Cambodia is well-known with backpackers for the scams on its borders. Here’s a quick write-up about my latest experiences of crossing three Cambodian borders.
The Veun Kham/Dom Kralor border from southern Laos to north-east Cambodia:
I book a bus to cross the border from southern Laos to northern Cambodia, and a small mini-bus picks me up from a tiny village close to Champasak, where I am staying. The bus has about ten other backpackers in it, all coming from 4,000 Islands. When we arrive at the border, we walk up to the Laos departure booth. There’s three women from Argentina waiting, looking pissed off. They have been told that their bus has already left without them (they have bought a ticket to Phnom Penh) and that they must pay for a new bus ticket (scam number 1).
The women are refusing to pay the unofficial $2 departure ‘fee’ (scam number 2), which they say they have witnessed going straight into the Laos border guards’ top pockets. They say that they want a receipt if they pay the $2, and the guard simply hands them their passports back without stamping their visas. They can’t exit Laos without the stamp. They wait for about twenty minutes and try to encourage other backpackers not to pay the fee. However, at the same time, someone (apparently a worker on the bus which will take us from the Laos border to our Cambodian destinations) is putting pressure on us all. “Hurry up and pay the $2. If you don’t come quickly you will miss the bus.” Everyone, including the Argentinian women, ends up paying the Laos guards. I wonder just how much money they must be pocketing on a daily basis.
When we cross the border and exit Laos, we are then told to go to a quarantine desk (scam number 3). We are told to fill in a health form and then our temperatures are checked, and then we are expected to pay $1 each, supposedly in the name of treating malaria!! I moan at the other westerners. “We shouldn’t be paying this. It’s a scam,” I say, but I can’t be 100% sure. Again, everyone pays the $1 fee.
We pay for our Cambodia visa (don’t pay in Kip like I did. Pay in dollars as it’s much cheaper. Also, you will pay another fine if you don’t have a passport photo with you).
When we enter Cambodia, there’s forty annoyed and tired western backpackers waiting in the cafe for us at the border. They left 4,000 Islands early that morning, and have been waiting one and a half hours for us.
Some backpackers tell me that they are are upset because when they reached the Laos-Cambodia border, their bus driver collected the westerners’ passports, saying that he would get their Cambodia visa himself and that it would work out cheaper for everyone (scam number 4). In fact, it would have been cheaper if they had just got out of the bus and done it themselves.
Some other tourists are annoyed because they were told in Laos that it would work out much cheaper to buy a bus ticket to the border, and then a new bus ticket from the border to Phnom Penh (scam number 5). In fact, they end up paying much more than the people who bought one ticket from 4,000 Islands in Laos to Phnom Penh in Cambodia.
Some people end up falling for all of these scams and end up paying quite a lot extra money.
We’re all packed onto a bus with taped-up windows and we travel onwards into Cambodia. It becomes quickly apparent that our bus is definitely not fit to travel on the muddy road from the border, and we travel at about 10mph as our bus throws us from side to side as it dips into the huge holes in the road.
The bus worker then tells us that some people in 4,000 Islands were not charged enough for their bus tickets to Phnom Penh and that they would have to pay a massive $50 extra to switch to a faster bus and arrive in Phnom Penh that evening (scam number 6). Someone complains loudly at the man: “This is no way to treat customers! You’re creating a bad image of Cambodia!”
When we arrive in Stung Treng (the first big Cambodian town after the border) we are all told to get out of the bus and we are then transferred into three different mini buses. I get out of my bus at about 7pm at my destination of Kratie, and feel sorry for the other travellers who are continuing to Phnom Penh and who will arrive at about 1am (after being told that they would arrive in the early evening!). I don’t know whether they end up paying the $50 extra for their bus journey.
So, the lesson to be learnt is: don’t let someone get your visa for you. Do it yourself, even if they insist that you will save money. Don’t pay the quarantine fee: it’s a con. And don’t trust the bus drivers in Cambodia at all! (I write more about the quarantine scam and dodgy bus drivers further down this post!)
The Bavet/Moc Bai border between Vietnam and Cambodia:
I travel from Saigon to Phnom Penh and decide to use the Mekong Express bus company. The workers are really friendly, except for one thing: with big smiles on their faces, they lie about the cost of the visa at the border.
“The visa has increased. It’s now $35,” the smiley woman says to the tourists (scam number 1).
“I think that it’s $30, actually,” I reply.
“The cost of the visa increased last week.”
“Yes, but it increased to $30.”
“If you use the express service it’s $35,” the woman tells me.
By “express service” she means that the bus company will collect all of the passports and take them to the booth for you. It’s definitely no more “express” than doing it yourself.
What annoys me about Mekong Express is that they don’t tell the tourists that they can get off of the bus and do the visa themselves for $5 less. They just tell them that the visa is $35 and that they are going to collect all of the passports for the crossing. So unless you challenge them, they don’t give you a choice. I tell the woman that I’m getting off of the bus to get my visa myself, and that I will meet them on the other side of the border.
Mekong Express also don’t tell us about the scam Quarantine Service (scam number 2), where you fill in the health form and pay $1. At this border, the quarantine/health desk looks VERY OFFICIAL. It’s in the main building, near the border guards who scan your fingerprints. The guards who are working on the health desk are in border uniform, and look quite scary. There’s five of them at the desk as I walk through the border control.
“You need this health form,” a guard tells me.
“No thanks. I have one from last week,” I say, showing them my piece of paper from the last time I was scammed at the Cambodian border.
“No. You need a new one.”
“No I don’t.” I walk away.
“LADY! COME BACK HERE!” The border guard shouts at me.
“No. I don’t need the health form. I know that we don’t have to pay this money.”
After a little more shouting, they give up on me, and I walk away.
The quarantine desk here is much more intimidating than at the other borders (at the other borders, the desk is just a picnic table outside). This one looks so official and the guards are very stern. I am nervous when I challenge the guards in their uniform, but I’m so glad that I have the courage to argue with them.
To be fair to the Mekong Express bus company, when we arrive in Phnom Penh they explain to me how to walk to my hostel so that I don’t have to take a tuk tuk. I appreciate their honesty about that because it seems that everyone involved in buses or taxis or tuk tuks lies in Cambodia!
So, the moral of this border crossing is, once again, don’t believe the workers of the bus companies, don’t pay the quarantine fee, and do get off of the bus and do the visa yourself!
The Aranyaprathet/Poipet border from Cambodia to Thailand:
For this border, I hitchhike from Siem Reap to the border at Poipet. It’s the most crowded border that I’ve ever seen, with lots of people with huge piles of sweatshop clothes waiting to get their merchandise over the border. As I walk down the street, through the crowd of people, carts and cars to the Cambodian departure building, I am surprised that no-one approaches me at all! I walk past the Quarantine desk and take a quick photo of the scammers in action. My experience of exiting Cambodia is a very peaceful one. However, having read the Hitchwiki article about this border, I think that entering into Cambodia by this border can be really stressful. Travelfish is an amazing website which gives so many tips about South East Asia, including the border crossings.
Happy travels, everyone!