How do you say "¡La migra!" in Cambodian?
I know the whole “you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy” meme from Star Wars is overused. But if Mos Eisley has a tropical equivalent on Earth, it’s the cesspool of humanity that is the border crossing between Aranyaprathet, Thailand and PoiPet, Cambodia.
So naturally I had to cross it, attempting to sorta-kinda break immigration law as I did it. Well, at least bend the rules a little.
No one recommends visiting this place. If ever there was a place to get pickpocketed, scammed, or murdered (two of three ain’t bad), this is it. I have nothing good to say about the place, save one thing:
It’s the cheapest and fastest way to make a border-run from Bangkok and back again. Specifically, it’ll cost you $46 USD (1600฿) and about 10-ish hours of your life. And only the tiniest piece of your soul.
My story continues below. If you’re just here for the info, you can skip to the 17-step guide at the bottom. Not kidding about those 17 steps, by the way.
In early August of 2016, I showed up at the Ekkamai bus station at about 6:30 a.m. and plopped down 200฿ ($5.75) for a one-way ticket -- and complimentary bottle of water -- on Route No.9916, a comfy, air-conditioned minibus that would lead me and my co-runners to the border town of Aranyaprathet, gateway to Piopet, Cambodia. The process of buying the ticket was a whole lot easier than I thought. If I had to do it all over again, I’d have caught the 6:15 bus for reasons that will make sense later. Earlier is always better when dealing with lines. And holy shit did I have to deal with lines.
Though the minibus had capacity for a dozen or so, there were only five of us on board when we pulled out of the terminal, perfectly on schedule 15 minute late. No, that’s not a dichotomy. This is Thailand. I’d just started to stretch out and write this blog post when we made the first of three other stops on the way out of Bangkok. Half an hour later, we were bouncing eastbound for the border, significantly over capacity in the minivan. It’s good thing my seat mate was, like most Thai people, tiny.
Two hours later, we made a pee break when the van stopped to refuel. Many of the Thais took the opportunity to frequent the coffee and snack vendors set up for cross-country travelers. I opted out because my bladder and spleen share an efficiency apartment, and there isn’t a lot of room in there. I couldn’t imagine border bathroom facilities being anything other than horrid border bathroom facilities, so I used the relatively clean facilities at the petrol station, making a deposit rather than withdrawing, if you catch my meaning.
As the aforementioned stop is strategically placed halfway along the journey, we arrived about two hours later. Though I use the term “arrived” loosely. The bus made two stops before getting to the border proper. One of them looked suspiciously like a bus terminal. The driver left the van for ten minutes or so, and I’ve heard some poor bastards have taken this as a sign to leave the bus. DO NOT DO THIS. If you do, plan on spending money -- a lot of money -- for a taxi ride to the actual border, which is still a few kilometers away.
I had three clues that let me know we’d reached the border-proper. First was the 7-11 we’d parked next to, clearly marked on this map which you need to memorize before you go. Second was the fact that everyone got off. (When in doubt, follow the crowds.) And the third was that immediately upon disembarkation I and every other farang (westerner) were set upon by a sea of touts, all shouting “Mister! Mister!” and “Visa! Visa!” in an effort to get my attention. And money. But when they saw me talking into my phone’s headset, completely oblivious to their gesticulations, they quickly abandoned me in favor or easier fish to catch. Or squeeze.
Little did they know I wasn’t actually speaking to anyone. Talking to myself while wearing earbuds is the single greatest trick I’ve discovered during my travels. It’s great for dissuading overzealous shopkeepers, street vendors, and/or totally-legit-not-kidding massage girls (?) from trying to sell me something I neither want nor need. I sorta feel bad for the tourists around me who haven’t learned this trick, but better them than me.
Headset firmly in-ears and the aforementioned map clearly in-mind, I walked right through the throng of touts and made my way to the border. Left at 7-11. Over the railroad tracks. Left at the sign that says “Departures”. Up the stairs at the sign that says “Foreign Passports”, where I waited in queue for maybe a minute before being summarily processed by a bored-looking Thai border agent. So long as I wasn’t on an overstay, he really couldn’t care why I was leaving the Kingdom. Less than 10 minutes after exiting the minibus, and I was in Cambodia.
Well… sort of. Here’s where the bending of border regulations comes into play.
Normal border crossings are pretty straightforward. Right after you stamp out of one country, assuming you don’t get on a plane or ship, you immediately stamp into the other. Which makes sense, unless you’re in a demilitarized zone. Which I guess is what’s happening between Thailand and Cambodia? Exiting Thai immigration, there’s just a stone archway that says “Kingdom of Cambodia”. But the actual immigration counter? It’s some half-kilometer beyond that stone archway, with a variety of shops, businesses, street vendors, construction workers, and even two huge casinos in between.
