If you’ve ever crossed the border between Thailand and Cambodia, you know it’s not a matter of whether or not you’ll get ripped off, but of just how much you’ll lose in the process.
When Bangkok announced the first public bus service linking the neighboring countries, it helped to ease long-held concerns over the wild scamming endemic to the route. Until now, the trip to Siem Reap, popular among travelers and expats doing visa runs, was a bit like an Olympic triathlon: multiple legs, various terrains and several kinds of transportation. It takes awhile. You sweat a lot.
Bus tickets sold from Khao San Road are notorious for being fraudulent or delivering something other than what was promised. At the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet, swindlers and even immigration officials can quote visas on arrival at double or triple their actual cost. Wikitravel describes Aranyaprathet as “the scene of some of the world’s great border scams – a major local industry.”
So, it was a welcome initiative when the state-operated bus routes to both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh began running in late February. The service would undoubtedly streamline the trip and reduce scamming, right? Not quite.
Coconuts Bangkok traveled the BKK-to-Siem Reap bus route in late April. Here’s what you need to know about the new bus line, and getting over the border with your patience (and wallet) intact:
The buses are operated by the Transport Co. and run daily from Bangkok’s Northern (Mo Chit) Bus Terminal, a 4km taxi ride from the Mo Chit BTS. A passport and cash got me a ticket in less than three minutes from the nice ladies at Booth 22, located inside the terminal.
The bus to Siem Reap left at 9am and cost THB750. (The bus to Phnom Penh departs at 8:15am and costs THB900. Depending on the length of lines you encounter when stamping out of Thailand and arriving at Immigration in Cambodia, it could take anywhere from 7-9 hours for Siem Reap and 11+ hours to Phnom Penh.)
Trippy upholstery provides a wonderful distraction aboard the bus.
The bus ride from Bangkok to the border took a leisurely four hours. I was served a boxed “breakfast,” consisting of a cookie and a Nescafe packet, which came sans hot water or a mug.
We stopped once just before Aranyaprathet around 12:30pm, where a Royal Thai Army soldier hopped on the bus, checked a couple of foreigners’ passports, moseyed around and hopped off.
In Aranyaprathet, which is 6km from the Cambodian border town of Poipet, we detoured to the bus agency’s office. An English-speaking Transport Co. representative joined us, handing out identification cards which he explained he would use to track us down after we crossed into Poipet and passed immigration.
On our way to the border, we were given lunch. A hot meal! The travelers rejoiced.
Pro Tip: Pack snacks. This lunch, of no less than two slivers of sweet pork, fried rice, and cucumber slices was nice, but will not suffice if you’re used to consuming over 1,000 calories a day.
But before we crossed the actual border into Poipet, the bus pulled behind a building where we were told to apply for Cambodian tourist visas if we hadn’t already gotten one. Sounds great. Except a Cambodian tourist visa on arrival should cost you USD20-25, not the THB1,100 (USD37) they try to charge you here. The “officer” said the visa costs THB1,000 plus a THB100 processing fee, which he later called a service fee. Later, when asked, he couldn’t explain what either “processing” or “service” entailed.
When I explained to the “officer” that I thought a tourist visa on arrival should cost no more than the equivalent of THB740, and would prefer to get a visa at the actual border, he told me that this office was the only location where I could apply for and receive a visa. I saved face, accepted, and handed over my passport. While they “processed” my visa, which took a reasonable 10 minutes, I asked for receipts and took pictures. I don’t think the officers were happy about that.
The real nugget of wisdom here is to apply online in advance for an eVisa. It costs $28, takes three or less days to process, and it’s emailed to you to print out.
While the building storefront says, “Welcome to Cambodia: Entry,” it’s just an office where you’ll spend at least ten US dollars more on a Cambodia tourist visa.
When we finally got to the actual border, around 1:45pm, we followed the standard process of stamping out of Thailand and walking across. It’s a three-minute walk, with casinos beckoning/terrifying you as you stroll by. Since I and most other passengers had already been duped into getting our visas and didn’t have to get them at the border, we went straight to the Immigration line. Fortunately, the line was short and I was fingerprinted and stamped in within 30 minutes.
Post-visa scam walk across the border: Angkor Wat! Cambodia! A consistent stream of large carts with unidentifiable goods being pushed into the country!
The bus company representative who earlier handed out ID cards was waiting for us outside the Immigration office, where he directed us back onto the same bus.
Yes, the same bus, even though Cambodians drive on the right side of the road. Don’t ask me how we made it to Siem Reap safely.
About three hours later – around five o’clock – we pulled into Siem Reap. Or rather, we pulled up to Nattakan Cambodia’s offices in central Siem Reap. Nattakan is the Cambodian company that contracts with the Transport Co., and operates buses that head in the reverse direction. Tuk-tuk drivers and agency representatives were on hand to make sure those of us who needed accommodation, or a ride, or a return ticket, or maybe an overly-priced three-day tour of the temples of Angkor with a knowledgeable guide, were taken care of.
A smile, numerous “No, thank you’s,” and a five-minute walk down the street gets you to downtown Siem Reap.
The Bottom Line?
The new direct bus route from Bangkok to Siem Reap, Cambodia, is indeed convenient and a bit cheaper than what you’d pay to embark on the traditional version of this route. You don’t have to switch buses or haggle for transportation, and there are fewer stops. But when it comes to obtaining a Cambodia tourist visa on arrival, the scamming is hard to avoid. The bus ticket is worth it, but apply for the simple eVisa in advance and save yourself the swindling.
BKK to Siem Reap: departs at 9am; costs THB750; takes 7-9 hours
BKK to Phnom Penh: departs at 8:15am; costs THB900; takes 11+ hours
Buses leave daily from Bangkok’s Northern (Mo Chit) Bus Terminal
Tickets can be purchased from inside the terminal at Booth 22
Photos: Sarah Cuiksa