The Thai-Cambodia border at Poipet is hot and dusty and it smells like fish. The kids wait in front of me in an excruciating line on the Thai side as we cross our fingers that we can make it back to Bangkok in time for Mr. Fantastic’s new online teaching gig, which we are destined not to do. We are in the first line for about 40 minutes and the second one for nearly two hours. We are returning from a visa run and a trip to the famed ruins of Angkor Wat.
After being scammed at the border a month ago, and now with this particularly inconvenient border crossing, I am not heartbroken to say goodbye to Cambodia. But we have had a wonderful time! I think it comes down to the fact that I am not a great tourist. I would rather work and live in Cambodia, learn the language, make a friend or two, and measure my time in months or years instead of days. But that will have to wait until I maybe join the peace corps again someday or come up with something else.
This time I am part of a family of six, and we came because we had to renew our Thai visas and we wanted to see the ruins. We accomplished these things, but perhaps our timing was a bit off. It worked out that we were there during the New Year’s holiday and the crowds were large. It is high season anyway, so I’m not sure how it compares to a few weeks earlier or later. We did have the benefits of dry, relatively cool weather, and some amazing lighting displays in Siem Reap.
I remain frustrated that I don’t know how much things cost in Cambodia! I know you’re supposed to bargain in most cases but it gets confusing when I don’t want to be unfairly frugal or spend too much. And I’m always working in three currencies- Cambodian riel (4,000 to $1), US dollars (preferred), and since we are staying in Thailand, Thai baht (36 to $1). As far as scams go, though, we’ll call it even. Last month I was bamboozled into buying Cambodian visas through a service- expensive and unnecessary- as I staggered out of the four hour minivan ride from Bangkok on my own with the kids. This time, I had Mr. Fantastic by my side and a printout in my hand. The printout was from the Cambodian government website and their free-visas-for-kids-under-12 policy was highlighted in neon yellow. Yes! The twins got in for free. I bargained for a taxi to Siem Reap for $45, I’m still not sure if we overpaid but it was dark out and we are six people (seven with driver) in a car for five, and we felt OK about the price. (It only cost us $30 in the return trip, but that was in a minivan that seats 14). Three hours later, we arrived in SR and the taxi driver took us to a budget hotel as we requested. They quoted me $30 for a three-bed room, and as I walked out to consider, they changed it to $20. We took it and ended up there for four nights. It was perfect for us and when we walked around to compare, nothing came close: no vacancies or much higher prices. Cleverly bought four t-shirts for $6 after an original price of $20. I agonized over a rice-paper rubbing of a stone carving at a temple- original price $45, I paid $20. The tuk tuk driver who took us to the ruins charged anywhere from $13- $30 per day over three days of varying time and distance. We are sure $30 was too much and we complained to the hotel for that one. And it feels petty now, since it was only $5-$10 too much to a hard-working man in an impoverished country while we privileged Americans travel the world.
It was all confusing but I think it turned out ok. I am especially proud that we found a way to avoid buying too many disposable plastic water bottles. Trash is a problem everywhere we have been, yet drinking water clearly is a necessity. We were able to buy a returnable 15-liter water jug for $6 including deposit, fill our bottles for two days, and return the jug, retrieving the $5 deposit. So just $1 for the water and no extra plastic bottles in the trash! That was a success.
Another success was our scheduling. We stayed four nights and had three full days for the ruins. I am satisfied with what we saw, though it was far from seeing everything. That would take much more time. The first day was about 7 hours of seeing ruins. The second day we watched the sunrise over the Angkor Wat temples then, after a nap, let the kids swim all day while we parents rented a motorcycle and saw some of the further away ruins on our own. The third day we were out for about five hours then the kids swam again.
Our hotel location was great. We could walk to the night market and Pub Street across a short bridge, but out street was quieter than those areas. We were able to swim at a nearby hotel for $3 per person, which included a can of soda, and the kids were thrilled. We checked at a few hotel pools and chose our favorite; all allowed non-guests to use the pool for $3-$5 per person. We ate at the night market or a restaurant near our hotel. We had smoothies, Indian food, baguette sandwiches, Thai food, and local noodle dishes. Eating was easy with low prices and plenty of western/backpacker crowd food.
I think that’s all I wanted to say about our non-ruins experience at Siem Reap. I hope it helps other budget-travel families as they negotiate this amazing, sometimes overwhelming, magical place with its history, beauty, and mystery.