A Jaunt to Angkor Wat Part I here.
Finally, with our passports stamped, we are officially beyond the Thai-Cambodia border, and we are ready to take the final steps to reach our hotel in Siem Reap. I have read informal instructions on a travel blog which states that once we have obtained tourist visas and we exit the passport building, we will be bombarded with Cambodian men attempting to lure us into a bus which will be advertised as "free shuttle transport." Supposedly, for only $7 per ticket we will have access to a "perfectly comfortable air-conditioned ride to the Siem Reap City Center." The writer goes on to warn readers that this is too good to be true. We will indeed be driven to our destination, but the ride will not be a direct one; we will be taken to an expensive restaurant that the bus operators own and then cajoled into buying a subpar meal and a few trinkets before the journey is completed. This sounds like a hindrance that we are not willing to put up with after many tediously long hours, so Lars and I decide to hire a taxi to drive us to town.
We exit the building, and there they are: several bus operators implore us to board their bus. We politely decline, but they begin to harass us. The bus is at the end of the path. We are surrounded, and if we continue walking, we will have to get on the bus. We walk off the path to avoid being pushed into the bus. The men begin yelling, telling us that we should not pass on this "deal." "The ride is FREE," they yell. It's becoming clear that there is an entire operation in on the extortion of tourists, one that begins right at the border line.
Lars and I continue to walk until we reach the main road where we hope hail a taxi. Fifteen minutes pass, and not a single taxi drives by. We see barely any cars at all actually. The town of Poipet is desolate, and I immediately think of those Spaghetti Western movies. The road is unpaved and dust lingers in the air. Poipet, a boomtown that has become the fourth most populace city in Cambodia in just a few decades, still feels like a brand new settlement...or rather like an abandoned city from a zombie apocalypse film. It has a population of 90,000, but very few are in the street. The buildings along the wide road are sparse, simple concrete construction with open balconies. Many hand-painted signs dot the edge of the road, luring the occasional tourist to food or a hostel. Electrical cables above are exposed, and some hang dangerously low.
We walk into a hostel hoping to find someone willing to provide us information on how to locate a driver for hire, but there is no one is behind the desk. I look outside. The sky has filled with a pretty pink. Dusk is slowly approaching. What will happen when night falls?
We continue down the street. Many motorbike drivers are for hire. We ask one of them if they can direct us to a taxi. One of the drivers, a young man that we'll call Bopha, speaks to his colleague, and they tell us to hop on the back, one on each bike. We oblige. Lars looks at me with concern in his eyes. We have no assurance that Bopha and his friend are trustworthy. Nonetheless, Bopha and his friend drive around the town a few minutes, and stop at an intersection whereupon Bopha gets off his motorbike and speaks in Khmer to the driver of a car. The car has no markings providing any indication that it is a taxi for hire. We don't understand what anyone is saying, but Bopha comes back to us and informs us that the driver will take us to Siem Reap for some money so long as we also drop off some other passengers: A young woman and her child. The woman looks at us with hope and a smile, but we must decline the offer. We have no idea where she lives. This ride will already take two to three hours of driving. We have no mobile data, no map. We feel vulnerable. Our lives are in the hands of these strangers. This is the least tourist-friendly city I have visited, and the feeling that we are being swindled is a constant accompaniment.
Bopha doesn't want us to leave so he tells us that he knows another driver. He will take us to his family business while he calls his other driver. We agree to this, and we arrive at the business within a few minutes. It is a little gift shop that Bopha's sister runs. Cheap little trinkets are displayed haphazardly in glass cases. The store is dimly lit and looks more like a garage repurposed into a shop.
Bopha's sister approaches us, and looks at us with suspicion. Her name is Champei, and she doesn't seem friendly. After Bopha talks with her in Khmer, she smiles at us, but here isn't an ounce of authenticity in her expression. She informs us that the going rate to get to Siem Reap is approximately $40, which is not a lot, but still $20 more than what we have read online on travel forums. Nevertheless, we agree to the rate, and she invites us to sit at a table while we wait for a driver. When Bopha then leaves a minute later, it becomes apparent that Lars and I have fallen into a scheme that this brother-sister team have used before on lost tourists.
