Having spent the last week in Chiang Mai Thailand visiting friends, it was time for me to make my way back to Phnom Penh Cambodia to meet up with a friend from home, Jared Fritz, to travel in Vietnam and Lao for a couple of weeks.
To get to Phnom Penh from Chiang Mai, riding the bus was the most economical for me, even if it meant 27 hours of straight travel. Leaving Chiang Mai at 9:30 one evening, I had a delightful overnight bus ride to Bangkok on a sleeper bus. It was a beautiful thing. I reclined my chair, pulled up the blanket the stewardess had given me, went to sleep to the gentle sway of the bus, and woke up six hours later at my destination. After this, I had only an hour to buy a ticket and catch another four hour bus from Bangkok to the Cambodian border town of Poipet, cross the border on foot, then catch a third bus for another eight hour ride to Phnom Penh.
No Problem. Except that the border crossing at Poipet was suppose to be the scam capital of the world. It was said that no one exiting unscathed. Everyone, the blogs reported, had to give up some sort of extra payment to get through in a timely manner, though, if you were smart, you might avoid the worst of it.
I was ready.
I had read about all the scams – the fake visa office scam, the extra charge for services scam, and the inflated price of visa’s to go into someone’s pocket scam. I was ready for them all, as were my two traveling companions, a young Brit guy named Victor and a PhD student from Virginia named Scott. We had all done our research and were not going to be taken in.
After the sleeper bus to Bangkok, finding the ticket for the four hour bus ride to Poipet was a challenge, but the ride itself was uneventful. Arriving in Poipet, my two companions and I clambered off the bus and piled into a Tuk Tuk, ready to shun anyone and everyone who might talk to us. We had been instructed by all bloggers paving this path before us, to walk directly to the official Immigration Department, get our visas there, but to speak to no one on the way for fear of being drawn into a scam.
When we exited the Tuk Tuk and could see our goal, the Immigration Department, in the distance. Walking, we began a direct route there.
So far, so good. Until we were guided down a side path by a young man dressed in official looking blue pants and ironed white button up shirt with an ID badge hanging from a chord around his neck.
“This way” His kind voice and point directed us down a side walk.
“No, we are going that way” We firmly pointed to the immigration office.
“Yes, that is where you go. But you must go this way to get there”.
Seeing he was right, we altered our path, got to the immigration office and got our visas with no problem except that my friend Victor had to pay and extra 20 Baht. When he asked the official why the extra 20 was charged the official said “For me”.
When we exited the immigration office the man that had previously directed us in the correct way to the visas was there waiting for us. His name was Mep.
“You must get one more stamp,” he told us, “Then there is a free bus for you from here to the bus station”. Had we been experienced, this would have been Scam Clue Number One. As a matter of fact, Victor WAS experienced having just come from India. But, he thought it was legit.
Based on our online research, we knew we were going to have to find transportation to the next bus station. A big bus was waiting and all of those on our previous bus were getting on it. Our guide, Mep, had been correct before about the visas. So, we got our stamp and got on the bus. Mep followed us. This should have been Scam Clue Number Two. Instead, we were proud of ourselves. “That was easy”, we congratulated each other. “Really easy. Maybe the government had worked on the system to prevent scams”
At the bus station Mep hurried us in and shuffled us to the front of the line to quickly buy a ticket on the “good bus” because our bus was leaving “now…in five minutes.” He pointed to a bus waiting outside. We got our tickets and then he told us we needed to quickly change our Thai Baht into Cambodian Riel because merchants in Cambodia would not accept Baht. All of this was done with some sense of urgency (Ding! Ding! Ding! Clue number 3) but by this time we had decided to trust Mep.
The bus Mep had pointed out as leaving in five minutes left in five minutes. But, it was not our bus. (Scam Clue Number Four) As a matter of fact, after rushing though everything, we now had a good 20 minute wait, during which I discovered I may have been shorted a bit in the exchange of currency from Baht to Riel. (Clue Number Five) But, after almost 20 hours of bus ride under my belt, I was too tired to make a fuss.
Our “good bus” finally came rolling in. It was more akin to a crushed beer can on wheels. (clue Number Six) I have never been jostled more in a tighter space than over those eight hours. The bus was jerking so hard I couldn’t hold a book still enough to read. They had taken on so many people that boards were produced from overhead bins to straddle the isle, adding more seats. In my travel exhaustion, I kept falling asleep, which I could ill afford to do, lest I tilted and leaned on one of the strangers that I was squeezed tightly between. The only relief were stops every couple of hours for breaks. During these stops, the ten or so foreign travelers on the bus became friends.
Finally, close to 12:30 am, the bus rolled to a stop. We all sat looking out the window, waiting to get started again. There were buildings outside, but all were closed down. It didn’t look like Phnom Penh. Gradually though, everyone realized this was the end of the line. The locals quickly dispersed leaving the group of foreigners in a huddle on the street looking at two Tuk Tuk drivers who were asking for outrageous prices to take us to the guest houses of their choice.
It was then we began to realize we had been scammed. We had not escaped the scammers at all! We had fallen into one big elaborate scam and all the pieces fell into place. Mep coyly gaining our trust, the free bus to the bus station, the hustle and urgency, the crap bus and now this. To make it even worse, some of us had things missing from the bags that had been stored under the bus in transit.
It was midnight, we didn’t know where we were, but we were angry. Refusing to go with the Scam Tuk Tuk drivers, we began walking down the street looking for more transportation. But, their plan was too good. We found nothing. The Scam Tuk Tuks followed slowly behind us like lions waiting to pounce. By this time it was 1am.
In the end we used the Scam Tuk Tuks but, instead of going to the guest houses they suggested, we chose our own. Everyone found a place to stay until finally it was only Victor and I on the way to a guest house where I had made reservations. He agreed to come with me because I didn’t want to be out in Phnom Penh in the middle of the night alone.
As we road on the final Tuk Tuk, he relaxed putting his backpack on the floor.
“You better watch your bag” I cautioned holding mine tightly. This city is known for it’s bag snatchers.
He made no move to hold his bag and merely said “Ah, it’s fine”.
At that very moment a scooter carrying two men road up so close beside us they were touching the Tuk Tuk, and they peered inside ready to grab something and run. The only thing I made sure they saw was my scowling face as I was prepared to kick the living daylight out of them. I was tired of being taken advantage of. The took one look at me and road away into the dark.
Other things happened on that Tuk Tuk ride to the hotel like…our driver not knowing English and driving around a long time until he could find an English speaker to tell him where we wanted to go, or the Tuk Tuk running out of gas on a remote street afterwhich we were protected by a big big guy in dark clothes who appeared from nowhere while the driver ran off, coming back with a water bottle filled with gasoline. Things like that.
Needless to say, by the time I climbed into bed at 3am, I was so so glad to be there.