Crossing the border

What did I know about Cambodia before coming here? I knew it’s location between Thailand and Vietnam, I knew Angkor Wat is there, I knew it had a violent past with the Khmer Rouge (though I knew nothing more than that), and I knew it was or is one of the poorer countries. Then I started reading up on the border crossing from Thailand to Cambodia. “Watch out for visa scams!” “Keep an eye on your valuables, lots of pickpockets!” “Beware of bag snatching!” And so on. But I was in for a big surprise!

But first things first. One evening we were sitting over dinner and discussing when we’ll go to Cambodia. We decided to stay for two more nights on Koh Chang but move to Lonely Beach and will then go to Cambodia. We checked up on immigration regulations as the Thai-Cambodia border is infamous for visa scams, where tourists end up paying way more than the official 30$. We found out that Cambodia offers e-visa which can be obtained online and take up to 3 days. I decided to give the e-visa a try, as we didn’t have passport photos and I’m always preferring digital over analog solutions for things like this. The process was surprisingly easy. Enter your passport data, upload a picture, a selfie works fine, and send. Then you pay by credit card the 30$ visa fee plus a 6$ processing fee. Little preview: even though we payed more than the base visa price we were the two people on the bus who payed the least in the end. After the payment we got the confirmation that our application is complete and we have to wait for our request to be processed. It was 23:00 and about 2 1/2 days before we planned to enter Cambodia. I was curious if the up to 3 day processing time would deliver the visa in time.

The next morning around 10 I received an e-mail. “We are happy to inform you that your visa application was successful. Please find attached your e-visa.” That was real quick. Processing starts at 8, and 2 hours later they already completed my visa. The colorful pdf showed the usual shape and information on a visa, plus my selfie from last night. The following day we booked our bus ticket to Sihanoukville, Cambodia at a travel agency around the corner from our guesthouse. As it was already pretty late and one company was already sold out for the next day we did not ask around too much and went with a lady who had a good but not too cheap price. When we came back to our guesthouse we told the owner where we bought out ticket. Her reaction was just a sigh. “If you had asked me before, I would have told you to buy anywhere but there. Their service is bad and they overcharged us last time at the border with additional fees.” Well, what is done is done, so we went to bed and I was excited how the next day will be.

The next morning we got up early to be picked up by a minivan which would bring us to the border where we are supposed to continue with a big bus to Sihanoukville. We stowed our bags and the driver took our tickets. He didn’t even let me take a picture of the ticket, just pulled it out of my hand and told us to get into the van. So we drove on to the pier, set over to mainland Thailand, and continued towards the border. After around 3 hours we arrived at the border, where eager tuktuk drivers were already orbiting the van to offer us to transport the bags to the border checkpoint. We left the bus, received another slip of paper from the bus driver, and grabbed our bags before the vultures could lay their hands on them. As it was only a few hundred meters and to disengage this vulture culture, we walked straight to Thai Immigration. The line was rather short and we quickly were processed and left Thailand.

In the no-mans land between the checkpoints, another couple of hundred meters, loads of beggars and service men approached us to get some no longer needed Baht. We ignored them and marched straight to the Cambodian checkpoint. There the next flock of vultures was waiting already. “Can I see your ticket?” “Can I see your passport?” “You need vis, this way please!” I ignored all the visa requests and showed but never handed my ticket to people who looked like representatives of a bus company. One guy told us he is the driver of our bus and he will wait for us after immigration. So far so good.

Next we fought our way through the people to get to the immigration window, which was strategically clever locates between the window where you apply for your visa and the window where zou pay for your visa. So all people had to get back and forth before they could line up. After 15 min I reached the window, the officer looked at my passport and handed me wordlessly an immigration form to fill out. Another clever move not to put them out where everybody can just grab one and fill it out. This way they make sure that the visa vultures still stay in business if more people get e-visa, because they have these forms of course and for a fee will give it to you and help you to fill it out. So we filled out the forms and lined up again, as we were not allowed to cut in line. More people had arrived, and this time it took about 30 min to get to the window where the officer then processed my passport and after a few minutes the passport was handed back to me.

