The Dreaded Travel Day: Bangkok to Siem Reap Overland

This was the big day of the trip, and the one I was most worried about going wrong.  There are so many accounts of other travellers having a tough time with this leg of the typical Southeast Asian tour, and I was determined not to have any trouble if it could be helped.  In the end it went off without a hitch!

There are a number of options for getting to Aranyaprathet and Siem Reap, and I’ll describe our choices in detail. The journey can be broken up into a few major steps:

  1. Getting from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet, the Thai border town.
  2. Getting stamped out of Thailand
  3. Obtaining a Cambodian tourist visa
  4. Getting stamped into Cambodia
  5. Getting to Siem Reap

1. Bangkok to Aranyaprathet via bus
We chose to take a bus to the border town Aranyaprathet. There is also train service to the town, but the trains leave only 2 times daily and only the morning train is early enough to complete the border crossing without overnighting in Aranyaprathet. We were concerned about getting a seat on the train for the ~5h journey, so instead we took a metered taxi from our hotel to the bus station, where there are many more departures for Aranyaprathet.

We arrived at Mo Chit bus terminal at ~7:45 am. The ticket counters serve particular destinations and the ones for Aranyaprathet are inside the terminal building. When we arrived, one company was offering a departure at 8 am, while another had a departure at 9:30. We were expecting to have to take a bus to the Aranyaprathet bus station and then get a tuk-tuk to Rongkleu Market, where the border crossing is. However, we discovered that it is possible to take a bus that goes right to the market, which saves having to haggle to get to the crossing! The lady told us the bus ride would be 4-5 hours, and we decided we would take the earlier departure time. We were given a small bottle of water and snack. We left the terminal a little after 8 am.

The bus was comfortable enough. We stopped a couple times for bathroom/food breaks and many more times to pick up and drop off packages and passengers. Our bus was stopped twice for police checks, but they were only interested in the Cambodian passengers on board. The only downside was that it took closer to 5.5 hours than the quoted time. We met some travelers in the Cambodian immigration line who had taken the 9:30 bus, and it took them a little over 4 hours (they stopped fewer times), so they ended up arriving around when we did. If I did it again, I’d probably try and depart earlier than 8 am to miss the rush at immigration, or arrive closer to 9:30 am and see if that bus is consistently faster.

2. Exiting Thailand
The bus stops first at the Aranyaprathet bus station, and then drives on to a parking lot near Rongkleu Market. Nearly everyone gets off at the bus station and there are tuk-tuks waiting there to take you to the market, but stay on and let the bus take you the rest of the way. As soon as we got off in the parking lot near the market, we were approached by touts who wanted us to enter their visa service centre. We told them we had visas already and headed on our way. The market is down the major street and Thai immigration is located to the left of the major street. The building is indicated by lots of official signage and is easy to find. Passing through is also easy, although we arrived near peak traffic time and had to wait about 45 minutes. Once you have been stamped out, you simply follow the signs and walk across the border to Poipet, Cambodia.

3. Obtaining a Cambodian tourist visa
There are two ways to go about this. You may apply for an electronic visa (e-visa) in advance, by filling out a form and paying $25 USD online and then emailing the authorities a recent passport sized photograph of you. This service requires application at least 3 business days in advance. You will be emailed your visa document, and you simply print it out and bring it with you to the border. This has the advantage that you can head directly to immigration at the border. However, we decided on our arrival date with less than 3 business days notice, so we did it the old-fashioned way, in person.

To apply for a visa on arrival, you must have a recent passport sized photograph of yourself and $20 USD in crisp new bills. They are not too picky about the photo – ours had blue backgrounds and they did not care. Head to the building on the right side of the street next to the big arch after crossing the bridge. There you need to pick up a form from an immigration officer sitting at a desk to the left of the visa window. Fill out the form and get in line to submit it. Here is where the corruption starts. At the visa counter, there is a big official sign stating that tourist visas cost $20 USD. However, when it was our turn, an immigration official brandished a poorly made handwritten sign claiming the fee is $20 USD and an additional $100 Thai Baht. We told him we had no Baht left. He insisted and again we refused. He took our passports and put them in a separate pile, but about 10 minutes later we had our visas.

I think that if it had been busier, they probably would have made us wait longer and tried again to get us to pay the bribe. However, you do not need to pay the extra fee at all. I was quite disappointed to see that nearly every tourist just handed the extra money over. If we all refused, eventually the corruption would stop. Keep in mind that even though the officials are in uniform, they are the ones breaking the law, and they will give you the visa in the end. Don’t feed their system and succumb to their intimidation tactics!

4. Entering Cambodia
Once you have your visa, continue on to immigration to be stamped in. It is down the main street, on the right after the last casino. It will, more than likely, be very obvious, with a huge line of tourists out front. Get in line. Once we had been in line for a few minutes, another immigration official came by, handed us arrival/departure cards to fill out, and informed us that the wait was about 2 hours.

“But, you can be VIP and skip the line” he said. “Only 200 Baht each person.”

There’s that corruption again. I told him we’d wait, and got to filling out my card. In the end, the line was only 1 hour long, and getting stamped was easy. Still, I was disappointed to see about 20 tourists opting for the VIP option. They put 200 Baht in their passports, handed them over to a “travel agent” working with the official, and were walked over to a back window at the immigration building. Their passport was slipped inside, and came out a few minutes later. Never mind the bribe, I don’t think I’d hand over my passport like that. Keep in mind that by paying this bribe, you are ensuring the corruption continues. It is an incentive for the officers to keep the process long and frustrating for the rest of us, because the longer and more frustrating the process, the better the chance some of us will give in.

We spent our time in line befriending the Polish couple behind us. The four of us agreed to share a taxi to Siem Reap, which brings us to step 5.

5. Shared taxi to Siem Reap
Once you pass through immigration, another official will try and herd you onto a free tourist bus to the Tourist Passenger International Terminal. Once you get there, you have two options: you can take a government bus, or a taxi into Siem Reap. I read that the bus costs $9 USD, whereas a taxi will run about $48 ($12 per person) from the terminal. We were also approached by a young man who tried to get us into his “taxi” (an unmarked car with a busted fuel gauge) right away, for $60. The Polish people insisted on a $50 charge and delivery to both our hotels, citing that the bank only gave them $50 dollar bills, so they couldn’t pay any other amount. He agreed, but I had a feeling that wouldn’t be the end of it.

They say that the best thing about Poipet is that you get to leave. Those folks are absolutely right.

The ride from Poipet to Siem Reap takes about 2 hours (~150 km) on a road that has long been the stuff of legends, but is now paved and a relatively easy drive (if you don’t count dodging cows, pedestrians, motorbikes, and buses driving right down the middle of the road). However, once we got to Siem Reap, our driver pulled over where the buses let you off, and a tuk-tuk driver claiming to be our driver’s brother said that he would take us the rest of the way because our driver didn’t know Siem Reap well. The Polish people feigned being upset about breaking the deal, and eventually the cab driver agreed to drive us into town. Turns out he really didn’t know where their hotel was, and neither did they. Luckily Mike has a great app on his phone, Maps With Me, that we were able to use to navigate to the street their hotel was on. The driver didn’t want to drive us to our hotel after that. It was only about 300 m away and we pack light. We decided it wasn’t worth the trouble, paid the man, and were on our way.

In the end, by deciding to go with the man at the immigration building, we saved the hassle of travelling to the bus terminal in Poipet, and avoided another transfer into tuk-tuks. All in all, the journey took less than 12 hours door to door, and our victory beers at the Old Market in Siem Reap that evening were all the sweeter for getting through it unscathed.