Lars and I sit nervously at the table. We have a firm grasp on our luggage. Every few minutes, groups of beggars surround us holding their hands out to us, begging for money. It's overwhelming. It is obvious that we don't belong here. I look nervously at my watch. There are no automobile drivers approaching us like we have been promised. After an anxiety-ridden half hour passes, we ask Champei the whereabouts of the driver that will supposedly take us to Siem Reap. Her answer is not promising and smells of conspiracy; she responds that the driver will come soon, but she thinks that he will charge more. The price then goes up to 50. This a lot of money for a Cambodian. We begin to realize that Champei and Bopha are not helping us. They see us as hapless Western tourists, and they are trying to work out a deal with a friend to act as a driver in order to extract money from our pockets. Alas, we have no choice but to stay with them. We want so badly to get out of this depressing and ominous town.
Fifteen minutes later, a car approaches the driveway. Champei runs to the driver and begins a hurried dialogue with him. After a couple minutes, she walks towards us and tells us that the driver is charging more. He now wants $60. My stomach churns with nervousness, I tell her "no." We will not pay more. With her fake and tight-lipped smile, she attempts to quell my cocktail of emotions, anger mixed with anxiety, and tells me that this is the only way we will make it to Siem Reap. Lars steps in and boldly states that we will not pay $60. We don't know if this is a real driver even. Will he hold us hostage when we are close and demand more money?
It's sunset now. I begin to tear up. More beggars approach us. Lars and I look at one another.
"Shall we just walk somewhere?" I ask Lars.
"But where?" He asks.
"Anywhere but here. I don't feel safe here."
Champei walks back to us. Like a spider that salivates over prey caught in its web, Champei knows she has us in a vulnerable place. She smiles eerily and says, "I send for a new car now. Wait, I will call for you."
We feel we have no choice but to wait for the new driver. How can we be sure he is safe? My dress clings to my skin from the nervous sweat running down my back.
It is then, in a moment of magic, we see a bus about to pass by. Finally! A vehicle! And it's a tour bus. I run down the driveway and wave my arms at the driver beckoning him to stop for us.
Success! The driver stops and opens the door for us. But then Champei appears and begins speaking rapidly to the driver in Khmer. Within moments, the driver shuts the doors and drives away fast.
I am panick-stricken. It is clear that this woman has something in mind, and it is nothing good. We grab our luggage and begin briskly walking away, just short of running away. She calls out to us, and when we don't respond, she begins screaming at us, but at that moment, another bus appears driving in our direction! It is the same shuttle that we had walked away from at the border!
I look at Lars, and I say, "We must get on that bus now!" He's with me. This is our only chance at arriving safely. Indeed, we see through the windows that there are tons of tourists aboard the bus. We begin running towards it, waving our arms to get the driver's attention. Champei has seen this, and she looks angry. The driver stops and allows us to board just before Champei reaches the bus too. I feel so grateful as we walk down the aisle in search for a seat. The driver points to one nearby and we sit. Boarding the bus at a random street arouses confusion from the other passengers. They must think we carelessly strayed at the border and got lost.
As we look out the window, we see Champei screaming at us and stomping her feet like a maniac. I look at Lars and the sea of passengers aboard the bus. I have never been so relieved to be with other tourists. No one looks familiar, but the face of the clueless tourist is all I need to see in that moment to feel safe once again.
The bus ride was even longer than expected. The driver took us to a restaurant along the way with poor quality and over-priced food just as the blogger, I mentioned earlier, had predicted. And when we arrived in Siem Reap we were dropped a distance away from the City Center, at a dimly lit parking lot, and we had to hire a tuk-tuk driver to take us to the Center where we could find our hotel. We eventually reached our destination at midnight.
Our journey had taken over eighteen hours. Was it worth it? Well, we would explore the town and the temples ruins the following days and find out...
By Zahra Ali