Friday, March 6, 2009

The Scam Bus and Angkor Wat

Hello everyone, So the last day in Ubud was spent relaxing and enjoying the last of our surroundings. The following morning we took a bus to the airport and flew to Bangkok as Asia Air did not fly to Cambodia and we did not yet have our visas for Vietnam. Plus it was a bit cheaper to fly to Bangkok as that airport is the main hub in South East Asia. We arrived in Bangkok around 4 pm. We ate dinner for 25 baht each at the same stand we had eaten at previously, but it wasn’t as good as we remembered. Maybe we are just really sick of Thai food. :)

Bryan later watched Tottenham lose to Manchester United on kicks. He was a bit disappointed but was glad he saw the game. The next day was spent hanging out in an air conditioned mall where we watched two movies.
The first movie we saw was Milk. I had seen a documentary in my diversity class over a year ago about Harvey Milk, so I was excited to see Sean Penn play him. Harvey Milk was the first openly gay politician elected to major office in the United States. It was an amazing movie about the discrimination and hate the gay community saw and still see on a daily basis. Harvey Milk was an inspiration to many of the gays and it hurt them greatly when Milk was assassinated. They actually followed the documentary quite closely.
The next movie we saw was The Wrestler. It was also really good but really very depressing. Both movies were nominated for an academy award in one way or another. Before going back to Banglamphu district we ate at Japanese restaurant where they bring you a plate full of meats and vegetables and you cook the food yourself. It was SO good and it was a lot of fun. After our lazy day of eating and watching movies we went back to Banglamphu district, picked up our laundry, purchased our tickets for Siem Reap, and went to bed.
Our driver picked us up around 7am the following morning. I would first like to say that this was a LONG day of traveling to Siem Reap. Not because it was supposedly 14 hours to get there but because of the Scams we received on the way. We were about 4 hours into our trip when Bryan showed me a paragraph in the Lonely Planet about all the scams you may receive on the way to Siem Reap.
 Basically, the Lonely Planet said “while direct Bangkok – Siem Reap bus tickets are cheap and sound convenient, they’re anything but.” Ha ha – I wish we would have read this before we left Bangkok. Right before we made it to the border (we were literally 2 minutes away) our Thai driver dropped us off at a place where you can eat expensive food and have them “help” you with your Cambodia visas. “Help” as in scare you about it taking too long to get visas at the border and proceeding to tell you that you may miss your bus if you don’t get your visas here.
The Thai workers also said the Cambodian patrol men may overcharge you, etc. At the time, Bryan and I did not have enough cash to purchase the visas, so we sat back and watched most of the tourists filling out visa information except a gay couple from Brazil, a man from Switzerland, and a couple from Australia. There were about 3 or so tourist vans that had stopped there as well. Basically, they were scaring you into paying 2500 baht for two visas. Bryan and I were nervous about not making our bus so Bryan went to an ATM with a Thai man and his Motorbike. Right after he left, the gay couple and the man from Switzerland left for the border and basically said don’t purchase your visas here because the lady we bought our tickets from said this place was a scam.
The Australian couple came up to me asking if I was getting a visa here. They were concerned because most of the tourists were filling out visa paperwork. I told them it’s a scam while anxiously waiting for Bryan to return from the ATM. As soon as Bryan came back I accidentally said too loud “it’s a scam!” All of the people who were getting visas were getting stickers to put on their shirt. We didn’t think anything of it until later. We were at this place for an hour (if not more) because we had to wait for the Thai workers to take the visa paperwork to the border and come back. It was really annoying. The Australian couple (Becs and Ryan) and Bryan and I decided to get our visas at the border. Turned out we payed 500 baht less for our visas and it took maybe five minutes to fill out paperwork as there was no line AT ALL.
In the end, the Thai business probably made 5000 baht from the tourists during that hour by scaring them all. Also, there was no way we would have missed our bus because the cambodian buses arrive at the border every hour or so throughout the day.
That was not the end of it. Once we made it past the border, we were supposed to catch one of the Cambodian buses as we had already paid for it back in Bangkok. However, because we did not get visas at the Thai place, we did not get stickers. Turned out that sticker was also our ticket for the Cambodian bus. The nice Cambodian man asked us “how am I supposed to know you have already paid for bus without a sticker or ticket (the Thai driver also took our ticket with no return)?”
We told him what had happened and he looked up our information and found we had indeed paid in Bangkok. One thing I should mention about the Cambodian buses is they are paid commission by guesthouses in Siem Reap if they take the tourists there. As a result, the drivers will take you the longest route possible.
The Lonely Planet says “their goal is to make the journey as long and uncomfortable as humanly possible in order for you to arrive battered, exhausted and in the dark because in this case you’re more likely to succumb to pressure and just collapse at their chosen guesthouse.” Bryan and I knew about this scam but because we are on a strict daily budget (along with the Australians as they are traveling for a year) we decided to take our chances and try our luck because we could not pay 500 baht each for taxi (that was our first offer) However, the nice Cambodian man offered to give us a Taxi to Siem Reap for $20 for all four of us (150 baht each). We decided to take it because we knew how the buses operated and did not want to arrive at 9pm.
