Welcome to Cambodia

Trip Start Nov 06, 2006
Trip End Jun 15, 2007

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Just a few feet inside Cambodia from the border with Thailand, a sportily dressed man escorts a group of us new arrivals onto an official looking bus after we tell him we'd like a share taxi to Siem Reap.

"Yes, this way, please. Quickly, the bus is leaving!"
"Where does the bus go?" I ask.
"Taxi station," he replies.
"How much does this bus cost?"
"Free!" he answers energetically.
"Uh-huh," I think to myself. This is going to get interesting.
Five minutes later we arrive at the mini-bus station, no taxis in sight.
"Mini-bus?" he asks with a smile.
"Share taxi!" we shoot back.

Surprise! He directs us to a German couple also looking to share a taxi. I wonder if perhaps Mr. Minibus isn't evil after all. Then he drops the $60 price tag on us. To wealthy Westerners, this sounds harmless. To someone who's been staying in $5-a-night guesthouses and eating $0.80 curry from street stands, this was pocketbook rape of the worst kind.

Let the games begin.

Turns out the Germans are astute bargainers, as well, so the four of us begin negotiating the price. Mr. Minibus isn't having it. When we all begin to walk off, he gives us a whopping $5 discount. "Last price!" he screeches. Rip-off artist! We keep walking and get to the street. Half a block away, a taxi driver offers to take us the 3-1/2 hours to Siem Reap for just $30 but then mysteriously tells us he'll have to meet us somewhere else or "he'll get into trouble". What the heck? Then Mr. Minibus pulls up on a motorbike.

"Ok. There's a bus leaving in five minutes," he tells us. "$10 each."

But we've already read the guidebook horror stories about these infamous border buses to Siem Reap. Rather than taking the speedy, direct 3-hour route, they take long, circuitous back roads, drive you in circles, and waste time in every undetectable way possible so that, once they drop you off at the guesthouse that's cutting the bus company a hefty commission for this scam, you're so ravenously hungry and exhausted that you gratefully check into said guesthouse. It's a nice attempt by Mr. Minibus, but we weren't having it. So we start to walk down the street. And he follow us. Then he tells us we won't find a taxi to take us because they all have to go through his company. Yeah, right. He leaves us.

But as we walk around, none of the taxi drivers accepts our offer, and it dawns on us that Mr. Minibus, or whatever his name is, is one of the Cambodia border taxi mafia. Mr. Minibus pulls up next to us again.

"You find a taxi?" he asks smugly. "How much you pay for taxi?"

We offer $30, the price quoted to us earlier, and less than the $40 we'd pay to take the rip-off bus. He flat out refuses to budge. Again we begin to trudge off. He follows us. We walk some more.  Mr. Minibus follows. He says, "We are the only company certified to provide taxi to foreigners".

"Really?" I say with feigned surprise. "Maybe I should ask the tourist police," I halfway threaten.
"Go ahead," he says like a bratty schoolkid, "I work for them. I'm an assistant. If you want, I'll take you to them. Just hop in the car."
"So you're police?"
"Show me your badge."
He takes out a bogus, laminated ID of some kind.
"No, your police identification," I say.
He flashes another dorky laminated card with his picture on it.
"You don't work for the police," I bellow with a knowing smile.
His friendly demeanor begins to develop a few cracks. We start to walk again, Mr. Minibus in tow. We stop in front of a guesthouse.
"Maybe we'll just stay here tonight," I say, as the four of us drop our sweaty backpacks in the outer courtyard. "So you can just run along."
"Ok," he says. But he stays right where is is.
This is when we notice that three somewhat gruff looking dudes have pulled up around us on their motorbikes.
"Oh, look," I chortle perkily, "your friends are here, too. What are they here for?" I ask, trying to widen the cracks in his facade by trying to irritate him with the obvious.
That's when I take out the digital camera and begin madly snapping photos of he and his thugs, getting up close in their faces, raising their blood level as much as possible. When he starts to cover his face with his hands, I begin to see our way out of this. I sit down and take out pen and paper.
"What's your name?" I ask briskly.
"I'm not telling," he childishly replies.
"What is your name, please? I need it for when I show these picture to the police."
No reply.
"Give me your ID card," I demand.
"No, you only get to see it once," he says a bit nervously.
The cracks are wide, gaping holes by now.
"What are you, the taxi mafia?" I cajole, which makes the Germans we're with a bit jumpy, but they're starting to get angry now, too.
Finally, Mr. Minibus takes off in a huff. When he soon returns, he offers $50.
"No. $30," we counter.
"$45," he snaps. He's crumbling. $5 more and he'll have matched the hell-bus price and we'll be happily on our way.
"No," we say firmly.
"Ok, my last offer. $40," he says.
"I'm not happy about this," he says.
"We're not happy about this either. We should only be paying you $30."
"Will you pay for my ride back into town?" he pleads.
"Hell, no!" and we're on our way to Siem Reap. So much for trying to escape the Cambodia border scams artists.

Siem Reap is swarming with Chinese New Year tourists when we arrive, and every shop is festively decorated with cheap plastic and tinfoil "Happy New Year" signs.

We spend two full days taking in the jaw-dropping sights of the ancient temples at Angkor Wat, which lies just outside the city of Siem Reap. Massive buildings constructed of enormous stone slabs pieced together like two-ton Legos. Temples with detailed stone bas relief work, giant carved faces, splotches of moss and lichen, soaring stone domes, and empty concave holes where the Khmer Rouge chipped away all likenesses of the Buddha. After Myanmar, we swore we'd never visit another temple in our lives, but here we are and the sheer grandiose scale and beauty of the buildings wins us over.

Siem Reap itself is mostly unappealing - trash in the streets and yards (like everywhere else we've been in Asia), murky brown river which doesn't seem to have any flow, overpriced restaurants catering to the full mix of tourists here, who range from potsmoking backpackers to wealthy Asian businessmen with upturned golf shirt collars to gray-haired retirees who step out from their world-class resorts and into air conditioned tour buses.

The city is hopping with so many tourists, restaurants, and clubs, that it's easy to forget about the innumerable atrocities so recently inflicted upon the people, a past nearly invisible to our fresh tourist eyes except for the disproportionate number of amputees we come across - both children and adults - and the groups of amputee musicians who play traditional Cambodian music outside some temples to earn a living.

I can't help myself. I finally have to stop at one group that has taken a break from their music so I can try that instrument with the one squeaky metal string that's played with a bow. I am really quite awful and it sounds like I'm strangling an out-of-breath dying cat, which I find inredibly amusing, as it is obviously torturing the musicians to hear it.

Ah, never a dull moment in Asia. This is all high class entertainment, let me tell ya. Wow. What next?
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