I Made it Through the Thai-Cambodia Border Without Being Scammed

The border crossings into Cambodia are notorious for their corruption. Tacking on a few dollars to a standard entry visa – which is equivalent to a days’ earnings in most parts of the country – is commonplace. Things get even shadier with visas outside the standard tourist issue. Officials at the Thai-Cambodia border crossing in Koh Kong once tried extorting an acquaintance of mine for $100 to validate her NGO visa. These are supposed to be free.

My Situation

Like that unlucky person (who managed to talk down her bribe after hours of stubbornness) I was getting an NGO visa on the Koh Kog-Hat Lek border on the Gulf of Thailand. My one year Cambodia business visa was due to expire and my work supplied me with all the paperwork I needed to get a free (in theory) NGO visa. I left Phnom Penh in the early morning for a six-hour bus ride, dropped off my belongings at a guesthouse and then bicycled 10 kilometers to the border. My plan was to quickly leave the country, spend a few moments in Thailand, and then double back to get this whole ordeal wrapped up.

Leaving Cambodia

I bicycled past some enormous parked trucks and was stopped by a kindly military official, who gestured to the small building with ticket windows to handle the visa transactions. As soon as I got there, a couple sketchy men demanded I hand over my visa so they could process it for me at the window. Their game is to hand over your visa to the staff and then demand a fee of at least $5 – but probably much more – for their “efforts.” Anyone with a pulse can handle this process on their own, so I paid them no mind, got an exit stamp and pedaled off to Thailand a couple hundred meters away. It was about 3 p.m. and the border was quiet. The border hours are 7 a.m. To 8 p.m.

The Cambodia border in Koh Kong, next to Thailand
All quiet on the Cambodia border

Hello Thailand. Goodbye Thailand.

Some armed soldiers in camo checked my bag and then shooed me off with a smile. At the visa window, a man in plainclothes handed me arrival and departure forms to fill out. I sniffed a scam and looked around for my own forms. With my guard up, I reluctantly took the guy’s form and filled it out with a pen he supplied. Then he pointed me towards the border official who processed my entry. And that was it. There was no scam. It was just a helpful employee in plain clothes. I bicycling for a few minutes through a market and to the seaside, but eager to get this whole visa business behind me, I went back and received a departure stamp for the trip to Cambodia.

Back to Cambodia

I parked my bicycle at the same Cambodia visa building and a new scammer angrily demanded my visa. Bewildered by his aggressiveness, I just stared for a moment before telling him no. Even in the big city of Phnom Penh, I’ve never seen someone behave in such a way. I imagine that demeanor works on confused border crossers. As the Khmer say, “I am not pork (meaning I’m not easily suckered),” and the guy soon gave up.

I met a backpacker at the processing window and he was relieved to be at the Koh Kong-Hat Lek border crossing. “This is so much better than Poipet,” he said. “That border is terrible. The people there offering anything for sale – and I mean anything.” Gross. I’m glad I opted for the coastal border crossing over the cesspool of a border crossing seven hours north.

Here’s where things got tricky. Since I needed an NGO visa, I was ushered into a dark and powerfully air-conditioned room with four higher-ranked officials. They were all in plain white shirts, with their fancy uniforms resting on the chairs behind them. They read my approval letter and seemed hesitant to do anything. I made awkward small talk in Khmer, which they seemed to enjoy. They told me that since my previous visa still had three days on this, I could not get this visa.

I explained that I had to return to work and their resistance was half-hearted. They took me into the main processing room to talk with some of the workers. I was told I just need to fill out a form saying that I renounce my previous visa, which would allow me to take on the new one. With that form filled out, my new visa was stuck to my passport and I was on my way. I told them I’d see them next year and they bid me a kind farewell. Not one dollar was asked for.

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Karge

Karge

I'm an American freelance writer who spent a couple years living in Cambodia. Now I'm on the move again and traveling all over the place. I'm willing to try any bizarre liquor that's presented to me. Any recommendations?