Sunday, February 20, 2011

Adventures in Scambodia

Finding myself alone for the final week of vacation, I needed to figure something out quick. I'm sure I could've had an amazing time with very little exertion by staying on the beach, but that's not really my style. After checking in with a few ramshackle travel agencies in the touristy Koh San Road area of Bangkok, I found a van bound for Cambodia the next day. The trip would take 9 hours, so it meant if I was doing this, I'd have only a day in the country and 2 days spent in this questionable van.

Of course, they somehow squeezed 12 of us into the vehicle, even though I was told it seated 10. We stopped more times than were necessary and always at suspiciously expensive roadside snackbars. At one point, our shifty-eyed "guides" informed us we had to pay a penalty for not bringing photos for our visas. By the 3rd stop, I'd mentally sized up the group and decided who I'd buddy up with: 2 strapping Canadians, an irreverent Hungarian (think the Sesame Street Count crossed with the main character from Despicable Me), and an Italian couple.

By the time we made it to the border crossing, we were pretty sure the current dude leading us around was schiesty as hell. We were made to wait for long periods of time, supposedly for other groups, that never came. Then, we were told a story about Cambodian currency. According to these assholes, Cambodia only deals in Real (Cambodian currency). The tricky bit is that the ATM's in the country only dispense American Dollars (????). SO, if we didn't want to pay a transaction fee twice, we should load up on Real. Then, we were taken to the glitziest rest stop imaginable to change our money. Hmm. I decided to change the equivalent of about $10, just to be safe. This bought me two fistfuls of disintegrating Cambodian Real. Our gangster guide tried to hurry me through the process, saying I had to jump in a taxi right then. I made him wait (all of about 2 minutes), then went outside to find he'd let my cab go. "You no hurry, now you wait!!". I sat on a bench and watched as he loaded 20, 30 travelers into taxis...meanwhile my van companions sweetly offered to stick around with me. I assured them I'd be fine...we'd all end up at the same hotel, anyway.

An hour later, I angrily tracked down the "guide" and told him I wanted to be put on a bus NOW. I'd just seen a girl extract $10 from another guide by throwing a fit and opting for the bus instead of a taxi. So, after a half-hearted argument, I got my money and hopped on the giant tourbus. After another overpriced pitstop, at about 8:30 P.M., they unloaded all of our baggage and tried to sell us on a vacant hotel, saying it was high season and hard to get a room. I already had a room at another hotel booked! Why wasn't I being taken there? What the hell was this bullshit? All this I communicated to one of the guides and was escorted to a waiting tuk tuk with, "Don't worry! I'll take you now. Only 10 Baht". Steely glare = free ride = ridiculously meandering ride = FINALLY arrived at the hotel where my travel buddies were waiting with welcome drinks and minutes away from calling the police. We went out that night and had a great time in downtown Siem Reap. No surprise...the restaurants (and everywhere else) don't take Cambodian Real. Awesome.

Feeling pretty paranoid, the next morning we met our official really real guide, Pissa. He turned out to be fantastic...very passionate about his country and the sites he showed us. We toured Angkor Wat, The Jungle Temples, Angkor Thom, and then decided to take a boat on Tonle Sap Lake to watch the sunset. Most of Tonle Sap's circumference has been gifted to Vietnamese refugees, who have set up "floating village", complete with schools, fish harvesting sites, and homes. It was fascinating, but overly-touristy and a little sad. Children take makeshift boats (plastic tubs, etc) out to meet tourists and beg for money, often using strange novelties like snakes around their necks. At one point, we realized a little boy had hopped on our boat like a damn pirate and was selling beer and soft drinks for $1 American (he made a killing).

Despite the scams, I could not be more glad I braved traveling alone for that last week. The sites we saw were overwhelming and the people I met were hilarious and interesting. In fact, we're trying to tack Hungary onto Alex's and my big trip (which begins in 8 days!!) to see the incomparable Peter again.