Connect the dots

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Thailand-(sCam)bodia Border

The Aranyaprathet, Thailand-Poipet, Cambodia border.  Courtesy of

We breezed through India, Sri Lanka and Thailand with minimal hassle. Aside from the minor typical tourist overpayment, we had put the scamming that typified Egypt behind us.  At least we thought we were scot-free...

Please, if you ever cross this border, don't make the same mistakes we made! 

This scam begins even before we board the minibus that picks us up from our hotel. Trust a travel agency to book a ticket for a bus that seamlessly goes straight to Siem Riep? WRONG! Clearly not doing enough of my homework, we first overpay for the ticket that will take us from Bangkok, Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia overland. Staying in the swish area of Sukhumvit, we were charged by a travel agency (that we now used twice, but never again) nearly double (over 1000 Baht) what they were charging in the backpacker area of Khao San Road. Worse was that I purchased a seat (for the same adult price) for Alex!

Lesson #1: DON'T buy a combination ticket that goes from Bangkok to Siem Reap! Buy a ticket from the Mochit bus station that only gets you to the border town of Aranyaprathet for about 200 Baht. 

The morning of our departure from Bangkok goes smoothly with a comfortable, A/C minibus picking us up at 7:30am from our hotel. In fact, we even get the whole back row to ourselves since there are only 4 other passengers (a couple from Vancouver and one from Spain) in what might normally carry 12. The ride is straightforward and efficient. We even make a nice toilet stop where there's shu mai and steamed buns that serve as breakfast. 

The real fun begins when we near the border at around noon, but are far away enough that we just can't walk over. We and our fellow other passengers are shuffled out of the van with our bags into what innocently looks like a restaurant. We are politely asked to sit down, take out our passports, a photo and begin filling out the Cambodia visa forms. We all comply, thinking that it's just all part of the process to quickly get us through the border. Forms completed, the request for money then begins. This is where it gets shady. The "visa expediter" then asks each of us for 1400 Baht which I quickly calculate to be $45. I begin to get skeptical, decide to double check the cost of the Cambodian visa in my Lonely Planet and find that it's only $20! I read this to the guy claiming to help us and continue reading verbatim that the whole "visa assistance" is just a scam to make people pay more than double the actual price of the visa. Despite me reading this, he then tries to convince us that $20 is only for the e-visa and that if we decide to get the visa ourselves it may take up to 4 hours and that the next car going to Siem Reap will be at 4pm if we miss the 1pm. I firmly insist that we'd like to take our chances and do it ourselves so he reluctantly hands back our documents. The Spanish couple on our minibus is convinced, want to cross as quickly as possible and have already handed over their passports, visa forms and the 2800 Baht. The Vancouver couple however are on a serious budget and have joined forces with us on this mission. 

Lesson #2: Never hand over your passport to anyone claiming to assist you with a visa and certainly never pay for a visa before getting to the actual visa counter. They usually have signs stating the official price at the visa counter.

We then queue for the Thai exit stamp, quickly get it and another "assistant" who is going to get us our transport for the Cambodian side begins walking us towards the Cambodian visa counter when he finally asks our group for the passports and 150 Baht to help. From 1400 Baht to 150 Baht? We each give him our $20 plus the 150 Baht baksheesh and send Marc with him to make sure he actually gets our visas. Within 10 minutes, we have the Cambodian visa in possession. Marc states that the "assistant" actually only took 50 Baht and the other 100 went to the crony government worker dishing out the visas. Seems like everyone makes out on this one! We then make it past the next immigration checkpoint and are immediately corralled to a shuttle bus that will take us to another bus that will hopefully take us to Siem Reap. Wishful thinking that another comfy mini-bus is waiting is immediately squashed. It is now about 1pm (not too bad as far as time goes) and we are dropped off at an "international transport terminal" in the middle of nowhere. Our "assistant" then gives us a spiel about how it's cheaper to use riel instead of dollars and that at Siem Reap the exchange won't be so good, so on and so forth. We look at the exchange rate which is a dismal 3800 riel to the dollar instead of the official rate of 4000, but exchange $50 anyway. 

Lesson #3: US dollars are widely accepted throughout Cambodia and you'll get change that is less than $1 in Cambodian riels anyway, so don't bother changing your greenbacks. In fact, if you get money from the ATM, you'll get dollars instead of the country's currency!

At the bus station are touts (yes, again) trying to get you into a taxi. Their claim is that the bus might not leave until 4pm and that the trip by bus takes at least 5 hours. We skip this band of bandits and pursue our original plan. Plus, we've already paid for this whole trip. I don't want to pay any more than I've already paid! After waiting 15 minutes, we then are called to board a stuffy, non-A/C bus that waits for another 20 minutes before finally leaving! At this point, we are on the same bus as the Vancouver couple and the Spanish couple that initially thought they would speed ahead of us. And in a record 2.5 hours or so, we are finally in Siem Reap. (So we think.)  The bus pulls into a dusty garage and an announcement is made that we are a few kilometers outside of the city proper and that complimentary remorks (Khmer tuk-tuks) will take us to our respective hotels. I guess all that extra money paid was somewhat being put to use.

Lesson #4: Skip the bus to the "international terminal", tell the touts that you're staying the night at the Poipet border and hop into a taxi that you share with other travelers ($48 total to Siem Reap). You'll be taken straight to your hotel in 2 hours.

Only meters outside of the bus station, our remork driver stops the vehicle to request if we want to hire him to see the Angkor temples tomorrow! These guys have absolutely no scruples. We decline him politely and ask him to just take us to our hotel. He then asks us if we had already made a booking, we say yes and we finally make it to our hotel. 

Lesson#5: If you don't have a booking, let the remork driver take you to the hotel and make your escape when you get there. Otherwise pick a place from your guide book and tell them you made a booking already (even if you haven't). 

Overall, this trip was relatively short and we got through it without too much hassle. I've read other experiences (prior to the road from the border to Siem Reap being tarred) that took over 5 hours, made a pit stop in between for the passengers to pay for a toilet whether or not you needed to go or waiting 2 hours for the driver to eat an endless free buffet. I'm just glad that wasn't us. As for crossing the border when we return to Thailand, we know a lot better than to entertain the touts. 

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