Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Scam Line Express

Bangkok to Siem Reap

Oh no, not another bus story!

Bus journeys often give an introduction to the good, the bad, and the ugly of a culture. The bus journey from Bangkok to Siem Reap was a view into the ugly-the really ugly! This route is well known for being subject to various scams, which I mistakenly thought I could avoid by paying a pretty penny to take a first class deluxe bus for the 12 hour journey. Well that was the first scam and bold faced lie!

Since the TAT office was on a narrow street, a tiny, cramped minivan picked several tourists up to take us to the "big bus" shown to me in many glossy photos, like the wonderful bus I rode into Bangkok on, and complete with an on board toilet. Only the minivan never reached the "big bus". When it stopped for gas I knew we were in trouble, and I began asking questions. The bus helper admitted that we would stay in the minivan until we reached the border, four hours away, and then we would change to the deluxe "big bus". At this point we were still within Bangkok and I said "I am getting out here and going back to the travel agency to get my money back. I paid for a big, deluxe bus". The helper immediately slammed the door shut, locked so that it could not be opened from the inside, and the bus took off down the road. No amount of demanding that they stop and let me out did any good. I was now a hostage on the Bangkok/Siem Reap Scam Line Express!

There were 9 tourists total on that van, of which only two actually knew that they would be in a cramped van-and who also paid a lot less then the rest of us! This was only the beginning of the scam obstacle course that I and my fellow passengers would spend the next 12 hours dodging through, which would culminate in me being physically threatened by a psychotic bus helper at the end.

The second stop on the Scam Line Express caught a really sweet couple from Nepal, who were told that they could not get their visa at the border, and who paid 60 $ apiece for a visa that costs only 20 $. Fortunately, I had gotten mine at the Cambodia embassy in Bangkok, a super easy process that took only a half hour.

Next stop on the scam line... money changing. At our very expensive lunch spot near the border, helpful guides told us that we could not get money in Cambodia and should withdraw money (in Thai currency) from the myriad of ATM's scattered about the area and then change it at the "big bank" on entering Cambodia (what is it about big? big bus, big bank. I've learned to be afraid of anything big!). I had heard about this scam and so no one on my bus got caught by it, but later I met people who had changed large amounts of money at rates that can only amount to pure theft (they lost about 30% in the exchange)!

After we refused the "big bank's" services, actually a sleazy little money changing booth, the no longer so helpful guides pointed to a bus station of sorts and took off. We went into a room full of tourists who had all had the same experiences from many different travel agencies, some of whom had been sitting in limbo for 2 hours or more. Finally, a bus showed up and waited until it filled up to leave. And now I know you are asking if this was finally my deluxe bus! No, this bus was like a school bus in the states, bench seats, no A/C, no shocks. But, oh well, we were on our way to Siem Reap at last.

It is interesting to mention that the road to Siem Reap is only 150 KM (80 miles) but takes 5 hours due to the deplorable state of the road. This well oiled scam line actually starts at the very top-it is reputed that the road remains in this shape due to bribes by a particular airline to Cambodia government officials to improve airline ticket sales to this popular destination.

Now for the icing on the cake! The final scam is dropping the passengers off (late at night, of course) at a particular hotel, rather than at the bus station or town center, for which the driver is paid a nice commission by the hotel. When we were informed that we would all be dropped at a "nice, new, cheap hotel" several people where upset. One was saying he paid to go into Siem Reap, not a hotel on the outskirts, while an older couple wanted to know why they would not be dropped at the bus station. I explained to them that "we are being dropped off at the hotel because the bus driver gets paid a commission to take us there".

On being exposed, the bus helper went absolutely psychotic and began screaming and shouting and waving his arms at me and threatened to drop me off on the side of the road, in the dark, out in the middle of nowhere! "If you don't want to pay us commision, you just get off here" Several other passengers intervened. I said no more until we reached the said hotel. Here, I got out and quietly slipped to the back of the bus to write down the plate number for the complaint that I plan to make. Not that it will do a whole lot of good, but it will make me feel better at least! Out of the corner off my eye, I saw the bus helper coming and moved back to the side of the bus where the passengers were still milling about. The bus helper tried to physically grab my notebook from me and blocked my path threateningly as he resumed his psychotic screaming about "why you write that. you give me that. you cause problem". I called out in a loud voice "help, help" and two men, who work as security guards for various US based airlines operating in Holland came to my rescue. One of them told the man "so what if she wrote down your plate number. its her right to complain. You can't take her book. In fact, I am going to go write your plate number down too!" The bus helper stepped aside, and the three of us finally escaped the Scam Line Express.

The facts for other travelers:
-The bus from Mochit 2 bus station in Bangkok leaves for the Thai border, Aranya Prathet every hour from 5:00 A.M. until early afternoon. To get to the bus station, you can take the MRTA subway or BTS sky train to Chatuchak park/Mochit station. From here you can take a motor bike, taxi, city bus, or walk to the bus station (a little hard to find-keep asking). Don't take the private buses!! Don't take the private buses!!If you do, take a minivan, as you will probably end up on one anyhow even if you pay more!
-At the border, it is a short walk across. Then get a shared taxi for 30$ or 35$ for the whole taxi to Siem Reap. You can probably pair up with other travelers to share the cost. This will take only three hours and cost you less hassle and possibly less money. Or you can get on the bus here-12$ per person but expect to be taken to a hotel.
-Don't change money. There are ATM's that work in Siem Reap. There are also money changers. Canadia bank reportedly does not charge a fee for cash advances. Everyone takes US dollars here and this is the best currency to have.
-Get your visa in Bangkok if you can. It is quick and easy. I had my visa in a half hour. At the border there are signs saying that visa's will no longer be issued on arrival but I think people were still getting them. I can't be sure, though. You can always get it at the lunch spot, but be prepared to bargain hard! It is best to pay in US dollar. The official cost is 20 US or 1100 Baht (about 35$-they still operate on a strong dollar of the past!).
-Finally, good luck!

1 comment:

Lark said...

Good for people to know.