Rumor had it that I didn’t actually need to stamp into Cambodia. I could, said this rumor supported by two anecdotes, simply cross the street, make a right, and enter back into Thailand immigration, thus resetting my Thai visa and never having to deal with Cambodian immigration.
Wrong. So, so very wrong. I don’t doubt for a minute the anecdotes I’d heard were true. But any holes that existed in the process have been closed up. Tightly. You can wait in the hour-plus long line to be told “no, go get your Cambodian visa” by Thai immigration like I was, or you can spend the 1200฿ and save two hours of your life. Because odds are, they won’t let you back into Thailand until you do. And no, Cambodian immigration won’t stamp you into their country without that visa, either. Even if you’re spending minutes in the country. You can’t sweet talk your way in. At least I couldn’t. You’re going to be out 1200฿ whatever you do. Don’t spend your time foolishly. Like some people. (Me. I’m talking about me if you hadn’t figured it out. Am I being too vague?)
Learn from my mistakes and follow the correct procedure: Once you’ve done the easy exit from Thai immigration, cross the road just before that big stone archway and walk directly into the building that’s just behind the big stone lion. Ignore any human or sub-human on the street or lounging outside. They’ll offer to help guide you through the process for a small fee. Or they’ll offer to convert your Thai Baht or US dollars into the local currency. Ignore these parasites. You don’t need any more information than what’s on your passport. And the only currencies the Cambodian visa office takes are Thai Baht or USD. In fact, the only people you should talk to are those wearing official uniforms who are inside official buildings. Treat everyone else as suspect. Because they are.
10 minutes after turning in the easy form, my passport, and 1200฿, they called my name and presented me my passport, with a bright shiny Cambodian 30 day tourist visa. That I was going to use for maybe five more minutes. Tops.
Exiting the visa office, I turned right, following the covered footpath, past two casinos, under another covered footpath, and finally into the Cambodian Arrivals area about 300 meters later. I filled out a departure/arrival card and waited in line for just few minutes before my time at the window. The Cambodian immigration officer made sure the visa was valid, checked the information against my passport data, took my picture (quite common), and sent me out the door to the left. I was officially in Cambodia. And ready to leave.
From there, I followed the outer edge of the roundabout, once again avoiding all the oh-so-helpful people who offered me no end of services and products. Conveniently placed 180° from the Arrivals on the opposite side of the roundabout, I found Departures, which was devoid of any border-crossers save me, and meant getting out of Cambodia took seconds. I walked up to the first counter, handed my passport, presented all 10 fingers for electronic scanning… and that was it! My fresh Cambodian visa was now sullied with a giant USED stamp and a departure date that matched the entry date. Too bad it didn’t have a timestamp. I might have won a contest for least amount of time in a country.
Of course, I wasn’t yet in Thailand. I had to walk, this time along the other side of the street along those railroad tracks I noticed when I got out of the bus just after the 7-11, the 300 meters back to the stone archway, then cross the street to follow the signs to Thai immigration arrivals, another 100 meters and this time physically across the fetid creek that marks the physical border between the two countries. The path was lousy with vendors, beggars, and probably more than a few pickpockets, making me thankful for the anti-pickpocket pants I was wearing. (But I wear these pants all the time. Damned comfy. Thanks again, TravelSmith!)
Once across, it was up the stairs and back to the line where I’d I’d already queued for two hours some 20 minutes ago. But you’re not going to test the system like I did, so you won’t have to do a repeat. Thai immigration carefully pours over every passport from every visitor entering Thailand from this particular border, and keeps no more than three immigration officials on duty. My second pass took just over an hour, which was speedy. I guess the tour busses had cleared out by then. Once I got to the Thai immigration official, the process was a familiar one. I handed over the passport, she checked for a Cambodian stamp, and then did something else for another two and a half minutes. After verifying that I wasn’t wanted by Interpol (?), she handed me back my visa. I was back in Thailand.
Getting back to the bus was straightforward. The crowds of touts and scammers were still there, but they were focused on the fresh meat coming the other direction. I walked along the path for a bit, turned right at the intersection, crossed the railroad track again, and made a right at the 7-11.
Once I found the ticket counter for the bus hiding inconspicuously next to the 7-11, I made my final mistake of the day. Wanting to get back to Bangkok -- anywhere in Bangkok -- without waiting around in the seething pit that is Aranyaprathet a second longer than I had to, I asked for the next bus to Bangkok. “Mo Chit, leaving ten minutes”, the ticket agent said, indicating the large bus behind me. After forking over 203 baht (I guess the extra three baht was a big-bus surcharge?), she handed me another complimentary bottle of water -- hooray, hydration! -- and I found a seat on the mostly empty bus.
