Adventures on a Visa Run in Thailand!

I am writing this post out of sequence as I didn’t get the time to blog about it when I was travelling. I am a bit of a lazy blogger and get carried away enjoying my surroundings instead of blogging about it.
Now woefully behind in my posts and with a bit of spare time on my hands I am hoping to catch up.
Before leaving Thailand last month the Boss and I were faced with the dilemma of soon to be expiring visas. We could have gone to the immigration department and requested a 1 month extension. This would have been a pretty straightforward exercise involving a couple of hours and a fee of THB2000 each.
However as we had a double entry visa and always wanting to visit new places we thought we would follow in the footsteps of countless other expats in Thailand and do the “Visa Run”.
This involves crossing the border into a neighbouring country, in this case Cambodia and then reentering Thailand with another 2 month stamp on the passport.
Some people do all this in a day and as soon as they have set foot in Cambodia immediately turn around and re-enter Thailand.
To us though it seemed like a long way to go for a day and as the border crossing of choice, Poipet is close to Siem Reap, home of the world heritage site of Angkor Wat, a long time resident on my bucket list, we decided to make a proper trip of it and spend a few days exploring the ruins of Angkor.
The next decision was how to get there. Flying was immediately crossed off the list as at THB12000 each it was not an inexpensive option.
A quick search on Google threw up horror story after horror story about traveling to Cambodia by land and crossing through Poipet. The reports made Poipet sound like a rough and dangerous wild west town from the cowboy films of old.
Fearing for our lives, or at the least the contents of our wallets, we decided to approach a travel agent and find an organized tour. This also didn’t seem easy as it involved switching from private taxi, to minibus, to hot air balloon, then a 3 day trek by camel (just joking) and it also wasn’t cheap. Our research had shown that the cost of a Visa to Cambodia was only US$20 but the travel agent was quoting an amount equivalent to 3 times that amount.
Telling her we would think about it we wandered the streets in a confused daze before coming to the conclusion that we would give it a try on our own. How bad could it be after all? We like to consider ourselves seasoned travelers, and we have watched every episode of Scam City. What is the worse that can happen?
So the next morning we caught the 6.15am government bus from Ekkamai Bus stand for the princely sum of THB240 each (including a bottle of water! Bargain!) and enjoyed a very pleasant 5 hour journey through the Thai countryside to Poipet accompanied by mainly Thais and Cambodians but also a scattering of foreigners.
After a few stops at various country towns and also at an Army checkpoint where the very polite Military Policeman hauled off two Thais from the bus, we finally arrived in the border town of Aranyaprathet on the Thai side of the border. The bus pulled up outside a white building covered in signs saying “Cambodia Visa”. Being forewarned by the numerous scam reports on Tripadvisor we knew not to pay attention to these signs or the couple of touts half- heartedly beckoning us into the building. Come on guys, if you want to scam an innocent young tourist like me you are going to have to try harder than that!
Retrieving our bags from the luggage bay under the bus we headed off towards the Thai border post a couple of hundred metres away. This bit we knew to be straightforward, after all, the journey to the “dark side” would start once we had crossed into Cambodia (or so the internet reports would have us believe).
Receiving our exit stamp from the Thai authorities we nervously took our first steps into the no-man’s land between Thailand and Cambodia.
“Please cross the road and apply for your visa on the right hand side” we were told by a smiling friendly looking man standing outside.
We followed his directions and sure enough after about 50 metres we found the Cambodian Visa office. A number of foreign back packers were already there filling out forms and after completing ours we presented them to the Cambodian border official together with the required US$20 each. Pointing to a handwritten sign taped to the counter he told me I have to pay an extra THB100 each. Sensing that things would not go smoothly if I didn’t comply I handed over THB200 and he told me to wait a couple of minutes.
I told the Boss what had happened and we started to have a doubt as to whether anyone else was having to pay the “tea money”. It wasn’t the amount, just that we hate the idea of being the only ones to be conned. If everyone has been conned it is much more acceptable!
