This is going to be a two-part post.
First, some background: When I arrived in Bangkok, I had not any plans for my next destination (city or country). Those that read my earlier posts know that I eventually decided for Chiang Mai (but it was not so simple), and subsequently – for the Koh Phi Phi island. However, all that time there was the bigger question to answer – which country is next? Sure, it was to be one of Thailand’s neighbors – Myanmar, Laos or Cambodia. But which one exactly? When? How? Why?
For various reasons Myanmar fell off the list (will make it up next time). Hence, two contestants remained – Laos and Cambodia. As simple as tossing a coin. Or was it? The information about travelling in these countries I found online, at tourist bureaus and by talking to other travelers was patchy, inconsistent and – as I would eventually find out on the spot – plain wrong. Ask yourself the question – when was the last time you heard anything about Laos on the news? What about Cambodia?
At some point I was even contemplating giving up Cambodia, but then I realized that returning home without visiting Angkor, despite being so near to it would be a total shame. Deal sealed: next stop – Angor Wat.
So, crossing from Thailand to Cambodia should be trivial, right? After all, these are two neighboring countries, occasionally trading gunfire near the temple of Preah Vihear, but overall relations are friendly and cordial (when not trading gunfire near the temple of Preah Vidhear). Тhe temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site and each side has pledged that it’d rather bomb it into oblivion than see it fall forever into the hands of the other. It’s all about the BBB (whose army got Bigger Buddhist Balls). However, for the time being and for the forseeable future – the temple is standing proud in Cambodia)
My options for arriving in Siem Reap (the town where Angkor is) were three: flying, taking a special tourist bus from Khao San Road or going at it all on my own.
While researching the pros and cons of each option, I was very lucky to find a web site explaining in detail all the traps an independent traveler going from Thailand to Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) would face. Those had been compiled by an Englishman with a wife and business in Cambodia who had been crossing the border regularly in the last 15 years. It was one of the most intense readings I have encountered online (and you will soon find out why). But the detailed information did convince me of braving to try it on my own (or, as it eventually turned out – with a companion).
So, what was the problem with flying instead? Well, no problem actually. There are regular flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap handled by Bankok Air. The company’s motto – “Asia’s Boutique Airline”. My addition: a boutique airline comes with “boutique” prices. Two hundred and fifty US dollars and you are all set for Bangkok – Siem Reap.
Ok, what about buses from Khao San road? Plenty of those and much much cheaper. Well, let’s give the floor to the English guy who put it all down in the greatest of detail:
[…]Most agencies on Khao San Road sell the Siem Reap bus tickets for between 200 to 600 baht. Regardless of price it’s all the same crappy scam bus service and you’ll find once you’re on the bus there will be almost as many different prices paid as there are passengers.
[…]The real fun begins when you get near the border and the first scam hits. Actually it’s the second scam – the first scam was buying the ticket in the first place.
[…]Chances are you don’t yet have a visa for Cambodia. This is not a problem as they are issued at the border and it’s a very simple process to do on your own. However, for the bus company employees this is an opportunity to make money. It’s quite possible that the travel agent that sold you the ticket informed you of various “border fees”. There are no such things.
[…]The guesthouse you will be delivered to in Siem Reap pays the bus driver and his assistant seven dollars for every passenger whether you stay there or not. As you will find out once you cross the border, it can be one very long wait before you leave. Few buses leave before 2 p.m., some don’t even leave until four or five in the afternoon!!!
You can read the full description here.
Next he went on to explain how you can easily do the whole journey on your own in just 7 hours, instead of 14 when going with the Khao San scam buses. Basically, the guy’s idea was – “it has never been simpler and easier to do it in the last 15 years”.
