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A Holiday in Cambodia And it’s a holiday in Cambodia
Where you’ll do what you’re told
A holiday in Cambodia
Where the slums got so much soul

–Dead Kennedys

Bus Travel, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

We arrived at the Cambodian border fully expecting to pay our first-ever direct, unambiguous bribe to a government official. I even had a wad of small Thai and US bills ready in my pocket.

Overland travel from Bangkok to Siem Reap involves crossing the border between the markets at Aranyaprathet, Thailand and Poipet, Cambodia. This is one of the more notorious stretches of the modern backpacker trail.  You basically have to deal with a convoluted border crossing involving

  1. a five-hour bus ride to an empty lot several kilometers from the actual border
  2. hiring a sketchy tuk-tuk and convincing the driver to take you to the vicinity of the border instead of an official-looking fake office
  3. walking through commercial border traffic (i.e. a kilometer-long line of trucks and push-carts)
  4. going through Thai customs
  5. walking a no-man’s-land of Cambodian casinos, beggars and pick-pockets
  6. bribing the Cambodian border guards to process your visa on the spot when they threaten to mail your passport to Phnom Penh
  7. dealing with Cambodian touts, drivers and con-artists who will promise to get you where you’re going and then deliver you somewhere else to collect commissions

Welcome to Scambodia.

A couple hours of Googling the anecdotes and warnings about the border crossing left us feeling more than a little nervous about the whole thing.  “Sick with terror” is a bit strong, but might be more apt.  The bus trip from Bangkok was like walking to your own execution. Why can’t we just fly everywhere, like rich people?

Actually, it wasn’t that bad in the end.  It definitely helped to have done our homework: the tuk-tuk driver tried to deliver us to the infamous fake Cambodian visa office (which gets you your visa on the Thai side of the border, but with a huge commission attached), but we’d read about that and told him we already had visas.  A lie, of course–we are chronically incapable of planning that far ahead–but it worked. He took us straight to the border after that.

Once we got through Thai customs (on the last day of our Thai visas, which raised a few customs official eyebrows), we were met by a friendly Cambodian teenager holding a piece of paper with our names on it. We’d arranged a driver to Siem Reap through the guest house, and I guess he had arranged for the kid to meet us. He took us through the Cambodian side of the border, and whether it was his presence (possibly), Janelle’s “fuck with me and I will finish you” scowl (a long shot) or the fact the Cambodian customs agents were having lunch when we showed up (almost certainly), but they didn’t try to shake us down at all.  I was actually genuinely disappointed.  We spent the evening playing pub trivia with some friendly backpackers who had been forced to pay up at the same crossing, and we had no stories to swap. So much for corruption tourism.

A bus ride out of Poipet to a nearby rest stop where we rendezvoused with our driver was a bit worrisome, as we hadn’t been expecting it, but it was all above board.  We found out later it was probably to save the driver a few bucks worth of bribes, as taxis leaving Poipet are expected to kick back a chunk of their fares to the local cops. Our driver was pleasant, even chatty, but by that point I was too tired to do much but take a nap while we rolled through the prairie-flat western Cambodian countryside to Siem Reap.

Poipet, incidentally, is pretty awful.  We didn’t see many beggars, but it is dirty, dusty, filled with garbage and reeks of corruption and shady dealings.  It’s a border market town, rather than a place you might want to live. Once we got out of there, Cambodia got a lot prettier.  Poor, of course, compared to Canada or even Thailand (which has about four times Cambodia’s per capita GDP) but really not unpleasant to drive through.

Even though we managed to dodge the corruption (this time), it’s hard to miss. Cambodia ranks 158th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. I know it’s not a nuanced or original view, but it’s depressing to see such a poor country–particularly one so ravaged by the legacies of war, and where orphans and amputees are ubiquitous–where officialdom is actively working against the people they should be serving.