Cambodia, Poipet: Guns Blaring and Babies Bathing

Trip Start Jul 25, 2009
Trip End Mar 29, 2015

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Where I stayed
Shadow Of Angkor I Siem Reap
Read my review - 3/5 stars

Flag of Cambodia  ,
Thursday, December 23, 2010

I noticed something. Taking a bath outdoors is like waking up in the middle of a dream, but being able to move your body. As the cold air blew over my face, I found that similar to being jarred awake in the middle of a heavy dream, my senses were heightened while the rest of my body was nearly unable to move. It was in these moments tonight, that I decided that I should finally sit down and try to record my trip before the memories slip away like hermit crabs being pulled into the endless ocean.

Just thought I'd share that with you.

So I last left you in Bangkok, but without much of stories. I ran into a fellow Canadian, who just happened to be ending his 1-month stint in Bangkok that evening. The holidays approaching, Khao-san was teeming with tourists. People eating on the street, grabbing large beers from street vendors, people selling bags, shouting 'Massage sir?!', people getting massages. In retrospect, Khao-san was both disgusting and enthralling. One couldn't just walk by without an open mouth.
Instant gratification in whichever form. If you want you could shop cheap; grab some street meet for about a nickle (in Canadia terms that's about 5 cents); grab a 2-hour massage for $10 or a fish-massage for $4 (see video for a tickling experience); beers from convenient stores, ice-boxes or street bars; decent live music (although they tend to cycle the same songs every night and between every bar...'Hey Jude' to CCR to every 90s hit...'Hello little girl!')... gluttony.
So I found myself exhausted within a few takes of this place. Funny thing was, since it all looked the same, I got lost easily between this road. The only landmark I had was a temple that surrounded both streets on either side...but as I had a couple even this became fuzzy (was it on my LEFT, or my right heading towards the flashy sign with the bag-salesman without teeth...hmmm)

So a night of this. No complaints really. My friend had to take off early to catch his flight...but in my estimate he would have been lucky to make it in time. It's easy to lose track of time in this city.

The next morning, I set off for Cambodia.

Ahhh Cambodia...I feel like we were destined to meet, and destined to part. It couldn't last, nor would I have wanted it to. But you left a taste in my mouth that is both sweet and sour, just like a 4-month fling, or your food.

The bus ride was horrible. I took the government bus (guide-book recommendation!). At first, I wandered around what I thought was the bus-area, according to the book. But after asking around, even the locals didn't seem to know. Most tried to point me towards the tourist bus, no doubt seeking some commission. Local buses cost locals a ridiculously low price. Someone did their homework, and decided to charge locals about 75% of what they're used to at home. No questions asked, of course....yet this ends up still being about 400% more than locals pay. I learned this quickly, but it was very hard to talk most people down to what would be a reasonable price a complete stranger should pay -- given they spoke Thai.

So I met this hippy girl who was all smiles, who was travelling with her bitchy friend, who was all glare. She told me she was heading to the same place, but that she was waiting for some tourist bus. I didn't have a ticket yet, and I heard some horror stories about ze tourist I went to the highway. The bus station there didn't exactly yield me any #s I was hoping for to get to the government station. Eventually, I flagged a cab down. I mean three cabs. It takes two or three arguments to get lucky, since they all refuse to turn on their meter (decent price), and insist on flat-rates (400% increase). I don't blame them. You take it with a smile, and hope they take you on it. The second you get pissed, you might as well pack up.

I got to the station JUST in time to catch their morning bus. It took about 5 hours to get to the border between Thailand and Cambodia. When I got off the bus, I could almost hear Yosamidy Sam crackin gunfire and 'Hip Ya'in his way through down. Casinos, broken-down cars, naked babies wandering the street, and too many people lingering around looking bored and dangerous...this was Poipet, the bordertown into Cambodia.

