The only experience which really shook me up in South East Asia was getting scammed at the Thai/Cambodian border.
I’d love to make sure that no one else travelling from Thailand to Cambodia overland has to go through the same scam, so I’m writing this to highlight some common problems you might encounter at the Poipet/Aranyaprathet crossing.
About the Crossing
Poipet/Aranyaprathet is the main checkpoint between Cambodia and Thailand. It offers a wide variety of onward transportation options in both Thailand and Cambodia. It’s hectic, and chocked full of scams. But it’s probably the easiest and most realistic place to cross over, so rather than telling people to avoid it, I’d like to give some advice on how best to get through safely – and without being ripped off.
The Cambodian road itself is actually in a relatively decent condition – made of asphalt rather than dirt. The journey from Poipet to Siem Reap takes around 3-4 hours.
The road on the Thai side of the border is normal highway. The journey can take between 3-5 hours, depending on the number of stops and the class of bus you use.
1) Scams start at the travel agency
Travellers, particularly those coming in buses from Khao San Road in Thailand buses are very vulnerable to cons.
Most people choose to cross the border using a package deal purchased at a travel agency in Bangkok. Prices cost anything from 200 to 800 baht – so shop around. I recommend picking the cheapest ticket you can find as they are invariably scams anyway. I thoroughly questioned the travel agent, who lied through her teeth to me regarding every detail of the journey apart from the pick up time – unfortunately I can’t remember the agent’s name, but the office is located opposite Wild Orchid Villa guesthouse.
There is the option of doing the trip independently – after my experience, I would recommend it. I recommend taking a look at Tales of Asia – which includes some great information on making the trip without using a package.
If you’re travelling from Bangkok, most of the buses will depart from Khao San Road early in the morning. Most agents will claim you will be picked up by a VIP bus with all the mod-cons, but you’ll most likely end up crammed into a battered mini-bus, regardless of the pretty pictures they showed you at the agency.
The picture above is of a genuine Cambodian visa. Take a good look at it. They will take up a whole page in your passport, so make sure you have at least 2 stamp free pages before attempting to cross (for the visa and for being stamped in and out of the country.) UK citizens are generally eligible for a one month tourist visa. Make sure you do leave before the visa expires, or you will be hit with a substantial fine.
This is where Part II of the Khao San Road bus scam kicks in. Not content with overcharging you for a ticket on a bus you didn’t order, they will try to extort you for money for a visa.
Visas should cost $20, and can be purchased at the border itself, a quick and relatively pain-free process.
But you won’t get there to buy the visa. Buses will stop at a restaurant a few miles away from the border crossing, and tell everyone to leave the bus. Once seated in the restaurant they will come around with ‘visa forms’ to fill in, which will make the process of crossing ‘easier’. They will ask for your passports to allow them to do this. If you question this, they will come up with all manner of protestations.
- You’re from such and such a country – it will be too difficult for you to cross alone. It won’t be. They make next to no checks.
- The bus at the other side of the border won’t be able to wait for you. It will! Or, as in my case, the bus on the other side never existed in the first place!
- It’s a Sunday/holy day/weekend/special occasion – the office charges extra so we’ll do it for you. Hint: the border is open 365 a year – don’t believe it.
- It will be too difficult to do on your own. Again, rubbish, the form is in English, and takes all of 2 minutes to fill in. The only conditions are having a valid passport and $20 in cash for the visa.
- You don’t have a photograph – they won’t let you through. They will, they’ll just charge you an extra 100 baht for a photograph-less visa.
If you do believe the conmen, they will take your visa and passport, and get the visa for you, but charge you a ridiculously inflated price, normally in baht, though sometimes in dollars. I was told a visa would cost me $50. This is a blatant rip off, DO NOT give them your passport or money. (Unless you are that lazy or stupid that you’re willing to be ripped off $30 on a process that is so simple a hamster could do it.)
The border guards can also be corrupt. They are known for arbitrarily demanding extra money for non-existent costs. Weekend fees, overtime fees and tourist fees are the most commonly cited demands. It will only cost you an extra dollar or two, and you will have to pay it – just make sure you take enough money to cover these unofficial demands. Pay in $US, rather than baht, or you’ll be paying more for the exact same thing. Once you’ve obtained the visa, immigration is a relatively straightforward process: just be aware that it can take up to two hours to get through at peak times.
Note on eVisas. One man on our bus had bought an eVisa (completely valid) online in order to cross the border more quickly. It was refused and he was made to pay again in full. I am not sure how how common this scam is, but it might be better to just buy the visa at the border.
3) Once you cross the border scams are still abundant
There are two main cons in place once you’ve managed to successfully navigate yourself across the border.
