If you missed the first part of the border-crossing adventure, you can read it here. This second part came out a bit long, and I am well aware of the fact that people resent reading “long” posts that – gosh! – contain a lot of text. But any additional shortening would do a disservice to the Poi Pet Thai-Cambodia border crossing.
Heaving read dozens of traveller reports at the TalesOfAsia website, undertaking felt more than ever like participating in “By Any Means” episode minus the filming crew, the bigger budget, the local interlocutors and the nonchalant attitude of Charley Boorman. I was no Charley, and Kara – who was going to be my company – was no Eoin McGreggor.
Round 1 – Getting from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet (a town on the Thai side of the border)
We got up early in the morning and took a taxi to Mo Chit bus station. Kara’s place was in downtown Bangkok and the taxi cost about Bt 150. We arrived at the bus station around 6 am. At Mo Chit we quickly found the correct counter that sold tickets for the government-operated buses to Aranyaprathet. It turned out to be one of the counters nearest to the main entrance of this enormous bus station. Each got a ticket for Bt 210, hopped on the bus – which left 15 minutes later. We arrived at Aranyaprathet at about 11 am. So far, so good.
Note: I had not given due importance to having Thai baht and US dollar bills in smaller denominations with me. I’d failed to take care of that when leaving Koh Phi Phi and in Bangkok last evening. At that moment I only had US $100 bills – and plenty of reservations whether it was a good idea to pay with such a bill for the $20 dollar Cambodian visa. I tried to break down a $100 note at a bank by exchanging it partially for Thai baht – and they refused. Since the visa fee could be paid in Thai baht as well, I settled for the only remaining option – getting some Thai baht from an ATM. Unfortunately, the ATM spat out the baht in somewhat large denominations as well. Do not neglect such details – get your stuff organized in advance.
Round 2 – Getting from Aranyaprathet to the actual border crossing (6 kilometers away)
When the bus dumped us at a dusty square in Aranyaprathet, as expected, we were approached by the tuk-tuk drivers. They asked for – if I am not mistaken – Bt 150 per person to take us to the border. From the website we knew that the price was Bt 80 – and we settled for that.
- Aranyaprathet tuk-tuks
Courtesy: user shintarojon @ virtualtourist.com
There was another foreign couple (Croatians) on the bus and we all decided that it was a good idea to stick together for the time being.
Our tuk-tuk driver was a very cool looking, smiling woman with a “born to be wild” look and a similar driving style. I really liked how freely and naturally she handled herself. Unfortunately, for all her positive vibe, her boss (husband? partner?) – who was driving along with the Croats – ran the show. So at some point he made the right turn off the main road and they tried to pull off the fake Cambodian Consulate trick. So they stopped at the “Consulate” bamboo shack telling us that we needed to get our visas from here. We insisted we already had the visas (a lie) – and off we went further to the border without any additional problems.
Round 3 – Crossing the Thai – Cambodian border
The border was fairly dirty, messy and chaotic. Buses were coming and unloading passengers, conmen were moving around trying to trick you into needless payments. We walked to the border crossing building on the Thai side, got on the line for foreigners, got our exit stamp and crossed into… I am not sure what. Some no-man’s-land with no signs and scores of buildings… all casinos.
We were clearly under Cambodian jurisdiction – as we had walked under a crossing welcoming us to Cambodia.
Poi Pet border crossing. Welcome to Cambodia!
Obviously, the casinos catered to Thai people who came on Cambodian territory for the sole purpose of gambling (which is illegal in Thailand). The area simply looked like a self-governing gambling area. Cambodian border officers were nowhere to be found. Following “the main road”, we first passed by the “sanitary inspection” shack – and were told to get in. We filled in a form that had a number of ridiculous questions. They did not ask us for any money (some people on the website wrote about having to pay $1 or sth).
Next thing was to figure out where to get a visa for Cambodia. It was hotels and casinos all around, and from the traveller reports I’d read I knew that the visa booth had been repeatedly moved around the border crossing. In search of a location with clear marking for providing visas we went all the way past the hotels and ended up in the booth where they stamped the visas (which we did not have yet). We had to go back almost all the way – to a brand new, nice and big building. We did not walk in there the first time because it had a very dubious sign on top that said nothing about visas. “The Office Of The International Border Check Point Of Poipet”. Why not “The Imperial Universal Intergalactic Space Drome” instead? Thailand rule of thumb: the more official it sounds, the less credible it is. Cambodia rule of thumb – the more absurdly pompous, the better the chance it is legit?
The building was on the right side of the ‘main street’, while many people had reported getting their visa from a shack on the left side.
- “The Office Of The International Border Check Point Of Poipet”
Courtesy: Travelhead2010’s Blog
But now that we’d seen the whole area, we felt fairly confident that this was the place. We entered and five minutes later had our visas from polite and smiling Cambodian officers. Being extra helpful they also charged me an extra Bt 100 (using a special ‘exchange’ rate).
All that time while we were going back and forth, we were being followed by a random Cambodian guy in a yellow shirt who claimed to be a government representative. His mission: to make sure we took the free bus that would deliver us to the bus station five miles down the road. As a proof of his official standing he held a laminated badge (you could get one for $2 at Khao San Road). We were polite with him but also kept ignoring him – even more politely so.