I'm exaggerating, no doubt. This is a tourist view-point. We are used to friendly reminders, lots of signs, and automated/orderly instructions. Here, it seemed that the locals were running it. Even a uniform didn't necesarilly mean security - extortion is common here. When I hopped into my first Tuk-tuk (motorcycle towing a small wagon), he promptly brought me to the 'consular office', where I was to get my Visa. 

One thing I learned about Cambodia, is that if their English is even remotely should keep your guard up. This guy waving me into the office was all smiles and cheer. He sat me down, asked for my passport, had a bunch of official-looking forms, and asked me all sorts of friendly questions about where I'm from, my hobbies, etc. It was so phony, I quickly smelled something rotten. My smiles turned into suspicious glaces around the room, which wasn't decorated in any way except for its sign 'Consular Office of Cambodia'. I heard about Tuk Tuks bringing their customers places they might shop at, just to get free gas money whether or not the buyer goes for it. I started to wonder if this was the real deal...but I had already handed over my money ($40), and my passport. Shit. Plus, they had a lot of personal info on that sheet.
The man came back, and gave me my 3-month visa. WHAT? 3 months? I'm staying 2 weeks. The man explained that this was the cost...but NOT that there was another option. Already stamping my passport with it, it was a done-deal. When I started to ask about it, a little angrilly, his attitude changed. He wanted a tip, on top of the rip off. I smiled back at him, playing his game, and said 'I gave you enough already, so please give me my change. Good bye'.
He was hesitant with giving me my money back.

Then I get to customs. No problems there, surprisingly. Just a few gun fires in the distance, and washrooms that charge you 50-cents to use them - 'the horror!'
 I meet a Russian couple on the way in, through a grinning man in a clean white shirt who hits me up as soon as I start marching towards the border. Suspect the clean white shirts...this man explains to me that they have a ride already with his driver...and I have to pay the same amount as they do to get in. No even split, obviously. The strategy here is to create discomfort, and a sense of that they can trap foreigners into saying 'Yes', or usher/bully them into a mode of transport. The guy who took the money wasn't even driving. He was like the pimp-daddy of all these people...the man with the $40 grin. And when I handed him Thai Baht, instead of dollars...he ripped me off! When I protested, about 10 people around him all sort of edged in...and I got back into the car. It wasn't that much anyway...I thought.

So it was an eventless ride back. I was taking in the beautiful countryside...flat, flat flat...and the people living their lives outside of their homes. It was all so open, this community. People bathing their babies with a bucket of water outside their home. Barbeques everywhere. Animals, huts on stilts, and all sorts of garbage, rubbish and car parts strewn about. People were so alive here, and open about their lives.

The couple in the back seemed to be arguing about where to stay. I think my guidebook I passed back, with its entries on guesthouses and French architecture, got the romantic ideals of the traveller going in her. She threw on her headphones though and just zoned out. I chatted a bit with the guy, and they told me they would check out my guesthouse. Suddenly, though, our driver said that he couldn't drive us into the 'tourist district', so we hopped out, and got into tuk tuks. I think it was after he got a call from his pimp-daddy that he had to run back for another ride, and instead dumped us into the hands of two farther down the chain.

So the Russians were getting a little panicky. I don't blame them. From the sounds of their 5-star stay in Bangkok, they were in Siem Reap for a resort-style vacation, not an adventure. Still, it appeals to almost everyone until they are faced with challenge. Challenge one: dangerous vehicle. Challenge two: unfamiliar guesthouse. Challenge three: overzealous Canadian urged them to 'live a little!'

Needless to say, I found Shadow of Angkor on my own. I made an appointment I didn't intent to keep with the tuk tuk, who's best sales-line was 'but I have to make appointment because if you don't show, I will lose many other jobs'. In a city with thousands of these tuk-tuks, who are constantly wondering if you'll need a ride, even just around the corner, 'tuk tuk?' - a sound you hear days after leaving the country, any time a coin drops, or a wallet rustles some money about - i doubt that this man would be missing much. I wanted freedom. All the people at these guesthouses ask is 'Where are you going? What are you doing tomorrow?' They hire on these tuk-tuk drivers, and offer them a great deal. These people are doing their best to support their families, their education, their future wives, by making these dollars through a pushy, desperate sale of their driving services. You can pay anywhere between $10-20 and have a tuk-tuk for the whole day. He'll bring you to temple after temple from sun-rise to sun-set. You don't even have to buy his lunch (I do, on principle).

