The Road Less Travelled

It’s undeniable that the tourist trails throughout Southeast Asia are well trodden upon. In Thailand and Vietnam, travellers seem to have permeated every nook; they can do their laundry, book bus tickets, take inclusive tours and order food, all with relative ease. Cambodia and Laos, though slightly less visited and more susceptible to pockets of trouble, are still both fairly easy enough to breeze through. Though reviews and travellers’ tales of all four abound online and in guidebooks, there are still more adventurous paths to find. The overland route from Bangkok, Thailand to Phnom Penh, Cambodia is one of these unmapped and unpopular routes, although it nevertheless possesses a little charm and is a wallet friendly alternative.

Just because this particular overland trail is decidedly against the general consensus online, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be sought. For those contemplating travel between the two capitals, there are several options: a cheap direct flight that will usually run you between $150 and $250 USD; an overpriced direct bus that takes over 14 hours; or, a definitely disjointed but decidedly rewarding trip hopping between trains, buses and tuk-tuks. Any amount of research will tell you that the last option is time consuming and fraught with financial scams, but no amount will tell you how interesting it can be to see the road less travelled. For those inclined to take that road, an old and often crowded train leaves Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong train station at 5:55am heading towards Aranyaprathet, a tiny Thai town close to the Cambodian border.

Stepping through the open doors of the terrifically old and dishevelled train begins the first leg of the journey; a 255 kilometre ride through Thai countryside that takes about six hours and costs a paltry 48 baht (Ed: about $1.50 USD at the time of publishing). The rolling ramble begins by inching its way out of greater Bangkok but soon you’ll find yourself trundling down the tracks towards Cambodia. The train itself is old, offering padded benches as the only seat choice. If you’re there early, stake a seat next to the large open windows to catch the breeze blasting through, feel the sunlight beaming in and drink in the views of the expanses of rice paddies corralling the tracks.

The train’s terminus in Aranyaprathet is about six kilometers from the Thai-Cambodian border – a sort of ‘all-man’s-land’ full of unscrupulous characters waiting to prey upon travellers. The Aranyaprathet-Poipet border is notorious for bribe-loving consulate officers, tuk-tuk drivers taking unsuspecting passengers to fake Cambodian visa offices and general trickery aimed at making your wallet a little lighter. Since the actual border is a fair hike away from the train station, most choose to hire a tuk-tuk. Inevitably, this is where the trickery takes off. Most often, drivers will take unsuspecting – and suspecting – travellers to the ‘visa office’.  Typically, this is a bare office on the side of the road with the words “Embassy of the Kingdom of Cambodia” emblazoned across the back wall (or something equally legitimate sounding). Inside, you will see nothing to indicate it is an embassy or a consular office. Usually no uniforms, not even a computer. Suave salesmen hand out ‘authentic’ visa application papers and many foreigners eat it up, willingly handing over their US dollars in double digit form. Officially, the visa costs between $20 and $25, but the common trick is to offer an absurdly high price in Thai Baht in order to confuse travellers. Looking at the clues, it is obviously a scam: the barren office, the con artist’s aggressive salesmen approach, the unsolicited advice from the driver.

It’s best to insist on moving on to the border; the game is scamming, not robbery, so polite insistence will win through. Drivers will get the hint and hopefully move on to the more official spot: a large gated building. Inside, there are computers, lazy people shuffling about, pictures of the Cambodian King and general disinterest – a common theme in state bureaucracy. It is still common to be overcharged, but again, polite and stubborn insistence will win through. Just remember, at the time of writing, the official price for a visa on the spot was $25!

 In my personal experience, the legitimate office tried to overcharge by $5. A nominal amount of money, to be sure, but upon principle I maintained my insistence. Both Thais and Khmers are very reluctant to show any negative emotions, preferring to smile their way through incendiary situations rather than lose face, so stubbornly handing over the proper amount of money will often work. Assuming success, it’s back in the tuk-tuk to cover the last few kilometres to the border. However, be wary! Drivers often try to charge extra fees, up to 100 baht, for nonsensical reasons (including the ever-ludicrous claim that you refused to buy a fake visa from the driver’s cohort!). Again, stubborn resolve and the correct change will usually be met with a bit of chagrin and a peaceful resolution. It seems that as long as you remain halfway vigilant, continually and politely refuse anything suspect and demand to be taken to the real consulate, Aranyaprathet is quite safe. However, if all of this seems like it’s not worth the trouble, there’s always the option of the pre-arrival e-visa, a slightly more expensive yet considerably easier alternative.

