Cambodia - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 260 (70)

Siem Reap

Tuesday 23rd November

Well, since I’m writing this log entry, the problem with the train didn’t derail us and we arrived in Bangkok safe and sound after all. Irritatingly, however, the guy that came through the carriage making up the beds to begin with came back again almost a full hour before our arrival to chuck everybody out of their bunks. He converted all the beds back into seats and took all the linen away. I would ideally like stay in bed up to the last possible minute ordinarily and felt somewhat deprived of the opportunity to snooze some more when he did this.

Dawn was just about breaking when we strolled out of the train station to find a taxi. The taxi rank was doing brisk business but it still took us almost fifteen minutes to find a driver that wasn’t asking a ridiculous fare or would consent to using the meter. We made it back to the Khao San Road area in a metered taxi for just about half what the scam artists were asking.

We wasted no time in finding the hostel where we had left our passports to be furnished with the Laos and Cambodia visas. They were there waiting for us, all complete and ready to be taken across the respective borders. As it turns out, we may not use the Laos visas after all but at least we have them now just in case we do decide to pop across the border.

Although we were back in Bangkok, we had no plans to stay there. We’ve decided to fly into Cambodia today so the only thing we really needed to do now was to wait for the 100B (€1,92) airport shuttle to start running. I killed time with a half hour on one of the Internet terminals and read some replies to a posting I put out on the Thorn Tree travel bulletin board about alternative ways to get to Cambodia by air. One option put forward in one of the more helpful replies was a so-called Discovery Air Pass by Bangkok Air. For a fixed price of either $50 (€38,45) for national flights or $80 (€61,53) for international flights, Bangkok Air sell a minimum of three of these tickets in a flexible air pass. This seemed like a very good option for us as it meant that we could, for example, fly from Bangkok to Phnom Penn to Siem Reap to Bangkok again all for just $210 (€161,52). This is still a significant chunk of change out of our budget that we had not originally planned for but it would at least give us the chance to explore the Cambodian capital as well as Siem Reap with the added bonus of getting us back into Thailand again. Since we were off to the airport with plenty of time to spare anyway, we decided to speak to Bangkok Air directly about this when we got there.

Our 100B (€1,92) airport bus started its first run of the day at six-thirty. It departed from just across the road from where we were and we made sure to be on it. Interestingly, a taxi tout was trying to ask where we were going and when I told him that we were going to the airport by bus, he immediately tried to convince me that this would take hours. Some of the scams and tricks these touts use are so transparent that you have to laugh every now and then.

At the Bangkok Air ticket counter, we tried to obtain as much information about their multiple routing air pass and the various other options for getting to Siem Reap but it was hard work. The woman behind the counter didn’t speak particularly good English and several times I had to distract her attention from whatever it was she was doing at her terminal to get her to talk to me. One thing that did become painfully apparent was that flying around here in South East Asia brings with it numerous hidden costs such as airport departure taxes and so on. Suddenly, the relatively straightforward task of booking an airfare was requiring more and more deep thought. That nasty bus trip that we’ve been trying to avoid was starting to look more and more attractive as we kept on adding up the cost of all these airport departure taxes. A round trip for the two of us was now climbing to the €450 mark and this will not do. We decided to think things over for a bit before buying a ticket. Flights to Siem Reap depart eight or nine times daily from Bangkok and there have always been several flights with available seats on the day of departure each time I checked online.

In the meantime, the other major reason for being at the airport this morning was to find a British Airways or Qantas ticket office. We’ve made quite a few changes to our round the world flight dates and there was the strange incident a few weeks back in Bangkok that I still felt uneasy about. When I had called back then to make some date changes, the agent on the phone could not find one of the South Pacific legs on our itinerary, even though I have the ticket, and so just added it back in for me there and then. She subsequently sent a confirmation e-mail detailing the changes I had requested but the list of flights she sent me still didn’t include that one South Pacific leg. Now that we were here at the airport, I wanted to make sure everything was still okay. We rolled our trolley over to the terminal that housed British Airways and Qantas and after a bit of nosing around, eventually found their combined ticketing desk. Alas, it was closed until two in the afternoon.

