After seeing a man in tears faced with time in a Thai prison, I knew I had to get the hell out of Bangkok.
I had already been playing with the idea of coming to Cambodia. I was getting tired of tripping over drunk people every day and Cambodia seemed like a more relaxed place to plan my next step. All it took was this too-close-to-home encounter with the Thai police system to push me overboard, and I hopped on a train the next day.
Because the train from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet, near the border of Cambodia, costs only 48 baht (about $1.62 USD) and doesn’t require booking in advance, it was an easy spur of the moment decision. I checked out of my hotel at 4 AM, wandered around for a few kilometers until I found a taxi driver willing to take me to the train station for a reasonable price (not an easy feat), and at 5:55 AM I was on my way.
After our first few stops the train was packed, and I spent most of the 6 hour trip with an old woman half-sitting on my lap, trying to catch a few z’s as she constantly scooted closer in her seat and reached over me to touch the window. (???)
One of the best things about travelling is the instant kinship you often find with people you meet. Once the train had mostly emptied, it was easier to talk to the people sitting on the other side of the aisle: a guy from Norway and his Hungarian girlfriend. We arrived in Aranyaprathet, shared a Tuk-Tuk and ended up spending the rest of the time travelling together.
The Tuk-Tuk driver tried to take us to a travel agency instead of the border itself. Travel agencies charge $10-20 more than the official $20 Cambodian visa easily available at the real border. I had read about the scam online, and insisted the driver take us to the real border because we had e-visas. (My Norwegian friend looked at me and said, “Uh we do?” … We didn’t, as e-visas themselves are more expensive than the official price, but this was the easiest way to be taken to the real border without arguing with the driver.)
We got through the border easily, and hopped on an air-conditioned bus filled with travelers heading to Siem Reap, about 3 hours away.
Oddly enough, Cambodians prefer USD to their own currency, Khmer Riel. All ATMs dispense cash in USD, and if you want KHR, you have to go to a currency exchange center. You can pay with either currency in Cambodia — even using both methods in one transaction — but change is often given in Riel. They advise you to use all of your KHR before leaving Cambodia, as it is virtually worthless once outside the country. Most currency exchange centers won’t accept it.
After spending weeks travelling, changing hotels or cities every few nights, I wanted to be somewhere for a little while and really immerse myself in my surroundings. Hostels in Siem Reap are $5-8 USD per night, and staying here is far less expensive than anywhere else I want to go. Now that I’m on a limited budget until I line up my next job or freelance work, that matters.
Cambodia is a place where I can relax and plan my next step — and with the kind Khmer people and inexpensive living, it’s not a bad place at all.