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Warning: 4,000 Islands to Siam Reap bus scam

Posted by chuckwriter on 12/12/2009 at 13:24

Dear Phnom Penh-Sorya Transport Co., Ltd.
Date: December 12, 2009
To: Phnom Penh-Sorya Transport Co., Ltd.
From: Chuck Adams, American backpacker

Dear Sir or Madam,

I must alarm you, if I may, to a situation which occurred on your transport line between Don Det, Laos and Siam Reap, Cambodia, the infamous bus "168." I do so in the hopes that your service might improve in the future, thus ensuring a healthy, robust touristic economy for Cambodia for years to come.

To recount, I purchased a ticket to Siam Reap from Don Det at Happy Island Tour Group, one of several outlets on the island in which to buy a bus ticket for the "168." The ticket included transfers between boat to Ban Nakasan, from Ban Nakasan to bus, across the border at Dom Kramlor and, once in Kampong Cham, Cambodia, a transfer to a 12-seat minivan for the remaining 4.5 hours to Siam Reap. The cost of the ticket was $20 USD.

For the journey between Don Det to Kampong Cham, the ride went smoothly, the seats were OK, and the A/C worked to a satisfactory level. The hitch came when the bus dropped us off at a dirty petrol station on the outskirts of Kampong Cham. All 13 of us silly Siam Reap-bound tourists disembarked, collected our baggage, bought some sweet bread from the friendly-if-persistent salesladies at the petrol station, and followed instructions from some random Cambodian man to start loading up in his 12-seat minivan.

We were skeptical at first, especially the Australians. But I am American, and we usually deal with hardships in silence. I was the last to board the minivan and, since there was no seat for me (even though I had paid $20 USD), I merrily took up a position sitting on the floor of the vehicle, back leaning against the gearshift, legs stretched out under the seats. When someone said they felt sorry for me, I made light of the situation, "At least I can stretch out my legs." To which an Aussie replied, "Touché." It really wasn't a problem, I had endured much greater hardships in my life than sitting on a minivan floor with the constant thought that, should the driver crash, I would become like the Superman and fly out the front of the windshield, crack my skull on the hood of the car and land, peacefully, on the pot-holed pavement, my brains later being lapped up by the local packs of feral Cambodian dogs. In fact, the whole situation became a lot better when the Aussies offered me a pillow for my bum.

No, sir or madam, my complaint is that your company, Phnom Penh-Sorya Transport Co., Ltd., did not take me to my final destination, Siam Reap, as promised by the purchase of the ticket. Instead, your company pulled off the highway somewhere near Siam Reap and drove down a dark alleyway in the middle of nowhere, absolutely nowhere, and came to a stop. Your driver explained to us that there would be tuk-tuk drivers outside wanting to take us to their guesthouse, but he said it almost apologetically, as if he were dropping a basket of bunnies into a pit of hungry wolves. This was the end of a long 14-hour journey for all of us, most of us were dead tired, had serious motion-sickness and were, quite literally, sleep-walking zombies. We assumed your company had transported us to Siam Reap and so we disembarked without question.

We were not in Siam Reap, however. Siam Reap was another 5 km away, or, if you believed the tuk-tuk drivers amassed outside the minivan, in the darkened alley in the middle of nowhere, we were "more than 8 km" away. But no matter, the tuk-tuk drivers would take us all to a guesthouse for free. Great, I thought, but what was the catch? Apparently the ride into town was only free if you stayed at their Bakong Guesthouse and used their tuk-tuk driving services to visit Angkor Wat in the following days. In other words, not "free."

I asked how much a ride into town would cost if I did not stay at their guesthouse and did not use their services in the following days. They said, "Two to three dollars, but you need ride to see temples?" I told the man, "I'm not going to see temples tomorrow." He said, "The day after tomorrow?" I said, "Not the day after." Thus infuriated, and simply wanting a ride into town, but completely clueless as to where in the world the minivan had dropped us at, I lied and told the driver I would not be going to see the temples at all. He left me alone for a bit, but then came back and asked me, as if he were personally hurt, "Why you no go see temples?" I just shrugged and told him I needed sleep, that's all.