After getting your departure stamp from Thailand, it’s time brave the gauntlet and walk into Cambodia and find immigration. SmytheBangCam2Again, don’t listen to anyone and simply follow the signs. Aranyaprathet, on the Thai side, is full of people trying to sell inflated visas and sometimes outright fake visas to unsuspecting and unobservant tourists. Poipet, on the Cambodian side, runs a different gamble: cheap and gaudy casinos have popped up to cater to rich Thai’s. The casinos, unbelievably, are closer to Thailand than the Cambodian immigration office. Outside, on the streets of Poipet, scam artists can’t sell visas (since Thailand offers on the spot visas for most travellers), so instead a complicated taxi monopoly has developed and scoundrels try to funnel tourists into dramatically overpriced cabs departing to almost anywhere in the country. It’s best to ignore the echoing chorus of questions from strangers, all hoping to hook people with the end result being, again, a lighter wallet. It’s best to tune them out and keep walking, though it’s important to remember that the Cambodian immigration office is only open from 7:00-20:00, so plan ahead to make it through early.

Inside a crumbling and dirty immigration office just past the massive Angkor themed gate welcoming people to Cambodia is a small immigration office. Once processed, you can breathe a sigh of relief and stand tall: you have navigated the storm of the border and made it out financially unscathed. But wait!

There is one more hurdle to hop: transportation out of Poipet. This town has little appeal and staying the night is the last thing you want to do. It lacks the amenities of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh or even the small towns within a few hours’ radius. Instead, it boasts extortionist prices and gaudy buildings. To move on from Poipet, all tourists are guided to a free transit bus that runs to the Poipet Tourist Passenger International Terminal, a transportation hub a few minutes from the border. While most people approaching you in Aranyaprathet or Poipet should be avoided, the official guides which have recently popped up are genuine and will guide you to the transit bus. Look for official nametags around the neck, but don’t let your guard down. The terminal is sparse and everything is dramatically overpriced, but it beats paying through the nose for the taxis circling like vultures at the border. At the terminal, there are three main destinations facing the intrepid traveller: the capital Phnom Penh, which is about eight hours away by bus; the serene Siem Reap near the Angkor temples, which is about three hours away by bus; or, a small stopover in Battambang, which is about 2 and a half hours away. Battambang and Siem Reap are around $10 and Phnom Penh closer to $15. If the terminal is busy, it is more than likely that there will be fellow travellers around looking to split a taxi; a taxi split four ways costs around the same as the bus but is quicker and more comfortable.

After dodging the touts and the trickery and boarding the bus bound eastward, it’s now time for that standing tall. A few hours on a bus and it will be cheap guesthouses and steaming bowls of lok lak with a few Angkor lagers. You’ll have plenty of time to reflect on the beautiful scenery, an unforgettable train ride, a couple of scams and a crowd of touts. Good and bad, it’s all part of the country and the experience. Just think: you could have flown and missed all of this!

here About the Author

Sean Smyth finds himself teaching primary children as a day job but is passionate about travelling, eating and football - in that order. As a recent import to Singapore, he spends his time writing, reading and exploring. Originally from the east coast of Canada, Sean has an undergraduate degree in International Relations and has been living in Asia for almost two years.

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 Full name: Kingdom of Thailand

 Population: 67.09 million (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: Bangkok

 Largest city: Bangkok (by population)

 Area: 573,120 million (198,117 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Thai, English, Other

 Major religions: Buddhist, Muslim, Christian,  Other

 Monetary unit: Baht

 GDP per capita: US $9,700

 Internet domain: .th

 International dialling code: +66

 Source: CIA World Factbook