On the great Southeast Asian Backpacker Trail, the journey from Bangkok, Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia is a well-trodden highway. There’s loads of information online and plenty of horror stories from people who got scammed by bus companies or immigration authorities or the local mafia or whatever. Backpackers are obviously an easy target, and this route is like level one in Duck Hunt.
After doing some research, we found several options available:
- Taking a mini bus from Bangkok to the border, crossing on foot, then taking a bus or shared taxi to Siem Reap. This is an infamously scam- and hassle-ridden way to go, arguably the most challenging.
- Taking a 200 baht (€5) casino bus (!!!) meant for Thai gambling addicts who commute to the border casinos, crossing on foot, then taking a bus or shared taxi to Siem Reap. As much as I absolutely love the idea of riding a casino bus (!!!), the daily 6am departure time was just too early for us.
- Taking a coach from Kao San Road that supposedly drives directly from Bangkok to Siem Reap but actually takes 14-plus hours driving around to other places. Uh, no.
- Taking the much-hyped and pretty expensive (750 baht—€18.70) Transport Co., Ltd. (what a trustworthy name) direct coach from Bangkok to Siem Reap. This seemed like the most painless way to cross, and they offer more reasonable 8am and 9am departure times. BAM!!
We purchased tickets online via Thai Ticket Major. The registration process and online handling fees were slightly irritating, but we could pay by credit card and pick the tickets up at the bus station. EASY.
The bus leaves from Bangkok’s northern bus terminal, which is a short taxi ride from Mo Chit BRT/MRT station. After being given the run-around by our taxi driver, we arrived at 8:40, picked up our tickets, and still had plenty of time to forage for snacks at the terminal’s massive Seven Eleven. EASY.
The other bus passengers were 90 percent foreign tourists, which is a new thing for us after travelling through Central Asia and western China. After departure, everyone received a complimentary bottle of water and a paper bag of limp pastries—we stuck with our Seven-Eleven purchases for brekkie. A few hours into the trip there was a rest stop with (squat) toilets, a restaurant, convenience store, and stand selling deep-fried sausages and fruit. We were starving by this point and grabbed some nibbles for relatively cheap. EASY.
About five kilometres before the border the bus made a second stop, supposedly the “lunch break”. This is where it got tricky for some people. Packs of fried rice were distributed while the bus dude explained that everyone who didn’t get their visa in advanced needed to fill out an application form (which he then supplied), then give the bus company the application, one passport photo, and $40. On other websites we’d read that this is advertised as a “VIP service”, but on our bus ride it was
This was of course bullshit. For most nationalities, Cambodian tourist visas cost only $30 at the border, and are easy to get without the assistance of a company. Some intrepid travellers on the bus forked over the cash and gave their passports to the bus dude, but most of us just told him, “No thanks, I’ll do it myself.” EASY.
After the “lunch break” the bus continued on. Without explanation, the bus dude distributed some laminated passes that we were expected to hang from our necks, possibly so they could easily identify who was part of the group. When we arrived at the border, those that had forked over the extra cash had their passports returned to them with Cambodian visas inside. Our luggage stayed in the hold while we all hopped out and went through the relatively painless process of Thai exit immigration. EASY.
From there it was across the border into Cambodia. Cambodia! The border zone was a weird combination of casino resorts, ramshackle shops selling really stale-looking booze and smokes, and dodgy street food stalls. Up top there was an important sign, pointing non-visa holders to the visa office, hidden in a cream-coloured building on the right side of the road.
Above the door was written “OFFICE OF THE INTERNATIONAL BORDER CHECKPOINT OF POIPET“. Inside the office were far too many immigration officers, most of them standing around doing nothing. We were handed a different application form to the one we got on the bus, so we filled them out and placed them neatly in our passports together with the one photo and crisp bills totalling US $30.
There was a window, above which hung an official sign that said tourist visas are $30. We handed our passports to an officer standing in front of the window. He checked the application, then took out a clipboard that had a hand-written sign on it:
1200 Thai baht
US$30 + 100 baht
The officer looked sternly at us and said if we payed in US dollars we had to pay an additional 100 baht charge. This, too, was of course bullshit. We told him no and pointed to the sign above the window, but he still demanded we pay it. The officers inside the window pretended to ignore the exchange. After we argued back and forth a few times, the guy turned his back to us and started looking at his phone. We stood for a minute not really knowing what to do, as the queue behind us grew longer. Finally I grabbed our passports and put them through the window myself, saying really loudly one more time that we knew the visas only cost $30. It felt stupid arguing over 100 baht (€2.50), but a scam is a scam. Finally the immigration officer relented and they processed our passports. EASY.
Now we had our visas, but we still needed our immigration stamps. The small immigration office was easy to spot about 200 metres down the road thanks to the huge queue of people standing outside of it waiting to get stamped. The people who had shelled out the extra $10 for the bus company’s “VIP service” were right in front of us—what a value for money. It took nearly an hour of standing in the heat to get through the queue, but after that it was back on the air-conditioned bus. EASY.
Hours and hours later, the bus finally pulled into Siem Reap, terminating on Sivatha Road. This is the main tourist drag in town, and it was an easy five-minute walk to our hostel, despite the tuk-tuk drivers trying to tell us otherwise.
Because of delays at the border, in total the journey took an excruciating eleven hours, but compared to other modes of transport we were definitely travelling in the height of luxury. It wasn’t quite as adventuresome as figuring it out ourselves, but in Asia there will always be other opportunities for us to get stranded and ripped off.