Eventually a younger looking tuk-tuk driver approached me and said, "OK, I can take you to town." I asked, "How much?" He said, "It's very far. Three dollars." I don't argue or bargain. I am, after all, in a dark alley in the middle of nowhere. I had fallen asleep in the minivan (hard to believe, but I did it) and I didn't even know which way was north. I jumped into the tuk-tuk and asked him, "You know where Ivy Guesthouse is?" He said yes and we sped away. But he didn't take me to Ivy Guesthouse. His friend chewed him out on the road and he drove me first to the Bakong Guesthouse, where all the other tourists were being driven to en masse. It seems I was the only one to put up a fight, to demand a choice in the matter, to demand, simply, a voice in the matter.

My tuk-tuk driver's friend interrogated me. Would I like to check out the rooms? No thanks! You will use driver to see temples tomorrow? "Maybe, " I said, "if he takes me where I want to go tonight." Then he asked, "You have booking?" And I lied to him flat out, "Yes, I have a booking at the Ivy." I'm sorry, but it seems that your company dropped us off to a bunch of bandits. It seems they do not understand the basic rule of entreprenueralism: Good service will be rewarded with patronage. Treating me like a dumb, illiterate ATM machine is not a beacon of good service.

I finally got to Ivy Guesthouse. It was leaps and bounds more attractive than the Bakong. I paid the driver his $3 USD and wrote down his name and phone number in case I needed his services in two days to visit Angkor Wat. You see, I wanted to save him face, for he was surely in for a stern scolding or possibly a beating back at the local tuk-tuk cartel. He had let a tourist get away... But I had no intention of calling him. If he shows up the day after tomorrow I will tell him, sorry, but I went to Angkor Wat "yesterday," the instant code-word to get the swarms of tuk-tuk drivers off your back and to save them face.

In essence, because of the poor services your transport company has given me, coupled with a tendency of the Cambodian transport industry to give poor services for inflated costs to the foreign tourist, because of this I have had to become a liar in Cambodia. I do not like who I have to become in order to survive in your country. Back in Laos, I met many travelers who said they did not enjoy Cambodia, simply because of the scams being pulled on the backpackers. This has long been true of Vietnam: a reputation for scamming has kept many a backpacker away. I met an Israeli backpacker in Don Det who was skipping Vietnam to go to Myanmar instead, simply because he heard that the "Vietnamese just want your money." In Laos, when you ask a tuk-tuk driver to take you somewhere, he takes you there, no questions asked. In fact, tuk-tuk drivers who pull the "free ride if you stay at so-and-so guesthouse" are poorly spoken of in Laos. This is one of many reasons why I enjoyed Laos very much, and I will recommend the country to everyone within earshot.

I write this letter to you today with the hope that you will improve your services by bringing your customers to their destination, as promised on their ticket stub. A simple improvement like that will make travelers more at ease in travelling in Cambodia, thus ensuring a healthy reputation in the region. In the meantime I am sending copies of this letter to online travel guides and as many of my fellow backpackers as possible. My hope is that the next band of tourists driven into a dark alley in the middle of Cambodia will revolt and demand the driver take them to their destination. My ultimate hope is that tourists do not have to revolt against their transport operators in Cambodia in the first place.

Thank you for your time. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go see Angkor Wat. By bicycle.

Chuck Adams
American backpacker
Siam Reap, Cambodia

#1 chuckwriter has been a member since 12/12/2009. Posts: 1

Posted by Seba on 12/12/2009 at 17:25

I had exactly the same experience 4 weeks ago: bus from 4000 islands to Siem Reap, dropped outside town and offered free tuktuk to a certain guesthouse by a guy who seemed to run the guesthouse and had all tuktukdrivers covered, offered seeing Angkor Wat for the following days with the same tuktukdriver, etc.

Nontheless IMHO, without any disagreement about the discomfort this brings along, you are still gravely exagerating, I would even found it hard to call it a scam given other things I experienced in SE-Asia... I had exactly the same prejudices as you before entering Cambodia and Vietnam (after more than 3 weeks of Laos), but you are exagerating a bid deal. IMO, skipping Vietnam just because you heard about an Israeli backpacker who in its turn heared that they "Vietnamese just want your money" is just plain stupid and rather a sign that you cannot step on your toes...

