Our first border crossing, the infamous Thailand (Poi Pet) – Cambodia Land border. We had heard stories of scams, inflated prices and a walk of horror in the ‘no mans land’ between the two countries. So was it all it lived up to be?
The Tl:Dr version is No.
Don’t get us wrong, it was not without its adventures, including being possible accessories to a Cigarette smuggling operation… but over all the crossing was relatively simple.
However, disclaimer! This is just our experience, we advice you to do your research and find out the best way to cross yourselves.
Note – this journey was from Bangkok, Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia!
BUYING THE TICKET/ BUS TERMINAL DEPARTURE
There are 3 main bus stations in Bangkok. We were advised that the easiest way to cross the border was from the Northern Terminal Mo Chit. This services the Northern and Eastern parts of Thailand.
You can get there via the Skytrain getting off at the Mo Chit station stop, or you can use the Metro and get off at Chatuchak Park. Although be warned, if you want to walk from the skytrain, like we did, its about 30 minutes!
As this was our first crossing, we decided to use the slightly more expensive, government run bus service. This came to 750 Bhat per person ($22 approx). There are much cheaper, less safe ways to cross for the more experienced backpacker, or those in want of a classic crazy backpacker story, but as this was our first border crossing we decided to go for the safer, boring, slightly more expensive option.
We went to the bus station a few days before to buy the ticket but you should be fine buying on the day as our bus was less than a quarter full. You can book online but it costs $28 (925 baht) with $1 booking fee so we really don’t advise this. It extra cost for no extra ease, especially if you’re intending to get tickets on the day you travel! But if you are so inclined the company used by the government is called Nattakan.
Finding the ticket office can be a little tricky as the bus station can be confusing. When you get to the bus station, there are ticket offices all along the outside, you will need to go inside the actual station. If you enter via entry 1 the ticket office will be infront of you. Look for 99-999 in orange above the ticket booth.
To buy your ticket, the official will ask if you have your passport – you don’t need it. We didn’t have ours, we told him as such. He then asked us if it was at our hotel (he thought we didnt have passports at all!). We said yes and he told us to bring it as it will be checked before you get on the bus – it won’t.
There are 2 departures out of Bangkok a day 8:00am and 9:00pm
THE THAILAND JOURNEY
We bought tickets for 9:00am and set of at 9:15am sharp… (time is a relative concept here it seems, 2 girls rocked up at 9:10am and got on the bus no problem)
We were greeted with a goodie bag of a can of coffee, a cake and some juice with no explanation from the driver, our scam wary brains were awakened and we expected would be slapped with an extra charge later for a ‘luxury travel package’ of some sort – thankfully this never happened! So this was a lovely bonus!
We stopped twice for a 10 minute bathroom break, the second time around we stopped 15 minutes before the border. We had read that this was the first scam – Being made to get off and have lunch at a restaurant shown to you by the driver, who would take a commission from the food you purchased, this did not happen. Instead we were given our second goody bag, a ready meal of fried rice with either chicken or shrimp. It was already warm and pretty damn delicious to be honest. Again we waited for the extra fee but this never came!
THE SCAM PART 1
So what was the scam?
A relatively minor one and easily avoidable if you’re aware of it.
The bus company will provide an ‘express’ package were it states that you can get your visa approved without needing a passport photo (you will) and without needing to get off the bus (you will) for a mere 200 baht.
The reality is you will fill in a photocopied visa form (we doubt this is legitimate), have to hand over your passport and 1400 Baht (1200 for the visa payment and 200 baht for the fee or an outrageous $40 dollars, $10 more than what should pay at the border). At this point the driver will hand all this to some random guy on a scooter who will promptly whisk off your passport to some undisclosed location, certainly not the border office, and return around 10 minutes later with the newly added visas. A very jolly man will then get on the bus and give you back your passport (not surprising as he’s just made a pile of easy money).
You will still need to get off the bus when you get to the border. The only thing this saves you is the 5 minutes you will spend in the visa office.
However, avoiding this is difficult without knowing its coming. 90% of the people travelling on our bus paid the extra cost and handed over their passport. This is because the driver will periodically give you documents to fill in without explaining what they are or why they are needed, naturally you just fill them in. One of these will be the photocopied visa. He will then collect all the documents and ask for the 1400baht fee. He will not mention you can get off the bus and go to the visa office yourself. So just say to him you will get off the bus and go to the visa office yourself and he will nod his head and move on. Scam avoided and 200 baht saved.
