Once we’d adjusted to being back in Asia, we hit the road again. Our destination was Cambodia, so we made our way south to the Hat Lek border crossing. We had considered going to Siem Reap and visiting the temples of Angkor, but decided against this route purely based on the reputation of the notorious Poipet border crossing for scams and overcharging. As we were heading to Vietnam for Christmas, we decided to head along the south coast via Hat Lek for a couple of weeks and then come back for the rest.
The trick with a trauma-free border crossing (in my humble opinion) is to keep the journeys either side as short as possible. Rather than race through our journey to get to Cambodia, we split our journey into stages and took two days. This meant we weren’t exhausted by a long journey, got to see a small Thai town we otherwise wouldn’t have experienced, and also meant we could withstand a border scam. Here’s how we did it…
Stage One: Bangkok to Trat
We chose to take a bus to Trat. This cost ฿265 (roughly £5.50), including a snack and some water. The journey took about 5.5 hours and, as with most Thai roads, was a comfortable ride. The bus departs from Ekamai (aka Eastern) bus station – the signs at the MRT are somewhat misleading as they point you to EVERY exit; take the left hand exit from the MTR and the bus station is over to your left once you leave the MRT station. There are lots of stalls and shops selling food nearby if you want a pre-journey snack.
We had hoped to take the Government bus but their website lied; we turned up for an 11am bus which apparently didn’t exist. If you can, go the day before to book tickets or early morning. We took another bus company (I forget the name) which was fine, so don’t panic if you can’t get the Government bus!
At Trat bus station you won’t have to walk far to find a tuk tuk! We paid ฿80 (฿40 per person – just under £1) for a ride to our guest house in town which had a balcony, a pleasant breeze and en suite for £10. We enjoyed a stroll to the night market and a good nights sleep!
Stage Two: Trat to Hat Lek border crossing
In the morning we took a taxi back to the bus station – ฿60 this time. Don’t pay more than ฿40 per person for a tuk tuk! At the bus station we walked to the bay marked “border” and signed up for a minivan. We had to wait for it to fill up, which took about 45 minutes. Earlier buses fill up quicker, so arrive in the morning and you won’t wait as long between buses. Snacks are available at the bus station (and worth stocking up – you’ll see why shortly) but expensive.
Stage Three: The Hat Lek to Cham Yeam border crossing
Our bus dropped us 70 metres or so from the actual border, so we just walked to the Thai border control without any problems or hassle. At the left hand hut, we showed our departure cards and passports and were stamped out of Thailand. We then walked the 100 metres or so to the Cambodian border.
At the Cambodian border, there is a wooden hut to the left marked “Quarantine”. Ignore it, and any calls to come over. It is unofficial, as far as I am aware, and will charge for a “health check” regardless of whether you have come from a country with active quarantine restrictions. Feign deafness, stupidity, ignore it completely as we did, whatever. It isn’t necessary for arriving into Cambodia. Honestly.
Next, is the immigration hut on the left. We got our visa form from the far right (literally, not politically) window. Don’t pay anyone for providing the forms, or pay anyone to “help” you fill in the forms. We got by with a smile and a “thank you” in Khmer to the gentleman who handed us the forms.
Form duly completed, hand your form and passport, passport photo and the exact visa fee in dollars to the border official. Now the fun really begins. Big smiles, people.
First we were asked for payment in Thai Bhat; with a big smile (you’ll be doing that a lot at border crossings) we politely explained we only had US dollar. This was initially rejected which I suspect is an opening gambit. With giant smiles, we persisted that we were unaware of any Bhat fees, and that we had no Bhat on us (it is important to ignore your conscience at this stage, which may well be aware of your pocket of Bhat and shouting “SUCH LIES” in your brain). We politely apologised and repeated we only had payment in US dollar.
After a brief argument (stick to your guns and for god’s sake don’t reveal any Thai Bhat, brain!), we were told the fee is actually $37*. This was interesting because we checked the Cambodian visa prices that morning which confirmed that a visa on arrival was $30, and an e-visa was $37 ($30 plus a $7 processing fee). The $7 fee would have been legit if we were processing an e-visa. We were not, and there should have been no further charge. We were being shaken down, and shaken down for a lot of money in Cambodia.
After a brief but lively exchange with the Hat Lek border police saying it was $37 and us saying we had checked the websites and it was not, the Cambodian border police produced an “official memo” confirming the $7 fee.