I asked a fellow traveler from Belgium if he had to pay and he said he had also paid. However he was a much more charitable soul then me and said “it doesn’t matter, these guys aren’t paid much. They need to supplement their income” (Note to self: must work on my Mother Teresa qualities).
Within 5 minutes our names were being called and we were handed back our passports with the Cambodia visa taking up a full page in our passports.
As we left the office the same helpful man was outside smiling and guiding us to the next office where we would get our visa stamped with the entry stamp. Feeling suspicious of anyone being helpful to me and on a heightened state of alert after reading the internet horror stories, I took a closer look at the man and noticed he was wearing a shirt with the logo of a tour bus company on the left breast. Ahhh, I thought to myself! His true colours will soon be revealed I am sure!
Joining a line of people at the immigration counter we waited for about 15 minutes as the two open counters seemed to take an interminable amount of time to stamp each visa. I also noticed some money being passed over to the immigration officials by some of the travelers. This seemed to reduce the time taken to stamp the visa significantly. Suddenly a senior looking officer entered the room and opened up a 3rd counter. The pace of the other two officers suddenly accelerated, visas were being stamped at a rapid speed and the requirement for additional cash to oil the wheels seemed no longer to be necessary!
Within a couple of minutes, visas duly stamped, we left the building to be greeted by our friendly guide who proceeded to lead us to the “official free shuttle bus” which would take us to the main bus stand from where we could catch a bus for the 3 hour journey to Siem Reap.
Forewarned is forearmed as they say and the internet had warned us that these buses are in fact overpriced and that if one walks another 3-400 metres away from the border, it would be possible to catch a taxi or bus at a “local” price. We duly informed the friendly guide that we wouldn’t be catching his bus and his personality underwent a sudden transformation, no longer the welcoming smiley guide of a few minutes ago, instead a red-faced angry man insisting that there are no other buses in all of Poipet and that we would end up walking the 250 kms to Siem Reap. Suspecting that this might not be true, we decided to take our chances and ventured out into the dusty wilderness, otherwise known as the border town of Poipet.
Accompanied by the Belgian backpacker from the Visa office we walked about 200 metres looking for the waiting buses and taxis eager to drive us to Siem Reap. What we hadn’t counted on was this day was the first day of Chinese New Year, surprisingly a popular festival in Cambodia! There wasn’t a bus or taxi to be seen anywhere. We walked further and further, getting hotter and dustier but still faintly optimistic that we would find someone and anyway determined not to give the bus tout the satisfaction of seeing us returning to his shuttle bus.
Finally a couple of guys approached us on motor bikes offering taxis for US$50 however we felt that we would find something cheaper as the going rate according to Tripadvisor was about US$7 per person. After about a kilometer a guy approached us and in a heavy American accent offered to take us for US$30. While debating whether to take him up on his offer a Cambodian family started loading up his taxi with piles of luggage brought over from Thailand (including 2 fighting Cocks in baskets!) Realising that 7 people ( and two roosters) was probably the limit of his Toyota Camry’s loading capacity and taking pity on us he phoned a few friends to see if they could take us but they were all celebrating Chinese New Year and slightly inebriated.
Apologising, he did advise us that the fair rate for a taxi was US$30 although some people would try to ask for more due to the holiday.
Taking his leave we headed off again further and further away from the border. We were now too far away to contemplate returning to the bus stand with our tails between our legs but Fortune smiled upon us and spotting another Camry by the side of the road ahead we approached the driver and asked him for a price. After a weak attempt to charge us $40 he succumbed to our superior negotiating skills and smilingly agreed to take us for $30.
There then followed a very pleasant and safely driven (again contradicting the internet doom merchants who frightened us with tales of terrifying driving) 3 hour drive to our hotel in Siem Reap. In fact so happy were we with our driver we took down his number and despite our lack of Khmer language and his equal lack of English ( we actually communicated in pidgin Thai!) informed him that we would call him for the ride back in a couple of days.
And so ended our first day in Cambodia. The first of 4 extremely pleasant days amongst a very friendly, smiling and welcoming people and a place we will definitely visit again (about more of which to come).
So much for the internet warnings. I never realized that not everything on the internet was true!

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