In fact, to balance your clearly biased view, having visited all 4 countries, I can tell you that what I experienced:

a) Thai seemed to be the most aggressive towards tourists (i.e. annoying detours along shops and travel agents, dishonnest tuktukdrivers, loudest touts, overloading you with tour offers, etc.)

b)Laos is the most expensive country (given similar accomodation, food,...) compared to the other 3 countries

c) Vietnam is the cheapest (given similar accomodation, food,...)

d) we experienced 1 major scam: a huge scam in Luang Prabang by the tourist police

e) on average, we found Cambodian people to be the friedliest people of all four countries, followed by Lao. Defenitely liked Vietnamese more than Thai as well


this just to add that projecting one experience by one person can be really misleading...

#2 Seba has been a member since 28/4/2009. Posts: 54

Posted by stagegrip on 12/12/2009 at 19:07

greetings: You do realize that they are probably on the way to the Ivy right now to kill you.

#3 stagegrip has been a member since 2/10/2009. Posts: 3

Posted by CunningMcFar on 12/12/2009 at 21:51

I read all the time about the notorious reputation of scams and touts in Cambodia, but am happy to say that was not our experience at all. Aside from persistent tuk tuks and book sellers in PP and the bumrush of motos at the bus station in Battambang, hassles seemed few and far between, even in SR; the young temple entrepreneurs were low-key and good-natured when we made the effort to engage them. Loved our time in the country and felt the hassle factor was relatively low. Used Sorya Transp at least once and was just fine, as with all our bus trips in Cambodia, paid for our ticket and were dropped at the bus station, no problem.

#4 CunningMcFar has been a member since 20/8/2004. Posts: 163

Posted by oscarcat on 12/12/2009 at 23:00

Shurely the original poster was tongue in cheek and ironic?

#5 oscarcat has been a member since 11/11/2008. Location: Cambodia. Posts: 66

Posted by mikethediver on 31/12/2009 at 19:24

Yes I can confirm 4,000 islands to Siam Reap is a scam. I avoid this by going from 4,000 islands to Kratie and then onward to Siam Reap despite the touts trying to convince me to 'upgrade' my ticket to go all the way to SM.

There have been many warnings on this site about delays in getting to your destinations and arriving at some god forsaken place where only the bus drivers 'friends' are there to 'help' you.

For any trip work out the travel time yourself. To arrive at any place late at night (unless you have been there before and know the ropes) is going to be problematic. Add on the intention delays and you must have a fair idea you are being set up to be scammed. Better a night en route and arrive midday, than midnight.

Actually, Kratie was a good place and we stayed 4 nights and saw the Irrawaddy dolphins there.

#6 mikethediver has been a member since 23/3/2008. Location: Thailand. Posts: 206

Posted by grumpy on 3/1/2010 at 08:03

When are backpackers going to learn that when they try to do every single transaction as though they are going to starve to death if they have to pay 10c more then they are fair game to be preyed upon.

When are backpackers also going to realise that to most locals, particularly in the busier places, you are just "tourists" - you're just golfers in fishermen's pants, there to be made money out of.

Nothing wrong with that - but pretending you've somehow escaped the tentacles of "capitalism" cos you're spending time in some "exotic" Asian land is just naivety.

Also remember that we, the West, have shafted the Asians for 100s of years. All those nice universities, roads, schools and hospitals we enjoy back home were largely paid for by exploitation.

So, while it is not nice getting scammed, be prepared for it and laugh it off - actually think how much US$3 is the grand scheme of your life and move on.

