Braving the Border

One of the most notorious border crossings in backpacker tourism is the Thailand-Cambodia overland route to Siem Reap (home of the famous temples of Angkor). We’d heard all sorts of horror stories, with websites full of the scams one could expect to encounter. But, it’s how you get there, so off we went.

Apparently you can book a bus directly from Bangkok all the way to Siem Reap, but we’d heard this pretty much universally decried as the “Scam Bus”, overpriced, slow, and with operators prone to trying to get more money out of you with cheap border tricks. So, scratch that. The right way to do it is to take the 5:55 AM train from Hua Lamphong Station (Bangkok’s main rail station) to Aranyaprathet, then a series of Tuk Tuks and buses across the border and to Siem Reap.

After a late flight to Bangkok from Delhi and passing the night at the airport trying to sleep (and mostly failing), we caught a taxi into the city. Wow, Bangkok is big. Immediately we noticed how much more modern and “western” it was compared to the Indian cities we’d seen. Buying tickets was no trouble, and hopping on our train, we exhaustedly settled in for a 5 and a half hour trip to Aranyaprathet, about 5 km from the Cambodian border.

Tip: sit on the side of the train AWAY from the sun, as it gets hot. Alina managed to claim most of a bench for most of the ride, so got in a few needed hours of sleep.

I spent my time looking out the windows as the Thai countryside rolled by, full of rice paddies, harvesters, buffalo, and the occasional spectacularly out of place ornate temple.

We eventually arrived and haggled with a Tuk-Tuk driver to take us to the border town of Poipet, making sure to yell “No! Border!” every time he tried to veer off and take us to one of the many scam “visa processing” places. Basically, they charge you $30 or $40 for the visa, instead of the $20 that it should cost and that you can get it for at the actual border. (Note, the Cambodian embassy does this too, so don’t go there!)

Having navigated this gauntlet, we made it to Thai immigration where we were stamped out with no fuss, and then walked across the border to enter the official Cambodian visa offices.

Now here’s an example of official corruption if ever there was one. There’s a sign above the window that clearly states “Tourist Visa: $20”. But you walk up and hand in your form and they show you a little slip of paper that says “800 baht, or $20 + 100 baht” written in pen. So, that’s about $28 or $20 + $3. Well, nearly everyone paid this, but I had decided beforehand not to, reading that you might get delayed, but the visa would eventually come. So Alina and I both just kept saying over and over “No baht, no baht”. We got grumpy looks and were told to sit down. After waiting for a few minutes, till all the people willing to bribe had been processed, they took our forms and 5 minutes later we had our visas. We probably lost no more than 10 minutes, and got some satisfaction out of beating the system.

We then waited in an interminable, hot, and stuffy line for actual immigration and our entry stamps. This was pretty horrible, and not helped by the fact that we were both still weak and feeling ill from our battle with food poisoning the previous week. We eventually made it through and then it was on to the next challenge, the infamous Tourist Bus Scam.

So, there is basically an enclosed area after you exit immigration where many officials direct you to sit down and wait for the “free shuttle” that will take you to the bus station. However, this station is in an isolated place outside town with overpriced food, where they leave you to deal with the transport racket. The buses from there are relatively expensive, and leave only when full, sometimes after several hours of waiting. Or, you can take a taxi, but they are even more expensive. So, what do you do?

We managed to get out of the herding pen by saying we wanted to go eat something and would be back. Then we simply walked down the street about 10 minutes until we found the offices of the local bus companies (though this was slightly harder than I’d thought it would be). We booked seats for $6 each, and hopped on the 4 pm bus, arriving about 2 and a half hours later in Siem Reap, where we called our hostel for free pickup. Well, he’d overbooked and had no room for us, but his driver took us to another place which turned out to be really great, so it worked out in the end.

Overall, I have to say that this border crossing does NOT live up to the hype. As long as you know what to expect, it’s really easy to avoid any of the scams, and the touts are much, much less aggressive than in India. We had a much more stressful time navigating the Gorakpur-Sunauli-Nepal route than here. Or maybe we’re just old hands now.

 

Here’s what you do (and what it cost us):

  • Take a taxi to Hua Lomphong Station: 420 baht from the airport including tolls and fees
  • Take the 5:55 AM train to Aranyaprathet: 48 baht / person
  • Haggle a Tuk-Tuk to Poipet: 70 baht (make sure he only goes to the border!)
  • Get your Thai exit stamp
  • Get you Cambodian visa at the official place: $20 (no need to bribe if you don’t want to)
  • Get your Cambodian entrance stamp
  • Weasle you way past the free shuttle bus herding pen
  • Walk down the street and book a local bus: $6 / person, left at 4:20 pm, so we had to wait 2 hours or so.

 

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