The first involves cigarettes. There will be plenty of vendors encouraging you to part with your money in exchange for ‘cheap’ cigarettes. They seem very convincing – they tell you the cigarettes are duty free, the cheapest in Cambodia, or even that cigarettes are banned in the mainland, and this will be your last chance to buy a much needed nicotine fix.
This is obviously baloney. Cigarettes are purchasable everywhere in Cambodia, and they are dirt cheap – unlike the exorbitantly priced cigarettes at the border. Don’t buy them.
The second scam involves the tourist bus station. I fell victim to this scam as I hadn’t come across any information online about it, so I’d like to highlight it here. I wouldn’t class it as a hardcore scam, but it’s designed to squeeze some extra money out of travellers that locals certainly don’t fall prey to.
Touts will guide you onto a free shuttle bus once you’ve emerged from immigration. These buses will deliver you to an out of town transportation depot: the Poipet Tourist Passenger International Terminal. The touts will seem helpful, polite and will wear a uniform, but you’ll discover that the buses onwards to Siem Reap will cost you more from this terminal. (2012 – $9)
My scammy story
I was fairly naive when it came to moving from Thailand into Cambodia. I’d successfully navigated my way around the southern islands, and back to Bangkok without being ripped off. Me and a friend decided to book a bus to Siem Reap, via the Poipet crossing. We’d read that it could be a dysfunctional and scammy place, but we decided to go for it anyway and booked a 300 baht VIP bus.
The ‘VIP’ bus that showed up was of course just an old mini-bus, and the driver crammed to 20 people into something that could barely seat 14. He told us that the bus we’d been shown at the agency had ‘broken down’. (This is a common lie.)
The journey was largely uneventful – until we stopped at a small restaurant which seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Once there a smiling Cambodian man came round with visa forms, and asked us to fill them in. He then asked for our passports, and $50 so he could do the ‘very difficult’ visa process for us. Several of us knew it was a scam, and I told him in no uncertain terms that I would not be paying him, as we could get $20 visas at the border. He told us we were liars, and he refused to let us get back on the bus until we’d paid him. He insisted that only Cambodian nationals could purchase visas for tourists, and that we needed to pay him 500 baht so he could take pictures of us because we’d be turned away at the border without a photograph. Of course we still refused.
Three hours, lots of shouting and a smattering of tears later, he gave up and herded us back onto the bus.
He then stopped at the Cambodian Consulate, and encouraged us to buy (overpriced) visas there. Again, we refused. At this point he told us there was no bus on the other side of the border, and that we’d have to arrange our own onwards transport. As we’d been told that we’d paid for a bus journey all the way to Siem Reap, this was a bit of a shock, and we asked for a refund of the money for the onwards leg of the journey, which was obviously refused. He then got into the mini-bus, and went to drive off with our bags. (And still in possession of half of the group’s passports.) Two rather burly Argentinian men who were with us then forced him to give us the refunds, and our bags. I still dread to think what might have happened if they hadn’t of been there.
Fortunately after that he admitted defeat, screamed at us, and drove off.
After that the process was very simple, we obtained our visas at the border in less than ten minutes ($20 plus 100 baht for not having a photograph) got stamped through and cleared immigration in less than an hour.
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Maybe the guy with the e-visa either bought it from a fake copy cat site or the guards where in on the scam with the bus driver. I too bought an e-visa before leaving. I had heard about all the Khao San road bus scams so I went direct to the Bangkok train at around 5:30am and paid around 50 baht for the 6-7 hour 3rd class train. I met another American on the train so we shared aTuk tuk to the border, of course first they tried to drop us off at a bank with dozens of other travellers outside for the visa scam. We told the driver to forget it and just take us to the border. I yelled out to the others they were being scammed but I doubt it helped.
We both crossed with our e-visas fine but fell into the free bus shuttle scam you mentioned and I also fell for the duty free cigarette scam. 1 carton of Marlboro’s $14. Later I found they were $10.50 a carton and the bus was 10$ to Siem Reap I was later told buses should be $5. Then in Siem Reap the scam continues as they turn you over to their tuk tuks.
i’m going back in February. I’ll know much more.
If you’re heading to Bangkok, bite the bullet and fly. I know the $150-200 to fly 55 minutes is excessive considering Siem Reap has a few roads that look like the surface of Mars, but it’s worth it. The idea of getting motion sickness on a 4-hour bus to the border perhaps most renowned for its scams… and then a six-hour train ride… seemed like way too much. Once you’ve gotten the flavor of trains and busses in Southeast Asia, it’s much nicer to fly. If you’re on a budget, scrape a couple bucks a day out of your budget over a month and you’ll save yourself a lot of aggravation.