#7 grumpy has been a member since 3/1/2010. Posts: 3

Posted by allykat on 20/1/2011 at 09:53

I have to say as some one who works in hospitality, you the customer are our cash cow. I work in a 4 star motel in Oz and we will charge you black and blue for anything we can. Steal a bathrobe =$200 , skinny dipping in the pool= $500 , dirty room = $60 cleaning charge. Some kid pooed in the pool, we charged his family $3000 for cleaning. It is the same no matter where you go. And really when you think about the average western wage compared to what you would earn in Cambodia, Vietnam or even Thailand , is it any wonder they would think we have money coming out our ears

#8 allykat has been a member since 23/11/2009. Posts: 24

Posted by AbigailatPenhandInk on 24/1/2011 at 11:35 TF writer

.........I'm sorry you didn't enjoy your opening foray into Cambodia, but please keep your heart open, as this is an amazing country with wonderful people.

This doesn't actually sound like a scam to me, just a slightly disorganised trip that still got you to the town you wanted to be in, even if not right outside your hotel. Surely this is the same for any city in the world - you'll be expected to arrange your own transport to your hotel. You must have experienced that in Laos, where bus stations are notoriously far from the actual town, and the ride into town often costs more than the original bus journey ...

The tuk tuk will take you for free to a guesthouse where he gets paid commission, or charge you to go to a guesthouse you prefer. Not sure what the problem is here? $3 for a night time trip in a city you just arrived in seems reasonable to me. I know some people are very against the commission thing 'on principle', but it's how everything works in Asia. You do something to help my business, I reward you.

And of course the tuk tuk drivers want to secure your business for visiting the temples - it's their main source of income, and the main motivator for visitors to Siem Reap. Most visitors only stay 2 or 3 days, so they need to get your business right at the outset.

Generally, I've found in Cambodia that people don't 'scam' - they might try to increase their profit if they can, they might try to help their mate's business, they might try to get more work out of you, but they won't take your money and then not do what they said they would.

It's also true that, in general, the Vietnamese are very good business people and much better at maximising profit - there's a more solid idea of 'foreigner price' in Vietnam. However, that's not a reason not to visit - it's an invigorating country to travel around.

The idea of a 'fair' price is not always that everybody pays the same - why should a rich westerner pay the same as a local who earns $50 a month? Is that 'fair'? And why do people haggle over every last 1000 reil for transport, but then spend several dollars on beer the same evening?

#9 AbigailatPenhandInk has been a member since 9/11/2010. Location: United Kingdom. Posts: 178

Posted by eastwest on 24/1/2011 at 12:48

While I agree that some of the complaints may be a bit too harsh I do believe that it's not right to justify all of the above by saying that commission are part of business here (which it is). Won't go into the remarks about prices and so on but I would like to comment on two things:

1). There are several ways to make commissions and the above is not the right way.
I can live with the fact that a tuk tuk driver goes to a guesthouse, that I've choosen, and asks for a commission afterwards. I can also live with the fact that he's trying to "plug" a guesthouse or his services.
But that's not the case here. If a customer just wants a ride into town he should be able to get it at an agreed price. Otherwise it's not a tuk tuk but a GH transport service and should be advertised in such a way.

2). Besides that I think it's wrong from Sorya, as one of the more reputable bus companies, to have such an arrangement with mini-buses. Their normal PP-SR buses (and of other companies) do not stop 8km out of town. If there are enough complaints they should/will change.

Cambodia is changing and especially around the major tourist areas local people get greedy (just like in any other tourist area in the world) but please do not justify everything as a normal thing. I do agree that the majority of Cambodians are very friendly but Cambodia isn't utopia and where there is money to be made unscrupulous people will come in and therefore I think such complaints are fair and needed in order to develop tourism in the right way.

#10 eastwest has been a member since 17/12/2009. Posts: 778

Posted by AbigailatPenhandInk on 25/1/2011 at 11:34 TF writer

Fair enough, Eastwest. I understand what you're saying and I know I'm not living in paradise (or cloud cuckoo land!). Most people would agree that SR is probably the worst place for people trying to cash in on tourists, and unfortunately, it's the place where most tourists arrive first.

I've had similar experiences arriving into Phnom Penh late at night - the bus stopped at the company's office way down Mao Tse Tung Boulevard which could seem like a way out of the town centre if you don't know where you are. It was pretty dark and there were only three or four tuk tuks and motos, who were expecting me not to know where I was or where I was going and would have charged me an extra dollar or so.