The multiple series of flights we were earlier contemplating was just going to be too much for our meagre backpacker’s budget to soak up but getting to Siem Reap by bus meant staying here another night too and we didn’t fancy lugging our bags back into town. In the end, we decided that the best option was to take the Bangkok Air flight to Siem Reap on a one-way ticket and worry about how to get back to Bangkok farther down the road. Back we went, then, to the Bangkok Air ticket desk to book the trip. This is Bangkok, however, and nothing is quite so straightforward as it first seems. It turns out that the bargain 4,880B (€93,85) airfare can only be obtained by making an Internet booking online. The nice woman behind the counter could sell me a ticket but it would be quite a bit more expensive. Not to worry, we spotted an Internet café here in the terminal building a little earlier so off we set to go find it. A rather nasty surprise was waiting for me when I got there in the form of the rate they were charging. Here in Thailand, we’ve become accustomed to paying about 1B (€0,02) per minute with a minimum charge of either 10B (€0,20) or 20B (€0,38). At this Internet café, they were charging 5B (€0,10) per minute with a minimum charge of 75B (€1,44). Now, this is probably one of those occasions where you have to stand back and look at the bigger picture but all I could think of when I saw these charges posted was the fact that this was five times more expensive than any other Internet café anywhere else in Thailand and my built in budget self-defence mechanisms kicked immediately into autopilot before I knew it. I was damned if I was going to capitulate to the outright daylight robbery of ‘five times more expensive’ and refused to go in out of sheer principal alone. I wandered around the terminal building looking for an alternative Internet café but the only other I could find was just as expensive and had an even larger minimum charge to boot. So it was with more pain and reluctance that anybody else will probably ever understand that I went back to the first place and extremely reluctantly signed in. I just had to grit my teeth and swallow the €1,44 minimum charge for spending fifteen minutes online. How will we ever manage to finance the rest of our trip now?!

Fortunately, the Bangkok Air website was functioning normally today and I booked the one-way flights for the two of us without a hitch. Once again, however, another nasty surprise was waiting for me at the end of the booking process. The booking engine slapped on two junk charges after I confirmed the order. The first was a $2,75 per person insurance charge and the second was a $7 per person international fuel surcharge. Ahhhhhhhhhh! The final tally for the two one-way seats to Siem Reap ended up being 11,160B (€214,61). Considering that we could have taken the bus for just 550B (€10,58) each, this has turned out to be quite an expensive option, relatively speaking. Oh well, it’s done now. Gritting my teeth again!

It was still a while before the BA ticket desk opened so we asked if we could check our bags through already. The earliest flight I could book us onto was the five o’clock early evening service. We had just missed the eleven o’clock flight but the check-in clerk said she would put us on standby for the three o’clock flight and told us to come back at two o’clock to see what the status was.

For the next several boring hours, we sat around intermittently eating ice cream, chocolate cakes and various other ludicrously expensive airport snacks just to kill the boredom. We were still quite hungry, funny enough, by about lunchtime and found a nice pub to sit and eat fish & chips in. We were actually wandering around the terminal building in search of a place to sit where we could plug the laptop into a power socket when we stumbled across the pub. The train journey up from Surat Thani to Bangkok was quite boring for the first few hours and I spent much of the time playing a game on the laptop to kill the time. I ended up almost completely draining both batteries chasing my high score – which I managed to just miss before completely running out of juice!

Two o’clock eventually rolled around and we went to check on the status of our three o’clock standby flight. Unfortunately, this was now delayed until five o’clock and we were told that we would be better off sticking with our original flight but they at least allowed us to check our bags in now.

It was only after numerous hours of more boredom that things finally starting to happen again. The BA ticket desk was now open and after waiting our turn at the one operating ticket window, I showed the clerk my huge pile of tickets and explained about all the date changes and so on. Much to the extreme irritation of the steadily lengthening queue behind me, the ticket clerk spent the next hour and a half sorting things out for us. It turns out that the previous ticket agent I spoke with over the phone a few weeks ago that had added that South Pacific flight back into our itinerary had not realised that it was originally a flight operated by Air New Zealand and had added this flight on a Qantas ticket instead. The busy clerk I was now talking to noticed this straight away and summarily cancelled that flight in favour of leaving the original one intact. She suggested that I call Air New Zealand myself to make sure that they have the correct dates listed for us in their computer. I did so after we were all said and done and, fortunately, they did have the correct dates listed for all the flight legs with them. I was also able to push forward our Auckland to Fiji flight to connect with the Fiji to Vanuatu flight. We will have to stay overnight in the airport but we will now have more time in New Zealand and only one stay on Fiji instead of two.

Our December 18th wait-listing for the Bangkok to Sydney flight was still nowhere nearer converting into a confirmed booking and since we cannot really proceed without knowing what is going to happen with this, I went ahead and cancelled the wait-listing. This means that we will fly to Sydney on December 12th after all. That actually works out well because it means we will not have to worry about making the Sydney to Melbourne journey in a rush.

