Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of Poipet before—you’re one of the lucky ones. A Cambodian town on the border with Thailand, Poipet has become a miniature exhibition of sorts, displaying everything that’s wrong with Southeast Asia in one convenient location.
Many visitors to Cambodia avoid ‘the toilet’ altogether by flying into the country. The rest of us take a bus and most of those pass through Poipet. If you take a public bus, congratulations; for slightly more effort at the beginning (Bangkok, most likely), you get a free pass for many of the annoyances in store for those who fell for the promise of simplicity pushed by travel agents on Khao San Road (and elsewhere too, of course).
I took a public bus myself; as a result, the first part of this post is based on second hand accounts and not first-hand experience, which is why you’re reading this, instead of a news story about my 20-year sentence in a Thai prison for punching every fake border guard in sight.
I’m sure (maybe sure is too strong a word) there are some private transport companies in Thailand that won’t try to take advantage of their customers, but I’m not aware of any. Basically, if you opt for a private bus company, you will arrive at the border after it has closed for the day. No matter how early you leave and despite it not being that far a trip, something WILL delay you just enough to arrive too late.
Obviously this means you’ll need a place to stay for the night and wouldn’t you know it, there’s a place right next to the bus! Of course you could walk around and try to find someplace else in the dark, but most likely you’ll just stay where you are, for convenience’s sake. If you pay attention, you might even get to see the hotel owner slip the bus driver an envelope, but usually they’re pretty careful.
The next morning you will be taken to a poorly constructed little shack staffed by border guards in ridiculously ill-fitting and poorly-made uniforms. They will take your money and supply you with a visa. If you pay attention, you might even get to see them slip the bus driver an envelope, but usually they’re pretty careful.
These ‘border guards’ are not real. They are just scammers playing dress-up, who will take your passport and filled-out form to the actual border, get your visa and pay your fee, then return and charge you double the actual cost. And they’re not alone; several of these little outposts line the streets outside the real border crossing, each of them paying different bus companies to drop off their victims. At least one of them calls itself the “Cambodian Consulate.”
Should you choose to wait until you get to the border to get your visa (easier, faster and cheaper), they will naturally give you a long list of reasons why that might be a bad idea ranging from convenience, to long wait times, to possible prison time, to death—I have no doubt they’ll try every angle. Ignore all that and you will eventually find yourself at the actual border. This is where those who took a public bus join the story.
Once you’ve made your way through the army of fake border personnel and ‘helpful’ locals (just remember, NO ONE actually wants to help you), you’ll see a few windows and a waiting area. Fill out a form (hint: you don’t need help from the guy who can’t read or write his own language, much less fill out a form in English, despite the snazzy little name tag he keeps waving in your face). Take the form to the window and get ready to bargain.
You see, the price indicated on the official looking plaque is about 50% higher than the actual price. The current price is $20, but the sign and the guards will claim it’s $30. They’ll probably quote it in Thai Baht, so know the exchange rate and bring US dollars; you definitely don’t want to pay the hugely inflated Thai Baht price. But remember: never EVER change money at the border, despite everything they tell you—and they will feed you all kinds of horror stories about changing money after the border, but none are true.
Most people just pay the posted price, but if you point out the discrepancy, they will naturally have many reasons for it. A favorite is expediency. “Pay and it takes 5 minutes, don’t pay and it takes five hours. Oh, and have we mentioned the SARS fee, the fee for not having a vaccination card and the left-handed fee? You’re NOT left handed? Oh…..of course not. I meant……I’m left handed. You pay for having a left-handed border guard, but I’ll give you a little discount since you didn’t know….”
Don’t pay any of that. I paid $20 and had my visa in five minutes. If they seem to be delaying yours, just start telling other tourists about the real visa fee and they’ll have you all set and out of there in no time.
Once outside, you immediately run into Poipet’s hardest-to-avoid scam: the transportation monopoly. Free shuttle buses will take you to a transport depot just outside town where you can choose between an incredibly overpriced bus to Siem Reap or an even more overpriced taxi. While waiting, you can snack on ridiculously overpriced food.
If I remember correctly, the taxi costs $48 and the bus $9. If you find three people (they won’t allow more) to share with, you can get your cost down to $12. These prices are extremely high for Cambodia and everyone gets a cut, except for the actual drivers. As usual, they get screwed while everyone else gets rich (relatively speaking, of course).
You could try to avoid this scam by telling the 2000 people trying to usher you onto a shuttle bus that you want to enjoy Poipet (they might laugh at that and for good reason), spend the night, or whatever excuse you can come up with to not get on a bus and just keep walking down the street. Once you get past the roundabout, the pressure will ease and a little further on, you can try to hire a taxi that’s not part of the monopoly. Just make sure no cops, real or fake, see you. They WILL ‘encourage’ the driver to no longer pick up fares for a fair price.
As for the town of Poipet itself, it apparently consists of little more than tobacco shops, liquor stores and casinos, all designed to further impoverish the already pretty poor population of Thailand who cross the border to enjoy vices that are either expensive (tobacco and alcohol) or illegal (gambling) in their own country.
In other words, you want to leave Poipet. It truly is one of the world’s toilets, with absolutely no redeeming qualities and every bad quality you could possibly name. For much more detailed information on the scams and on beautiful Poipet in general, you can check out the Poipet Wikitravel page (opens in a new window). The ‘See & Do’ section mentions a slum and a minefield, which pretty much tells you all you need to know.