Please, note: Not anymore, much easier now! 🙂
But one is only able to fully grasp the meaning of “never been simpler and easier” when one moves on to the pages of the aforementioned website featuring hundreds of accounts of travellers who did the border crossing. Here are some random extracts from people that crossed the border around the time as I did:
Thai-Cambodia border in Aranyaprathet is the worst border crossing you can imagine! I was robbed on the Thai side by visa gangs. They ask you to show your passport and then take it and start asking you money. This place you must avoid at all cost there is no signs to give information or any authority to guide you whatsoever and looks like there is no government authority in both sides its all controlled by the mafia and gangs who will at all cost try to offer their services to get visa for you and take as much money they can. After 10 years of going to Thailand and see a border like this never again.
Everyone’s in on the scam and one more reason not to take buses between Poipet and Siem Reap, take a taxi!:
I’ll start from the conclusion – DONT take the shuttle bus from the Cambodian border to the “bus station”. TAKE A TAXI straight from the border!
My story : after more than a year of travelling in Asia and scam ridden India, I thought I had seen them all, and pride myself in being able to avoid the most cunning scam and tout, and gracefully without losing my nerve or offending anyone. But the travel today from Bangkok to Siem Reap was beyond my capabilities! And this despite checking beforehand this forum extensively, and reading every word about it in the Lonely Planet – the scammers seem to be one step ahead. […]
Scam Bus 2010:
We took the direct service from Bangkok to Siem Reap and even bought the ticket on Kao San Road. The price was 300Baht and it was reasonable. The first question the driver asks you is whether you have the Cambodian Visa. We didn’t have one so we immediately got offered a great price of 1200Baht (which now is $40, $1 is roughly 30Baht), visa on the spot and all that. Knowing that the Cambodian Visa was supposed to be $20 we politely turned the offer down and got in the minivan with other backpackers. […]
The full texts are available here. Reading those was perhaps the most memorable three hours I ever spent on the Internet.
Thai - Cambodian border crossing
In an earlier post I likened the travelling on one’s own with playing one of those old computer first-person shooter games – for each undertaking you had to choose a skill level and then bravely compete. More than ever this comparison applied to crossing the Thai-Cambodian border and getting to Siem Reap on your own. Here are the mission’s milestones:
- Take a bus from Bankgkok Mo Chit Bus station to border town Aranyaprathet (task: locate proper ticket counter of 200 or so, handle Thai people with no English, avoid taking the wrong company with the higher prices)
- Get a tuk-tuk from Aranyaprathet to the actual border crossing itself (task: negotiate the ‘actual’ price, refuse rip-off)
- Since you did not let them charge you double and tripple, the tuk-tuk drivers will bring you to a fake Cambodian consulate on the way and try to make you get a Cambodian visa. Note: the visa is real, but the counsulate is not. It will charge you double or tripple price. Task: avoid serious confronatation and make them take you away (without paying for anything).
- Cross onto Cambodian side. Task: find out where you pay for the Cambodian visa (a location that seems to be changing with time). Avoid overpaying to the Cambodian officers. Avoid paing for anything else, such as when filling-in a health form.
- Take the free bus from the border to the bus-station which is built in the middle of nowhere, six miles away from the border. Task: you are stuck there now. Negotiate a taxi ride for a fair price – despite limited bargaining options.
- Ride the taxi to Siem Reap. Task: if it dumps you to the tuk-tuk vultures (which is very likely since you tried to bargain), make sure you handle the situation properly.
Very luckily for me, I was not going to be all alone. Kara, the American I met at Bangkok, had expressed interest in joining me. She had already been to Siem Reap once with the intention of visiting Angkor, but she’d seen nothing of it. The reason: possible food poisoning, several day stay at the Siem Reap tourists hospital, gotten transported back to Bangkok. I was not sure whether Kara knew about any of the possible problems waiting at the border. So I sent her the link and… this only increased her enthusiasm (unlike me she’d lived long enough in Thailand). To be a worthy match, all I could do was ditch all my uneasiness, put on a bold face and said “let’s roll”.
Kara: see you in a few hours… can’t wait to plot and scheme about all the unknown details then.