Having spent a couple of over and underwhelming days in Bangkok, Rich and I decided to hop it to Cambodia. There are countless horror stories about crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia but with a little light reading, they don’t have to be your reality. The check point at Poi Pet has a particularly terrible reputation due to scammers, touts, extortion, police aided corruption and even fake visa checkpoints…. but we’ll get to that later. The journey from Bangkok to Siem Reap has to be done in sections which can seem confusing so here’s a handy diagram I found.
1. Bangkok to Aranyaprathet – There are a few transport options for this 300km journey including the government bus, train, private tour bus, taxi and of course, flying. Each has it’s ups and downs so here’s a quick summary.
Government bus – Pretty inexpensive at 140 – 196 Baht (about $5) and takes just 4.5 hours.
Train – At just 48 Baht ($1.60) the train is the ultimate bargain. The downside is that it takes six hours and only third class is offered. There are only two trains each day, one at 5:55am, the other at 1:55pm. If you want to make the entire journey to Siem Reap or Phnom Penh in one day it is necessary that you get the morning train.
Private Tour Bus – Backpacker centres like Th Khao San are lined with tour companies and travel agents offering private tour busses or mini-busses to take you from Bangkok to the border. While this might seem like a convenient option, the prices are much higher than you would pay for the train or government bus and they also have a terrible reputation for theft of stowed luggage. On the plus side, it may only take 4 1/2 hours vs. 6 on the train.
Flying – While many flights go daily to Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and other Cambodian hotspots, we didn’t even consider this option, purely because of the cost. I don’t immagine it would set you back more than $90 though and would only take an hour or so, so if you have the cash, go for it!
We chose the train for the cost and the experience. The seats were hard wooden benches, the large windows were fully open and it was pretty filthy, but all in all, pretty good fun. When we departed Bangkok, the luggage racks were packed full of bags of flowers, fruit and garlands. At every major stop, the ladies aboard the train would hand a few bags through the train window to the market sellers waiting next to the tracks for their morning supply. It was pretty cool to watch and the flowers made the train smell lovely.
2. Aranyaprathet to Poi Pet – As we travelled by train, we alighted at Aranyaprathet then took to tuk tuk for 50 baht to Poi Pet. From the moment you step off the train there are touts trying to wangle all of your money. Tuk tuk drivers, pickup drivers all targeting confused looking backpackers who obviously haven’t done their homework. The journey should only cost you 50-60 baht and once we’d cleared the crowd we were able to find a tuk tuk drive who was happy to agree on this price so off we went!
Bearing in mind we had asked to be taken to the Poi Pet border crossing, we dropped us off in Poi Pet, round the back of a plain looking building with a hand made pink and orange bubble letter sign that read “Cambodia Visa Checkpoint” with an arrow pointing into the building. There were men outside, waiting, trying to usher us inside the door saying “you buy Cambodia visa here” and “this way for Cambodia”. Now even having never been to Cambodia we found it blatantly obvious that this was anything but an official check point. It didn’t stop others being herded in to buy an overpriced fake visa though!
3. Navigating Poi Pet – We walked swiftly round the corner and followed the queues of trucks that were obviously waiting to cross the border and picked up the official directional signs “to the border”. We were funneled into a passport check room where they did just that before sending you on into Cambodia. In this sort of no-mans-land between Thailand and Cambodia, we knew we had to purchase a visa. About 100 yards ahead and on the right is the official office. All you have to do is fill in a form and attach a passport photo of yourself, pay the fee and you get your sticker. The official fee is $20USD (paid in USD) or you can pay in Baht (800B) which is equates to a value of $27USD. The sign above the desk reads “Tourist Visa Fee = $20”. When it came time to hand in our paperwork and our fee we were told there was an additional fee of 100B for “extra charges”. We asked what this was for as it was not mentioned on any of the signs. The border officer just kept repeating “you pay additional fee. 100B!” and referred us to a handwritten sign, in green biro, on a piece of lined paper that read “visa cost = $20 + 100 baht.” We attempted to refuse to pay as it obviously just goes into his pocket but when he handed us back out passports and told us to go away we reluctantly paid our ‘additional fees’. It may be extortion, and it may be wrong but as far as we saw it, if $3.36USD made the difference between entering Cambodia and not entering Cambodia then so be it. Visas issued and stickers in, it was onwards to checkpoint number two. Five unbelievably sweaty queues, crammed into a tiny room, a few quick stamps, and arrivals card and we had made it safely into Cambodia.
4. Poi Pet to Siem Reap – I once read that the best part about a trip to Poi Pet is leaving it and I couldn’t agree more. From the arrivals hall, we were herded into the free government shuttle bus that took us the 3 minutes to the bus station. This is where you are free to chose your next mode of transport. The government bus to Siem Reap was a long haul and cost $9 each. A ticket taxi cost $12 each and was a much quicker journey provided your had 4 people to fill it. As we were only two, we hooked up with some English girls and jumped in. The $3 extra dollars was well worth it to sleep in comfort in a private taxi for 3 hours before being awoken upon our arrival at the hostel.
Total journey time = 12 hours
Total cost = $16 + $23.60 for visa (including miscellaneous police corruption charge)
Not bad for 650km!
The moral of the story is…. Poi Pet is a shit hole full of police assisted scammers, fake check points and corrupt officials but as long as you know what you’re up against and give in to the 100 baht miscellaneous corruption charge, you will breeze right through!