Last year, I spent a few months backpacking through Southeast Asia. It was an amazing experience I highly recommend to all travellers! After six weeks in Thailand, it had been a few months since the last time I'd worked, so I was at the make-every-cent-count phase of the journey, but it was time to explore the next beautiful country: Cambodia. Here are some tips and tricks to help you make the most of your journey while avoiding some common scams.
To get from Bangkok to Siem Reap, you have 3 options: bus, train, or flight.
The bus is the least desirable of the options; it's time-consuming, (relatively) expensive, and not so scenic. You might want to skip it. If you’re on a time-crunch, and have the budget for it, I suggest the flight. But if you’re looking to save some money, enjoy cool scenery, and are happy to spend a day travelling with locals, I'd definitely take the train!
I caught the train from Bangkok to Arunyaphratet (the town closest to the Cambodian border). It cost 48 baht (about $2 CAD), and took 6 hours. The only downside is it leaves the station at 5:55 AM. Bangkok has a great Metro system, but unfortunately, it doesn’t start until 6:00 AM, so to catch this train, you'll need a taxi.
Anytime you take a taxi in Bangkok, make sure you ask the driver to turn on the meter. The flat rates are --without a doubt-- a total rip off. Another option is to use the Grab Taxi app, where, as long your only luggage is a backpack, it's even cheaper for a moto-dop (motorcycle taxi). But be warned, scheduling a pick-up (which you might want to do if you need an early lift) comes with added fees, and there's no guarantee to find a driver in your area if you don't.
You can purchase your train ticket online, but you don't need to. It's definitely important, though, to check the schedule in advance. To get to Arunyaphratet, if you want to continue the journey all the way to Siem Reap the same day, you are limited as to which trains you can take. You can find the schedule here , but I recommend the 5:55 train. As a solo traveller, I don't think it's super wise to rock up to Siem Reap so late in the evening, and I looked into spending the night either in Arunyaphratet or Poipet, on the Cambodian side of the border, and decided it wasn't for me. It's worth noting that there's a casino here, a huge draw for locals on holiday, so maybe something you want to see if you've got the time and are curious.
From the train station in Arunyaphratet, you'll have to catch a tuk-tuk (pronounced “took-took”) to the official border. My driver quoted me at 100 baht, which, to be honest, is over-priced for the 3 minute ride. But you have to choose your battles.
The driver will likely ask you if you already have your visa (which you can arrange in advance online). If you don’t, he will want to take you to a fake, "Cambodian Consulate" to buy one. Do not fall for this scam! If you didn't pre-arrange your visa, you should actually lie (remember, choose your battles), because no matter how much you insist you'll buy it at the border, he will take you to the scam "consulate" that charges a lot more than it should actually cost. Say you have a visa, and ask specifically for the, “Official border, please.”And smile! This may go without saying, but remember to never be rude when bargaining or asking for something. A smile goes a long way in both Thailand and Cambodia.
Also, bear in mind, it is not compulsory to buy Cambodian Riel. Everyone takes American Dollars, but be sure to take care of them; any rips or folds will give businesses and vendors a reason to reject your money.
From the official border, you’ll have to do the standard exit from Thailand. You’ll get your exit stamp and be on your merry way. Do not talk to anyone about a visa or a bus ride or anything until after this.
When it’s time to get your Cambodian visa, there’s another scam you can avoid if you'd like. The official sign says $30 for a tourist visa. There’s a hand-written one that says, “1200 baht or $30 + 100 baht.” When it comes time to pay, they will gesture towards the hand-written sign.
Now, you may think it's worth it to pay the extra 100 baht, but if you don't, you can point to the official sign and insist. They will continue to argue with you, but eventually, they'll tell you to sit down and hold on to your passport. They might even flip through the pages menacingly. It's just a scare tactic, so don't panic or worry.
I was one of the lucky ones; it was less than 2 minutes before they called me up and processed my visa. I read some people waited more than 10 minutes, others were argued with more. My visa was processed just as quickly as the other people I crossed the border with, and they paid the extra money!
Be sure to have a recent passport photo ( if you don’t, you have to pay even more), but you can get some taken in Bangkok before you leave.
Keep in mind, 100 Baht not seem like a lot of money, and perhaps for many travellers it isn't. It's true that Cambodia is a very poor country, with a very dark recent history they are still recovering from (make sure to learn a bit about Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian Genocide before you go; the country is still very much affected by this tragedy), however, the corrupt border officials seem to be doing alright. My philosophy is to save my $5 CAD to tip the Tuk-Tuk driver, hotel/hostel staff, or the juice-cart-lady who makes fresh $1 pineapple juice. IMO, these guys work hard and more deserving of the extra money, but at the end of the day, it's up to you!
When you cross the border, you’ll be approached by someone who wants to usher you onto the free bus that takes you to the station. It’s not a scam, but might not be the most convenient. If you can convince people to split a taxi with you (which I was not able to do), I've heard it’s much better. The bus from the station costs $8-$10, but it's a charter, and doesn’t leave until it’s full. A taxi is about $45-$50, so if you split it, you don’t have to wait. We ended up on a minibus because a group of us insisted we would not wait. It cost $12 USD, but we left right away. Of course, we stopped at some business along the way where a woman insisted we buy stuff. Again, it's up to you if you want to buy anything. The sole purpose of these road side stops is for you to spend money, and the driver either gets a cut, is family, or makes some kind of deal. Again, your call if you want the overpriced snacks or if you'd rather wait and pay the same price for an actual meal in town.
Just outside Siem Reap, the bus/taxi will stop and insist you exit the vehicle. There, a group of tuk-tuk drivers will be waiting. Even if you were promised a ride all the way to your hotel (which we were), they’ll insist they are not allowed to drive into the city (even though a similar vehicle will pick you up from your hotel when you’re leaving). Some of the people I was with opted to walk, angry with the obvious money-grab. Others paid the tuk-tuk drivers what they were quoted, but I think the best thing to do is just chat with a driver for a few minutes. Many of them will agree to drive you to your accomodation free of charge (which is likely under a 2 minutes away) if you promise to book your Angkor tour with them, which, in my opinion, is a good deal.
Speaking of the Angkor tour, whatever you do, don't book this online or through your hotel/hostel. As previously mentioned, there is a lot of poverty in Cambodia. The Cambodian Genocide is beyond horrific, and the country is still very much in recovery, so there are better ways to put money in than pouring it into large (often foreign-owned) corporations, where drivers and tour guides receive a pittance. If you arrange one-on-one with a driver to pick you up at a certain time and date, he will be there, and he will drive you to any temple in Angkor you want, wait while you look around, drive you to the next location, stop for lunch, then to next place --basically stick around all day, for about $15. It's a significant amount more money in the hands of the working people, not more expensive for you, and it only requires a small amount of planning and effort on your part. And-- fear not! I will write a complete guide on which temples to see and what to do in Angkor Wat, so that you can relax and enjoy your trip without worrying that you're missing anything!
Until then, save your pennies, pence, yen, and cents, and get yourselves to Asia --it's amazing out here!