The thing is, it's annoying, but once you understand their situation, people should really lighten up about it. We got it made. Sure, it's our money. But really, they need it more. I don't just give it out, as some generous (but naive) tourists do - this would only make it harder on the next tourist. But I give them an opportunity to earn it, to haggle with me for it. It's how they do it here, and the sooner tourists learn relative prices, the slowly these prices will inflate. After all, not every traveller has tons of $$$ to blow, especially if they are travelling for months, or even years.

So enough tangents. I find myself at the hotel. I scope a few rooms, haggle a bit, throw some prices around, and settle on a decent giant-sized bedroom, with hot shower and private washroom, and a sweet balcony with a table (which I only used for say...2 minutes in 3 days?), for $17 a night. That was pretty damn pricey. I could have found a dorm somewhere for $1 a night, but I was pooped, and the guide-book never lies.... (or so I thought)

No sooner than I settle in, the guy working the place (who I thought was the owner, but was just a tuk tuk) told me about 'a special, one-night only traditional dance'. Having read an older work from a guy who travelled in Laos and Vietnam, this sounded oddly like a once-in-a-lifetime thing, even though the invitation was obviously riddled with urgency, and most likely-falsity. But it was alright. He brought me to the place (and the next day said 'Hey! You never paid me!' nothing's free), and they charged me $10-15 for the buffet. It was so-so. The beer was ma-ma. But the performance was real, and I enjoyed it. I felt pretty lonely that evening. I would have much preferred a sit-down in busy market, eating some local grub, and sharing grins with others around me. Here, it was all tourists, mostly Japanese, Chinese, and American families. So they all paid more than they should have, and had much less fun than they could have had, just for some simple comforts. 

 I escaped quickly, and wandered into the night market and Bar street. It was awesome. Bright lights, people ready to haggle down to $1 for a pair of pants, $2 for a scarf, $2 for a was a shopper's heaven. I went back with only a few items, wanting to budget, and treasure my hard-earned haggled items. I stopped for a beer in a fancy lookin bar, overheard a newly-single man drown his sorrows onto whoever's ears were nearby (lucky for me, the local bartender took an interest in my smiles), and generally spent the evening in a sort of need-to-settle comfort.

I settled nicely. 

I slept soundly that night, but only after tying a bungee chord to my window locking mechanism, spanning across the wall to the door - the only weakpoint of the room. Later, I wondered what the cleaning-lady would think upon finding this. Would she think : 'crazy, insecure foreigners', and shake her head? Or, would she start digging around for my money, and travellor's cheques I had hidden in my bag-cover case?

Find out in the next episode of...My trip in Cambodia!

I must be tired...trying to sound like an English translator for Dragonball Z.

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My Review Of The Place I Stayed

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thirsty-boots on

Dude, awesome blog! You pretty much captured the experience of most -- if not all foreigners. I went there 2 months after you and fortunately I know a little of the language. Regarding prices, deals, and haggling that had to be made, I always use their native monthly wage (~$25-30 a month) as a way to gauge the price I'm willing to pay for. So they better work HARD for my $1. LoL! I bought 6 T-shirts for $4...telling them would they rather hang on to their pile of T-shirt or gain a few dollars? In almost all cases, they negotiate. I even found myself negotiating on behalf of other foreigner when I suspected that they were being taken. LoL!! Again, great blog and have a safe trip always!


kawaiguy on

Thanks for the compliments! In reflection, price haggling is an art form - you can have fun, be creative, but ultimately no one should get upset.
Have you got any stories of haggling going dead WRONG?

thirsty-boots on

Nope, I've not encountered or heard of any stories of haggling that had gone dead wrong...Hope, I never do. LoL!

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