Yeterday we took on the infamous Bangkok to Siem Reap border challenge. You cross the border at Poipet. There are various options available to the budget traveller. Cheapest of all is to take the 3rd class train (the ONLY train option) from Bangkok Railway Station to the border for less than $2, purchase a ‘visa on arrival’ for $20US and then bus it (no trains in Cambodia at the moment) to Siem Reap for a couple of extra dollars. This is the cheapest way, but it will take you ALL day and means you must also be at the railway station in time for a 5:55am departure! If you are staying away from the railway staion, particularly in the Khaosan Rd area, there are better options.
The option we decided on was the 700 baht (approximately $23) package. Rather than rise at an unearthly hour, you can be picked up in a mini-van at 7am directly from your hotel. You then are driven to the border in air-conditioned comfort, process your own visa and then share an air-conditioned taxi with 3 others all the way to your hotel door in Siem Reap. In the oppressive April heat, door-to-door air-conditioned comfort for 20 odd bucks, plus visa, had great appeal!
However, not even the simple is simple in South East Asia. As we found out during the day, people were charged all sorts of different prices for their packages. You CAN bargain the 700 baht downwards! One young guy in our group paid 900 baht and was only getting a bus instead of a taxi. He was angry for allowing himself to be scammed so badly. We tried to reassure him that being scammed for $7 was not such a bad thing when fellow tourists had been scammed as much as $7000 in the infamous Timeshare scam!
Wherever there is a border crossing, people are out to make a buck. When we stopped at our lunch spot, right near the border, we were met by our Cambodian guide, who had us fill in visa application forms. He requested our passports and 1300 baht (over $40) to process our visas. Knowing that the visa cost was $20, we refused to pass ours over. He became quite angry and suggested we wouldn’t have a pass to get across the border and may be left behind, as the others in our group had all paid him. We made one further stop at the ‘Cambodian Consul General’s Office,’ where our guide disappeared for a while with the rest of the passports.
The actual border crossing was quite chaotic. There are a few useful signs here and there, but at times you may have to walk up to 100 metres without any signage at all and you wonder whether you are still going the right way! Some official looking people, and other randoms, reassure you that you are. First we passed through the Thai section, to be allowed out. Then we headed for the Cambodian section, some distance away. At the Cambodian section we payed our $20 and handed in our visa form. The one we filled in for our guide had to be re-done on the official form. We also had to fill in a Cambodian Entry Card. A policeman helped us with ours, which cost us an extra $3. Apparently this doesn’t happen at other border crossings. But other things do! One guy we spoke to was charged 40 baht for a fake medical check by a guy in a white coat and stethoscope. Then, armed with our passport (now with visa) and our entry card, we queued up again in another building, for official entry into Cambodia. One poor guy, after 20 minutes in the line, was sent back because he didn’t have the entry card.
The whole process took such a long time, maybe two hours, that we were sure we would be ‘stranded’ once we emerged. In reality we were the first of our group to make it through! We then endured another lengthy wait for the others in our group. It was here that all the conflicting stories started to emerge. Who paid what for what. Probably the MOST scammed remained silent. The long wait gave us an opportunity to absorb our first sights of Cambodia: noise, dirt, litter, modern casino and the many women pulling heavy hand-carts. But we weren’t done yet. All taxis have been removed from the border! Everybody had to board buses to a terminal several kilometres up the road, and THEN you were placed in taxis, or onto another bus. The removal of the taxis is probably a good thing. It removes more chaos and more potential scams from the border. Do not change money near the border: they rip you off!
The final leg of our journey was the three hour taxi trip to Siem Reap. We shared our taxi with an American mum and daughter from North Carolina, part of a group of five. They are travelling together for 7 months and had some great stories. Our taxi driver had no idea where our hotel was. We gave him the full address but that didn’t seem to help much. I offered the phone number but he said he had no credit left on his phone. Remarkably, we chanced upon it, so our adventure had finally ended: 10 hours, door to door! We spared a thought for the train/bus commuters.
In summary, no matter how you travel, DO NOT pay for your Cambodian visa until you are in Cambodia.