Leaving the paradise Island of Koh Chang was a hard decision, but my sense of adventure after 5 nights on an empty Island of pristine beaches, beach swings and hammocks was calling… It was time to explore!
My journey to Cambodia started with a 7am pick up by mini bus. The drive back to the ferry port reminded me just how beautiful the Island was. Also, just how erratic Southeast Asian driving can be. The mini bus was ‘punching-it’ around sharp cliff bends with sheer drops down into the ocean, clambering up steep hills, picking up speed down the other side and completely ignoring any pot-holes as our heads jumped to the roof, hit the windows and shook around like a nodding dog on a dashboard. What a thrilling adventure a mini bus ride could be! The island roads themselves reminded me of a child’s drawing of hills across an A4 piece of paper, rolling slopes up and down, of equal height, from one side to the other. Watching the early morning locals cleaning the streets and setting up their street businesses while enjoying the cooler air was a nice touch. It also helped to really understand why the people seem to sleep during the midday sun… Because they were up so bloody early to get the hard work done before the heat hit.
We arrived at the ferry port and boarded the ferry. I watched a sea of people wearing orange polo shirts board and engulf me seat by seat, person by person. I felt a little claustrophobic so moved to a side seat slightly to the right of the orange polo-shirt entourage. There was singing, and lots of loud conversation, Im not sure who or what this group was, but they were certainly well awake, happy and full of excitement for something!
As we set sail, a local guy signalled me for what I thought was to move aside for a second while he had his photo taken. To my surprise, on standing up I was signalled with waving arms to sit back down with a dramatic and high pitched “no, no, no, you, you, you” because it was ME he wanted to have his picture taken with… Being the only westerner on the boat and finding it quite funny I got into the celebrity moment of it all and was happy to oblige. We both sat there leaning towards one another, looking at the camera with our thumbs up in front of us. As the photo was taken there was a tremendous cheer from what must have been 30 orange polo-shirts, all happy that it had happened, the western guy had been caught on camera! There was a further wave of excitement with loud shrieks and laughter, as a girl was encouraged to come and sit next to me for the next photo with all of her fellow passengers looking on in ore. As she took her seat I was signalled to put my arm around her, hold her tight and give a big cheesy grin for the camera. Arms were throw in the air, hands were clapping as everyone again, started to cheer loudly together. This was a great experience to set me up for a happy and fun-filled day!
When we arrived at the mainland ferry port I was instructed to climb on to my mini bus to get to the Thai/Cambodia border before we would finally board a coach across the country and onto Siem Reap.
The mini bus had around 9 people from all different corners of the world. We were dropped off in the middle of nowhere at what seemed like an empty coffee shop with 4 Thai locals sat eagerly waiting in their shirts under the shade. As we were ushered off of the mini bus and I looked around at my surroundings I thought to myself with a sarcastic tone- What could possibly go wrong here… Theft? Murder? Kidnapping? Slavery? Who knew, but I knew there was something not right, but nothing I could do to get myself out of it now and I just needed to go with the flow and remain firm and direct.
Sure as shit it was a scam! Only what I would describe as a mini day to day scam. Basically we had been dropped off to wait for our Coach to cross the Thai/Cambodia border a few blocks away where the locals were going to ‘organise and take payment’ for our Cambodian visa’s… It was easily sorted though. A few people paid for their visa there and then at double the cost of doing it at the border, and others stood strong and stated they would pay at the border independently.
Scam 2 was not far behind! After the visa situation was sorted (or at least understood) on getting to the outer border of Thailand, just before “no-mans land”, ahead of the Cambodia border, our coach driver grouped everyone together for a talk about the dangers of Cambodia and more specifically theft by credit and debit card. It was announced that the cash machines we were conveniently stood by, were the last cash machines of Thailand before we headed into Cambodia where the machines would then only dispense the Cambodian Riel and/or American dollars. The group was advised to take out as much money as they felt appropriate as there was a currency exchange office just the other side of the border. This office would give a much better rate into a Cambodian Riel from the Thai Baht than any other currency. I stood strong, refusing to go anywhere near those cash machines let alone take any money out! I watched 8 other people all be told to take out 15,000 Thai Baht (£340) and I had to say something. I took a few of them aside and said ‘be very careful because it’s very convenient that we are all being told to take a ridiculous amount of cash before walking through’
Sure enough on the Cambodian border there was a corner put-me-up shop selling convenience food, over priced water, a few Angkor beers, a shady looking man with a bumbag of cash and a calculator- This was the money exchange office we had been told to take a lot of cash out for! Luckily, everybody saw sense and nobody exchanged any cash at this point. The group organiser did not look too happy… It was clearly his side business!
Moving on we boarded our coach on the Cambodian side and got ourselves comfortable for the further few hours travel into Siem Reap.
At around 7pm the coach stopped with a violent jolt on the Cambodian dirt road (which is a staple other than motorways I think) We had arrived. I drew back the coach curtain to look out of the window… I could see nothing but pitch black darkness! Where the fuck was I? Was this scam number 3? Were we about to be highjacked? I had to wait to find out…
On climbing off the coach, my fellow passengers looked as confused and concerned as me. We were instantly flocked to, by a sea of tuc-tuc drivers (the local motorbike-taxi with a carriage on the back to sit in). There must have been enough for three drivers per person all wanting to offer a different price for their service ride to each individual hostel/hotel. Luckily, they were free for us because we had paid. But it was their opportunity to try to entice us with their best price for a ‘day tour’ the next day. After 12 hours of travel and a very tiring journey, their enthusiasm was not enough and each of us was very direct about just getting the hell out of the pitch black alley with no street lights. No one was around to here our screams if the situation was to turn sour. Typical for me… I was last! The sole westerner left in a pitch black alley with tuc-tuc drivers surrounding me, all wanting to book for a ‘tour of the city’ the next day. I was tired. I was uncomfortable and I was losing my temper. I instructed everyone to move away from me, start an engine and take me away immediately, or I would walk, and no one would benefit from this westerner!
Arriving at the hostel I realised that I had absolutely no local currency whatsoever. I had opted for Oasis siem reap and was thinking to myself what a typical situation to find myself in… homeless, sleeping on the streets my first night in Cambodia!
How wrong I was…
On entering the hostel I was greeted by two french guys. One called Lucas and the other guys name I cant remember which Im disappointed in myself for. They welcomed me and I explained my monetary situation. It was not a problem for them in the slightest. I could pay tomorrow or when I left… I was escorted to the bar and given several, if not a lot of beer! What a great reception! The pool was lit, the place was clean and the two manager guys who were best friends from France were amazing people willing to help out this English guy and see him through a night at the bar!