I am not saying for sure that any of this happened to us, but let me tell you about what might could happen to you on the Thailand Cambodia border.
First of all, imagine yourself in Thailand, think about the tourism posters you see in your local travel agency – golden limestone cliffs hanging over white sand beaches, delicious food, inviting floating markets, high tech Bangkok…
most of it is true and the people we met were genuine, nice and incredibly accommodating with our inability to speak or read the Thai language. To say the least, after two weeks in Thailand most farang tourists would be incredibly relaxed and completely used to taking things as they come.
Now, imagine yourself waking up early, you have a train to catch at 5:30 am. The taxi is taking you to the station and you are hungry. You find some deliciously bland rice soup for breakfast along with an iced coffee from the mini mart. Let’s just say you are in good company of your spouse and her parents and the four of you have had a fun couple days in Bangkok. Everything is going swimmingly despite the early hour. The train is third class wooden seats and you get settled in for a beautiful ride across southeastern Thailand. Train windows open, wind blowing, everything people tell you is true, and you are feeling great.
Five hours later the train pulls into its last stop, and you jump onto a sweet four-person tuk tuk to go to the border of Cambodia. Along the way, other people from the train are in tuk tuks and everyone is smiling.
Then many tuk tuks are stopping and the drivers are saying this is the border, come in and fill out your paper work. You seem to be in the back of a bank, but the window says Welcome to the Kingdom of Cambodia and inside there is air conditioning; and even people are helping you fill out your paperwork. Sure it seems a bit too nice for a supposedly infamous border, but hey this is really nice huh?
You might not even care that they will only accept Thai Baht for currency, and why bother with those pesky conversion rates? The people who are helping you are so nice and so confident. This is going much smoother than one might imagine and hey, where is that guy going with so many Thai Baht and your passports? Relax he will be right back with your Visa. And sure enough, here is your Passport and Visa – good to go…
This is when you might realize that you are actually still in Thailand and have never properly excited through passport control. Then you might say “Hey, let’s figure out how much money (in dollars) that we actually gave them, isn’t it only supposed to be $20 US dollars right?”
Now is when a good sense of humor might come in real handy. You might even shake the gentleman’s hand and say, “Thank you very much for our visas, you are very good at your job.” And then be on your way to Cambodia.
There are apparently six different Cambodia Visa handing operations on the Thai side of the border who will get your Visa for you – explaining the whole time that they are actually conducting the official Visa process. The picture above is one such operation. They won’t tell you that they are basically hustlers taking a 125% commission for something that you can do yourself. If you get caught up in this, best to get out before you give them any money. But hey, if you pay the premium, at least you can skip one of the three lines required to make it through the border. And, you have the satisfaction of knowing that you are supporting a well-run scam that in one way or another must be supporting hundreds of people who live along the border – Including your nice tuk tuk driver who took you straight to the border, just like you asked him to.
Now that you have your visa, you likely will have to wait in a long line to get out of Thailand, then another to get into Cambodia. (If you didn’t get your visa before the border – online, with handing service, at embassy – you would get your visa between these two lines in a separate que.) Visa handlers also like to sell over-priced bus and taxi tickets on to Siem Reap or Phnom Pen on the Thailand side. The exact same transport options are much cheaper if you wait to find a ride once you are through the rigmarole and squarely on the Cambodian side.
While, again, I am not confirming that any of this happened to Laura and I while Laura’s parents who had pre-sorted e-visas watched on, I do recommend to those crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia to be extra vigilant.*
Most importantly, this could be a good lesson in the harsh realities created by political borders in our world. While just a taste of the type of mess people face when trying to cross them, this is a good opportunity to reflect on the incredible luck and privilege that tourist travellers have. Remember to have a sense of humor and recognition of this incredible privilege to travel internationally and freely cross most borders in a relatively fast and efficient manner and all of this will seem pretty easy.
* The right way to do it is to go directly to the (likely long) line to pass through Thai Passport control and exit Thailand, stamp and all. You do not need to get your visa sorted before you do this. After you have officially left Thailand, then concern yourself with getting a Visa for Cambodia – follow signs to Visa on Arrival line. Then proceed to officially enter Cambodia through another likely long line. Then arrange for your onward transportation. (Four of us split a taxi for $40, after we went out into Poipet to find some lunch.) All of this took about 3 hours. Remember to bring sun screen because sometimes the slow moving lines are in the full-on mid-day sun.