Cambodia,  Travel

Scambodia? First Impressions of Cambodia

After an amazing couple of weeks in the Philippines, I headed over to Cambodia. I wanted to see the temples and Angkor Wat, so I flew into Siem Reap.

Once I landed, getting my visa and through immigration was an interesting experience. Visas can be obtained once you land for $30USD (cash) and there is a whole line of immigration officers that take your passport and each one writes or stamps something on the visa. Not your usual process!

Then, after you have your visa, you go through immigration. I thought it was a bit odd that immigration was before we picked up our bags, but in some ways it was really convenient because we didn’t have to wait for the bags!

My hotel was supposed to come pick me up from the airport, but they were not there! Eeek! There was a communication breakdown between the service I used to book the hotel and the hotel itself.

One thing I’m starting to learn is that it’s really ok to roll with things. I wasn’t too bothered that the hotel wasn’t there, and I knew I could easily grab a ride to the hotel. So I went to the airport tuk tuk office.

I hate airport transit in just about every airport so far. I hate that people stake it out to scam the tourists who just landed and make them pay extortionate amounts for a ride! However, it was almost 10pm and I was quite tired from a day of travel so I was the perfect target. I wasn’t as worried about cost as just getting to bed! At least this airport office had standardized payment amounts, so I paid $12 for my ride to the hotel.

And was almost the victim of my first scam. Welcome to Cambodia! When I paid my $12, I had a $10 and $5 bill. My change came back as one $1 bill and one $2 bill.

I did a double take on the $2 bill because something seemed off about it. One thing about Cambodia that’s unique is that while they technically have their own currency, literally everything is priced in USD. And the almighty dollar is the currency for all transactions. I thought to myself “Hmmm does the US even print these any more?” as I looked at the $2 bill and the bill itself felt off. The paper didn’t feel quite right (not enough of the fabric-y give that our money has and too paper-y) and was incredibly crisp.

I was waiting at the counter for the guy to fill out a form. Silly me, I thought it was one of those official airport forms but no – it was the ubiquitous offer of tuk tuks for temple tours. But it did give me enough time to decide that the $2 bill wasn’t right, and as he handed me the sheet of paper, I handed him the bill back and asked for two $1 bills.

The look he gave me was quite interesting – it was somewhere between disdain, disgust, and rejection. In retrospect, I think it was some level of shame because I had quietly called him out on the fake $2 bill.

And that’s what I learned later – $2 bills are not accepted by any Cambodian banks, and they are the ones that float around as forgeries given to tourists as change. I could see where people who don’t use USD every day don’t get the subtle differences in feeling, and it’s such a pain to have to be on the lookout for scams constantly! But on the plus side, I’m proud of myself for noticing that it was off, and getting it fixed.

So that’s a very long story for a $2 bill. But it was a good introduction to Cambodia.

Once I got the ride to the hotel from the airport, I was wondering if my hotel would be as good as it looked online. Online, it was quite beautiful – very modern-Asian style with rich colors, clean lines, and a gorgeous pool out front.

The hotel is exactly as pictured online – it’s gorgeous, but…

It’s SO far from the town! They have a free tuk tuk that will take you into town, but there’s nothing walkable from the hotel. Given that most of the day is spent out temple-hopping it’s not that big of a deal.

So it’s about 11pm, I’m exhausted and checking in and for some reason my scam radar was quite on edge. The hotel front desk gave me a “registration form” to fill out which of course asked for my credit card number. The hotel was prepaid, so I could just see giving them my credit card and them charging me a second time.

For the second time that night, I stood up for myself and told them that no, they didn’t need the credit card as it was all prepaid. I think the guy at the reception was tired too, as he didn’t fight me on it.

I got to my room, walked in, and everything was just as pictured online! The shower was gorgeous and had a rain shower head mounted from the ceiling; the bed was large and crisp and comfortable. The balcony was very cute, though I couldn’t see the view from it.

