We journey on a bus toward the Thailand-Cambodia border. The sun is setting and the road is getting bumpier by the minute. All the Thai people empty out of the bus. It’s now just me and my travel companion, Matt. We had read up about crossing the border, and about all the scams and possible issues we might come across. According to the Lonely Planet guide, Poipet is notorious for scams.
It’s 9 p.m., and the bus driver informs us that the border is closed. He says he’ll drop us off at a hotel within walking distance to the border. We seemingly stop in the middle of nowhere.
“This is it,” the bus driver says.
We inspect the surroundings as we step off the bus and see a run-down hotel. We ask for the cheapest room they have, which is $10, and knowing that this is the “white people price,” we try to haggle. The guy either doesn’t understand English, or doesn’t want to bargain. Our suspicions about the room are right. A cockroach scampers into the bathroom as we open the door, and there’s a single bed crammed into a corner. The toilet doesn’t have a seat and doesn’t flush.
We leave the room and try to haggle the price again, but the clerk doesn’t understand us. He thinks we’re asking for a second room, so we give up. Feeling defeated, we head out to get some dinner, and eat at the only place in town. The menu doesn’t have prices, and when we ask for them, the waiter says he doesn’t know the prices, or at least the “white people prices,” because they’re apparently different for us. We order, and are starting to see how this works. The shitty meal is twice the price of a good meal in Bangkok, so we bargain the bill down a few dollars. We’re feeling even worse now, and head back to the room to fall asleep and dream about getting out of this dirty border town.
At 9 a.m., we wake and head towards the border, which we can see from the hotel. People are all around us, yelling at us to buy T-shirts or shoes or food or beer. A guy points off the road, and tells us we need to go “this way” for a visa into Cambodia. We take a look at the building he’s pointing at, but decide we will only listen to people with guns at the actual border.
There are signs for Cambodia. We go through a few buildings, get our passport stamped, and walk through a few more buildings. A Cambodian welcoming official greets us, and guides us through the process of entering in the country. We get scanned, photographed and stamped. Our official takes us to another building where men in military uniforms sit in front and behind glass looking very official. We’re told we have to pay an entrance fee to get a visa. A large sign above the window says it’s $25 (because apparently, they only take U.S. dollars). We give them $50 and our passports. The government official shows us a hand written sign that says “$25 + 40 baht” (about $2.50).
We laugh and shake our heads and say no, that’s handwritten, we will follow that big sign above us. This gets the attention of every man sitting behind the glass, and they are now all looking at us with nasty expressions. The man helping us shows us the sign again, and says it’s required, and we tell him it’s clearly not—it’s handwritten, and we aren’t paying. He’s pissed. He takes our passports and says, “it will be about an hour.” We go and sit in an empty waiting room. Thirty seconds later, our names are called. Our visas are ready, and we can leave.
We walk on through a security checkpoint, and our welcoming official points us to a bus. We hop on, and head to the bus station, happy to have avoided the scams we read about.
The bus is on the road for about 15 minutes, and arrives at a bus station outside of town. The schedule says the next bus leaving the station is at 4 p.m. It’s 9:30 a.m. Taxi drivers hoard around us, offering a ride for $50. We don’t talk to them, and realize we were taken to a tourist bus station, and not to the local public station. A man at the information desk says there is no public bus station, and is clearly lying to us, so we consider our options. The taxi drivers seem eager, so we talk to them. We want to go two hours away to Siem Reap. They tell us it’ll cost $45, and we counter with $20, and don’t budge. They’re not willing to negotiate either, and we’re at a standstill. We talk to other travelers in the station, but none of them are going to Siem Reap. We’re stuck.
We sit and talk to the cab drivers for about an hour. One flashes a Lonely Planet business card, and offers us $30 to Siem Reap. We offer him $20, and he turns us down. We talk to him away from the other cab drivers, and find out the bus station is owned by what he describes as “the mob.” The government forces tourists to take a bus to a “bus” station, and then forces them to take a taxi, because the 4 p.m. bus never arrives. Taxi drivers then have to pay a $5 fee to the fake bus station for any fare they receive. We offer him $25. This is still the most expensive thing we have purchased in weeks. Even train tickets across Thailand weren’t this much, but we arrived in Siem Reap in no time, our budget for the day exhausted.
The upside is that everything in Cambodia is cheap, right? Except there aren’t prices tags. We stand in a 7-Eleven knockoff, and nothing has a price, and when we ask for them they’re insanely high. A bottle of water is $5, and we’re forced to bargain. Even after we witness locals buying products at low prices, and offer the same, we are turned down. We do our best to avoid getting ripped off. At one point, the only person working in the store is a girl that looks to be, at most, 10 years old. We ask about the banana chips. I’m told they’re $2, and I offer $1, and she says, “no, no, no, $2″ and doesn’t budget. I consider that $2 is the price of a meal in Cambodia, that $2 could buy me two kilos of bananas at a market, that $2 is the price of one liter of gas, and that $2 can buy me a weeks worth of weed in Cambodia, or four 22-ounce beers. This bag of banana chips isn’t even worth $1.
I cave and buy them. I mean, we’re talking about $2 here.
Previously: What Happens When You Lose Your Money Abroad
David Bowker is from Boston, and studied economics in snowy upstate New York. He’s worked in banks, at a fresh and frozen food company, and most recently, at a tech/research company. He’s currently traveling and seeing what comes next while doing his best to budget his savings. Photo: joaquinuy