It was a beautiful morning on Friday September 27 as we boarded the 9:01 a.m. commuter train in Ayutthaya for the 90 minute ride to Bangkok’s Hua Lumphong Central Train Station. It is hard to believe, but the price of a ticket is only 15 Baht (about $.50). Should you use this service, know that the tickets are only sold about 30 minutes before each departure.
Leaving the ancient city of Ayutthaya, we were making plans for a visit to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
A popular route to Siem Reap from Bangkok involves taking an early train from Bangkok to Aranyprathet, then a taxi or tuk tuk from Aranyprathet to the border at Poiphet, then while at the border, departing Thailand, obtaining the necessary Cambodian visa for $20 USD, going through Cambodian immigration, taking the complimentary shuttle to a transportation area and finding a taxi or van to take you to Siem Reap.
So as we arrived in Bangkok, our first task was to purchase tickets for train #275 to Aranyaprathet scheduled to depart Bangkok’s Hua Lumphong Train Station at 5:55 a.m. the next morning. As we entered the station and approached the ticketing area, we were greeted by a young lady that seemed like she was working for the train ticketing counter. When we inquired about purchasing tickets for the train, she advised us that the train had been cancelled for the next morning due to heavy flooding. Bummer!! Change of plans!! She then offered a solution advising us we can go by bus all the way to Siem Reap. She directed us to a travel service in an upstairs area within the train station to buy our tickets. Later I learned she really works for the travel service. Up the stairs we went.
As we entered V.C. Travel and Tour Co, they were quick to assist us and professional. We told the agent about the cancelled train and were recommended to inquire about purchasing a ticket to take a bus to Siem Reap. She had our two seats booked in a “mini van” very quickly for 1751 baht ($57 USD). We were told to come back in the morning, meet outside their office, and the driver would meet us there. We had read about Cambodian border visa SCAMS and advised the agent we wanted to purchase our visas at the border and not before. She said OK. Just tell our driver. Red Flag.
The next morning, we went to the train station, boarded a cramped “mini van” with five other travelers, and off we went. Amazing World Travel & Tours operated the mini van. During the three hour trip, the driver stopped a couple of times for fuel and a rest stop. When we arrived in Aranyprathet, the driver pulled into a rest stop/restaurant area, told us all to exit the mini van with our luggage and that a new mini van would be by shortly to take us to the border.
The rest stop/restaurant had both outdoor and indoor seating. As we exited the van, we joined another group of five already at the restaurant who were also waiting for a van to take them to the border. It was at this point that the real fun started.
–As an educational note, visas into Cambodia are issued at the Cambodia border for $20 USD. For those who take the train to Aranyprathet and hire a taxi or tuk tuk driver to take them to the Poiphet border crossing, we read that it is a common practice for the driver to stop at a travel service BEFORE they reach the border advising them that these agencies are where they obtain their visa. The agencies will have an official looking person greet them, ask for their passport, and tell them they will expedite the visa process. Most would call this a SCAM. These agencies will process the visas, but will charge $30 to $40 for this service, and a person still will have to walk across the border and go through the immigration process. It is a service, but a person does not need to use it. I am not sure who splits the extra profit, but there is the taxi/tuk tuk driver, the travel agency, the Consulate-General and the border officials involved.–
Back to our story.
Well wouldn’t you know it, after about 25 minutes of sitting at the restaurant starting to be impatient about waiting for the next van, a young lad comes out to our tables with visa applications and asks us to fill them out. Red flag. My initial reaction was that they might be just giving us the paperwork to have it completed in advance for the crossing. NOT!! As we were all filling out the application, the lad asked us for our passports. I believe it was at this point we shared with the group the stories we had read about these “visa services” and that our choice was to be taken to the border to have our visas issued at the border and not in advance.
After hearing this, the group started bombarding the lad with questions. He tried very hard to justify this service. His main point being that it would expedite the crossing. After no one accepted his offer, he went back inside.
Next, they send out the supervisor. He started the sales job all over again, but this time using the “fear” card. Basically, he said if you do not use his ex[edited service, you might be left because they were not going to wait for you on the Cambodian side of the border. Well this did not sit well with the group and thankfully, group unity prevailed. We all said we wanted to get our visas at the border and they would have to wait for us to cross. After several minutes of trying to convince the group that his way is the proper procedure, the group sent him packing and asking for the van to transfer us to the border.
