THE LIFE, WORK AND CHRONICLES OF JEFF KOYEN: REFORMED ITINERANT, OCCASIONAL WRITER AND FRIEND TO ALMOST ALL DOGS

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.
The 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.
By 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.
Nowhere 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 mini-van.
Six 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 money belt.
The 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.
"Please," he urges, "get your money here."
The 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 $100 swindle.
(And of course there are plenty of options for Visa cardholders in Siem Reap. In Phnom Penh, several ATMs actually dispense dollars.)
After an uneventful pass through customs, you're introduced to the pick-up truck that will act as the Volkswagen to your gang of clowns...
Believe 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.
Consider 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.
Why, then, repair the road?
You'll 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.
"The bridge," your driver says, "it, uhhh, collapsed yesterday."
He 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.
Cranky, 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.
But 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 per hour.
Everyone cheers. An emotional Dutchman sheds a tear.
When 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.
"Tomorrow," you say, "tomorrow, I'll find another place to stay."
Right 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 border.