You see… that’s where I screwed up. I’d asked the wrong question, and got exactly what I asked for. Not quite as bad as wishing to have an orange for a head, but the next departing bus was the slowest bus, on the most non-direct route back to Bangkok. Had I instead asked for the earliest bus that got me to Bangkok -- anywhere in Bangkok the fastest -- I wouldn’t have arrived an hour away from my condo some seven hours later. Not kidding. Four-ish to get to the border. Seven-ish to get back. And still an hour from home. At least I had snacks.
And if you think that's funny...
Take a listen to what happened to us in Siem Reap, arguably a much better part of Cambodia than Poipet!
17 Steps For An Easy Bangkok to PoiPet to Bangkok Border Run
Oh, so you decided to skip the narrative, did you? Eh, whatever. I’m just glad I can help. Here’s everything you need to know about making the round-trip border run from Bangkok to PoiPet, without getting scammed or screwed along the way. Do it just like this, and you’ll be fine.
Study this map, paying attention to the five orange squares. Those are the only “official’ buildings you’ll be visiting during this run.
Pack a small backpack with snacks. You’ll get water on the bus, but you may get the munchies on the way back.
Get to the Ekkamai bus terminal around 6:00. That probably means a taxi or Uber, because the BTS doesn’t start until 6:00a.
Buy a ticket for Route No.9916. It Costs 200฿ and departs at 6:15. Ticket includes a small bottle of water, which is all you’ll need.
Arrive at the border around 10:00 - 10:30a. Don’t get off the bus unless everyone else is getting off. If you see a 7-11 on your left, you’re at the final stop. (Green square on the map.)
Ignoring everyone offering to help, make a left at the 7-11, cross the railroad tracks, and make a left at the sign that says DEPARTURES. Keep walking until you see signs for Foreign Passports. Follow it, be nice to the Thai immigration official, and exit immigration. (Orange square #1)
Follow the signs to Cambodia until you see the large stone archway. Cross the street and go into the Visa On Arrival building right next to the stone lion. Don’t talk to anyone outside. You do not need (nor want to pay for) their help. (Orange square #5)
Inside the building fill out the easy, short form to get your 30 day Visa On Arrival. You’ll pay 1200฿ or $30 USD (those are the only currencies, so don’t change your money into anything else, regardless of what anyone tells you) and it should take about 10 minutes to return your passport with a Cambodian visa attached.
Exit the VOA office and turn right. Keep walking about 500 meters or so until you see the ARRIVALS sign for Cambodia. Yeah, it’s that far away. (Orange square #4)
Fill out your arrival/departure card, then get in line, doing the normal arrival procedure. This costs nothing and takes 5-15 minutes, depending on others inline.
Once you’re officially in Cambodia, turn right and follow the sidewalk around the roundabout, crossing the street once. Keep going until you see the sign for DEPARTURES for Cambodia. (Orange square #3)
Departing Cambodia is easy, but you will have to scan all 10 fingers for electronic fingerprints. It’s painless and easy. And there is no cost to exit the country. It’s pretty fast. Maybe 10-15 minutes if it’s busy.
Turn right and walk along the railroad tracks/street until you get back to that same stone archway. No, you don’t need a mototaxi or tuk tuk. You just walked it less than half an hour ago, remember?
Cross the street at the stone archway, then turn right to follow the crowd across the small ravine over the bridge, then into Thai immigration. It’s on the opposite side of the street from where you entered. (Orange square #2)
Go to Foreign Passports, and stand in line for an ungodly amount of time. They are slow. Be patient. They’ll check to make sure you have your Cambodian visa, and that you’ve used it, then they’ll let you back in. There is no cost for this.
When you’re outside, veer right, cross the street and follow the same road you took to the 7-11 back to the 7-11. (Green square again)
Go to the bus ticket office just to the left of 7-11 & buy a ticket home. If you didn’t screw around, you should be in time to catch the 12:30 trip back to Ekkamai. Because the next one doesn’t leave until 4:30p, so you may be in for a wait. There’s another bus that leaves more frequently, but it takes a longer route and goes to the Mo Chit Terminal, which is across from Chatuchak Park from the Mo Chit BTS station. Choose wisely.
That’s it. The only things you should have paid for is a ticket to the border, your VOA from Cambodia, and your ticket back to Bangkok. If you paid someone else for anything else, you got screwed. Or had lunch. Or bought a souvenir. But anything else, and you go hosed. You’ve got at least a four hour bus ride ahead of you, so now’s a good time to enjoy those snacks. And think about the life choices you made that led to this moment. Next time, just fly to Kuala Lumpur like a normal human, OK?