Saturday, March 5, 2016

Hellooo Laydee!: Navigating the Cambodian Wild

Between Laos and Cambodia I had a day to reset in Bangkok: reup on antibiotics, swap out currency and research my next border crossing. The internet is full of insight into traveling the Kingdom of Wonder and I read a lot of lists of the top ___ things I should know about Cambodia. The first and most important thing is that while riel is still used in the country, Cambodians deal in US dollars with riel only being given for small change in transactions. Some ATMs in Cambodia give you the option to take out riel, but almost all give you dollars and while merchants will take riel, things are usually listed in dollars. Riel is actually a closed currency and unavailable outside the country for exchange.

What does this mean? If you live in a country with a poor exchange rate to the USD, sorry! Cambodia is going to be expensive for you. Cambodia is actually kind of expensive for everyone. It's possible to spend less money there, but it's also very easy to spend a normal-ish amount of money. Cambodia actually bled my travel budget a bit dry, but that's not entirely Cambodia's fault. I have a fondness for fancy food and places like Siem Reap are foodie heaven. But I digress...

As a resident of New York City, you think you understand a good hustle. I've worked a whole lot of jobs in order to pay for a windowless shoebox and a metro pass. My skills as a hustler don't even begin to compare to entrepreneurial Cambodians, though. The hustle begins before you even cross the border. I had read about tricky border crossing agents charging illegal extra Visa on Arrival fees, so I opted to get the e-visa ahead of time. This only works for the airports and a handful of land crossings, so if you are, say, entering from the south of Laos or are not sure where or when you will come to Cambodia, getting your Visa on Arrival is a better option.

Due to my love of train travel and cheapness, I opted to take the very reasonably priced 48 baht train from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet to cross overland into the Cambodian border town of Poipet and on to Siem Reap. It was a particularly hot, dusty day so the six hour, third class journey was a bit miserable but it's safer than taking a recklessly driven minibus, so take your pick. When you arrive at the train station, you still must catch a ride to the border. I linked up with a group of Germans and gave the tuk tuk driver explicit instructions to take us directly to the border, not to a fake visa office nearby where fake visa officials will charge you $30 to complete your visa paperwork for you. The tuk tuk driver ignored me and I had the displeasure of scolding both he and the fake visa officials for trying to con people out of their money. Don't fall for this scam! You are still in Thailand. These people are not Cambodian visa officials. You will find them once you've crossed through Thai customs and into Cambodia, but not a moment before.

After breezing through Thai customs, then came the strangest border crossing walk I've taken yet. Between Thai and Cambodian customs is a 700 meter or so limbo zone lined with casinos and no signage. If you still need to get your Visa on Arrival, you stop at a brown building on the right where there will hopefully be an official to wave you in. If you got the e-visa, you can proceed straight to passport control, which is a small building a very long block down on the right. Fill out the entry card, hand it over with one copy of your e-visa and voila! You're in Cambodia.

If you haven't booked a through bus to Siem Reap or wherever you're going, a man will offer you a free shuttle ride to the bus station in a big old green bus. This is totally legit. If you want to split a taxi, those are available at the border, otherwise get on the shuttle and pick up a bus at the station. I paid $10 for a minibus ride to Siem Reap. As in other places in Southeast Asia, minibuses depart when the bus is full, which can leave you waiting around for a while. Take this time to cultivate a deep well of patience. You'll need it later.

When you arrive in any city in Cambodia, the moto and remorque (tuk tuk) drivers will be waiting for you. They will swarm your bus, knocking on the windows attempting to make eye contact with you, opening the door before the bus has fully stopped to help unload luggage and swoop you up as a passenger. They have no chill. Get used to it. There are more drivers than tourists to drive, and people have mouths to feed. This is a good opportunity to get comfortable with boundaries. Practice saying, "No thank you!" as politely as possible. It's good for you.

If you do accept a ride, your driver will take that opportunity to negotiate a deal to drive you around Angkor Wat the next day...or whatever tourist site there is in whatever city you landed in. Unless you're on an especially tight budget and/or really want to bicycle around the temples, take it. You're employing a local person, it won't cost you a lot, and you'll be grateful for the ride when it gets to be a billion degrees by the afternoon (seriously, Siem Reap is insanely hot. Stay somewhere with a pool.) I split an air conditioned taxi with a girl I met in my hostel and it cost us $15 each for a 10 hour day with a good driver who took us to every major site and some of the smaller ones. After one day I felt very temple complete and spent the rest of my time in Siem Reap by the hostel pool and exploring all the incredible food choices- bye money!

