“We’re here to help,” says the tourist officer. Yeah right, here to help take our money….
We knew crossing the border into Cambodia via Aranyaprathet-Poipet tests even the most hardened travelers. Thanks to Tales of Asia, we had a detailed account of what to expect and the process. The journey is ripe with extortionate schemes at every turn.
Taking a 207 baht (US$6) to the border, we hopped on a tuk-tuk to take us the remaining 6km to the border for 80 baht. Just before the border though, we encountered our first hurdle. Stopping unexpectedly at a travel agency, two men rushed out asking whether we needed help in obtaining a Cambodian visa. They tried to persuade us that the visa process was very difficult, and they could offer us their skilled assistance. Saying “no” over and over again didn’t seem to work, so I finally tried “we’ve done this before.” Low and behold, those were the magic words. They lost interest in us, and we were off again.
The tuk-tuk dropped us off in the border market, and touts surrounded us immediately offering to carry our bags. Much to our surprise, a simple “no” sufficed. Crossing into Cambodia, we knew to head directly to the first building on the right, but the non-descript building didn’t look official. Plus, two “helpers” kept ushering us toward it, which set off red flags. Eventually we figured out it was the correct building, but never ditched one of our “helpers.” This particular samaritan helped us fill out our visa forms, saying in English what was clearly stated on the form. Upon completing our forms he grabbed them and stapled photos to them. He provided the oh, so helpful service of handing our passports and forms to the visa control officer and serving as translator for the officer who spoke perfect English. In retrospect, I find the situation comical, but at the time I was mildly irritated. The officer stated the visa fee was 1000 baht (US$30), despite a sign above him clearly stating it was US$20. With the helper repeating everything the officer said and our reply, we entered into an argument over the visa fee. Knowing that the Cambodian government was cracking down on this sort of thing, I emboldened my stance and threatened to report them. Immediately our $20 bills were accepted, and they told us to wait a few minutes.
With visas in hand just moments later, we headed to immigration. I knew that non-caucasians were charged an illegal 100 baht “tea money”, but it still surprised me when it happened. Standing next to a Filipino, she was charged 100 baht and freely paid while we were charged nothing. Happy I didn’t have to fight that battle, we made our way to the dreaded transportation association (think mafia).
In recent years, collusion between the police and association taxi-drivers has set-up a monopoly on transportation from Poipet to Siem Reap. If police officers see a non-member taxi giving tourists a lift, they pull them over. Cases of threatened violence have also been reported. Thus, we knew it would be difficult finding other transportation. On the plus side, we hooked up with some Brits to at least share the cost.
However, our experience was not exactly as expected. We thought we might stand a slight chance of catching a non-association taxi, but there were no taxis or buses visibly available. One of the guys that first approached us when we crossed the border appeared again, telling us he was here to help. Informing us there is a free bus for tourists to the bus station, he ushered us onboard. From there, he said, we would be able to catch a taxi or bus to Siem Reap. We knew this was another scam, but had little choice. On the journey to the station, in the middle of nowhere, our host proceeded to give us his spiel on how this was great for the tourists. The town by the border was full of thieves looking to steal our bags and run into the jungle, he said; the shuttle bus and tourist bus station was set-up by the government to help tourists. Oh yes, helping to take our money….The cost of this journey between Poipet and Siem Reap should be US$25, but they charged us a whopping US$60 for the ride. We tried negotiating, but they held all the power. They transported us out into the boonies with no hope of returning to civilization without taking one of their taxis. Welcome to Cambodia!!!
If that wasn’t enough, today US$50 was stolen from our room. Returning after a nice swim, I went to separate our Thai baht from my wallet only to notice a 1000 baht note was missing. At first, we thought that I may have handed a taxi driver 1000 baht instead of 100 but Chris’ accurate accounting soon dismissed that idea. Upon further review, we also noticed a $20 bill was missing. Cambodia is not proving to be a low-cost country after all.
Despite a rather rough start to Cambodia, we are looking forward to enjoying all that Cambodia has to offer. This is what traveling is all about, eh? The good with the bad…..