Day 319 – 14 Jan, 2016
I had been warned. I knew it was going to happen. Nevertheless, it still feels sleazy and uncomfortable and unfair when you are lied to and manipulated.
My first impression of Cambodia was at the border crossing when the bus attendant offers his services for an “expedited” visa. “You don’t even have to get off the bus,” he says. “I’ll take care of everything,” he promises. His sales pitch was strong, but these things only tend to work en mass. It depends on how many bus passengers fall for it. If the majority rebels, then the power is in the hands of the passengers. If the majority concedes, everyone eventually concedes. For the record, you never have to turn over your passport to an “expediter” and you never have to pay fees that aren’t officially stated, but sometimes it’s just easier than debating the ethics of this common practice.
In this case, most of the passengers declined the offer of the expediter even though he was adamant it would be “very difficult” for us to cross the border without his help. We easily received stamps at Thai departures, walked across the border, and were immediately swarmed by others, offering to expedite our Cambodian visas. Signage was poor, but we patiently located the Visa on Arrival desk, while fending off visa predators. There was a clear, permanent sign, stating that visas cost $30, yet a handwritten sign next to it said we must also pay 10o Thai bhat (about $3) as a “processing fee.” This is otherwise known as a bribe. There was a big burly officer standing at the head of the line with a wad of cash in his meaty fingers, trying to intimidate anyone that refused to pay. It was only $3 so who cares? Right? To me, it was on principal that this was wrong and it really got under my skin, thus setting the tone for my first impression of Cambodia. Ultimately, I paid it with only a mild snarky comment because I was toward the back of the line and the other passengers had already been processed. If we had refused to pay the bribe, they would have tried to wear us down by making us wait, but eventually they would still be required to stamp us in. But again, it kind of needs to be a group decision so as not to hold up the entire bus purely on principal.
The border town of Poipet was noticeably louder and dirtier than on the Thai side. Lots and lots of casinos is what I remember most, adding a seediness to the landscape. Our bus continued on through the countryside as I watched naked children playing in garbage, chickens and dogs roaming in the streets, women doing laundry in a puddle by the side of the road. There is no question that Cambodia is a very poor country, although as we neared the important tourist destination of Siem Reap, manicured lawns and luxury hotels began to replace the poverty that had been there only moments before.
The bus deposited me in the middle of town and it was an easy walk to my hostel, only about 4 blocks, although I had countless touts telling me it was too far and they must give me a ride for a hefty price. I checked into the hostel and almost immediately I met Sydni. She is from San Diego, on a short break from her job as a nurse and in between her studies to be a PA, and had spent the last month in Thailand and Cambodia. Being her second night in Siem Reap, she had just returned from watching the sunset at one of the temples and offered some sage advice as to what to expect on a tour. She had hired a Tuktuk driver for the day on her own and invited me to join her the next day so we could split the cost of visiting the more remote sites. We had fitness in common and I liked the fact that we shared a common expectation of the day. When a third backpacker asked to join us on our Tuktuk tour, she assertively and politely told him no. Too crowded, one too many people to wait on, changing the group dynamic…I agreed completely, yet I wouldn’t have had the courage to turn him down. I liked her spirit.
Our day started at 4:30am with the alarm clock buzzing. We were keen to see the sunrise at the most famous temple in Siem Reap, Angkor Wat. The site opens at 5:00am and we arrived close to 5:15am. The crowds were unfathomable. In the dark, it was difficult to find a spare piece of real estate to sit and wait. And still the people came, hordes of them. When the sun finally started to rise and the sky began to glow pink and orange, the conglomerate of bodies began to shift forward as one unit, as if they could get closer to the show in the sky. Syndi and I started moving as well, if only to try to escape the people. Soon we found ourselves in front of the lake, the same lake that most onlookers were using to get the famous photo reflections of the temple and the painted sky. From behind, something buzzed by us that turned more than a few heads. A drone hovered in the sky, snapping photos from every angle imaginable, effectively ruining the photos of the thousands of other people still holding their ground. It was time to go. My disappointment was palpable.
A brief touch on expenses at Angkor Wat: a one day temple pass costs $20, two days $40, and seven days $60. Also you need to get there first. The cheapest option is by bicycle, although the temperatures are soaring and some of the temples are quite far away. You can also rent a motorbike or hire a private guide, but the most popular way is by Tuktuk. It costs $14 for a 6 hour day to visit the closest temples, $21 to visit the ones that are further afield. Add on another $6-8 if you want to see a sunrise or sunset. None of this was exorbitantly expensive, but by Southeast Asian standards, it was indeed tipping the scales. Restaurants and taxis had the standard tourist markup. And forget trying to negotiate for anything that doesn’t have a fixed price. Having grown accustomed to international tourists who are often willing to overpay, sometimes even insisting to overpay, the vendors have become greedy and seemed to look at me like a wallet with legs.
