Having negotiated our way out of the Dragons Lair, we were finally allowed back on the bus to head to the border, or so we thought. The Poipet border is famous for its scams and getting travellers to pay multiple times for visas. We knew they would try to scam us, but didn’t realise how good they’d be at it. Here is my tale of travelling with my friend as we took on one of Thailand’s most infamous border crossings into Cambodia, Poipet.
Booking our border crossing in Bangkok
After a swift breakfast, we headed to the train station to catch our bus. We originally wanted to go by train but the line was closed due to flooding resulting in us having to book a bus. The ticket covered us all the way to Siem Reap. One bus to the border and a new one to pick us up on the Cambodian side and take us the rest of the way.
We were sharing with an American couple who were also heading our way and off we set. On the bus already was an English girl and we all got chatting.
Not long into the journey the discussion of price came up and it turns out that although we thought we had a good deal, we didn’t. The American couple paid 850 baht for their journey compared to our 900, not too bad but then we found out that the English girl had paid only 300! Quite a difference. Looking back at when we booked it didn’t even occur to me to negotiate on price as it seemed a pretty legit travel agent. But, I guess we learnt our lesson, always negotiate wherever you are and whoever you are talking to. To put that into real money, that translates to us paying around £17 each to her £6. After our initial shock we put it down to lesson learnt and just settled into the journey ahead.
Looking out the window
As far as we were concerned we were heading to the border, crossing into Cambodia and then on to Siem Riep, so in the big scheme of things, all good. The journey was quite bumpy on the way to Poipet (the Thai border town), but lots of things to see out of the window to keep my little 2 hour rested mind entertained. At every junction and traffic lights there seemed to be people selling little flowers on a rope through windows, I noticed that most cars seemed to have them hanging from their rear view mirrors so I can only assume they’re sold as good luck charms. Sadly, either they don’t work for everyone or the poor truck that had managed to drive into a ditch the separated the two sides of the road forgot to buy his.
It made me chuckle as we drove past as the police were there and there were no cones, road closures or general fear for safety, just a group of guys looking at a truck in a ditch trying to work out how to get it out again. I am sure if that happened in the UK there would be all kinds of hassle as the accident investigation team would get there, shut everything down for hours, causing massive tailbacks . . . not here. The good news for the driver was that on the next corner was a man selling flowers, so when he does get his truck back, maybe he won’t be so unlucky next time.
Border crossing scam: The restaurant
After a couple of stops for refuelling, we arrived at a restaurant close to the border where we were told to get lunch. This is where the scamming really begun. We were with a group from another mini bus and we were all comparing stories of border scams we had read about before coming out here and we could tell something was afoot.
As we waited a man came and handed us visa application forms to fill in before we reached the border to speed things up. Seemed legit. But it was at this point but that he started asking us for a $35 for the visa fee. We all knew this was too much as the Cambodian visa price should be just $20, we thought they were trying to get us to pay a completely unnecessary charge. We all refused to pay and told him we wanted to get out at the border and sort our own visas out and said we just wanted to get back on the bus. He didn’t seem to take that too well and tried to explain that it would take too long to do at the border; the bus wouldn’t wait for us and proceeded to demand payment. By now our group of 9 had formed a stubborn mentality and we were sticking to our guns. Disgruntled he disappeared and no bus to be seen.
After a few minutes a different guy came out, he was really friendly saying he just wanted to help us out and the border is very confusing so for $30 he would take us to the border, hold our hands through the whole process and we wouldn’t have anything to worry about. It was the old good cop bad cop routine. Sadly for him we all realised we were in the middle of a scam and sent him packing and told him to just put us on the bus. He kept saying he didn’t want to be a bother and that he just wanted us to have a relaxing holiday with nothing to worry about but he picked the wrong group. It is amazing how good they are at acting, pretending that us wanting to get our own visa was crazy suggestion and that he had never heard anything like that before. He must get it every day. So two scammers down we were finally allowed back on the bus but we would have to go in to the office to get the tickets for the second part of our journey the other side of the border.
