Siem Reap On the Cheap

It’s been months since I’ve written anything at all for this blog.  Quite honestly, that’s because I haven’t had anything interesting to write about.  But that’s about to change.  I will soon visit a “new” country.

It has been a decade since I first arrived in Asia.  I have lived in Thailand continuously for the last seven years.  Yet I have never visited our neighbor to the east – Cambodia

That will change just ten days from now.  I am planning a New Year’s trip to Siem Reap and the nearby ruins of Angkor Wat.  This journey will be done as cheaply as possible.  I do like to save money, often to the point of ridiculousness! 

It looks good on paper as travel and accommodation costs can be extremely low. 

Angkor PostcardThe government-run buses from Phuket to Bangkok have a second-class fare of 501 baht for the 13-hour trip.  The only real difference between these buses and the more expensive first-class and VIP fares is the amount of leg room and the number of stops along the way.  You can only purchase these tickets on the day of travel so it pays to buy early in the day for an afternoon or evening journey, assuring a choice of seats (try the front row or the one right behind the rear door for a greater chance of having a bit of space to stretch out in).  These buses don’t have toilets on board which is a blessing as you won’t begin to smell that in the middle of the trip; they do stop several times during trips so that people can relieve themselves and buy something to eat.  But they are air-conditioned, often to arctic temperatures (take a jacket as the provided blankets never seem to be big enough to keep you warm).

Once in Bangkok, the least expensive method to travel to the Cambodian border is to go by train.  It’s only 58 baht from Hualamphong Station in the capitol to the border town of Aranyaprathet, departing at 5:55 in the morning.  It’s only a third-class train which means no air-conditioning (although the early morning breeze feels good coming through the windows) and hard bench seats (some trains have been adding padding in the last several years; don’t know if that’s the case on this route).  The travel time is about five hours which isn’t that much faster than the second-class bus but a lot cheaper.

The most expensive portion of the trip will be the final leg.  Upon arrival in Aranyaprathet, the crooks descend like a plague of locusts and don’t let up as you cross over into Poipet on the Cambodian side.  You’ll encounter all sorts of pushy touts until the moment you board your bus for the onward journey (Siem Reap, in my case). 

Starting at the station (whether you arrive via bus or train), there will be plenty of motorbike taxis and tuk-tuk’s clamoring for your business.  You can negotiate a ride to the border for 50 to 100 baht.  However, it’s only one kilometer so I might just walk the distance depending my mood. 

Thai Immigration is just beyond a market area (Talat Rong Kieu) which is the last chance at Thai food (Cambodian cuisine is much different and I have yet to meet somebody who said they like it) or Thai prices at bottled water (which costs double and more in Siem Reap).  The entire area is crowded with touts asking if you already have a Cambodian visa and telling you lies that you need to purchase one before you cross the border.  The best advice is just to continue walking, ignoring these crooks as best you can and proceed to Thai Immigration in order to stamp-out of the country. 

The only place in the area where you can purchase an authentic visa is at the Cambodian Visa Office about 50 meters past the border (to the right of the Khmer-style arch).  This costs $20 in US currency (the preferred form of payment throughout Cambodia).  The current exchange rate puts this at  590.50 Thai baht which is pretty awesome.  If you try to pay in Thai baht at this office they will often try to charge you 700 baht so it’s best to exchange money prior to the trip.  Also, you will need to have one passport-sized photo to hand in with your visa application.  If you don’t have a photo they will fine you 100 baht.

With the Cambodian visa in-hand, next proceed to Cambodian Immigration to be stamped-in to the country.  Finally, it’s time to wade through the last really aggressive bunch of touts – all trying to sell you a ride out of Poipet.  In this area, there are signs advertising a free shuttle bus to the “Poipet International Bus Terminal”.  This is all controlled by the local transportation cartel – all of the share taxis and buses departing from this terminal have inflated fares (about double that can be accomplished by walking further into town).  Past this last zone of touts one can find a number of bus company offices lining the road.  However, most of these have morning departures which would require an overnight in Poipet.  The cost might work out to be around the same as just taking the higher-priced bus and getting away from the border as fast as possible.  This will be my one splurge on this trip!

Okay, accommodations in Siem Reap have quite the range – the town has grown quite a bit in the past few years.  This is where I really try to save some money as I figure I can’t find anything worse that some places I’ve stayed before.  As long as there is some sort of working shower (preferably cold in this environment) and toilet in the general vicinity, I’m fine.  I’m not a real big fan of insects (especially in the bed itself) but I can deal with them if need be.

The least expensive room I’ve ever paid for was a 150-baht per night room in a Georgetown, Penang, guesthouse.  I called it the “Harry Potter Room” as it was wedge-shaped due to being under the stairwell.  I could only stand up towards the head of the bed and had to ascend one or two flights in order to use the bathroom.  A powerful fan kept it nice and cool and I didn’t mind a bit.  Even less expensive was a dorm bed in a hostel up in Luang Prabang for 110 baht a night.  That was very nice – air-conditioned, comfy mattress, individual reading lights, the shower and toilet very clean.  The only detractor was when my sandals were nicked one night – I’d left them outside, Thai-style.

