Bangkok to Siem Reap

Trip Start Aug 31, 2008
Trip End Apr 30, 2009

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Since we had made our way from this bus station to Kao San Road before, we knew to cross the street and hail a cab from the other side this time.  It was very easy to hail a cab there, saved us some time and the trip cost less than 100 baht.  This time instead of staying right on Kao San Road, we went down an alley on the other side of the street and found a really cheap room at Sweety Guesthouse for 180 baht a night.  It was small and didn't have a private bathroom, but there were plenty of nearby reasonably clean communal showers and washrooms (squat toilets though).  The room was cool enough with a fan that we could live without air-conditioning, especially just for a single night.  The best part was that they let us check into the room very early, since it was only around 9:00.
We spent the day in Bangkok much like our last stay in the Kao San Road area, only this time we bought some souvenirs.  Although I didn't buy everything that I had planned to (an Adidas style track suit with Beer Chang logos), I found a Kao San Road t-shirt for 100 baht and at night we went to the Pat Pong night market to buy a watch.   I was looking for a simple and small kinetic (automatic) watch that wasn't an obvious fake brand (like Rolex, Taghuer, Omega, etc.)  I approached about a half dozen watch vendors to see what they had and what kind of prices they were looking for before I bought one. 
The vendors would consistently use a calculator to negotiate a price and would always throw up an insanely high number before deleting and showing me their initial asking price.  For example, they would show 5,500 baht and then delete it and try asking for 3,000 baht.  Generally I could get this 3,000 baht down to somewhere near 1,000, but since I am nowhere near an expert on buying quality fake watches I wasn't sure when I was getting a good deal.  Eventually I bought a Patek Phillipe branded one that was about as small as any kinetic watch that I had even seen for 700 baht.  It had only dials for the time of day and a small date counter, which I made sure worked before making the purchase.
  Although everything appears to work right with this watch so far, it does not have an efficient enough kinetic mechanism to be useful because when I woke up the following day the clock had fallen a few hours behind.  It is fine all day when I move around lots, but what good is a watch that needs to be set every morning.  I did much better the last time I was here, as I literally carried around a cold glass of water with me and had the vendors throw the watch in it to demonstrate their faith in the waterproof qualities of their watches.  The kinetic fake Rolex which I purchased back in 2005 (also for 700 baht) is still working in great shape today and has no problem of keeping the time through a night of sleep.  If it didn't say Rolex on it I would wear it more often though.
The following day we needed to make it to Aranyaprathet, which is a Thai city on the border with Cambodia.  The route from Bangkok to Siem Reap in Cambodia is a notoriously painful and scam-filled journey, but by reading ahead from we felt that it would be wise to break the trip up into a two day venture.  By starting the journey to Siem Reap from Aranyaprathet, instead of Bangkok, we hoped to be able to avoid many of the problems associated with the trip and we had one day left on our Thai visa to accommodate this plan.  The main thing that our research showed was to avoid the extremely cheap offers listed in the Kao San Road area offering bus rides to Siem Reap for only a few hundred baht.  The consensus on the Internet seemed to be that they were an invitation for a very long day of torture.
There are three easy ways to get from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet by land: taxi, bus and train.  Taxi was going to be pretty expensive, since it is a four to five hour drive away and because we were breaking the trip up into two days, this didn't seem like a necessary expense.  Buses cost around 160-200 baht and leave from Bangkok's Morchit (Northern) bus terminal every 30 minutes or so (from 4:00 to 18:00).  This is probably the most common way people do the trip, but we opted for the train option.   There are only two third-class trains a day though and the first one leaves at 5:55, we caught the later one which left at 13:05 instead.  Even if you caught the really early train, you would still be arriving at Aranyaprathet with the flood of the Kao San Road busses and be subject to the notoriously long queues and scams that our two day plan hoped to avoid.
The third class train takes around six hours to make the journey, which is only a little slower than the bus ride would take. The train ride cost only 48 baht, so we were not expecting it to be one of the more comfortable journeys of our lives, but we were pleasantly surprised with the conditions on the train.  Essentially everybody that boarded the train at the main Bangkok station had their own seats, which were reasonably clean and padded.  Unlike our business class train ride in Indonesia, this train had working fans that kept the train cabin at a comfortable temperature.  Also unlike in Indonesia, we were not bothered by vendors, beggars, musicians, etc at all for the entire ride.  I shudder to think what the third class train rides in Indonesia are like, but in Thailand third class tickets get much better service than business class tickets do in Indonesia.  People that got on the train after the first stop may have to stand for awhile, but they would eventually get seats as other people departed the train.