Picture the scene: you’re sitting in a small, dingy room with three slightly aggressive border police all telling you that you have to pay this money. You are refusing. No one has outright lost it, but it’s all getting a bit tense. Then they produce, with a flourish, their pièce de résistance – a memo confirming you have to pay the fee. The memo is official, granted, and confirms a $7 charge, but the “e” of the “e-visa” has been rather obviously tippexed out. Thankfully, we managed not to laugh.
We explained (again, with big smiles) that this was for e-visas, that we knew the fee was $30, that we only had $30 (hence the exact change being important) and were terribly sorry (“SUCH LIES AGAIN” – cried Brain) could not pay any more. We added an apologetic French-style shrug for dramatic effect.
At this point, we were thrown out of the office and told to wait outside. How rude. Presumably this was to make us sweat, and have a rethink about whether we wanted to pay the $7 for the privilege of getting into Cambodia. We did indeed have a rethink, and “screw these guys” was our conclusion.
Happily, we came prepared. We had brought water and snacks and settled in under the (thoughtfully provided) umbrella to wait it out. We had no onward transport, no bus to catch, no fellow travellers to hold up and frankly we could wait all day, dudes. Ain’t no one getting a bribe from us (this sounds a lot more badass than we were at the time, meekly eating Pringles). After a short hour or so, Craig was called back in and the visas were processed without further shakedown attempts: we were free to go.
Stage Four: Hat Lek to Koh Khrong
Ha. You didn’t think the fun was over there, did you? Waiting at the bottom of the immigration hut steps are everyone’s favourite South East Asian pack hunter: the tuk tuk driver. We were quoted $20 for a taxi ride to Koh Krong, which is about 10km down the road and roughly ten times the going rate. We politely declined, and told the kind gentleman we’d sooner walk than spend a minute in a taxi with him.
We picked up a tuk tuk driver about 100 metres after the Cambodian entry gate for ฿280 (฿140 per person), which was still slightly over the going rate but we were kind of tired by that point! There is a big white casino on the right at this point and usually a few taxis and tuk tuks waiting outside.
If you want to do the Hat Lek border crossing
If you are short on time (or less of a stubborn ass than us), you can pay the
scamming bastards border police the $7 and be on your way. The amount wasn’t really the issue for us, we just hated the principle of someone in uniform abusing their power to defraud people coming to visit their country. It just felt wrong, and we’d rather spend that $14 with local people on souvenirs, a night’s accomodation or a tour: anything which doesn’t directly line the pockets of corrupt officials.
If you are inclined NOT to make a contribution to the Hat Lek border police Christmas party fund…
- Arrive at the border early (this is partly why we broke up the journey in Trat); if you are made to wait it’s good to have time on your side as the border closes at about 5pm
- We did the border crossing on a Monday at about 11am; there was a steady stream of travellers but no massive queues. I don’t know if a busier time will make them less or more inclined to let you through; if they are collecting plenty of
bribesfees you may find they are less interested in individuals, but you may have to wait longer if you get sent to the back of a big queue.
- Carry the correct visa fee, and have the rest of your cash scattered about your person in small increments; you’ll pretty much kill any negotiations if you refuse to pay the
bribefee whilst pulling out a massive wad of cash
- Having a through bus waiting for you can mean you run the risk of missing your bus if you get delayed with immigration; we chose to make our own way to and from the Hat Lek border crossing so we weren’t delaying anyone else or under any pressure to cave and pay the
- We didn’t see any other travellers refusing to pay the
bribefee, and weren’t inclined to start a rebellion in case it upset the border police further (we definitely were persona no grata at this point anyway); we’d be intrigued to hear if anyone starts a rebellion with fellow travellers though and the outcome!
- Keep your cool (hence the big smile) – like much of South East Asia Cambodia operates on “saving face”. You visibly lose your temper and it’s game over.
- Bring a recent passport photo for the form; you’ll be charged about $2 if you don’t have one
Have you ever been asked to pay a bribe at a land border crossing? What do you think about the ethics of paying border bribes?
*Visa information correct as of December 2014; the fees may alter but I suspect the structure of the border scam will remain. It’s worth researching e-visa and visa-on-arrival fees so you know the latest information. Wikitravel is immensely helpful here.