Sophie and I spent a few days in Bangkok taking care of some important errands before boarding the train to the border at Aranyaprathet and fleeing Thailand. Sophie ended up paying for two days of overstay. These overstay fees had been a source of worry for us, but in retrospect the process of paying the fine (3 min) and the amount ($30) was probably overall a smaller burden than the length of the line to pay the fine in the first place (1.5 hours).
The border crossing at Aranyaprathet/Poi Pet is notoriously full of scams. People who walk through the border must basically run a gauntlet of Thais and Cambodians promising overpriced visa services that promise to “make the process easier for you.” Sometimes, these scams can look very official, with employees wearing fake uniforms and walkie talkies. There are tons of guides on how to navigate this border online that tell you which buildings to go to and which price to look for (used to be $20, now is $30 for a 30 day visa) If you’re going through, just remember that the people you need to go to are the ones who are the most reluctant to help you. That would be the Cambodian police.
Also remember: Anyone who looks like they’re selling something probably is. Anyone who tells you “You can just leave your bikes here while you go get your visa” is probably up to something. Anyone who runs a casino in the no-mans land between international borders is probably a scumbag.
You will need a passport photo to get the visa, or do as I did and … find a way to get them to accept the application without it. I ended up paying $35 for my visa, where Sophie had a picture and only paid $30. A Chinese guy Sophie met paid for his visa with his watch after losing his money at the previously-mentioned casino. Sometimes the police want a 100 baht “processing fee” as well, but there are plenty of people online saying that you should just decline to pay that fee and they’ll drop it.
After we got our visas, the police ended up giving me a little bit of a rough time because they were just absolutely adamant that I had taken an illegal picture of the immigration office with my phone. I hadn’t, but based on my experiences just 10 minutes earlier we suspected some weird foul play. I grabbed my phone, firmly said “No, I didn’t take a picture.” and we left. Quickly.
Welcome to Cambodia. The Wild West of Southeast Asia.
Poi Pet felt to us like sort of a disgusting border town, a sentiment that was only made stronger by our experience going through immigration. If Sophie and I could survive on cigarettes and booze, then we’d be set. But we can’t, so Poi Pet was of no use to us. We picked up SIM cards for our phones, got some crackers for dinner, spent a night in a dingy little guest house that smelled like mildew and oddly had the Portland feed of a Blazers game on, and booked it out of town ASAP the next morning.
If I haven’t made myself clear enough through the post yet, Cambodia is a little different than Thailand. We get looked at differently, particularly at the border. Not all attention is bad. We can generally distinguish between attitudes of genuine interest and “I want to steal your nice stuff.” In Poi Pet, we felt pretty uncomfortable. Where other backpackers grab a tuk-tuk or taxi after immigration and get out of Poi Pet right away, we can’t do that easily with our bikes. After immigration we chose to sit down on the curb for a few minutes to catch our breath and reinflate a tire. We had soon collected a crowd of Cambodians trying their hardest to look very nonchalant. When one guy got too close to my bike, I sat on it and glared at him until he went away. It is a good decision to have everything tied down to the bike and secure if you are traveling through here.
Cambodia also brings the beginning of French colonial influence. Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam were all colonized by the French, where Thailand mostly retained its independence. In this town of Sisophon (which has like three different names, and Sisophon is a common one) about 50km from the border where we’re staying tonight, we’re enjoying bread for the first time on this trip and walking around to see the interesting mix of French architecture and Khmer and Buddhist statues and temples around the center of the city.
On to Battambang tomorrow, which is a little out of the way but we’re told is worth the visit. Then on to Siem Reap, a place I’ve been looking forward to for awhile now. It is where the ancient temples of Angkor Wat are, and is Cambodia’s largest tourist city. We’ve been told by many people to expect great views of a beautiful temple, but also many, many tourists.
Great. My favorite.