You can almost hear the collective groan when you enter airport arrivals halls around the world only to be faced with slow, or worse still, stationary queues at the immigration desk. Bangkok, Heathrow and Auckland are serial offenders, but you’d think that a sleepy little airport like Siem Reap would be different. Sadly, it ain’t necessarily so.
While there is not much you can do if your arrival coincides with that of a wide-body from Frankfurt, with a few handy tips, speeding through Siem Reap International Airport is a possibility. Just don’t tell everyone or your competitive edge will be lost.
Most non-Cambodians (excluding holders of passports from Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia) require a visa to enter the country as a tourist, and most choose the visa on arrival option. However, if you are well organised and determined to clear the airport in world record time, you can purchase an e-visa in advance from the Cambodian Ministry for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation website. The cost is US$37, payable by credit card and you will need to send a digital passport photo. As ever, your passport should have at least six months validity.
It takes three working days to process and is valid for use for three months from the date of issue. Only tourist visas are available as e-visas, so it is valid for one month and a single entry only, so you can’t do a little jaunt across the border to Laos or Vietnam and back without having to buy another one. Once you are in Cambodia, you can renew it once more for one month only.
If technology is not your thing or you have an intrinsic mistrust of buying online, then the visa on arrival is the way to go. You will need two passport photos, and $30 in crisp new bills for a tourist visa, or $35 for a business visa, which is renewable indefinitely. Marked or torn notes will not be accepted anywhere in Cambodia.
The key to getting through what can be a lengthy process is being at the front of the queue and having all your forms filled in before you touch down on Cambodian soil. Ask for your immigration forms when you check in for your final flight to Siem Reap. If that fails, ask the cabin crew for them as soon as you get a chance, and fill them in on board.
Near an exit is said to be the best place to sit in the event of an aviation emergency, and by coincidence it is also the best place if you want to get ahead of the competition in the race through arrivals. To ensure you are one of the first to leave your aircraft make sure you know whether the main exit door is at the front or the rear of the plane. Generally speaking, if you are on a jet aircraft — usually A319s, A320s or Boeing 737s here — passengers will get off at the front. If you are on a propeller airplane you will get off at the rear. The ATR 72 is the most commonly used propeller plane in Southeast Asia, although if you are really unlucky and flying in from Laos you may have the thrill of being on board a Chinese MA60. Both disembark from the rear so make sure you have a high seat row number.
And on the subject of these small propeller craft, while you may congratulate yourself for packing an entire month’s luggage into an oversized rucksack and sneaking it on as hand luggage on your capacious double-decker A380, it won’t fit into the overhead compartment on one of these propeller babies. Nor under the seat in front. You have been warned. This may slow you down.
Turn left as soon as you enter the terminal building and you should be first in the visa queue, ready to hand over your forms, your photo and your cash. Don’t panic when your passport disappears behind a long line of grim faced officials. It will reappear at the far right where you should stand, listening for your first name to be called out.
The final immigration hurdle is the standard uniformed official who may ask you a few questions about how long and where you are staying; they’ll take your finger prints. This stage is usually trouble free unless you refuse to take it seriously, try to crack a joke, laugh, or break into song, any of which could result in your being sent to the back of the queue.
Grab your luggage, drop your customs form into a box in the normally empty customs hall and you are free to go. See our Siem Reap transport page for details of how to get into Siem Reap town from the airport.
By Simon Hare
Last updated on 28th March, 2015.