Because Cambodia is not known for bus safety, I opted to travel between Siem Reap/Phnom Penh and Phnom Penh/Sihanoukville with Giant Ibis. Their record is good, their buses are nice (wifi! outlets!), they give you water and on longer hauls, a delicious pastry snack. It's also nice to be able to book tickets online. I passed through Phnom Penh briefly just to see the Killing Fields and S21 (awful but valuable and important!), moving along quickly to the coast and on to the island of Koh Rong. The fast boat was rough for a sea leg-less lady such as myself, but the ride was over in less than an hour. I had the pleasure of kicking my shoes off for a few days at the ultra welcoming Monkey Island and wish I could've stayed longer. I was told and I tell you: Don't over plan! You'll fall in love with places and people and want to linger with them. Leave flexibility to do that.

All the same, leaving earlier gave me time to spend in Battambang, confusingly Cambodia's second largest city despite feeling like a small town. Because my Monkey Island friends and the internet told me not to, I opted not to take the night bus. I stayed overnight in Sihanoukville and left in the morning, riding back to Phnom Penh and onto Battambang from there with Golden Bayon Express. It was about an 11 hour travel day, but seeing the condition of the unsealed portions of National Highway 5 leaving Phnom Penh, I was glad to be doing the drive during the day.

Battambang is a worthwhile stop for the slower pace, easy access to the countryside and fun activities. I also had the good fortune of meeting a big, fun, friendly group of travelers who had linked up and adopted me. We took a leisurely ride through a village and into the rice patties on bicycles and finished the day at an incredible performance of Phare Ponleu Selpak, the youth circus school. The next day we visited the sobering Killing Caves and gorgeous mountainside temples. Battambang is the home of so much history that the entire area is slated to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was mostly thrilled to have made a dozen new friends in the process.

Once again, crossing the border proved to be the most exciting part of the journey- or rather, this time it was getting to the border. It is actually fairly common to have your minibus break down on the side of the Cambodian National Highway, and that day it was my turn. Taking the bus to the border, crossing then taking the train was looking to be at least a 12 hour day, so I opted to treat myself the extra $4 to take a bus all the way back into Bangkok. I booked the $15 journey through my hostel. Between the bus breakdown, a fairly slow border day (Sunday midday) and traffic getting back into Bangkok, I only ended up saving myself an hour and the minibus on the Thailand side drove as they usually do- using the shoulder both to pass other cars recklessly and as a lane. But we all arrived alive and the minibus at least had A/C so...okay.

The biggest challenge of Cambodia were the scams and corruption. For instance, there are women in Siem Reap, in particular, who borrow each other's babies and beg you to buy them milk. They direct you to the most expensive kind, you buy it then they return it to the store and split the profit. Sometimes little kids will ask you to buy them milk for their sibling- same scam. Tuk tuk drivers are also known to deal tourists drugs then turn them over to the police who arrest them and extort thousands of dollars of "fines" out of them to avoid jail time- in the two weeks I was in Cambodia, I heard four different stories of this recently happening. Phnom Penh has a pretty serious problem with purse and phone theft. I've read and heard several reports of people's bags being broken into or stolen altogether in the underside of big buses. Knowing the history of the country and how extreme the poverty can be, I couldn't be angry at any of this, but it did make it hard to relax knowing that I was always a target for theft and scams.

In stark contrast to this were the most strong, warm, friendly people I've ever met. There is this fierce, defiant determination to heal and rise up despite their history. People want opportunity and given it they will work very hard. I was so moved and humbled by how welcomed I felt in the presence of so many people- making a point to make eye contact and smile, to stop and talk. Everyone is so keen to practice their English that I barely learned any Khmer.

Cambodia is high risk high reward. It is not the west. The safety standards are different. One of my friends had a monkey rip the water bottle from her hands, sit down, unscrew the cap and chug it. Monkeys are cute, but they're also aggressive, smart and have big teeth. They run free in lots of places with no keeper. They will fuck you up. Your bus might also crash or breakdown. In their desperation, people may try to shake you down for money in creative ways. You may bear witness to the virulent sex slave trade that is barely underground all over the country. You will hear the offer "Tuk tuk?" a thousand times. You will hopefully opt to tour Khmer Rouge sites because it's essential to understanding this place and it will break your heart and make you sick.

Cambodia is as laden with baggage as it is raucously beautiful. It's a complicated sort of beauty that requires a lot of patience. It is worth it. You will meet the most incredible hearts, local and foreign. You will have the last bit of resistance to going with the flow wrung from you. You're on Cambodia time now. Frustration will get you nowhere. You're entitled to nothing. Take a breath. Humble yourself before the wildness. It'll show you who you are then make you better.

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