For us, Siem Reap was not really on the list of must-visit cities in the nearest future. We definitely wanted to see the world’s most famous temple ruin Angkor Wat, but never really put a lot of thought into when we should do that. It just wasn’t on the top of our list.
However, the decision to visit was made three days before we actually crossed the Cambodian border. At that time we were staying in Thailand on our 30 days visa. It was expiring, leaving us to wonder what to do next. We had an option to extend our Thai visa while being in a country, go for a visa run or apply for a new visa through the embassy outside Thailand. Since we haven’t seen much of Asia yet, we decided to leave Thailand for some time and explore a new country. Our curious minds were eager to learn more.
Next country after Thailand we were looking forward to visiting was Vietnam. Flying there with our two huge suitcases seemed to be a bit pricey, so we searched for alternatives. After some brainstorming, we opted for land travel to Cambodia. Some people, who visited the Kingdom of Wonder, were saying they fell in love with this place, locals, and food. In fact, they loved it so much that can’t wait to come back. We thought we would love it too. That’s why we took our chances and purchased a bus ticket to Siem Reap.
WHY AND WHAT WENT WRONG
CONSTANT SCAMS IN SIEM REAP PROVINCE
As our trip was approaching, we started to read some blog posts about the reality of Cambodian life. It felt like a lot of visitors were expressing disappointment after their trip to Cambodia. US Department of State on Cambodia and some travel bloggers were warning about the corruption, street crime, phone and bag snatching. Also, scams all over the country were very common.
We were alert right from the beginning. Before the beginning of our trip, we prepared ourselves to encounter scams. But it was too much of a surprise to find scammers waiting on us around each corner! Also no matter how much we prepared for a scam there was always a moment when we didn’t know someone was lying to us. Some people were so skillful in scamming others that we were not even realizing it.
Our “scam” story began right on the Thai Cambodian border in Poipet city. Actually, it began even before leaving Thailand.
We were on a bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap. One of our drivers (who was Cambodian) announced that he was going to collect our passports and 1400 Baht (45 dollars) for a Cambodian visa. It was alright, but there were a few nuances. First of all, the cost of visa per person was and is 30 American dollars. Second, we haven’t even left Thailand yet. And third, why would we even entrust our passports to a bus driver? It was an absolutely awkward situation. We refused to give our passports and money and held tight to them until we got to the border.
One more scam on the border
Government officials were offering to apply for an ‘ordinary’ visa instead of a tourist one. For that, they asked to pay 35 dollars instead of 30, plus an additional 100 Thai Baht (3.5 dollars) per person to cover a service fee. What was an ordinary visa? We never figured.
Another option was to pay 1300 Baht (42 dollars) for a tourist visa. The official rate of a Cambodian tourist visa, issued on arrival, is 30 US dollars. This is all that each visitor has to pay, not more not less. But Cambodian border control officers make up their own price. Eventually, we got a tourist visa paying 30 dollars and 100 Thai Baht per person.
The checkpoint in Cambodia looked very dirty, chaotic and uncontrollable. If we wanted to cross the border without stopping to get our visa, we could easily do that. There was one wide road with immigration services building on a side and no one was really checking where newly arrived visitors were proceeding to.
The entire visa scam was only a beginning of our Siem Reap province scam adventures. Once we got to a city, lots of scams from tuk-tuk drivers were awaiting there. Sellers, tour agencies and pretty much everybody else did the same. Apparently, local people assume that any other person with looks other than Cambodian is a walking, talking bag of money.
During a few times, when we wanted to eat out, a cafe host was giving us English menu with doubled or even tripled prices while having the same menu on the wall in the local language with lower prices. Every time we went to a marketplace or local store, by some means prices were higher than what we have paid in the U.S. or Western Europe.
Renting our own simple apartment didn’t promise much too. Owners of basic homes were asking more money comparing to almost luxury places in Thailand. All of this just didn’t make sense. We were questioning either it was a part of Cambodian life we were not aware of prior to arrival or there was something we were not doing right.
SIEM REAP AS A CITY
In all our travels we try not to draw a conclusion about a new to us place before we spend at least a few days there. Siem Reap didn’t impress us from the day number one, but we gave it some time trying to discover this city more.
For the most part of our stay, we had no desire to leave our room in a guest house. Except for Angkor Wat and nearby floating village, there was not whole a lot to do there. Just a few sites, one very touristy overpriced street, a couple of museums, quite a few very dusty busy roads and a bunch of scammers around looking for another tourist they could take advantage of. Renting a scooter in Siem Reap by anyone who doesn’t hold a Cambodian license was not legal. We did not have a lot of options on how to explore the area except walking on foot or taking a tuk-tuk (which we didn’t feel safe with.)
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If we came here on vacation then we would definitely rent a fancy hotel room or Airbnb apartment. And stay on its premises or hang out in a city center most of the time. No doubt, spending time only in Angkor Wat or getting glitzy experience in fancy hotels helps to see a place in a different light. But we were not on vacation and didn’t budget to stay in hotels. Daily sightseeing was not taking place and being inside was not an option for us too.
PEOPLE OF ANGKOR WAT
People.. they play a crucial role in creating experiences. Others were saying that people in Cambodia are kind, friendly souls who smile a lot.
If you get to go to Pub Street in Siem Reap or Angkor Wat where all the tourists hang out then you’ll surely notice how friendly people who work at local restaurants and tuk-tuk drivers are. They wave, smile and try to be helpful because this is the way to make money and get a few more crispy dollars from a visitor. But if you walk away from all the touristy spots, you may encounter a totally different picture.
We personally didn’t feel comfortable around Cambodian people. Many times we encountered unfriendly, inhospitable and uninviting atmosphere.
Cambodia is a poor country, we get that, and we did our best to be understanding and compassionate to local people. We really hoped that the money we were spending there would help them at least a little bit. But to be honest we often felt very uncomfortable and even annoyed around Cambodians.
Every other minute during our walks (literally, I am not exaggerating) there was a tuk-tuk driver asking to use his service in order to help his struggling family. Children on the streets all over the country were running around and begging for money. Sellers were aggressively persuading us to buy something, vendors fooling us around and passers-by making strange comments.
We knew Cambodian people were scamming us every day no matter where we went. They were lying and cheating without any shame.
Salespeople in one store’s department told us different prices for the same item. People who were selling food showed us one price on a menu but after the meal was over they charged us more. Sellers on the market were getting angry and swore at us when we didn’t purchase what they offered. Some vendors didn’t return change in full. Besides that Cambodians loved to talk or laugh at us in their local language while we were standing next to them.
We would love to pretend that it was not a big deal, but we couldn’t. The problem was not about paying a few extra dollars or getting too much of attention from locals. Confusion was about the attitude and frequency of those unpleasant moments. They were happening multiple times during the day. We didn’t feel nearly as comfortable as we felt in Thailand or Vietnam. And unfortunately, there was zero trust for local people. We thought we would meet kind and friendly locals (as some other travelers were saying,) but everyday experiences made it difficult to recognize those who had better intentions.
Siem Reap, as entire Cambodia, is definitely not that type of a place where we would love to return. We are thankful for the opportunity we had to come and see with our own eyes what local life was all about. And for the precious moments we got in the ancient city Angkor Wat. We didn’t cover everything we originally planned, but there was no regret about that. We couldn’t wait to get out and explore other provinces of the country. Unfortunately, they didn’t surprise us in a more pleasant way.