Sydni had already been to most of the temples nearby so we were going to do the “Grand Tour,” and get outside of the city. As a last minute decision, we asked our driver if he would take us to Tonle Sap Lake. The photos in the brochure looked nice, showing a village built on stilts over the river and the adjacent forest was flooded with high waters. Happy to oblige, he drove us about an hour away, which if you’ve never been in a Tuktuk, felt like much much longer. We arrived, covered in dust, but happy to get started. At the ticket window, an overfed burly officer said it would be $25 for the boat. That seemed rather steep, but we had come all this way and Sydni and I, reluctantly, agreed to pay. And it was now that he firmly informed us it was $25 EACH.
Now let me pause for a second and make a comparison. I’m from Chicago and our most famous and renowned tourist attraction is the architectural cruise on the Chicago River. Ticket prices have increased in the last couple of years but it’s still possible to do this cruise for $35 or with a Groupon, much cheaper. For your money in Chicago, you get an English speaking guide, a boat that has been inspected not to sink, a driver that is sober, and lots of interesting and factual information about the sites.
This is what $25 gets you in Cambodia.
The forest wasn’t flooded (we missed the memo that it was dry season). The stilted village was raised up to reveal garbage and muck underneath (again, dry season). We were taken to a floating restaurant as the only patrons and were obligated to buy something (shrimp and cabbage concoction that we were both too afraid to actually eat because their cooking water clearly came from the polluted lake). Our driver didn’t speak one word to explain anything we saw (English was not on his resume). Not to be entirely negative, I liked the excursion and it wasn’t far from what I expected in Cambodia, except for the dry season part. Wish someone would have mentioned that! My complaint lies solely with the price tag. This was to be a recurring theme in the country, a high price without the value to match. I don’t blame the country, though. I believe this has been an effect caused by the floods of international tourists who have come for a short holiday. They see something costs $5, but they give $10 because they have it and they can. In turn, prices have increased but the value remains the same. Those working in the industry are often greedy and lazy, yet they expect more from us in a country where it is not customary to tip more than 10%. I constantly felt like I was being scammed or taken advantage of. It was frustrating.
I don’t mean to generalize. Of course, this isn’t universal for all Cambodians and this is only my perception. I met many wonderful locals as well, but sadly, it left a bitter taste in my mouth that never really wore off.
The next day, Sydni was jetting off to Vietnam for her flight back home, while I rehired our Tuktuk driver to go off on my own. We went to Angkor Wat first, which was the driver’s decision, but I’m so glad we did. We arrived shortly after the sunrise crowd had departed, yet shortly before the daytime troops had piled in. It was as awe-inspiring as I expected it to be and much more majestic without the throngs of people. I spent nearly 90 minutes exploring the grounds and absorbing the view. All told, you could wander around here for hours but there are so many more temples to see in Siem Reap that I didn’t linger.
I visited Angkor Thom, Preah Khan, Pre Rup, Ta Prohm, Ta Keo, Bayon, Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper Kings, whew…. It makes me tired again just recounting all of these names. As you can imagine, the temples began to all look the same and the heat was punishing. Sweat and mosquitoes were near constant and my stamina was fading fast. Ta Prohm was my final temple of the day, just when I was quickly losing interest in seeing one more crumbling column or one more headless statue. Ta Prohm is better known as the temple where Tomb Raider was filmed. The old growth trees that have firmly taken root, intertwined with the stone walls and moss-covered archways, was magical and brought to mind a fairytale landscape. It was spectacular, but I was glad to be done. Exhaustion consumed me.
Taking a shortcut through a wooded area to meet my Tuktuk driver, I spotted a family of macaques that were grooming each other. I looked around and realized I was all alone, my first Asian close encounter with the monkeys. From a distance, earlier in the day, I had seen tourists getting quite close to them and that they didn’t seem to be bothered by our presence. Looking back, I was so naive. I boldly moved closer, trying to get some photos and even a video if the space on my phone would allow. In my peripheral vision I caught movement and quickly shifted the camera to capture a young adolescent walking directly toward me. He didn’t slow down and it didn’t take long for me to realize that he was actually coming AT me. I turned to move away and felt his tiny hands on the back of my leg, which really got my adrenaline going. He released and I turned to face him. I knew running wasn’t the answer, but I tried to search my brain for what someone is supposed to do during a monkey attack. Turns out….I don’t have much history with this type of thing. For whatever reason, I decided that a show of dominance was perhaps the best solution. I stomped my foot at the little creature. The rest of the family, who had been ignoring both of us until now, turned their collective heads to stare at me. The baby hissed and my inner dialogue was a bit like word diarrhea at this point. I held my ground, trying to decide how long it might take for someone to hear me scream. The alpha grew bored and went back to eating bugs off his mate. The rest of the family followed suit. And the baby was left with no choice but to retreat. I walked away with a healthy introduction to those pesky macaques and my mother’s voice ringing in my ears, “Monkeys will eat your face off!”