Our group from the bus had by then been scattered over the whole checkpoint. Some still applying for visa, some about to pay, some waiting at the immigration window and some had disappeared. A guy, who we were not sure if it was the same as before, approached us and told us he would bring us to the tuktuk that would then take us to the bus station at the border town. We followed him to a tent nearby where a family was living and selling drinks and cigarettes. We got some plastic chairs and were told to wait for the rest of the group. After 15 minutes a man came, set down behind a desk, and started processing our tickets. “So you are going to Sihanoukville. The bus leaves at 14:00 from the bus station in town, we will bring you there shortly. There you will get a big bus towards Phnom Penh and then change at the highway intersection to another bus to Sihanoukville. You will arrive there after 20:00.” Dramatical pause. “But we can offer you to upgrade to a minivan which leaves in 15 min, at 13:00, from here and takes you in 5 hours directly t Sihanoukville. This will save you at least 2 hours.” I looked at Melli and back to the salesman. “How much?” – “150 Baht per Person.” So about 4 EUR extra for the upgrade to a minivan, if you can call this upgrade, but including 2 or more hours saved and 2 bus changes avoided. I briefly discussed it with Melli and we agreed to the upgrade. Shortly after another tourist came. He only had a ticket to the border and wanted to buy a ticket to Sihanoukville. For him the price was almost 20 EUR. So I did not feel too bad for our upgrade, as we payed 17,50 EUR from Koh Chang to Sihanoukville plus the 4 EUR upgrade. Then we promptly got led to the minivan.

After we sat down in the minivan more and more people joined us. Some of them from our original group, some from other groups who where heading for Sihanoukville or the border town Koh Kong. A discussion started about the upgrade price we paid. Most of us paid 150 Baht, two paid only 100 Baht as they refused the first offer with 150 Baht and so got a discount. One guy did not pay any fee. He insisted on taking the included bus even though it takes longer for so long that they upgraded him for free. The rumor was there is no big bus, and this is part of the organized scam that they tell you in Thailand it’s a big bus so they can squeeze off a few Baht for the upgrade. Then we discussed about the visa fee. The official fee is 30 USD or around 1000 Baht. The others in our bus, even though at the border at the same time, paid 1400-1800 Baht, so 36-46 EUR. Even though all knew the official price, they were not able to get it. Even the Cambodian border officials were part of the scam, as they received the payment and, my guess, they distribute it later to their helpers. E-visa makes this less likely to happen, but there is still a way to go. The rest of the drive was fine. The van was overfilled, with people siting on stools in the isle for all 5 hours, but we arrived as planned right before sunset in Sihanoukville.

In Sihanoukville the tuktuk drivers were waiting for the people to leave the bus to start their singing: “you need hotel? where you going? You want tuktuk?” Our guesthouse was 3 km away, so we decided to get a tuktuk. The guidebook said the appropriate price would be 4 USD to the center, but drivers at the bus station go as high as 10 USD. Our driver as well checked where our guesthouse was and asked for 5 USD per person. After some haggling I brought him down to 5 USD for both of us, which was fine as I had exactly one 5 dollar bill. We started driving and he started asking where where we want to go next and if we need ferry tickets. We declined and asked him to bring us to the guesthouse. After a while he topped at a travel agency and said we should get our tickets there. I declined again and asked him to continue to the guesthouse. He replied that they had good prices, so I repeated that he should continue to the guesthouse. He started to talk again, so I rudely interrupted him with a vigorous and angry “no, please guesthouse”. He tried again and I put a more aggresive and determined tone into it. “No, guesthouse!” and I pointed down the street. He finally continued, just seconds before I would have unloaded my bags and hailed another tuktuk. He then drove us correctly to the pier where our guesthouse was located.

So, where is the big surprise? Well, that was about to come when we went to Koh Rong and Kampot the next days.