“I’m not scared of the Poi Pet border!” I shouted softly into the blanket the bus had provided. “Screw the Cambodian government officials!” I yelled quietly whilst thumping the air gently so no one would notice, least of all the Cambodian government officials. God they’re scary, I really hope none of them look me in the eye.
We were on the bus to the Poi Pet border crossing from Thailand to Cambodia with about 20 other scared looking travellers. We’d all read the horror stories online, been warned by the lonely planet and pathetically sobbed in our dreams the night before, but ultimately all decided to go for it. We’d face the yelling tuk tuk drivers, fight the corrupt Cambodian officials and pay out of our arses to buy what should be a reasonably cheap visa.
And everything that could go wrong did. Here’s what happened to us and how to avoid it happening to you…
1. The lonely planet says that the tuk tuk ride from the bus drop off point to the border costs around 80 Baht. But sometimes the bus drops you just around the corner from the border. Tuk tuk drivers will still be there and they’ll charge the same. You should check where you are before you get one.
2. If you do get in a tuk tuk (we did) there’s quite a high chance it will take you to a non official building selling visas. Don’t get out here. Ask to be taken straight to the border. You can buy visa whilst passing through.
3. Equally, if you do get a tuk tuk and feel ripped off with price/distance, just pay what you feel is fair. We only paid half what was agreed, based on the unofficial stop and the fact that we could have walked. The tuk tuk driver will shout at you but keep calm and walk away. There’s no chance he’ll follow you across the border.
4. A one month tourist visa costs 20 USD. A one month working visa costs 25 USD. These are the right prices (December 2012) and you shouldn’t have to pay more. If this is an old blog now check online for the right prices before you get to the border.
5. The government officials will try to charge an extra admin fee. When we were there it was 100 Thai Baht. Many people will tell you that the officials do this because they don’t get paid enough but believe me they’ll be getting paid more than a lot of other people in Cambodia. Plus, with an extra 100 Baht (that’s 3.25 USD) per person crossing the border they’ll be raking it in. You can simply refuse to pay this extra charge. And if you want to there are an abundance of good NGOs in Cambodia that will benefit from your cash a lot more.
6. I started taking photos of the extra charges and the people applying them at the border. This scared the officials but not in a good way, they shouted and got quite aggressive at me for it. I wouldn’t recommend doing this unless they’re really trying to scam you for the big bucks. If this happens show the pictures to the ministry of tourism in Cambodia. And try to be sneaky.
7. Out the other side have a look around to find the best bus/taxi prices. A shuttle bus takes you to a small bus station and from there it’s normally quite easy to find people going the same way as you (often Siem Reap). If you can find enough the taxi becomes the same price as the bus.
8. ALWAYS KEEP CALM! These people have guns (although I doubt they’d use them). It’s easier to walk through simply refusing extra charges and knowing what to be aware of than it is to argue your way through.
To be honest the border’s not that bad, and there’s a sense of community between travellers there because guide books have made everyone so scared of it. But even if you pay the extra charges, get a tuk tuk, buy a visa from a travel agent, get shouted at a bit and pay too much for a bus the other side you’ll only be down a few quid and chances are you’ll have made a few good friends along the way.
Whatever you do though, don’t let the border dampen your spirits. The worst will be over and you’ll have entered one of the most beautiful countries in South East Asia.
Welcome to Cambodia!