First published 6th January, 2013
If only a certain '80s singer had heard of this particular border crossing drama then an Austrian capital wouldn't have a theme song. Such are the wondrous stories which are conjured up by travellers who otherwise would enjoy only a simple stamp in their passport.
The Thai-Cambodia crossing of Aranya Prathet-Poipet has been known as one of the worst in Southeast Asia for many years now, and I have either been lucky or misfortunate enough to have crossed it three times in seven years on my way to Siem Reap. In that time many things have changed but there are still multiple scams to watch out for on this crossing and no one traveller is likely to escape them all. This article has been written to try to compare the past with the present in a vain attempt to convince the contemporary traveller that things have definitely improved, though not in the way they might think.
Thailand, 2005 and 2012
Most travellers who make their way to Cambodia start their journey on Khao San Road, and so did we in 2005, spending roughly 650 baht for a ticket to Siem Reap, which included the border crossing transfer in Cambodia. We had little idea what we were letting ourselves in for except that according to Lonely Planet the journey was "tough" and Poipet was a "cesspit". But despite our fears the trip started fine and we were well away from Bangkok within an hour.
It all starts here.
A cheap ticket (priced at only 400 baht) from the island of Ko Chang convinced us that it was easier to give our cash to a travel agent to get us to Siem Reap than to try getting to the mainland and getting a public bus from there. We knew the obvious scams but agreed, if only for time's sake. It seemed cheap, pick-up was at 07:00 and we were near the border by 11:00. There were six of us in total, me and two companions plus three people we didn't know.
We were driven to the border and shepherded into a line and given a sticker. Someone took our passports and came back with our visas after demanding their fee, which was slightly more than the $15-$20 for the crossing. There were about a dozen of us who weren't sure what was happening at the time but looked to each other for reassurance. The border checkpoint went fine and we crossed over into Cambodia with few problems.
We were driven to a cheap restaurant near the border and, with a menu curtly shoved in our palms, asked to buy food. The three of us agreed to give our passports over for 1,200 baht, plus 100 baht because we didn't have photos on us. We expected this to cover pictures being taken in a photo booth but weren't asked for anything. Instead we found out that the 100 baht was a bribe to the Cambodian military to cover the fact that we didn't have photos and we were driven to the border with our Cambodian visas in hand. The other three travellers we were with refused to pay 1,200 baht and were left at the restaurant.
We arrived at the border and were met by an agent who took us to a car park and went into very precise detail on exactly what he thought we needed to know. He went to great lengths to make sure we had our right stamps, arrival cards filled in, visas, money, and even gave us a fairly detailed description of life in Cambodia "where there are no ATMs, and it isn't like Western country where credit card is King". He also mentioned that the country doesn't use US dollars much anymore. Having lived in Cambodia we knew both of these to be a lie, but he was convincing enough for anyone happening to cross the border for first time to get them to exchange money at a dodgy exchange rate. We crossed the border fine and were met by our agent at the other side.
2005, 14:00 Cambodia
Our little red stickers saw us duly collected on the other side of the border and kindly escorted to a minivan for the next stage of our journey. We were introduced to our guide/driver and given a 'Welcome to Cambodia' speech. At this point we (all travellers in the van) were first asked about our guesthouse, but thought nothing of it.
2012, 14:00 Cambodia
After Checkpoint Charlie the various travellers reassembled at the side of the large roundabout in Poipet. At the time we didn't know it but as Lonely Planet say, we were 'part of a monopoly who had paid the Cambodian government to run services for foreigners at a profit'. We weren't asked to pay any more money, and our three fellow travellers who refused to pay the higher fee rejoined us (more on this later).
The initial joy of negotiating the Cambodian border was waylaid by the fact we hadn't moved much in over an hour. Our driver soon stopped talking to us (feigning ignorance) and our guide disappeared.
We were driven to a bus station seven miles or so out of town and things felt a little fishy, but we were reassured that a bus would take us to Siem Reap. The three travellers who refused to pay the extra 400 baht at the border said that the agents eventually relented and took them to the border, but one person's return ticket was torn up. The officials we were with said they were 'employees of the Cambodian Government' and this was fairly convincing. The bus station was new, and we were again given the chance to exchange currency as 'Cambodia doesn't have any modern banks, and many places don't accept the dollar'.
How the road used to be (on a good day)
By now we had been on the road for three hours since the border and already stopped once, much to some people's annoyance. The sun was going down and many wondered how far it was to Siem Reap. The road was terrible, mud filled the potholes and very little was left for the van to negotiate around. Even so, our progress seemed a little slow.
After being given a precise speech on not only the distance but how many stops we would make along the way our bus was about halfway to Siem Reap. I was relieved to see the road in good condition, and by the time the sun set we were well into Pursat province with only a slightly overpriced beer to our detriment.
The bus slowly ground on and by now most people had made each other's acquaintance and shared their worries about the road, how long it would take, where we would end up, and so on. A young American woman took it upon herself to start asking the awkward questions we all wanted to ask to the driver, such as "Where the hell are we going?"
The bus pulled into Siem Reap as promised and we nabbed a cheap tuk tuk into town. In essence the crossing ordeal was over; it took just over twelve hours in total. Not great but nothing a 50c beer on Siem Reap's Pub Street couldn't solve.
Yes, it is worth the effort.
Still on the road and by now the entire bus was in agreement that the service was a complete sham. The bus driver had his mobile in one hand, and his other on the wheel, the bus lurching violently as he steered it along the edge of the road, where the biggest holes were. Lazily driving through the potholes the driver caught up with his family; the slow driving was a deliberate ploy to get us into Siem Reap as late as possible.
As the clock turned midnight the minivan could only be described as being in open revolt. Most of us were offended that we'd been lied to, we had stopped four times in seven hours and it was way too late to try to find a room in Siem Reap. The driver knew this and said he was taking us to a local guesthouse. The American girl, though, had a plan - we were all to head en masse to a different establishment.
We finally arrived in Siem Reap, at a guesthouse not of our choosing, and the street exploded into argument. Simply put, we were coerced into staying in the place we hadn't agreed to. When we refused one Cambodian said bluntly "I'll kill you."
It was at that moment I grabbed my girlfriend and we got into the first tuk tuk we could find. It was probably our worst introduction to a county in 10 years of travelling.
The simple conclusion is that the scams involved in getting to Cambodia are still as prevalent as before, they are simply a little more subtle. The main amount of money is made at the border crossing currency exchange, which offers pathetically bad exchange rates and the information disseminated by 'government agents' is almost all designed to scare you into changing money.
Even so, the actual border crossing itself is immensely better than before and getting into Siem Reap without being harassed into a dodgy guesthouse was a big relief.
If you travel independently you can certainly avoid almost all the scams, however our ticket (priced at 400 baht) did feel cheap. We were willing to pay a bit of extra on the Thai side of the border for the Cambodian visa for this precise reason.
Ultimately the only way to avoid feeling cheated completely is to do it 100% independently or fly.
Story by Tim Clark
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