Even though it took a lot longer than I had thought it would, I’m very glad that we were able to get all the flight issues worked out. I’ve been able to do a lot over the phone with the round the world tickets but for revalidation they specifically need to be sighted. In other words, a ticketing agent must physically look at the tickets and the only place where we can achieve this for miles around is the BA ticket desk in Bangkok airport.

With a whole load of worries now off my mind, we checked into our Siem Reap flight and went straight through to the gate area. In retrospect, we probably should have waited in the departure lounge for a while longer as, other than a stuffy room full to bursting point with other travellers, there was absolutely nothing there to keep us occupied. The flight before us was delayed several times whilst we sat and waited but, luckily, ours left shortly after six o’clock, just a half hour or so later than scheduled.

Out flight to Siem Reap would last an hour in a relatively small turboprop plane and we would arrive shortly after dusk. During the flight, I felt quite anxious about Cambodia and what was there waiting for us. In fact, Cambodia is the real reason why we are here in South East Asia to begin with. Moreover, the temples of Angkor Wat near Siem Reap are the reason we are here. Other than specifically wanting to visit these temples, I know very little about Cambodia, save for the various stories I’ve read in the guidebooks and heard from other travellers. Most of these stories seem to involve the bad road from Poipet, near the Thai border, and the corrupt border officials, police officers and mafia controlled taxi drivers at that border crossing. The poor state of the road between Poipet and Siem Reap is legendary in its own right and every traveller has a tale to tell about their experiences getting into Cambodia through that overland route. As our plane came in to land, I felt like we were once again standing on that anxiety-generating precipice of the great unknown. Once again, we were arriving in a new place, knowing little about it, and with absolutely no plans for what to do once we got off the plane.

My first impression of Cambodia is that it is a poor country. The airport is a single building that sits next to the runway. We walked from the steps of the plane the few yards over to this building and joined some eighty or more other travellers already queuing up at the three immigration desks with the busy officials stamping away at their passports. Immediately beyond the immigration desks was the single luggage belt that was already moving and the passengers from the flight before us that was delayed for so long were slowly filtering their bags from it. The very necessary climate control in this building was achieved by ceiling fans and a single, floor standing, industrial-strength air-conditioner unit, which I was lucky enough to stand in front of for much of the time that I was queuing to get my passport stamped. I don’t know if it was hotter ore more humid inside the building or out but either way I was starting to drip. The room was small but had a cavernous feeling to it and was actually quite tastefully appointed. The immigration officers were smiling and the queues were moving quickly enough. The whole border control process turned out to be no big deal in the end. Even the customs officer waved us straight through when we reached him and I noticed that we hadn’t completed a customs form.

The scene outside was pretty much as I had expected it to be with plenty of taxi and hotel touts all vying for the individual attentions of each and every exiting passenger. The first thing I noticed was a little pre-paid taxi stand with a happy looking chap standing there, writing out a taxi receipt for another passenger. I went straight over to him and asked about getting a taxi into town. I figured this would be at least more orderly than trying to navigate the waiting throng of drivers behind him all on our own whilst laden with backpacks. Everything here in Cambodia works in US Dollars and the price of a taxi into town was $5. This was exactly what I had expected based on what I’d read in the guidebook so I agreed and a driver was quickly summonsed. A nice looking Toyota Camry appeared, almost out of thin air it seemed, and a very friendly young driver helped us with our bags. In we got and off we went.

Our driver was a very nice young man and we got on very well right from the get go. My instincts were telling me very good things about him as we got to know each other during the ten-minute ride into town. By the time we arrived at our first choice of hotel, we’d already arranged for him to drive us around the temples for the next couple of days and he will assist us with other things such as ongoing transportation and so on. He was quite happy to take us to all the hotels we wanted to see, which he did, but offered a couple of other suggestions just in case we were not happy with what we saw. Ordinarily, ‘commission’ alarm bells would be ringing in the back of my head in this situation but something told me that this guy was on the up and up. Everything he told us about all the hotels we visited turned out to be true, including the prices we ended up negotiating. Ultimately, we found one of the places he had suggested to be the best deal and the most comfortable room. We chose this place, called Home Sweet Home, which had a nice air-conditioned room and ensuite bathroom for $15 per night. This was the cheapest place we visited and if our drive did earn any commission on the cost of the room, which I doubt, then I was happy for him to receive it. Our room is a little more comfortable than the place we stayed at in Bangkok and about the same price.

We agreed that our driver would take us around the temples tomorrow in his air-conditioned car and he will be here tomorrow morning at eight o’clock. All in all, it’s been a very long day today. We accomplished a lot logistically and covered a great distance. We will sleep well tonight – and dream of Lara Croft, no doubt.