Go Hatori tests the limits of his wallet by visiting Cambodia’s Angkor Wat via Thailand over three nights and four days.

Our Japanese-language reporter Go Hatori enjoys seeing how far he can stretch his cash on some extreme budget traveling adventures. His travels have already taken him from Japan to Taiwan and South Korea on short weekend trips earlier this year, and he’s pleased to report that he managed to stay within budget each time.

From the start of this mini-series, Go has really, really wanted to visit Cambodia–particularly, the ancient temple complex and UNESCO World Heritage site Angkor Wat. Part of his motivation for this particular destination was that he had already been to the site and the nearby resort town of Siem Reap (known as the gateway to Angkor Wat) before, exactly 20 years ago in 2003, which was the start of his wandering, backpacking days.

▼ What would visiting be like now with two decades of traveling wisdom under his belt?

His hard budget of only 50,000 yen (currently about US$334) meant that likely the most frugal way to get there was by land via Thailand. In his usual fashion, he wanted to buy tickets using Expedia for the end of September. He was hoping that he could score a deal from the Greater Tokyo Area (Narita International Airport) to Bangkok (Suvarnabhumi Airport) for under 35,000 yen, and as luck would have it, he was able to snag round-trip tickets for 32,34o yen using airline Thai AirAsia X. While he’d leave at 9:15 a.m. on the day of his travels and arrive in Thailand at 2:00 p.m., his return flight would be much earlier, departing Thailand at 5:05 a.m. and landing in Japan at 1:30 p.m.

He booked his lodgings through Expedia as well. He’d stay at a cheap hotel in Bangkok on the first night, where a single room with a private bathroom and shower cost only 993 yen. The second and third nights would be at a similar place in Siem Reap, which cost 1,020 yen per night for a total of 2,040 yen for two nights. For the fourth night, he’d likely just camp out at the Suvarnabhumi Airport in anticipation of his early morning flight. Having his accommodations arranged ahead of time made him feel secure and ready to go, even if the airfare and hotels had already taken the biggest chunk out of his budget right from the start.

One other thing he needed to prepare was a visa in order to enter Cambodia. Thankfully, he was able to apply for one easily online using the e-Visa service. It cost him US$36 and arrived in PDF form within two days via email (as we’ll see, the US dollar is commonly used in Cambodia as a currency alongside the Cambodian riel). He was also instructed to print two copies of it in preparation for both entering and exciting the country.

Finally, the day of Go’s trip arrived! He was super excited.

However, he didn’t let those feelings get in the way of taking a little snooze. After all, it was some welcome peace and quiet from the shenanigans that he and his coworkers get up to in the SoraNews 24 office on a daily basis.

Day 1: Bangkok, Thailand

The flight to Thailand was smooth and without any hiccups. Once he arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport, he tracked down the S1 shuttle bus that’s popular with the backpacking crowd to head to Khaosan Road in central Bangkok, well known as a hub for travelers on a tight budget. It cost only 60 baht (247 yen) for the ride.

With his own backpack slung over his shoulder, Go made a beeline to some travel agencies in the center part of the street because he wanted to research bus fares to Siem Reap right away. He learned that in general, the “big bus” option would take him directly there, whereas the “mini bus” option would require a change in vehicles after crossing the national border. The mini bus was also overwhelmingly cheaper, however, and since he was on an extreme budget, he elected to go with that one.

However, the prices still varied wildly from store to store. One place sold tickets for 2,100 baht (8,651 yen), while another sold them for 1,350 baht (5,546 yen). Which price should he trust…?

He finally found the cheapest deal at the store pictured below, paying only 900 baht (3,702 yen) for a one-way ticket to Siem Reap. The shop was tiny but the staff were friendly, kind, and gave clear explanations. He had no idea how to pronounce its name, but he’d recommend it to other travelers as well.

Next it was time to find his hotel, the Bella Bella Riverview Guest House. It was a bit of walk from Khaosan Road but he was able to find it easily.

His room was extremely simple but everything, including the bathroom and shower, was well-cleaned. He could even see the Chao Phraya River and a bridge from his window. It was a perfect, quiet spot to begin his travels.

For dinner, Go decided to return to Khaosan Road and chose a good-looking restaurant. There he had some delicious khao phat, Thai-style fried rice, for 80 baht (329 yen) and a Coke for 30 baht (123 yen). Coke, by the way, is a favorite of his and a constant travel companion on his global adventures.

On the way back to his room he stopped at a convenience store, where he purchased another Coke for 16 baht (66 yen) and two bottled waters for 7 baht each, or 14 baht (58 yen) total. He thought that he was doing OK with money so far–he still had 10,102 yen remaining in his budget after this first day.

And with that, it was time to catch some Zs before heading to Cambodia the next day. Goodnight, Go!

Day 2: Bangkok, Thailand → Siem Reap, Cambodia

Go woke up early and got ready to hit the road with his beverages safely tucked in his bag. It was going to be a long day, so he wanted to fill his stomach right from the start.

He stumbled upon a local noodle restaurant and ordered the bami nam, Thai-style ramen, for 40 baht (165 yen). It was aroy (delicious)!

The pick-up location for his bus was right in front of a Starbucks near Khaosan Road. He was there at the designated time of 7:50 a.m., but no mini buses resembling his were there yet.

However, 10 minutes later, a yellow taxi pulled up. The driver had recognized him from a photo that was taken the previous day at the travel agency. It seemed that the taxi would shuttle him to another more communal place to wait for the bus.

