The Road to Siem Reap
To call the road from Bangkok to Siem Reap "difficult"
would be a vast understatement. To call it a "road"
in the first place is a vast overstatement.
shoddy stretch of the Cambodian highway between the Thai
border and the town that leads to the Angkor Wat temple
complex is legendary. Ask everyone doing the Southeast
Asian circuit if they took this overland route. Whoever
nods, does so with a pained smile that betrays lingering
bruises and backaches.
the time you leave Thailand, you will have been hustled
more times than you have fingers. It's not malice
as much as it's commerce; scams here are a fact
of life, like finding ants in the sugar dish.
is the hustle more pronounced than on Khao San Rd., Bangkok's
budget-travel haven. It's here that you'll
buy a "V.I.P." ticket to Siem Reap for just
300 baht ($7.50). It's also here that your plush,
air-conditioned bus will fail to materialize the following
morning. Instead, you're jammed 15-deep into a decrepit
hours and 200 miles later, it's time to cross into
Cambodia, birthplace of the Khmer Rouge, setting for The
Killing Fields and home to more lingering landmines than
any other country in the world. You enter through Poipet,
a dingy Interzone border town dominated by Chinese-mafia
casinos. The population here is expert at lightening your
exchange-rate rip-off, for instance -- it would be comical,
if it weren't so effective. Your border guide, dressed
sharply in a crisp, official-looking polo shirt, informs
you that there are no ATMs anywhere in Cambodia. Furthermore,
in Siem Reap it will be impossible to cash traveler's
checks or get a cash advance on your Visa card.
he urges, "get your money here."
official exchange rate hovers around 4200 Cambodian riel
to one U.S. dollar. Shameful then, that your companions
accept 2800. The know-it-all from Nevada, for instance,
ignores your advice and cashes in $300. That's a
of course there are plenty of options for Visa cardholders
in Siem Reap. In Phnom Penh, several ATMs actually dispense
an uneventful pass through customs, you're introduced
to the pick-up truck that will act as the Volkswagen to
your gang of clowns...
the conspiracy theorists, and the coming stretch of highway
resembles a lunar landscape because flying is more profitable.
Like all good paranoid fantasies, the great "Siem
Reap Airport Scam" has at least one compelling fact
working in its favor.
that Sokha Hotel Co. Ltd., a division of petroleum giant
Sokimex, administers Angkor Wat tourism. In return, Sokha
splits the first $3 million of ticket sales with the government,
then takes 30% of everything else. In September, 2005,
Sok Kong, Sokimex's majority shareholder and one
of Cambodia's most influential businessmen, announced
his intention to start a new airline to serve the lucrative
Bangkok-Siem Reap route.
then, repair the road?
have ample time to contemplate the conspiracy while bumping
along in the pick-up truck's bed for the next six
hours. Just when your spirit has reached its breaking
point, you stop in the middle of nowhere.
bridge," your driver says, "it, uhhh, collapsed
deposits you into the sweaty hands of motorbike drivers
who demand $1 to carry you just one mile to the river.
Legs cramped, bag heavier than ever, you then tightrope
across a swamp on a narrow, slippery two-by-four. One
misstep, and you're knee-deep in muck.
wet and muddy, you're packed once again into a mini-van
for yet another six hours on the moon. Unless you learned
how to sleep on the open seas during a hurricane, you
will not be taking a nap.
then, just two hours later, the road magically becomes
smooth again. The driver gives you the good news: You're
just 20 miles from Siem Reap, and the crammed bus can
finally reach its top cruising speed of, say, 40 miles
cheers. An emotional Dutchman sheds a tear.
you're finally deposited at a guesthouse, it's
3 a.m. and you're too tired to care that the bus
driver will earn a commission from your patronage.
you say, "tomorrow, I'll find another place
now, it's time for a tall bottle of Chang beer and
a good stretch. You're willing to accept this latest
hustle. You, after all, didn't get scammed at the