Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Let's do Cambodia properly

I saw more than just the border this time, at least. Even if I still spent less time in this kingdom than I have in any other country (Brunei excluded), at a disappointing 72 hours - abandoning some of my remaining principles and booking a despicably lazy package tour from Bangkok.

These are my last few weeks in South East Asia, and I didn't feel like spending too much time and effort getting to grips with a new culture, a new currency (not that they even use their own currency as it turns out) and some new phrases to half-heartedly learn and be too embarrassed to use, for fear of pronouncing them like an idiot.

But even after just two days out in Siem Reap, I was pretty templed out and ready to go back to easy-peasy lemon polka-dot Thailand.

Lazy bastard

Ta Prohm, one of about 8,000 temples I visited during my brief stay

Booking a package tour and paying a travel agent a single price to cover transport, accommodation and activities is the sort of thing I usually avoid - partly out of the thrifty knowledge that I can definitely save money by doing it myself, but also because I hate having restrictions on my freedom. What can I say? I was feeling particularly lazy and just wanted to treat Siem Reap like it was another Thai city (it's certainly closer than a lot of them).

I know that much of travel only gives the illusion of freedom anyway - for example, everyone who goes to the Chocolate Hills in Bohol, Philippines, takes the same photo from the same angle, leaving out the establishing shot that reveals they're standing in a car park rather than rambling over the impassable mounds themselves. But by being herded to and fro out of a restricted hotel environment, I really didn't feel like I saw The Real Cambodia at all.

On the other hand, if there's any country where it's a bad idea to wander around aimlessly, it's probably this one.


Happy as I am to help support the people of Cambodia (there are plenty of opportunities to donate to land mine victims on tours of temples), once again my first experiences of the country were pretty negative and I spent most of the first day feeling pissed off, thanks to the tourism and hospitality workers who trump Thailand's comparatively feeble efforts to fleece gullible white people.

Because I'd crossed the border before, I was fully aware that I didn't need to pay our driver to arrange my visa, at almost twice the cost of just handing the form and my passport to a man in a uniform myself (which takes the same level of effort as it does to hand it to the bus driver, surely?) Nobody else seemed to take the DIY route judging by the lack of queue, and I didn't feel like being the heroic saviour of other people's ten-or-so dollars by being the guy who shouts advice to strangers. We'd all be getting cheated this week, to different extents - the trick is to minimise it as best you can.

Admittedly, I still paid the unadvertised 100 baht 'fee' on top of the $20 actual price, which the armed border guards always ask for. 'Armed' as in 'have massive guns.' I may be frugal, but I'm not stupid

When I arrived at the hotel I foolishly exchanged money without checking the going rate first, and the tour operator penalised me to an extent that would impress even PayPal's depressing exchange rates. I raised the issue with him after I did my belated research and he said he'd give me five extra dollars (admitting that he was operating a scam, surely?), but I didn't pursue it after that - I'd let my guard down and he'd cheated me unfair and square. That's the last time I assume the people who are employed to take care of me have my best interests at heart.

But other scam artists are a little less sophisticated, even if their use of children adds leverage. The best example I saw was at Ta Som temple, where a throng of kids drew endless noughts and crosses grids (tic tac toe for viewers in America) and invited visitors to 'play the game! Play the game, mister!'

Presumably, if you lose you buy some of those plastic bracelets and other useful trinkets for sale. I don't know if there's anyone alive who believes it's possible not to lose noughts and crosses when the other player has already placed their cross in the centre, but still they persevere. Wait until these mites discover Find the Lady - they could have a whole new income stream on their tiny hands.

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