The driver headed to the Pratu Nam Market area, where Go got off and was told to wait for a short time in front of a Cambodian company that managed vehicles traveling between the two countries. There were a few other travelers already waiting there as well.

He and the others boarded a mini bus at 9 a.m. At first the bus swung around to a few other hotels, picking up even more people, for another 30 minutes. Finally, with 10 people onboard, the group began heading towards the Cambodian border.

They stopped at rest areas along the way twice before noon. At one food court, Go purchased some pineapple for 20 baht (82 yen), khao kha mu, stewed pig’s trotter over rice, for 50 baht (205 yen), and his essential Coke for 14 baht (57 yen) to give himself a little energy boost.

The mini bus continued on its journey into the afternoon, occasionally stopping for gas or bathroom breaks. As they traveled further east, the scenery also became greener.

Finally, about six hours after departing Bangkok and just before 2 p.m., they reached the edge of Thailand’s Aranyaprathet district which borders on Cambodia. There was a building called Star Plaza just before the border that serves as a rest area for travelers.

It was at this point that Cambodian immigration officials entered the picture. Anyone in the group who hadn’t applied for a visa yet needed to do so then and there, and anyone else who already had one could relax for a bit while waiting.

Go was a bit surprised to learn that he was the only one who had actually prepared a visa ahead of time. It cost everyone else 1,500 baht (6,180 yen) per person to obtain one then and there. He was then further surprised that every single visa was ready in just 20 minutes. He was still glad that he had gotten his in advance since it saved some money, but knowing that he could also get one easily right at the border was good to know for future reference.

While waiting, he had a second snack of khao phat for 50 baht (205 yen) and a new bottled water for 10 baht (41 yen). He was pleasantly full at this point.

When all members of the mini bus were ready, they then proceeded through Thai immigration. Once they passed through, they then advanced to where a Cambodian staff member was waiting to guide them through entering the new country.

After clearing Cambodia’s immigration checkpoint, the same staff member was again waiting for them on the other side. Go wondered who this mysterious person was who seemed to be able to transcend national borders so easily, but he appreciated the continuity.

They were guided to a new mini bus and then officially departed from the Cambodian city of Poipet on their way to Siem Reap.

One thing that immediately shocked Go, in a good way, was the state of the roads there compared to 20 years ago. Now, as far as he could see, the flat, paved road stretched onwards into the distance. During his previous trip through the area in a beat-up bus that moved slowly, it was a red clay road filled with potholes. He had passed an overturned truck as well as many dust-covered backpackers jammed into the backs of pick-up trucks like packed sushi.

In any case, this road that had previously caused so many problems for locals and tourists alike was now quite pleasant.

(By the way, he was also a big fan of their shiny mini bus!)

The scenery he saw looking out the window hadn’t really changed in 20 years…

…but it was taking a while for him to reconcile the memory frozen in his mind from that time with the sight of the present road. It would have been unfathomable to him back then.

Approximately 3 hours after leaving Poipet, the bus arrived at a no-frills bus terminal of sorts. There, a line of tuk-tuks, also known as auto rickshaws, waited for them. There wasn’t anything else in the area and Siem Reap was still a bit too far to walk–so they really had no other choice but to rely on them. Tense pricing negotiations began with the tuk-tuk drivers.

One particular driver who spoke Japanese approached Go and offered to drive him to his hotel for US$5. However, that was more than Go wanted to spend. He eventually was able to haggle the price down to US$3.

His thoughts changed when he actually looked at a map. According to Google, his hotel was 3.8 kilometers (2.4 miles) away–a distance that he could technically walk in under an hour. Therefore, he told the driver that he was going to walk it and started on his way. In a twist, the driver wouldn’t take no for an answer and asked Go how much he would be willing to pay for a ride. He answered “US$1,” and another round of fierce negotiations were underway.

They eventually settled on US$2 (298 yen). It took about 12 minutes to reach the hotel, called the Bun Kao Guest House, and they chatted in Japanese on the way. The tuk-tuk was very convenient after all, and Go thanked the driver.

He checked in and proceeded to his room. It was very narrow, but had everything he needed. There was one unpleasant discovery in the bathroom, however, in the form of a German cockroach. Despite having stayed in Cambodia for about three months in the past, this was the first time that he had ever seen a cockroach in the country.

Ah, well. It wasn’t that big of a deal. He took a quick shower and then headed outside to an area with food stalls. He ordered some Cambodian-style fried noodles for US$1.50 (223 yen) and of course his beloved Coke for US$1 (149 yen).

The noodles weren’t quite what he expected, feeling a bit soggy in a very watery sauce, but he still ate them up and was content enough.

As a very last errand, he bought more bottled water for 1,000 riel (36 yen) and Coke for 1,600 riel (58 yen) at a convenience store on Pub Street (an area of Siem Reap known for its nightlife) in preparation for his travels to Angkor Wat the following day. This kind of bright area with all kinds of lights also didn’t exist in Siem Reap 20 years ago, and he felt that he was in a completely different world.

At the end of Day 2, Go’s remaining money was down to 8,511 yen. Hopefully that would be enough to get him to Angkor Wat and then back to Thailand with no trouble. While it was definitely going to be tight, Go decided to worry about tomorrow’s problems, well, tomorrow. He tucked himself into bed where he fell into a deep sleep after his day of traveling.

Stay tuned for Part II coming soon when Go finally makes it to Angkor Wat!

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