We arrived in Aranyaprathet on time, around 17:35 on January 20th, 2009.  Immediately after disembarking the train we were approached by tuk-tuk drivers that were mostly thinking that we wanted to go to the border.  However when we mentioned the Aran Garden 2 hotel (also recommended by the guide), the tuk-tuk driver agreed to get us there for 50 baht.  It seems sort of funny that we paid more for this five minute tuk-tuk ride than the six hour train ride, but that is how things work here.  The tuk-tuk driver seemed very eager to drive us to the border the following day, but we told him that we had no idea when we would be leaving (knowing it isn't hard to arrange this ride in the morning anyhow.)
After checking into Aran Garden 2 and dropping off our bags, we explored the town of Aranyaprathet looking for a place to eat dinner.  We ended up walking to the night market, which was small but busy with local people shopping mostly for food.  We were the only foreigners there and English was not spoken here nearly as widely as the other places we had visited in Thailand.  However it is not hard to point at food that looks delicious and we soon had purchased an entire roasted chicken for 70 baht.  From a different vendor, I got some guava fruit with spicy sugar and a cup of guava juice for 10 baht each.  The juice wasn't as good as the fruit, which I particularly enjoyed thanks to the spicy sugar.  We also got some mystery fruit based ice-cream treats for 10 baht a piece and a box of donuts that cost 15 baht a piece.
Our room in Aran Garden 2 was quite nice considering it only cost 230 baht for the night.  It included a TV with a wide variety of English speaking channels, a private bathroom with warm showers and some random furniture to make the room seem less Spartan than our normal budget guesthouse stays.  It wasn't perfect though, as I killed around a dozen mosquitoes before I felt comfortable enough to sleep.  We also had the misfortune of having a feuding couple residing directly above us.  Many Thai people come to this border town in order to gamble in Poipet, Cambodia, and I suspect the couple in the room above us did not have a lucky day.  Besides the yelling and thumping, we also heard a lot of glass breaking before the sounds of them trying to clean up the damage.
We woke up the next morning, we decided to head straight to the border and were checked out and on our way by 8:30.  The tuk-tuk driver that drove us to the hotel the night before was waiting for us in the parking lot.  He agreed to take us to the bridge at the border for 80 baht, so we jumped in his tuk-tuk and started heading towards the border.  We had read that people would be trying to direct us to tour agencies or the Cambodian Consulate in order to get assistance with the Cambodian visa forms, but that it was totally unnecessary and a scam.  They would charge lots of money to help you fill out a form that takes all of one minute at the border (and is in English anyhow).  Sure enough, the taxi driver first took us to a travel agency, despite our loud and repeated protests, and after we refused to get out he took us to the Cambodian Consulate next.  Only after informing him that we were soon going to get out and he would not be getting anything from us did he finally take us to the bridge at the border.  We paid him the 80 baht and bid him farewell, happy that we avoid the first scam.
The next step was to get our exit stamp from Thai immigration.  This can be a long process if you come any time after noon (when the buses and trains from Bangkok start arriving) as the queues can last for hours.  There are separate lines for foreigners and Thai nationals and although none of the lines were very long, there were almost no other foreigners there so we were through the queue in around two minutes. After this you walk across a bridge and leave the Kingdom of Thailand and enter the Kingdom of Cambodia.  In the morning you will see cartload after cartload of Cambodians hauling their goods to sell in Thailand on day passes, but only a little traffic going the other way.
To get your Cambodian visa, you proceed to the first building on the right on the other side of the bridge.  There is a sign written in English with big bold letters showing the price of the different types of Visas.  In our case, we wanted a Tourist Visa which was US $20.  A man handed us a form to fill out and we spent two minutes filling it out and then tried to get to the window where immigration officers were working.  I presume that there is a massive line here too later in the day, but at this early hour there was absolutely nobody lined up at this window.  However, this is another place where people try to scam you and the man that gave us the form told us it was 1,000 baht to get our Cambodian Visa.  I pointed to the sign above the window and said it was only US $20 (700 baht) and he tried to tell me it was an old sign.  I smiled and laughed and told him that we would pay US $20 at the window.
At the window, I got the same routine.  They said that for 1,000 baht I would get "express service."  He said that there were lots of people ahead of us and that we would be in for a long wait if we did not pay for this express service.  To humor him, I took a look around and saw that there was maybe a dozen people waiting in seats outside of the office and explained to him that it was okay, we had lots of time so we would only pay the US $20.  He didn't want to take our forms and left us waiting in front of the window.  During this wait, the man that gave us the forms tried again to get 1,000 baht and then said for just 100 baht extra we could get our "express service."  I kept a smile on my face and explained that we had all day to get this done and could wait as long as it was going to take.  After about 10 minutes, with nobody else lining up behind us yet, the immigration official reluctantly took our form and said "go have a seat; you'll be waiting a long time."