Into the ‘Dragon’s Lair’
Feeling like we were getting somewhere we ventured inside only to be told again we had to pay for the visa now, this time by an incredibly scary woman. She had that matron look about her, the one that says “Don’t F*ck with me!”. The funny thing is, with every time they asked for money our group resilience grew and made us more determined not to pay extra. After arguing with the dragon in the office for a little while we were allowed back on the bus headed to the border and promised in no uncertain terms that the bus would no wait for us for longer than an hour, which we didn’t believe.
Having negotiated our way out of the lair, we were finally allowed back on the bus to head to the border. We knew they would try to scam us, but didn’t realise how good they’d be at it. If I was on my own I think I may well have cracked.
Just when you thought it was over
Just as we saw the border the bus suddenly turned right, we were wrong to think we were Cambodia bound, we had one more tricky little scam to negotiate. Just before the border there is a Cambodian consulate office where they pulled over telling us we had to get our visas here as there is nowhere else to get them. Getting out of the bus I wandered into the office and up to the window where a man in an official looking uniform sat surrounded by piles of immigration forms. I thought this seems official, but still couldn’t stop thinking about an article I read where it said that you should not hand any money over for a visa until you have been stamped out of Thailand.
As I approached the man looked up to ask me for my forms and the $30 fee. At this I politely explained that it should be $25 at which point he agreed and was ready to accept. Based on the fact that the fee seemed up for negotiation, I decided this was not the right place either and refused to pay. We all got back onto the bus to finally be driven to the border. When we got out it turns out the dragon lady wasn’t lying about not helping us, having been all too happy to put our bags on the bus, they stood refusing to help us get them off again.
Finally being stamped out of Thailand
Finally, after navigating through 4 levels of scammyness, we walked through the Exit border of Thailand and received our good-bye stamp on the way out. One of our group had lost her departure card which you receive when you first pass into Thailand. It caused a minor delay, but she just had to fill in a new one and she was free to leave. Once we were all through and accounted for we met our Cambodian side driver, he was lovely and promised us that the bus would wait and they’d be no problems, we liked that guy.
As you leave the exit stamp office there is a large sign saying people with visas straight on, people without to the right, this is where you can finally buy yourself a Cambodian visa for $20. I went inside, filled in the paperwork and headed to the office window to pay. I was told by the officer the other side of the window that it was $20 plus a 100 baht stamp fee.
The Cambodia border scams keep coming
I questioned the stamp fee while pointing at the official sign that said $20. His move. He pointed back to an official looking piece of paper that said $20 + 100 baht. I remained unconvinced but it is quite intimidating when they are arguing with you in full uniform and have your passport.
I handed over the amount asked. As the officer took the money I watched as the dollars went one way and the 100 baht dropped on the floor. Another guard picked it up, folded it and slid it under the other guards bum. Seeing this I was incensed and argued with the official who had asked for the 100 baht. My point was that I understood people would try to rip me off but c’mon, please be better at it than that. If you are going to take the 100 baht for yourself, at least hide around a corner or something before you do it.
I believe the fee has since increased, find out up to date information about getting a Cambodian visa on arrival, check out this website: http://www.embassyofcambodia.org/faq.html
I spoke to the rest of our group and made sure that no one else would pay the 100 before gesturing to the guy that sat on it to give it back. Much to my amazement, he did. With no more dramas we were free to enter Cambodia.
On the way out of the office there were feedback forms about your experience, I filled one in simply with the advice that if you are going to try skim money off the top, be better at it. Although, I bet they make a lot of money from their “Stamp fee”.
After the office we had one last administrative post to navigate which was being stamped into Cambodia, other than a frustratingly long queue there were no problems here and we were free to meet up with our bus that was waiting as promised.
One final word of border advice
While waiting for the stamp we saw an American guy I had been chatting to at one of the pee breaks being dragged into an office. From the outside you can’t see in so we were all a little concerned about what may be going on in there . . . or up in there . . . but he came out in one piece. He was taken in there as when he previously left Cambodia he didn’t have an exit stamp, he was adamant it was their error, that he didn’t get given one, but either way it cost him $315 and maybe the Cambodian government a rubber glove. Another lesson learnt, make sure you get stamped out of every country, it is so different and easy in Europe.
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