Later we saw the gay couple who paid $60 for a taxi to Siem Reap, so we were quite happy with our decision. After a very long day of scams and the heat, we made it Siem Reap. We followed the Australian couple to their guesthouse that they had previously booked but it was full. I sat at their guesthouse while Bryan went and found another. We are paying $5 a night. It is very big with cable TV and hotwater (although I shower in cold because it is currently their hot season).
It was quite the day and we were exhausted, so we went to bed shortly after we arrived The following day we ate breakfast before meeting the Australian couple at their guesthouse. We hung out with them for most of the day. They have been another favorite couple of mine and we all get along very well. We all decided to hire a tuk-tuk driver to take us to Angkor Wat and several other temples the following day. We all went to bed early because we were going on the sunrise to sunset tour starting at 5am.
Angkor Wat is considered to be a “man-made travel wonder”, and you would understand why once you saw it. The ride to Angkor Wat was dark but very cool and relaxing. We arrived around 6am in order to see the sunrise. It was beautiful. I can’t wait to show you all our pictures.
Bryan’s turn
To understand why Angkor and the surrounding temples were built you have to kow a little about the history of the Khmer empire. The Khmer Empire was at one point the dominant force in the area, encompassing much of what is now Thailand, Lao and Vietnam. Siem Reap was over a million people when London was at 50,000. Angkor was built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II and was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu.
Around the 14th-15th century the King coverted to Buddhism and there are still plenty of refences to both religions. Siem Reap was the capital of the empire for ages with Angkor and the surrounding temples the pride. Kings would build the some temples to mark great events while others were walled off places for both living and military defense. However as the empire fell and Thailand gained more and more lands inside of what is now Cambodia the capital was moved away from the western border to the Southeast (Phnom Penh) including a mass migration and the semi-abandoment of Angkor Wat.
With the smaller population, Angkor Wat fell into disarray and the vegetation took over. Thailand occupied Angkor and appropriated many cultural practices. The history of Angkor Wat is still touchy between the two countries.
In 2003 there was actually a riot in Phnom Penh as a rumor spread that a Thai soap opera actor had claimed that Angkor belonged to Thailand. The rumor was false.
When the Cambodians reclaimed the western part of the country from the Thais they renamed the city Siem Reap, which literally means “Siamese Defeated”. The 20th century saw a massive renovation project, much led by the west and specifically the French. This was halted during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.
Unfortunately at the end of the Khmer Rouge reign many of the heads of the statues were chopped off and sold, so many of the ancient statues remain headless. Some have been restored, but few. I’m in favor of rebuilding the heads. Some said it wouldn’t be authentic, but the whole place has been sacked, destroyed and rebuilt four or five times in the past 800 years, so why not add another?
Our first stop was Angkor Wat itself, which is only one of the temples.
We were absolutely amazed when we finally realized what we were looking at. It was 6, so it was still dark. What we originally thought was a river ended up being the moat. Entering Angkor is enthralling as the three main towers stand over a courtyard about a quarter of a mile square. Some say that walking from the outside to the inside is a representation of walking back to the beginning of the universe according to Hinduism. Others say it’s representative of the world and our solar system. There’s no good way to explain it.
As the first Westerner, “Antonio da Magdalena, a Portuguese monk who visited in 1586 and said, “(it) is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of”. Walls all had monstrous carvings representing wars and battles between gods and demons. The towers were beautiful and the ongoing project to rebuild, reinforce and preserve the place is incredibly impressive. The main tower had a scaffolding up the side during our visit.
The second we visited was the temple of Bayon
There were faces facing all four directions. Again, nobody is 100% sure why or what it is. Some believe the faces are Buddha and the reigning King of the time. Others say that they are the faces of four Hindu dieties. Some say that dirrerent artisans just carved the pieces differently. It was thought the place couldn’t be captured by the ancients, but then it was and sacked by the Chams, the ancient enemies of the Khmer. (I think it was them). So as a result, they built faces of Buddha and all the Hinduu gods to cover all bases.
Third, we visited Baphoun, known as the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle. (I think Dad would like a job here). In order to reclaim the temple from the jungle, painstakingly detailed plans were built as they took apart the temple and the football field sized reclining Buddha. Each stone was to have the plants removed and be treated before being put back in place. Then the reign of the Khmer Rouge began and the plan was destroyed. So now they’re reconstructing the monstrous temple without the plans. It looked about 70% complete and looked like it was going pretty well. We could see about 1/2 of the buddha’s face. Leslie and I enjoyed taking pictures of the smaller statues with our heads replacing the missing heads of before :)
Next to that was the Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King, which is where ceremonies were held. We then headed to the bathroom when our tuk-tuk driver, Mr. Tha, came zooming up to take us there. We were for the first (but not last) time mobbed by kids. We later learned from “Prince William” (the guy who runs our hostel) that they go to school for 1/2 day and sell books and postcards and whatever they can for 1/2 the day. The “Ozzies” had a great idea as they gave colored pencils to the kids. Unfortunately on the the way out of the restroom there were twice as many kids and no more pencils :(
Preah Khan was next and was definitely smaller and more ruined than most. It was an ancient university from back in the day with about 1/2 the place caved in. I felt more nervous in rooms that had roofs as those were ones that were going to cave in the future. The trip to and away from the temple was about a 200m walk. Along the walk were people selling snacks and pretty talented bands consisting of victims of landmines playing instruments. (more about that from Phnom Penh in a few days).