I turned on the AC in my room, took a shower and then went to bed. Or tried to at least. I could not figure it out, but the AC was not working. And it’s crazy hot here. Basically like Florida in the summer. So my room was hot, stuffy and I thought that somehow I just didn’t know how to work the AC. To top it off, the WiFi was also not working. One thing I expected in Cambodia was that the WiFi would be much better than in the Philippines. They don’t have the “island” excuse, so I knew it had to be terrestrial Internet.

It was a miserable night. I barely slept, and when it was about 2:30am and it was clear the AC wasn’t working, I went downstairs to reception. The guy from reception was sound asleep on some of the chairs (with a mosquito net over him – the reception is open-air). I decided not to wake him and just tried to go back to sleep.

I slept fitfully and was pretty convinced by the time I woke up that I would be checking out of this hotel and going to find a new one that was closer to town and had working AC and WiFi.

As I walked down to breakfast, I asked the reception guy (now the day-shift guy) about the AC and how to work it. He looked with horror when he asked “Did you have no AC all night?” and I could tell he felt bad about it. I told him not to worry about it (I didn’t want to make these folks mad before I secured another hotel) and he went up to work it with me. He had me leave it on while I went down to breakfast.

Breakfast was fabulous. It was a multi-course meal starting with cereal (coco krispies – yay!), fruit (dragonfruit, pineapple, and mango – all very fresh), a pancake (clearly freshly made and very tasty) and a basket of bread (the two croissants were fresh out of the oven and light and flaky). As I ate, I was softening towards staying at the hotel – the guy seemed very sure the AC would work.

Late in my breakfast, the reception guy came down and told me that I was right – the AC was in fact not working in that room. So they upgraded me to a suite. I walked in, and saw the most gorgeous bathtub I have ever seen, and the room was giant and nice. I moved in quickly.

Also while I was eating, the WiFi magically started working. The overnight concerns were quickly being addressed, and being far from town is not too bad. (By “far” it’s about a 5-7 minute tuk tuk ride into town.)

Now I’m quite happy with the hotel! It’s definitely quiet and relaxing.

After breakfast, I went into town and spent the day wandering Siem Reap. The town is small and very tourist-oriented. I wandered the market and was accosted by all sorts of vendors.

They use the word “lady” here like we would usually use “ma’am.” It’s quite odd to hear “Hey lady buy things from me. You buy from my shop. Good price good price. What you like?” It just feels odd to be addressed by everyone as “Hey lady.”

Every tuk tuk you pass on the street yells at you to see if you need a ride or temple touring. Temple touring costs about $15-20, and for them, it’s a great wage for not a lot of work. So of course everyone and their dog is trying to sell you on temple touring.

It’s a bit frustrating to be constantly hassled by people selling things, but I did have an interesting insight on it. There is not nearly as much advertising here as in the States (at least not that I’m exposed to) and what there is is fairly passive – like billboards. The shopkeepers hassling you is essentially just the original advertising still being used.

When I think of it that way, it’s easier to adjust to. My cousin Derek gave me some great advice about haggling – he said to just relax, have fun with it, and go back and forth with them. Thinking that way definitely helped!

I decided to get a massage – that’s another thing that is very ubiquitous for tourists here. A half-hour massage cost me $4, and I probably could have gotten a better deal if I tried harder! It was nice and relaxing.

I stopped at an authentic French Crepe restaurant (the owner was in the restaurant) and these were (as far as I can tell) quite authentic. It was a very tasty lunch!

After lunch, I wandered through a temple and then went to the Angkor National Museum. The museum was quite well done and it was great to learn some Angkor history before going to the temples. I saw more in the carvings and details in the temples thanks to learning about it at the museum.

That night, I decided to try some rolled ice cream from a street vendor – this is the same stuff that’s now taking the States by storm. It was so good! I had a Nutella and Oreo concoction and it’s one of the best things I’ve eaten on this trip. Might be less than authentic, though…

And that’s it! I headed in, went to bed (thankfully with AC) and set my alarm for 4am for sunrise at Angkor Wat. I’m not sure how I feel about Cambodia just yet – I do feel like I have to be much more on guard here against scams, and I hate the constant hassling to buy things. But the country itself is gorgeous! We’ll see how my feelings evolve.

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