Getting to Cambodia via the Hat Lek border crossing

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…

© 2011  www.taxrebate.org.uk
© 2011 www.taxrebate.org.uk

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 bribes fees 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 bribe fee 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 bribe fee.
  • We didn’t see any other travellers refusing to pay the bribe fee, 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.

22 Comments

  1. […] second entry into Cambodia was slightly less traumatic than our first, and being able to show our first $30 visa meant we had considerably less hassle paying the correct […]

    February 11, 2015
    Reply
  2. officialtravelnews said:

    How ridiculous to spend hours sweating to save $7

    I am not Asian but I understand all the officials from developing countries more and more.

    Not only I would not let you cross but also I am sure to be able to trouble your life a lot more than this.

    Don’t you feel ridiculous with your “principles” ?

    March 22, 2016
    Reply
    • Katie said:

      Well, technically it was $14 given there were two of us!
      This may seem like an insignificant sum but, to put it in perspective, our hotel that night was $5, so it was nearly three nights accommodation…
      The total delay was probably a little over an hour and – as I explained in the piece – we weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere that day. If we had been, or were travelling in a group where our “ridiculous” choice would have impacted anyone else we would have taken that into account.
      However, given it was just the two of us and didn’t really impact the rest of our day too much I feel ok about our decision, thanks.

      March 22, 2016
      Reply
    • rosanna giammuso said:

      WHY IS IT RIDICULOUS NOT TO STAND FOR HONESTY?? If everybody would refuse to pay extra money which are not meant to be paid , perhaps they would stop this scam!! I think it is ridiculous to pay for something you shouldn’t pay ….. they are not being honest people ..and actually reading all this it puts me off going to visit the country!!!!!

      January 4, 2017
      Reply
      • Katie said:

        Hi Rosanna,
        I also feel uncomfortable about being scammed before even arriving in a country and it can feel a bit off putting.
        Please don’t let it put you off Cambodia though – its a wonderful country. We actually did another border crossing when we came back from Vietnam which was fine. I think certain crossings are worse than others but it’s certainly worth knowing what to expect!

        January 5, 2017
        Reply
  3. Ray said:

    Good for you. Everytime someone pays a bribe its condones the behaviour and reinforces it. It everyone stood up for themselves it wouldn’t happen

    April 30, 2016
    Reply
    • Katie said:

      Thanks Ray. I couldn’t agree more.

      April 30, 2016
      Reply
  4. Paul said:

    Thanks for your post. We crossed the border recently (August 2016) and had exactly the same experience. They now automaticaly give you the falsified memo. It took us hour and a half to get through without the bribe and we had to go in for several questionings. Really digusting experience. But as you say,..rather this than giving those scumbags a single dollar.

    August 26, 2016
    Reply
  5. Rebecca said:

    Thanks for resisting…we will be making the same crossing in a month or so. If we all pay 7$ bribe…and no one resists…they go up to 15$…then $30, then 50$. You cant apply the economics of your own country to the one you are visiting or it screws up their economy. Like the origonal poster said…14$ is 3 nights accomodation…or a days pay as the minimum wage in Cambodia goes. So think of that 14$ as your days wage. Would it be ok for those in power to take a days wage off you, for their own pockets, just to do the job they get paid to do!!! We will go early too…and they can make our life miserable if they like…we will just keep smiling…we have more time than we have money 😉

    August 31, 2016
    Reply
  6. Kristina said:

    I just crossed the border and thank u I was prepared. But they even wanted more money…. 1500 Baht. They were really aggressive when I told them I don’t have Baht and don’t want to go an ATM, they threw me out. Another person after me paid it. I waited for an hour and unfortunately I had to negotiate afterwards because my bus was about to leave, so in the end I paid 35$. They didn’t want to accept that as well in the beginning and he said we will call his boss, I really wanted to laugh out loud….. crazy!!!!!!

    September 9, 2016
    Reply
    • Katie said:

      Ouch Kristina! So sorry to hear you had a bad experience. Hope you enjoy the rest of your time in Cambodia though – despite the dodgy start we really enjoyed our time there! X

      September 9, 2016
      Reply
    • anatana said:

      And next time someone will rob you in Cambodia, especially if you focus on stupid things as $5, you might lose a lot more ! So forget the usual stupidity of foreigners in Asia and just think about saving your life !!!

      enjoy your trip 🙂

      September 9, 2016
      Reply
  7. Kristina said:

    I think I will survive thanks 😉 and it is more about the attitude than the money…. and I didn’t have 1500baht anyway…. which is by the way over 43US$

    September 10, 2016
    Reply
  8. Vincent said:

    Hello Katie!

    First of all, thank you for sharing your experience. It was very helpful and saved us money (14$) and especially a lot of stress and hassle. Here’s about our experience (yesterday, end November 2016).

    So yeah, sadly, the procedure is still the same. You end up at the Cambodian immigration and ask for a form yourself (surprisingly, no one asked us to go to the quarantine office. Though we met a couple that fell into the “trap”). An officer gave the form to us and then called us into the office a few minutes later. When he asked us to pay for the Visa price, I calmly handed him 2 times 30 dollars I had carefully prepared. He counted the money and said the cost was $37. I calmly replied “no, excuse me, we just want a normal tourist visa”. He asked his colleague to pass him the government memo (dated October 2014) that states that the visa is 30$ + 7$ processing fee. I insisted that I wanted a normal visa, not an e-visa. To back it up, I showed him a screenshot of the official e-visa website (make sure you have the http://www.evisa.com.kh address showing) on my phone. Again, I insisted that I didn’t need an e-visa, just a normal visa. “Wait outside, please”, he finally said with a sigh.

    After only about 10 mn, he opened the little window again and gave us our passports back with the visas ready to be stamped. We were so surprised it didn’t take that long! Overall, I think that the key is keeping your composure (+ smile) and coming prepared and informed (30 dollars cash ready and a screenshot of the official e-visa website). We also arrived there around noon and didn’t have anybody waiting on us. But one thing’s for sure, the “ripoff” is still ongoing (some people in line told me they had paid as much as 1600 Baht, almost 45$!!!). Also watch out for agencies that try and make you pay the fee beforehand.

    Sad that it’s still going on this way but happy we got through without too much hassle! 🙂 Hope this helps others and thanks again Katie for sharing!

    November 29, 2016
    Reply
  9. Katie said:

    Thanks for sharing your experience Vincent – happy travels! X

    January 5, 2017
    Reply
  10. Flo said:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences Katie… forewarned is forearmed as they say. 😬

    I got my visa in advance at the London Cambodian Embassy… I’m hoping this will enable a smooth border crossing…

    January 15, 2017
    Reply
    • Katie said:

      Hi Flo, my pleasure! If you have a visa this should make for a smooth crossing for you. Have a wonderful trip!

      January 26, 2017
      Reply
  11. don said:

    Hi
    Im going that route next month, and was wondering if there was any way of preparing for this, by maybe getting the visa online, the same way you can for entry to vietnam?

    January 26, 2017
    Reply
    • Katie said:

      Hi Don, yes you can although (certainly at the time of writing) this was a higher price.
      What is essentially happening (or was in our experience) is that the border guards were trying to charge the more expensive e-visa price instead of the “at the gate” (which is cheaper – or meant to be!) and pocketing the difference.
      I expect an e-visa would resolve any hassle at the border (although is more expensive). Do let us know how you get on if you get an e-visa – we’d love to hear.

      January 26, 2017
      Reply
  12. Hi cookies
    How is everything?
    Pleased I would like to know if it is possible to cross the border by car?
    Thanks

    October 25, 2017
    Reply

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