We then stopped by a few temples that began to blend together. We decided to do Angkor Wat in one long day instead of three and by lunch we learned why some people like more day trips as you don’t get worn out and less things blend together.
One that really stuck out to us towards the end of the day was To Prohm. Most of you have probably seen this temple as it was where one of the Indiana Jones films was shot along with Tomb Raider. Unlike the other temples, this one has not been reclaimed from the jungle. I do not know if that is “hasn’t been reclaimed yet” or “won’t be reclaimed”. It was very interesting to see trees that are hundreds of years old growing up and over temples that are even older. Here’s an example
That one wasn’t officially on our tour, so Mr. Tha earned himself a nice tip for adding it. Leaving the temple got lots of children and sellers around us. “Book for $1!” “20 bracelet for $1″ “All for $1!” Everyone else ran through the onslaught to Mr. Tha, but I tried to engage a bookseller for a cheap history book of Angkor. Unfortunately, as soon as I held one they started bartering and I couldn’t look through the stack. I grabbed the first that said “Angkor” and began to look at the back. The guy said, “$1 good book, you like?” He then quickly unwrapped the packaging and thrust it at me.
 Realizing it was a guide book and not a history book I asked to see another. He handed me another and said, “you buy now, $1″. He had a stack of about ten books, but I couldn’t flip through them and if I tried I’d get other people throwing books off my hands.
By this point, I had about 15 people trying to sell me things. About 10 were kids who were just jumping around yelling “All for $1″ and “where you from mister?” Other books started being pushed into my hands and forearms as I decided I didn’t want to deal with this for a book. “Te or kuhn!” I announced loudly (No, thank you) and started weaving towards Mr. Tha. I faked one way and ducked through a t-shirt. I almost squished a bracelet seller as I dodged and made my way back to Mr. Tha.
As a side note, these children are world-class pickpockets, so don’t leave anything in your pocket you don’t want to disappear. As an experiment I put a 10 baht coin in one pocket. It disappeared in Siem Reap and was replaced by a napkin.
We then headed back to Angkor to watch the sunset. The four of us hung out on a smaller temple in the shade inside the court yard in front of the main building. We needed some more water so I started walking towards the vendors. Suddenly, four vendors started yelling at me. “What you need?” “You want water?” “You want beer?”
I turned around and headed back to the temple to Leslie and our friends. I then felt bucked up and headed back. Again, the pestering came “What you want?” I spoke loudly to them all, “I want two large waters for $1″.
One went, “yes, you buy me!”, “no, you buy me!” Came the second. “Three for $1!” I asked. “Yes, me!” “No, buy me!” Then, they started to get the hang of the auction I’d been trying for. “Four for $1 for me!” one shouted “I do five for $1!” I heard from another.
I went with someone who said four for a buck as I didn’t want to carry five large waters around. It is interesting that the cash machines distribute US dollars, but the Rial (local currency) has been so unpredictable that most Cambodians prefer USD or Thai Baht.
Our day at Angkor ended with us watching the sunset reflect off the main temple. We waded our way back through the massive amount of saleskids to Mr. Tha. I began to have fun with them. “You buy bracelet?” said one kid. “You buy book?” said another. “How about, you buy a bracelet and you buy a book?” I asked them. “But he’s my brother!” she laughed. “How about you buy book, then I buy bracelet?
Entering the tuk-tuk disappointed the six or seven kids that had gathered to sell. Mr. Tha whisked us to safety. Returning to Siem Reap saw us VERY tired and Mr. Tha dropped us off asking if we wanted to go again tomorrow. “We are going to relax,” I told him giving him a $20. The agreed upon price was $15 and I waved off the change as we’d negotiated hard to get to $15 and were happy that he was nice and had taken us off a single route. Plus, I’m not sure how it works, but we agreed upon 15 with the hotel, so I’m sure they get a hefty cut. The extra $5 went straight to Mr. Tha. He was very happy and didn’t push anymore. He looked like he was going to take the next day off.
Bidding adieu to the Aussies we headed back to turn in for an early nights rest of watching TV and some chit-chat with Prince William. (When he introduced himself as such I introduced myself as Barack Obama. He laughed). The good Prince stayed with us through dinner and we chit-chatted about what life was like in Siem Reap and his time in Phnom Penh. He said the museums were worth it, but don’t spend more than a few days there. I think we’ll take his advice tomorrow. Yesterday at the Wats wore us out though. Today, I think we’re going to go find some shade under a tree to read some books.
Lia hoa-y,
Bryan and Leslie

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