Well, Siem Reap has the potential to make those sound like rich-man splurges.  I am going to try to partake of the dorm bed at one guesthouse which is advertised as costing only $1 per night.  That’s less than 30 baht!!  I read a lot of reviews of this place online – the bed is essentially a mattress in a corridor with a mosquito net over it.  It might be a little loud and hot, but that’s fine with me at that price.  The guesthouse does have actual rooms – some starting as low as $3 per night (89 baht) – but many of these didn’t have good reviews (terrible bathrooms, dirty sheets, bed bugs).  While a few reviews of the dorm beds mentioned smelly bathrooms, none mentioned dirty sheets or bed bugs.  At any rate, I’ll try this out for at least the first night – if it’s completely awful, I can always move elsewhere for the next couple of nights. 

For the record, the worst place I ever stayed at for longer than one night was an ex-girlfriend’s family home in Kamphaeng Phet.  I was very honored to be asked to stay in the home and never showed any discomfort, but it was a downright slum – a shack pieced together from scraps of tin, discarded rotten wood, and cardboard boxes.  Large portions of the house had no roofing at all (making thunderstorms a real adventure) and those that did had chickens nesting in the rafters (causing one to constantly be fearful of droppings, particularly while eating or sleeping).  I slept on a very uncomfortable platform cobbled together from lengths of bumpy bamboo laying side-by-side with three of my girlfriend’s brothers like sardines.  The platform was raised a couple of feet off of the uneven sandy ground, under which there were all sorts of critters roaming at all hours – dogs, chickens, rats, who knows what else.  The bathroom was in an enclosure on a very steep slope running down towards the river bank; a very low squat toilet that was difficult to balance oneself over due to the incline and the shower was simply a big barrel of water with a small bowl to pour over one’s head.  I don’t mind those kinds of showers but this particular one was difficult due to the slope and all of the (wet) sand.  You had to be fairly ingenious to get clean and then to keep your clothes clean when trying to get dressed afterwards.  Still, it was an experience that I will never forget and am happy that I endured.

Well, where was I?

Oh, yes.  Food and drink in Siem Reap can be very cheaply purchased as well.  The guesthouse I’m looking at has a rooftop common area which sells draughts of Angkor Beer for 50 cents each (15 baht) which is pretty damn good.  I don’t drink often and am far from being a beer connoisseur but I’m looking forward to having a few drinks on this trip!  I haven’t been able to find out the cost of soda and other drinks but I do know that a small bottle of water at the ruins starts at 50 cents which the usual Thai price.  As I’ll need to remain hydrated during my explorations of the ruins, water might just be my biggest expense during this part of the trip.

Again, there is a range of food and I’ll stick to the cheap side.  While I will have to try a Khmer dish at least once, I am most looking forward to trying a restaurant that advertises itself as having the “best Mexican food in Southeast Asia.”  Now, we do take such claims with a grain of salt but the majority of the 100-plus online reviews of this place seem to back that up.  They have tacos for $1.50 (which is half the cost of the worst-tasting “tacos” I’ve eaten in Phuket) and a large variety of other inexpensive dishes.  If I like the food, I might just eat there for every meal!

After some thought, I’ve decided to only buy a one-day pass to Angkor Wat.  This costs $20; while a three-day pass at $40 is a better bargain, I had to consider the added expense of hiring a driver for each of the additional days (probably around $10 per day for a motorbike), extra food costs, etc.  The best way to do this is to buy the pass one the first day after 5:00 pm.  That way, you can have a “free sunset” as the pass actually doesn’t start until the following day.  You’ll have an hour or two to explore before the ruins close.  I plan on doing this and returning for the sunrise the next morning (and staying to sightsee when all of the tour groups go back to Siem Reap for breakfast). 

Ta_Prohm_sprung_treeThe one day at the ruins should be enough for me to get a introductory overview without becoming tired of “yet another pile of stones”.  I’m taking this trip simply as a means of relaxation, change of scenery, and an experiment in cheap travel.  By examining the costs on this trip, I will be more motivated to return at a later date for a more extensive exploration.  Thus, I plan to spend the first morning at the main Angkor Wat temple, followed by The Bayon and Ta Phom in the afternoon.  These three units are grouped fairly close together and each differ from the others in significant ways.  The latter, you’ll recognize from it’s “role” in the Tomb Raider movie starring Angelina Jolie – it’s the one overgrown with vegetation with huge trees within the ruins themselves. 

I’ll probably spend another full day in Siem Reap before returning to Thailand as it will be the New Year.  I’m used to the Thai (Songkran) and Laos New Years’ celebrations which involve getting very wet from all the water being thrown.  The Cambodian New Year is quite different (at least I found no reference to pouring water over passing people); the Khmer people will dress in their finest clothing in order to visit the temples while the children gather at street corners and play games.  It will make Angkor Wat even more crowded than usual, I believe, but that much more special to see the Cambodian traditional dress.  Really, my only worry about this trip is that – due to the holiday – my first choice of accommodation might be full when I arrive.  No worries, I’ll find something…

The return to Thailand will be much the same, although the journey from Siem Reap to Poipet will likely cost half of the eastbound route.  The afternoon Bangkok-bound train departs at 13:55; if I miss that I can always take a bus.  If I’ve kept within my budget during the Siem Reap stay I can always splurge a bit before coming all the way home; maybe even stay a night in Bangkok and do a bit of sightseeing.  It’s been years since I’ve spent any time in the city and I’m aching to see certain attractions. 

But that remains to be seen.

I’ll check in from time to time as I continue preparations for the trip and will eventually post some of my photos to the blog.  I think it will be worth the wait!

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