But it sounded from the original post that tuk tuks were prepared to take him where he wanted to go for a fee - it wasn't essential that he took a trip to the GH they were plugging. And you can always take the free tuk tuk and then decide to go elsewhere once you've checked out the guesthouse ...

For sure, tourist services in Cambodia could be improved, and I hope they will be. But part of the fun of travelling to a country that isn't your own is that things aren't like they are back home.

When I'm travelling, I always expect the first day anywhere to be the most expensive - I haven't got a handle on the geography yet and I don't know a reasonable price for things. I have friends who've arrived in the UK to be charged astronomical amounts of money for a taxi from the airport, so I still reckon $3 isn't bad.

#11 AbigailatPenhandInk has been a member since 9/11/2010. Location: United Kingdom. Posts: 178

Posted by eastwest on 25/1/2011 at 13:32

Good point about being prepared for rip-off on your first day. That could have spared us the introductory rant.

"I jumped into the tuk-tuk and asked him, "You know where Ivy Guesthouse is?" He said yes and we sped away. But he didn't take me to Ivy Guesthouse."
That is a bad thing from the tuk tuk driver. No matter how you look at it.

Anyway, I just looked at the story and replaced the names by Greyhound, New York (or any other city in the world), taxi and 2 different hotels. Then anybody would have a right to complain about the service, not? Service in the developed world is what it is because of complaints and customer satisfaction. Why shouldn't it develop here in the same way? I only wish that locals would speak up more. They have more the tendency to take things as they come but don't realize enough that they can/should influence things.

Perhaps the whole introduction was needless and drew attention away from the point but I surely encourage people to use an alternative route or complain.

#12 eastwest has been a member since 17/12/2009. Posts: 778

Posted by AbigailatPenhandInk on 25/1/2011 at 14:29 TF writer

You're right, EastWest - some constructive criticism to the bus companies might help - especially as companies like Sorya 168 are generally pretty good. I guess the problem is that most tourists don't have the inclination/time to complain, and the locals do often just go with the flow. I'm a bit too laissez-faire in my attitude too.

One of the main issues often seems to be a communication one - telling passengers when/where the bus will be stopping, where you are when the bus stops, that kind of thing. But I still like the surprise of the unknown ...!

#13 AbigailatPenhandInk has been a member since 9/11/2010. Location: United Kingdom. Posts: 178

Posted by eastwest on 25/1/2011 at 18:32

Completely agree on that last part and I hope that my comment wasn't interpreted as if I want to turn Cambodia into a western country.

The unknown is the fun of travelling.

Must admit that I used to hate the fact that buses stop anywhere along the route to let people get on or off. After some time I realized the beauty of a system like that for people who can't afford a few dollars for a moto in the countryside. Gives also a great glimpse of their live when they get off and the whole family waits in front of their house.
But I'm wandering off now....

#14 eastwest has been a member since 17/12/2009. Posts: 778

Posted by Mrwatkinson on 18/3/2014 at 02:28

In regards to the journey from 4000 islands to Siem Reap , there is a new VIP minivan service going directly from Stung Treng to Siem Reap. This is now operating daily from the Laos/Cambodian border and is way way more comfortable than the long and bumpy journey that currently goes all the way down to Kampong Cham and then back up to Siem Reap with plenty of bus changes inbrtween! The minivan takes only 8 hours compared to the 13 or 14 using the current route and WIFI, water and comfortable seats are all included as part of the package!! Tickets can be pre-arranged at The Last Resort (teepee field) in Don Det. Happy traveling :)

#15 Mrwatkinson has been a member since 18/3/2014. Posts: 2

Posted by LeonardCohen1 on 18/3/2014 at 02:48

Thais r very friendly away from the tourist ghettos

#16 LeonardCohen1 has been a member since 24/7/2012. Posts: 2,148

Posted by LeonardCohen1 on 18/3/2014 at 02:48

Thais r very friendly away from the tourist ghettos

#17 LeonardCohen1 has been a member since 24/7/2012. Posts: 2,148

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