Thursday, December 23, 2010

Bangkok to Siem Reap Overland

This route is notorious in the region for lots of scams, and things like 'scam vans' and fake consulates are often brought up in its description. It really isn't that bad, in fact it was quite easy compared to anything one might attempt in South Asia. A tiny bit of research (and I mean just doing a minimal amount of homework) and just a dash of travel savvy and anyone could navigate this overland trip. So besides relaying my small adventure, I'll point out some of the basic tips for travel and some scams to avoid along the way. In the end I was able to do the whole trip in just under 11 hours, and it could have been faster if not for some random bad timing instances and an unnecessary snack stop just before Siem Reap.

The route itself takes you from Bankok to the Thai border town of Aranya Prathet where you walk across the border to the Cambodian side of the border to their border town of PoiPet and then it is a short ride to Siem Reap and the Angkor Temples. There are many options for the first leg of the journey including numerous bus services, mini-vans and trains. Scam number one to look out for is that many of the travel agencies hawking bus services will try to sell onward travel on the Cambodian side, and this is almost sure to be rubbish. The Cambodian side is controlled by a state sanctioned private monopoly, and they don't deal with Thai travel's not like you're going to use someone else when you get to the border so they don't need the business via agents. So if you take a bus just book it as far as Aranya. I've also heard conflicting reports that the vans can be terrible and cause a lot o problems. Some claim that they arrive at places late to force an overnight at the border and other garbage. Others have stated this went off fine. I didn't take the vans so I wouldn't know.

I opted to take the train, which I had heard was much more scenic and with it being the high tourist season I thought I'd dodge full buses and opt for something with a bit more space, even if I had to get up at 4:30AM. There are two trains a 5:55AM and one in the early afternoon (1ish I think) and they depart from Bangkok's Hua Lumphong train station. I decided, in my frugal ways, to walk over to the train station from Kao San Rd. which took about half an hour or so, and was a straight forward walk. Once at the station it was very easy to get a ticket (48B/$1.5). With my ticket in hand I boarded the train (3rd class is the only option) and took a seat.

The ride was pleasant, although the scenery was nothing to get very excited about, but I imagine it was better than what was seen from the road. The ride takes about 6 hours and there are no breaks or stops and the only food available is from what two hawkers were selling, mostly Thai snacks. Once we pulled in to Aranya every tourist was immediately propositioned by a small army of tuk-tuk drivers. This is the part of the trip where you are most likely to make a mistake. The most important thing to keep in mind is that all you need to do is get to the border, you don't need to go to some consulate, and the border is along the main road just outside the train station going east. I had looked over the town layout in Google Earth prior to the trip to familiarize myself with it, and not wanting to deal with the tuk-tuks I thought about just walking to the border. Turns out it is just over 6KM (about 3.7 miles) to the border from the station, just a little further than I felt like walking at this point in the day (just before noon now), so I took the next tuk-tuk for 60 Baht (2$) to the border.

At one point the driver made for a turn off the main road (even though I told him border- no BS), and I spoke up saying that I needed to go to the border and not anywhere else. He asked if I needed to go to the "Cambodian Consualte" (also known as disguised Thai travel agency) and I repeated that I only needed to go to the border. He didn't put up a fight and brought me right to the border where I headed in to the Thai immigration side of the border.

On the Thai side all you have to do is get stamped out of Thailand, and this requires simply filling out your departure card, and no paperwork if you arrived with a Visa that you got before arriving in Thailand. The line was a bit long and slow, but after maybe 45 minutes I was checked out and passing no-mans-land between Cambodia and Thailand, the actual dividing line being a negligible stream. From here on it was time  to deal with the Cambodian Immigration officials.

Now in many of the travel books and online chat forums the overcharging of Cambodian visas by immigration officials was echoed very loudly and it sounded like it could be a real pain. The visa for a tourist is $20 and it was stated that you should pay in US$ or if you tried to pay in Baht they would give a terrible exchange rate, charging as much as 1200 B. It was also stated that numerous 'additional fees' were often quoted or it was said that the actual charge was $25 or $30. Well apparently Cambodia became aware of what a bad impression all of this was giving them, and they have really cleaned up the process. It was very simple, and there were no real hassles. There are many redundant forms to fill out, and many bureaucrats checking each others work, but nothing that was put upon the traveler was undue or asking them for more than what was actual protocol. When paying for my actual visa it was stated that it was $20 + 100 B. I simply asked what the 100 B was for and the guy told me it was for a 'service charge' which apparently expedites the process, but I responded 'How about just $20, and the official just responded 'As you wish'. Easy enough. I should also point out that you need a passport sized photo for the Cambodian visa.

After getting the visa it's into one more line to get stamped into the country, and then you get herded on to the free tourist shuttle to the bus park. This is a government sanctioned monopoly, so as a tourist you actually aren't allowed to take some other transport and their agents will follow you if you go looking from what I've read. Anyway the people were nice enough, and we took the shuttle to the bus park where you are faced with two options for onward travel to Sim Reap, $9 for a bus or $12 for a share taxi. I ended up actually taking a third option, a mini-van for $10 that took about seven of us. The ride was just over two and a half hours although we stopped for a snack that added another half hour. The van brought us directly to a guest house run by the agency that runs the travel from the border, although it was made very clear that we could stay anywhere we wanted, and they offered shuttles to other guest houses.

Today I toured Angkor Wat, a site that ranks up with the best ruins I've seen, and I've seen a lot. Anyway I'll discuss my impressions of Cambodia and Angkor in the next entry.

EDIT: Another thing I forgot to point out while writing this is that when you cross over to the Cambodian side and are waiting for either the bus or a share taxi you are pressed to exchange money. Now if you have no US$ or reil you will need to get money, but the exchange rates here are terrible, and if you have US$ you don't need reil. One of the basic rules of changing money is don't do it when you first enter a country if you don't have to, and another rule is never exchange where someone has a monopoly as both of these conditions almost always promise a poor conversion rate.  As both conditions here are true it means you will get a terrible rate. Once inside the country proper you will find that all ATMs dispense cash in US$ and all prices are also in that format, as the Cambodian reil is basically used just as change since there are no US coins here. So if you don't have cash to purchase your onward bus ticket, change just enough to purchase that and then stop by a Canadia Bank ATM once you are in a city to get US$, as Canadia is the only bank I've found with no ATM fees and all others seem to charge $4 per transaction.

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