Friday, November 9, 2012

Crossing the border from Aranyapathet to Poipet: a sketchy bus journey from Bangkok to Siem Reap

Crossing the border from Thailand into Cambodia can seem like a harrowing experience for first timers.

If you read nothing else, here are the top 5 things to remember when taking a bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap over the border of Aranyapathet to Poipet. 

1. Don't freak out. You're relatively safe. 
2. Give yourself one full day to travel over the border.
3. Expect long waits and many delays. (AKA you are being held hostage at restaurants, gas stations, and fake immigration offices and embassies)
4. Every stop is planned by the Thai bus company so they make more money.
5. Enjoy the ride, because you know everything that will happen in advance if you read this article and did your homework. Make some friends too!

Our packed mini bus.
      Lets face it, walking across the boarder in any 2nd or 3rd world country can seem a little sketchy but if you do it enough times it will seem like any other day. I grew up crossing the border between San Diego and Mexico several times a year over many different locations. As a young girl going on volunteer trips to Tijuana  the crossing didn't particularly phase me as we drove over in a car with a big group that knew the drill well. As a teenager, we were so hammered we had liquid courage of fear that had us literally dancing over the border past U.S. customs. And as an adult, I don't mind walking over and hopping in a cab to save a few hundred dollars on a plane ticket out of the Tijuana Airport.
      Now, as a person that has walked over the border several different times and some of them on my own, I have to admit I was a little apprehensive about my journey from Bangkok, Thailand into Siem Reap, Cambodia. You can get to Siem Reap from Bangkok by bus, plane, or train. A plane ride will cost you upwards of $400-$500 one way; a pricey ticket for most of us backpackers. So we end up  taking the train, or going the Khao San Road  mini bus scam route because of its low cost. A measly $10 or 350 Thai Baht at the nearest travel stand seems like a good idea for a one way ticket when your wallet is looking empty. Others head over to Mo Chit bus station to pay a little more money for a government run bus that leaves every morning. The government bus is just as sketchy as the mini bus scams as you will still have to hire your own tuk tuk from Aranyapathet to the border crossing. Although I have heard the government bus will not harrass foreigners too much about their visas trying to make a quick buck. See Jason Stearns article about taking the government bus. But I'm going to share with you my journey of taking the scam artist mini bus straight from Khoa San Road to Siem Reap.

The process

The Thai countryside on the journey to the Cambodian border.

1. Head to any travel company located in or around Khoa San Road for the cheapest mini bus ticket. Don't give into their crappy hotel deal and stay strong about a hotel or hostel that you have already pre-booked. They will take you to their hotel anyway off of one of the main streets in Siem Reap, and from there you can get a short tuk tuk ride to your destination.

Our bumpy journey to the Poipet border.
2. Hop on the mini bus and get ready for the journey! Its going to take you ALL DAY. No matter what the tour company has told you, you will be leaving around 7:30am and arriving by 5-6pm at night or even later. I arrived at around 8pm. The bus driver will most likely be a terrible driver as he drives on the opposite side of the road to pass people just in the nick of time before you get hit by a semi truck. But he's done this every day for the past week, so don't worry too much! : ) Expect a bumpy ride on the bus and a full passenger load. I tried to sleep most of the ride to save up energy, and alot of people read books or talked about places to see in Siem Reap. 

3. You are going to stop at a gas station before the border. If you want anything to eat or drink there is a giant convenient store comparable to 7 eleven on both legs of the trip. 

The fake Cambodia Consulate General on the Thailand side.
4. At Aranyapathet they will take you to a small restaurant. Here is where they will start hounding you about your tourist visa. DON'T GIVE THEM YOUR PASSPORT OR ANY MONEY. THIS IS A SCAM SO THAT THE THAI BUS DRIVERS MAKE AN EXTRA $20 OFF EACH PASSENGER THEY BRING TO THE BORDER. Also, would you ever give your passport to a stranger anyway? I wouldn't. So as they make up every single lie in the world about how long its going to take for you to get your visa if you do it on your own, or how the border ran out of visas, or how you had to get it before you came to the border, just say no thank you I already have it and do not give them your passport or even take it out of your bag. If you really don't want to face the attacks, hand it over and pay the money like the other 80% of the passengers on your bus that didn't do their homework, but you really don't have too. 

Strange posters inside the immigration buildings.
5. If you don't hand over your passport they are going to load you into another mini bus and tell you that they are taking you to the visa office at the embassy. They will take you to a fake building with a fake sign at the gate and ask you to come inside to pay. We didn't get out of the bus because we already knew the scam, so I don't have any pictures of the fake officers with their fake outfits on : )
Just hang out in the bus for a while and watch as the bus drivers smoke their cigarettes and hang out too. They are just dragging out the time as long as they possibly can to piss you off and make you pay the fee. But regardless of how long it takes, you will still get to the border at the same time as your other bus group members. They are just sitting in the restaurant waiting to get to the border as well, pretty much being held hostage. 