THE BORDER CROSSING
The jolly man mentioned before will explain to you exactly what will happen when you get off to cross the border, this is very helpful and one of the reasons this way to travel is so much more convenient. He will also give you a lanyard with some information about where the bus will pick you up and the bus number. Again, a very helpful extra. He will however, leave out any mention of what to do if you have not filled in your visa on the bus and will promptly disappear when you’ve passed through the Thai border control. This is seemingly your penance for not using this ‘service’.
Crossing the border is relatively straightforward if you are prepared for it. It will be manic, busy and confusing but as long as you keep calm it will be pretty quick and painless.
The first building you will need to enter is the Thai Border Control, the jolly man will take you to this. It is located about 50 metres in front of you on the left side of the street, you will need to go up a set of stairs to enter (look for the signs saying Departures). Here you will need your passport and your Departure form (the one you’ve been given from the airport/border crossing when you entered the country), make sure this is entered correctly, you will need to make a note of the bus number, which should be on the lanyard you’ve been given. Your passport will be stamped and you will then enter the ‘no mans land’ between the two countries, this is about a 200 metre stretch filled with shops, food stands as well as loiterers who we had read will try to ‘show’ you were the visa building is, ask for your passport or offer you express visas. None of this happened to us, the only travelers these people bothered with were the ones that looked Thai or Cambodian, but its worth being prepared for nonetheless.
This stretch is very busy and confusing and our jolly helper had now vanished with the bus visa travelers. Only us and a German couple who had obviously read the same travel advice we had, remained. We looked around hesitantly for a few seconds until we saw a yellowish building on the right hand side called the ‘Office of the International Border Checkpoint of Poi Pet’. This is where your visas will be issued. We walked up the few steps into an empty room with what looked like the entire population immigration police. A smiley older gentleman in the beige uniform handed us the official Visa documents and told us to fill them in.
We had read that the officials will often ask for more than the $30 dollars / baht equivalent that is printed clearly above the visa window, and to hold your ground. This did not happen. He handed us a piece of paper with $30 dollars or 1200 baht written on and that was that. As we only had baht, we paid the 1200. This is slightly more than $30 so we would recommend paying in dollars. You can exchange at a number of places in the train station beforehand. After about 5 minutes of waiting our Visas were done and we moved on to the Cambodia border control.
To get there you will need to walk around 100 metres, past the Grand Casino. The building is on the right hand side in front of you. It will seem like you have gone too far when you reach the casinos but keep walking a little further than you think and it will be straight ahead of you. This part is very straightforward, hand over your passport to the official and he will scan your fingerprints, give you the departure form and that’s it.
THE CAMBODIA JOURNEY
We got back on the bus that was parked just in front of the Grand Casino (we had half expected it to have left us) and we headed off for the last part of our journey. Relieved that our experience was no where near as horror filled as we were expecting.
However, about 10 minutes into the final part of our journey we screeched to a stop and a car quickly pulled up by the side of us. The bus driver ran outside and a ridiculously shifty guy jumped out of the car and opened the storage compartment under the bus which held our bags. This was it, our bags were getting robbed, we were being left on the side of the road or worse…
So we were pretty relieved when he started loading massive boxes of cigarettes onto the bus. Then it dawned on us that he was loading massive boxes of cigarettes onto the bus… we were now accessories to some kind an international smuggling operation…pretty sure that wasn’t included in the price of the ticket.
Starting to imagine our life as hardened jailbirds we hardly noticed when, about 20 minutes down the road, the bus stopped again, the cigarettes were unloaded to a waiting gentleman…along with his kids (not sure this is a good ‘bring your kids to work day situation) and we were on our way again.
The rest of the journey was very straight forward and the 10 hour travel time ended up being about 8 hours.
THE SCAM PART 2
The final bonus that came with our bus ticket, was that we would be provided with a ‘free’ tuk tuk from the bus stop in Siem Reap to our accommodation and that if we wanted, the tuk tuk drivers would be available for tours around Angkor Wat. We read up on this and were informed that you will be getting a tour whether you wanted it or not. To be honest, we expected something like this because no one gets anything for free!
So after getting off the bus, we found our tuk tuk driver and the inevitable speech about the tour began, we told him that we didn’t know when we where going to visit and waited for the demands/story about feeding his family to begin but he just told us to think about during our ride and off we went…
When we got to our hostel he began to list the reasons he would be a great tour guide, the man was a pretty good salesman but we told him we were just going to rent bikes. At this point we decided that we would rather part with a $1 than allow an argument to ensue. He took it silently and began ‘talking on his phone’ and that was that, our border crossing experience was finished.
So overall, this journey was a lot simpler that we were expecting bar a few minor scams and being part of an international smuggling ring. Again, this was just our experience be sure to do more research and always be wary of potential scams so you know what to look for if/when they do happen.
We hope this has been helpful !