We took a seat in the shade and prepared ourselves for a substantial wait.  I knew there weren't many people ahead of us and with only a small trickle of people coming in at this early hour, I knew they could only make us wait if they decided to punish us (by losing our forms for example).  Since I kept a smile on my face the whole time, showed them due respect and kept the situation humorous, I suspected that they were not going to intentionally make us wait any longer then it would take for our forms to get to the top of the heap.  Sure enough, within about 15 minutes they brought us our Cambodian Visas.  Although we were only counting on a 30 day Visa, they were valid from January 21, 2009 until February 21, 2009 which is 31 days.
We were now quite happy that we had spent the night in Aranyaprathet.  We had avoided the first two big scams and more importantly avoided the notorious long queues that occur at this border crossing.  However, we were not done yet and the next step was to get the Cambodian Visa entry stamp.  To get this keep walking down the road and there is another building on the right had side of the road for getting the stamp.  Once in the building, you have to fill in an immigration form which is easy to do while waiting in line.  Although these lines were not very long, it still took nearly 20 minutes to get to the front of it.  During this wait, I noticed that all of the Thai people were slipping the immigration officials a 100 baht note to get their stamp.  We had read about this payment, which was referred to as the "tea money" scam.  However when it came our turn to get the stamp, we simply turned in our form and were not asked for any type of payment.  This scam is apparently easy for Westerners to avoid, but not so easy for people from Thailand.
We were now in the clear and free to walk around the town of Poipot in Cambodia as long as we wished.  However Poipot is not exactly a nice place to visit; people say that it rhymes with the word "toilet" for a reason.  Getting out of Poipot and to somewhere more useful in Cambodia is not an easy thing for Western tourists to do on the cheap.  Cambodian nationals would pile into pickup trucks for very affordable transportation, but Westerns are encouraged to take a free shuttle bus to the "Poipot Tourist Passenger International Terminal" which is about 10 kilometers out of town. From here you can supposedly catch a government bus for US$10 a seat to Siem Reap, but we didn't see this bus and it will only leave once every seat is filled (which would've been many hours for us).  The more obvious option is to get a ride with a Toyota Camry taxi, which is a fixed price of US$60.
This seems like an excessive price since everything is so cheap in Cambodia, but Poipot is run like a mini fiefdom and there are few ways around paying this price.  You can try to walk down the street (without catching that free shuttle bus) and look for a place in a pickup truck, but that could end up being very problematic.  I read that officials will prevent this using whatever means are necessary if they Westerners trying to avoid their levy.  Instead we decided to wait around for another two people so that we could share a Toyata Camry ride and split the US$60 charge.  Again the people running this racket tried to scam us by saying the charge was 1,000 baht each, but after we said US$15 each, they agreed without too much of a fight.
We had heard that road between Poipet and Siem Reap was formerly one of the worst roads in all of Asia, but that it had recently been fixed up and now it wasn't so bad.  After completing that drive I must say that I am very happy that I didn't have to go through that endeavor before they fixed up the road because that was still the roughest stretch of highway that I've ever come across (at least for a mainstream highway.)  As cheap as I am, I was also VERY glad that I didn't try to make this adventure in the back of a pickup truck because it was extremely dusty and bumpy for the entire three hour trip.  It was three hours in the taxi but it would've been more in the pickup truck because they all stop in a town called Sisophon where you have to arrange for another ride to Siem Reap (or Battambang or Phnom Phen).  We passed plenty of these trucks on our way and they were packed full of people, so if anybody dares to go this route I would suggest paying for two places in the cab of the truck unless you really want the full Cambodian experience.
The road had some stretches of pavement but was often reduced to pot holed plagued paths of sand.  We did this trip in January, when this part of Cambodia averages less than one millimeter of rain in the entire month, so everything was very dry and dusty.  The journey is probably easier in this dust then during the rainy season because two out of every three bridges are closed and the dirt bypasses that are used in their place must be nearly impassable when it rains a lot.  All in all, the Toyota Camry had a large enough trunk that it fit all of our backpacks and since I got to sit in the front of the taxi, I had a very comfortable ride.  The air-conditioning could've been better for the people in the back, but compared to the bus or (heaven forbid) the back of a pickup truck, this was traveling in luxury for this trip.
Once we arrived in Siem Reap, we were dropped off at a point in the edge of town where we figured we would have to get a tuk-tuk to get to where we intended to stay.  There were other taxis already waiting there, but we initially figured they would want a payment that included a kickback to the taxi that just dropped us off there.  It turns out we were wrong, as they told us that the service was free and that they would drop us off wherever we wanted to go.  Still being a little skeptical, we got in and asked to go to the Mandalay Inn.  The taxi driver briefly tried to get us to another hotel, but quickly gave up when we mentioned that we already had reservations at Mandalay.  It wasn't long before he pulled up to the Mandalay Inn and dropped us off without any hassles what-so-ever, a pleasant surprise.
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Where I stayed
Aran Garden 2
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