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.
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.
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.
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.
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?