Inside the Thai immigration office.

6. When you get to the real border you will know. Duh! There is a line people, you walk down a street and eventually reach a line where you can visibly see the Thai border crossing. After you clear Thai customs you will walk over to the Poipet side. The bus drivers will take your official ticket and give you a little blue sticker while telling you that they will meet you on the other side. It took my group about 1 hour to get through the Thai clearance.

7. Once in Poipet, this was the weirdest part. You would normally expect another line of some sort to cross directly over the Cambodia side. However, it is just open land and roads filled with people selling things. There are several hotels and a casino is there for all of the Thai to go gambling. You can literally hang out in-between the Thai and Cambodia borders without actually crossing into Cambodia through their customs office. But yes, you are in Cambodia. Poipet is a dirty little gambling town where alot of Thai people venture to win some money and where Cambodia makes some extra cash. I'd compare Poipet to Sin City without the luxurious part.

8. Your bus drivers will direct those of you that need a tourist visa to the visa office on the right hand side of the road. It seems very sketchy, but it is indeed where you buy your tourist visa. The visa will cost $25. Bringing American currency is easiest because the immigration officers won't scam you for Thai baht. I literally had an immigration officer that refused to put my passport through the window to get my visa until I paid him a 100 Baht charge. This is also a stupid scam. Alot of people give in, but I refuse to give my money to dirty government officials that are making a buck. How much money do they make a day ripping off people at the border? I refused to directly give money over to such a corrupt government and after 3 minutes the pissed off immigration officer threw my passport under the window for my visa. Then after ten minutes he gave my passport back without my $25 change as I had given them a $50. I demanded the change with a strong voice and he hesitantly returned the money. 

The Cambodian customs office.
9. Now you will walk from the visa office to the extremely sketchy and almost non apparent line through Cambodian customs. This took my group another 2 hours as we made our way toward a measly little customs office with 3 windows and plenty of confused Japanese tourists that didn't know they were supposed to stop in the visa office and get their tourist visa.

10. You will now take a giant free government bus from the Poipet border to the bus station. Hop on and relax for a 15-20 minute ride and debrief before the final harassment and waiting period takes place.

Boarding the bus at Poipet bus station.
11. Yay! You made it to the bus station! This is the last leg of the journey. If there is not a large group of mini bus passengers to board the luxury bus, you will be waiting anywhere from 30 minutes up to 2-3 hours until the full VIP bus is loaded for the final leg of the journey into Siem Reap. So, the bus drivers will try and convince you to get a taxi, which at this point I was ok with spending the extra money. But if you feel more comfortable sticking with a group of people, hang out until the luxury bus gets loaded. At least you know that this is a normal situation. They will look for your colored sticker at this point, and if you lost it they will try and charge you a fee because that sticker became your ticket. They take your ticket away so that you can't report the bus company scam online or to the Thai government. A man will board the bus telling you all about the scams and how his company is a good one in Siem Reap. He will make alot of recommendations about staying at his hotel and using his safe and reliable tuk tuk drivers and give a full history on how corrupt the Cambodian and Thai border is. This guy is nice and alot of people are attracted to his spiel, but its just another way for them to make money. 

Our last bus of the journey to Siem Reap.
12. After you board the VIP bus you will have another 2 hours to relax on board. You will also stop at another restaurant for 30 minutes to an hour for a break. All of these stops are pre-arranged by the tour companies. Don't be surprised. Once in Siem Reap, take a tuk tuk or taxi from the bus company's hotel directly to your hotel.

Overall, this experience is one that I will remember for the rest of my life. The Mexican border now seems like a joke to me. I remember being afraid at some times while dealing with the pretty aggressive Thai bus drivers about the visa, but my friend and I as well as 5 other people refused to give into the scam. Lets face it, if the bus companies just charged a little more for the ticket over there then we would all probably pay. Its just the fact that they are ripping you off and treating you so poorly that I refuse to let happen to me. Also, my rule about never handing over my passport to anyone unless I cross over a "real" border and can see the line and officers in windows with a crowd of people. I believe if enough foreigners begin standing up to them, then the corrupt companies will eventually give up with the visa scam. Or, they will just realize they can charge more for a ticket by providing a reliable and enjoyable service with no hassling involved. Good luck on your trip and enjoy lovely Cambodia! The people are extremely nice at all of the hotels and restaurants. Make sure to stop buy the restaurants and massage studios that give their money to a good cause. There are several blind massage schools as well as a delicious restaurant called Butterflies Garden Restaurant that provides advanced restaurant training to disadvantaged youth. 

At Butterflies Garden Restaurant celebrating our first night in Cambodia all for a good cause.

If you have any questions or comments about "Crossing the border from Aranyapathet to Poipet: a sketchy bus journey from Bangkok to Siem Reap" please leave them in the comment box below or email them to 
  Creative Commons License  Gone Seoul Searching by Marie Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

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Creative Commons License
Gone Seoul Searching by Marie Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at
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