Well, I have to say the staff at Amazing World Travel and Tours do not give up easily. The supervisor came back out and asked us all come into the manager’s office for a chat. The manager was a hard, middle age woman, with an attitude. She looked at us and pretty well demanded we buy our visas from her. At that point I took a picture of the manager and the office filled with travelers. That went over like a lead balloon with the manager and she stood up and demanded I erase the picture of her and any other pictures taken in her office. I advised her we need to share this activity with as many people as possible so they understand what is happening at the border. However, I caved and erased the picture. Thankfully, the group remained united and asked for the van again. The manager was angry, marched us out to the van, gave us each a little blue sticker to place on our shirts and sent us on our way.
Did I already say the staff at Amazing World Travel and Tours doesn’t give up easily? The van driver took us about 1/2 mile down the road to an official Cambodian Consulate-General office. The driver told us that this is where the visas are issued and had us all get out to go inside for our visas. As we entered the building, I told the group that this is not the border and if you buy the visas here, they will charge you the same inflated price as they were asking at the restaurant. Everyone put on the brakes and did an about face. As a group, we left the consulate and hopped back in the van hoping to get to the border. This time the driver took us to a drop off point about 1/4 km from the border. Unfortunately, this visa SCAM ordeal took over 90 minutes of our day.
After we were dropped off, we were met by a Cambodian who identified himself as the person that would take us to the border and coordinate our van transfer from the border to Siem Reap. We were finally on our way across the border. But wait, there’s more!!
As we all gathered, we were guided down the road to the border crossing. You enter a building and stand in line to be “stamped out” of Thailand. Then you head over to the Cambodian visa office to obtain your visa. As we entered the visa building, there were two uniformed agents handing out visa applications and about five uniformed agents behind the counter “on the other side of the glass”. Once you complete your application form, you hand one of the agents your form, your passport with the required cash visa fee, and they process your visa.
SCAM number 2. The first person in our group to step up to the counter to process his visa was asked for the $20 USD fee (this is posted on a sign above the counter) PLUS an additional 100 Thai Baht (this is not posted anywhere). Not knowing what was happening, he gave them the $20 USD and a 100 baht note only to see the agent sitting “on the other side of the glass” who accepted his money, stick the 100 baht note between his leg and his chair seat. You might say that did not sit right with our traveling friend (pun intended) so he immediately asked for his 100 baht back. Surprisingly they complied without a scene or hassle. Thankfully, they did not ask any of the remaining eight members of our group for the extra 100 baht.
After the visas were issued, the next area for processing is about 1/4 km down the road. We stood in line, waited our turn to have our passport stamped and were then sent on our way. The total time to cross the border was about 2 hours.
As we all congregated on the Cambodian side of the border, our Cambodian guide gathered us all together and directed us to a mini van for the onward journey. The van was beat up and very dirty both inside and out. When we questioned this, the guide told us, with a big smile, that this van was only transferring us to another new van to complete our transfer to Siem Reap. NOT!! The van driver took us to a gas station, put some gas in his van, collected our little blue stickers and we were on our way to Siem Reap in an old junkie, dirty, cramped van. So much for Amazing World Travel and Tours.
It took several hours to get to Siem Reap. The road was washed out at several points, which made for a very bumpy ride. Once we arrived at Siem Reap, it had started to rain, so we all scrambled to tuk tuks and headed to our respective hotels. But our last SCAM was our tuk tuk driver. Not a big scam, but when asked how much to go to our hotel, he told us $3 (USD is the preferred currency in Siem Reap versus the Cambodian Riels (KHR) ). The hotel was about three blocks away and this fare should have only been a $1.
All in all, this day was an adventure. Here are a few take away thoughts:
Be prepared for the unexpected.
Do your homework.
Don’t use Amazing World Travel and Tours.
You only need to pay $20 USD for a Cambodian visa (as of October 2013).
In Siem Reap, use USD paper money. Small change is returned in KHR.