Or, how I managed to pay $30 and nothing more at the Thailand Aranyaprathet/Cambodia Poipet land border in 2017.
My initial plan was to fly down to Siem Reap from Luang Prabang, but the cost of flying rerouted my itinerary and I ended up crossing the border by land. Only by chance did I discover how tricky and scamtastic this border was, otherwise I would have found myself also paying 900 baht in addition to the visa fees to express process my visa.
At around 6PM before the day of travel, I turned up at Mo Chit/Northeastern Bus Station in Bangkok near the Chatuchak market. Motorcycle taxis in this are a bit pushy, but you can ignore them/pretend you don’t speak English. Once you enter the large bus station past the local bus carpark, you can either ask for the counter for buses to Cambodia or walk around until you find the one which says Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Tickets are 750 baht a person for a direct bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap, and they leave at 8AM or 9AM but you most often don’t get a choice – we didn’t. Your ticket will tell you the bay your coach departs from and your seat number. This bus is the government licensed through bus, no bus changes needed at the border.
The direct bus I took was not new or flashy like a Myanmar bus, but clean and air conditioned with big comfortable seats and plenty leg room. It leaves well on time and hands out the arrival cards when you leave. This, if you do your research, may be when the anxiety begins.
I did a lot of research. I heard everyone and their mother tries to rip off travellers to Cambodia from Thailand. I heard the bus will try to make you pay 900 baht extra for a VIP service, or $5 extra for a batch processing service, touts and hawkers will pickpocket as soon as you leave the bus and the journey will be one long game of dodge the bullet. Not only is my budget strict, but I also am loath to be ripped off. I was just scared I wouldn’t be gutsy enough to argue. So when my arrival card arrived, I was scared this necessary form would spiral into me sinking my savings into a scam.
The arrival card is essential and what you fill out on landing by plane. Whether you pay $30 or $300, it must be completed. It’s easier if you get the bus license plate before boarding so you can complete that section straight away. Keep the arrival card in your passport and ensure you also have ready and completed your departure card that was issued when you enter Thailand. The bus will also ask for passport information on a long form of everyone on the bus. Also complete this.
Two hours in, the bus conductor asks if you have a visa and arrives ready with forms. The girls in front queried this, and they asked for money to “process and photocopy” their passport, which they paid. I sleepily and politely told them I would do it at the border, and they accepted this and walked on. You are handed a lanyard with the number of the bus and some information. This helps you be identified as a member of the bus party.
At midday, you get a small box of warm, filling shrimp fried rice. There’s no water, so be sure to bring a drink. Within half an hour, you’re at Aranyaprathet. The conductor gives you firm instructions to stamp out of Thailand, follow only the official directions, say no to anyone who approaches you in the street, collect your visa, get stamped into Cambodia, then return to the bus.
In Aranyaprathet, it is easy to stick with those on your bus, especially the more clued up and ballsy ones. People will approach you with directions as soon as you leave, ignore them and don’t look at them. There is a sign and a queue. Join it and you will eventually be stamped out of Thailand. This process is simple if you have your departure card filled out completely and ready. Otherwise you will be sent to the back of the long queue to complete it.
Enter the double doors, descend the steps and again ignore people telling you “passport visa this way!” or any other bullshit. There are signs, and fences directing you where to walk and the touts in no way look official. By this time you may have lost sight of anyone else who is on your bus and be walking alone.
If you haven’t already sorted your visa you will need to head to the visa on arrival. For those who have a visa, it’s straight on ahead following the signs and fences. For those without, it’s a vague left turn into a no mans land of taxis and touts. No one approached me, and you see the official office building quite clearly.
Enter, take a form and bring your $30 and passport picture ready. There was no queue (Sunday 5th February) when I got there. A man will tell you it’s $30 plus 100 baht. There is an official sign, saying only $30 plus a scruffy hand written note on the desk saying +100 baht. This 100 baht is a bribe which goes to the pockets of the border control staff. If you don’t want to pay it, don’t. I did not want to pay it.
The dialogue went something like this. He points to a sign
Me: I’m sorry I don’t understand?
Man: 100 baht! And thirty dollar!
Me: Sir, I have $30 for the visa and no bahts
Man: Then you will pay $33 dollars
Me: No, my embassy said I do not pay 100 baht. It’s $30
Man: and 100 baht!
Me: No, my embassy said-
Man: Go over there
I nodded and happily walked back, loudly explaining (to no one in particular) there is no fee, only pay $30. A couple of people on my bus said there’s always a fee for something, 100 baht is not a lot. I told them it’s their choice.
Time to double team with a fellow determined soul, if you can. This came in the form of Alessio. The man asked for the bribe, and he simply said no and was told to wait with me. Another couple was moaning about having to pay, and told us we must pay something. At this point I nearly conceded, but I stayed firm for a minute longer. Then I calmly asked.
“Can I have a receipt for the 100 baht, for my embassy? Do you have a receipt? I will pay the extra if you give me a receipt.”
At this point, a man took Alessio and I aside, unhappy snatched our passports and $30 dollars only. They then left with the passports, took a few minutes and we got our visas without paying the bribe. We were in there for no more than ten minutes and kept waiting for no more than five.
Once you leave, you will see a sign saying arrivals in front of you. This is where you must queue again and get your arrivals card and passport stamped. Here, there are men waiting in the doorways to tell you something is wrong with your documents and you will not be let in if you don’t listen. Ignore them. We passed the bus on the way. After being stamped in, we peed for free in the nearby casino and boarded our bus.
A guy on the bus who did pay the bribe was further cheated out of $10. He required change, and they gave him the $10 in obviously fake notes and refused to acknowledge the note was fake. Which it clearly was. Lucky for us, we had exact change and a few spare dollars if they contested our notes. By the time they took our visa, I think they just wanted to get rid of us.
This, for me, is why you shouldn’t pay. 100 baht is not a lot in the scheme of things, but bribery, dishonesty and scheming is not okay. Even people who comply with the bribe are cheated any way they can. It gives Cambodia and Cambodians a bad reputation when the first view you get of the country is being ripped off. One bus of bribe paying tourists could pocket them 3,000 baht which IS a lot of money going to dishonest people, paid honestly by tourists who didn’t know better. That isn’t even including the money they refuse to give back in change. I don’t want to further fund con artists just because I can afford to. There are tourists who can afford to easily pay £1,000 scams, should they also be okay with this?
In the end, it’s your choice whether not paying the extra fees is worth it but it’s at least worth trying your luck. In doing so, I only waited five minutes and endured not a lot of hassle, and didn’t give extra money to people who conned nice guys out of $10. If you wish to avoid the border scams, my advice is this.
– Have everything ready. $30, documents, one passport photo all in one place. Keep any extra money separate, including 100 baht and $5 extra incase your resolve cracks.
– Find someone who is similarly minded so you have strength in numbers.
– Stick with your group as much as you can, take down your bus registration number and don’t speak to anyone else outside of the official buildings.
– When asked for the bribe, refer to your official embassy at home and ask for receipts for the bahts. When they send you away, don’t move far and badger them for a receipt. Talk loudly enough for them to worry about others overhearing, but never be rude. Remain polite and calm, but firm and loud. They will process you grumpily but within minutes on a quiet day.
– Have the exact money in dollars ONLY, crisp new notes and have a few notes for which you can exchange it. If you have to give more than $30, don’t expect change back.
– Finally, bring water. The food is filling, but they don’t provide water.