At the end of the casino lane we got our visas stamped and crossed into Cambodia proper. So far, so good.
Round 4 – Getting from the border to the bus station
Now the guy with the yellow shirt went in full swing, and told us to follow him – which we eventually did. He took us to a bus with a sign saying it was a free service to the bus station. We already knew from the website that this was the way to go and once we got there we would need to bargain with the taxis for a ride to Siem Reap. The point of the bus being free was that the bus station is deliberately built in the middle of nowhere, and once that you are there you are 100% in the hands of the people that run it. We hopped on and off the bus went with the four of us – Kara, myself, and the Croatian couple – being its only passengers. During the short ride, the “tour guide” and a couple of other Cambodian “officials” were telling us how great it was that we have come to visit Angkor Wat, and how proud of Angkor were the Cambodian people . For our part we kept smiling back and praising everything Cambodia had to offer.
The bus station was brand new and quite nice. A note said that it had been built with international donor money. It had clean and functional toilets. And at that moment it was also completely empty of travelers – except for the four of us.
- Welcome to the middle of nowhere and get ready to part with some money.
Courtesy: aronpolarbear @ travelpod.com
The TalesOfAsia website information claimed that we would be able to bargain with the taxi drivers and suggested $25 was the normal price.
This was old news. And old news means bad news. For the first time since early morning we had gotten into uncharted territory. The local mafia who controlled the place had finally decided to close the taxi bargaining loophole. There was no competition between the taxi drivers anymore. They had all been made to work for the only company (the same one that ran the free bus service and controlled the bus station itself). No bargaining anymore. There was a flat rate – $12 per person – and you paid at a ticket counter.
So far the whole Bangkok – Siem Reap experience had been quite smooth and I was more than willing to give them the $12. After all, my original expectations were that it would be just two of us – Kara and I – and we would need to pay $25, $12.5 each.
However, Kara did not think so. Since it was 4 of us now she was dead-set on bargaining for less than $48. Heaving read all the stories on the website, I thought it was not the wisest thing to do.
Kara, however, cheerfully began shouting “I am giving $25 to take us to Siem Reap! C’mon people! Who wants to make moooo-neeeyyyy?”. She was moving around the taxi drivers, followed by a desperate-looking Cambodian trying to explain something to her with his broken English. The Croats and I were just standing, waiting to see what would come out of it. To me it all felt like a scene straight out of some absurd movie.
The person following Kara kept repeating that the taxi drivers would not go unless we paid at the central booth. At some point, when she saw that her efforts produced no result, she obliged and went to the booth… continuing her charm offensive there. She simply would not back off.
After some minutes of arguing, they finally said – “OK, $40 for all 4 you”. It was clear they would not go for any more bargaining. It was also clear that the taxi would not take us to our hostels but would dump us right to the tuk-tuk crowd at the entrance of Siem Reap.
We loaded our stuff and off we went.
Round 5 – Getting from the bus station to Siem Reap
The road from the border to Siem Reap was brand new (we knew that already) – fully complete after years of construction. The 120 kilometer ride to Siem Reap was to take about two hours.
The new road from Poi Pet to Siem Reap
We were passing village after village. Within the village boundaries the speed limit was 50 km/h which almost no driver was following. Including our driver. Then at some point we got stopped and pulled off by traffic police (who were hiding behind a curve on the road). Our driver had to listen to a short lecture while we simply sat and smiled. Then he was pulled out of the car.
I am not sure whether he had to part with some cash, however, judging from the traffic police hide-out place behind a curve (a classic ambush for drivers) – I can safely claim that their number one priority was not public road safety. By the way – they had machine guns, so drivers were not in a position to argue.
Finally, we arrived safely at Siem Reap.
First thing that struck the newcomer about the town was sheer number of new casinos/hotels on both sides of the main road. There were literally hundreds hotels of various sizes – and I am not even counting the smaller ones. Hundreds.
We also passed by the “International Hospital” – where Kara had been treated the previous time she had been in Siem Reap. Nearby was also the new building of the Siem Reap historical museum. But then our taxi got off the main road into a small side street separating two hotels. Off the main road there was no asphalt – it was a mud road full of holes. Two hundred meters further down the driver stopped and told us to go off. Outside the car a dozen tuk-tuk drivers were smiling at us.
Round 6- Going to a hostel of our choice, not of the tuk-tuk driver’s.
Their sight, of course, was not to deter Kara from bargaining. The guys wanted three dollars for the ride, Kara offered one – and they eventually settled for $2. Off we went, parting ways with the Croats who had booked another place.
Kara and I did not have a hostel booked – but we told our tuk-tuk driver we had. We told him the name of a hostel which was advertising on the proverbial “How to safely cross this damn border” website. For his par, the guy was “oh, it very far”, “better place near, better price – I take you there instead”. We told him that if he did not take us to where we wanted, we would not give him any money. He grudgingly obliged – and it turned out that “our” hostel was within walking distance, and not far at all.
Note: One should not blame solely the local people for “selling off” tourists to hostels and various other services. Most if not all hostels and many bars in Siem Reap are owned by Westerners – mostly English & Australian. Now, guess who’s paying that commission to the tuk-tuk drivers, thank you very much.