple stairs to the top. Once you made it up top, before the 5:30pm cutoff, you will have to wait around an hour more for the sun to set. So grab a seat and relax with the rest of the crowd. It would be advisable to bring a water or snack with you and some sort of reading material.
Finally, when then sun drops below the horizon, you can climb back down the temple and find your tuk-tuk driver for the ride back to the hotel. The driver will try to sell you on his services for the next day and a mini or grand tour of Angkor, only take up the offer if you get a good vibe from him, since you can always take your pic of drivers the next day. You want a driver that speaks reasonably good English and has a decent knowledge of the temples in the park with their history history.
There ya go, that’s all you need to know to get to one of the great wonders of the world, if a dunce like me can do it without getting totally ripped off, so can you. If you plan on going back to Bangkok after Siem Reap (as I did), the journey back is a bit easier and you will have attained a new level of travel savvy after dealing with the entry. My recommendation is that you book a bus to take you to Poi Pet and no further. You can book these buses with your hotel or hostel and even at some of the travel agencies on Pub Street. They will offer you transportation all the way back to Bangkok, but the problem is that after Poi Pet you switch to a different bus and typically that bus will make frequent and mandatory snack, souvenir and dinner stops at their buddies shops all the way back to Bangkok, stretching a 5 hour drive into an 8 hour one. Once you get dropped off at Poi Pet, brush off the touts (you should be good at this by now) and head straight to Customs. This way, Cambodian customs are a breeze, they take your fingerprints and send you through, the bad part is Thai Customs. The lines are long and the inspection is through, since there is a problem with many illegal immigrants from Cambodia. It takes at least an hour in most cases, 2 hours in mine since it was pissing rain and the power went out halfway through the process. After you are through Customs, proceed to have a tuk-tuk take you to the “Government Bus Station”, be clear about this as they may try and take you to a privately owned place. You know you are at the right bus station when you see the 7/11 on the corner and behind it there is the enclave where you buy your bus ticket. 220 bht will get you on a bus directly to Bangkok and the last bus leaves at 4pm. The bus I rode was extremely high quality and I was very pleased. They even give you complementary water, coffee, snack and kiwi juice box! The bus will take about 5-6 hours and drop you off at Mo Chit station in Bangkok, which is accessible by BTS and Taxi.
Good Luck and enjoy the Journey!