June 12, 2003

Notes from a visa run to Poipet, Cambodia from Bangkok.

I obtained a double-entry tourist visa, with each entry being good for 60 days. I only had about a week left on my first entry on this visa, and so had to leave the country and reenter to activate my second stay on the visa. There are a lot of people staying in Thailand under similar arrangements, which makes for a lot of to-ing and fro-ing across the Thai border in various places. A side-effect of this is that there is a wealth of information about visa runs available in the Ex-pat community.

In these days of terrorist worries and SARS, most of the fun places to go for a visa run like the beaches in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, and cities to see like Singapore and Hong Kong, are considered poor choices. This left Laos and Cambodia. Since I'm living in Bangkok right now, Laos was a long train ride away, but Poipet, Cambodia, which was just a 10 minute tuk-tuk ride from Aranyaprathet, Thailand, was only a 4 or 5 hour air-conditioned bus ride away.

I wanted make this visa run as quickly and inexpensively as possible, so I was determined to do it in one day. This meant that I had to leave as early in the morning as I could stand, to. Usually, this is about 10:00, but I with great exertion, I was out the door just after 06:00. A taxi got me to Mochit bus station in less than 45 minutes. The taxi dropped me off in front of the entrance near the ticket booths for the various bus companies, and the driver collected his 180 baht fare plus a 20 baht tip.

Inside the hall, ticket windows were organized by destination. This set of windows was for busses going to Pattaya are over here, the set of windows for busses going to Chaing Mai over here, and the windows for busses going to Aranyaprathet over here. This kind of organization makes a lot of sense, to wit: The window for the bus company that had been recommended to me for the trip to Aranyaprathet and the border was closed with a sign saying that the fist bus was go leave at 09:00, but only two windows over, was a bus company with a bus leaving at 07:00 - in only 10 minutes. Ok, good timeing. I won't have to wait around in the station for a bus, and from the fare -164 baht, about US$4 this was the fast bus. The bus that takes longer does so because it travels further to get to its destination, and thus has a higher price tag. There is some perverse logic to this idea - charge by the mile rather than by the service, but this isn't the U.S., either.

Before buying my ticket, I found the 7-11 franchise inside the bus terminal and bought a small bottle of water, a tiny pineapple turnover and a bag of cashew nuts.

Back at the ticket counter, everything went smoothly. When the young woman behind the counter gave me my ticket, she also passed me a bottle of a sugar drink and a package of cookies for the trip. I smiled and pushed it back to her - sugary drinks and eggs aren't part of my diet. I was assigned a seat right behind the driver. The bus looked fairly new and was very clean inside. The air conditioning was very nice -sufficient without being too cold at any time. When the bus pulled out of the station, a couple of minutes past 07:00, there were only about a half-dozen empty seats.

Even though the Mochit station is near the Northern end of Bangkok, the first hour of the ride was spent working our way through heavy Bangkok traffic before the road opened up into a fast-moving two lane highway. From my vantage point I could see every bit of the road ahead. I have driven a car a little bit and a motorbike quite a bit in rural Thailand, and of the the unusual rules of the road that I have come to accept is that large vehicles have the right-of-way, and they will take it to the limits of physical possibility. This was alarmingly apparent when the buss passed other vehicles almost as fast as we came up upon them. Pass with a dozen oncoming cars, trucks, and motorbikes? No problem since there is enough room for the oncoming car to squeeze by on the shoulder. Pass two or three cars on a blind curve? You guessed it: No problem!

A couple of times, the driver reacted to my gasps or amazement by looking at me in the mirror or shifting his position and cocking his head. I guess I couldn't contain my emotions well enough. The only time the driver showed any sign of patience was when he was behind a large truck, and the oncoming traffic was nothing but large trucks. Might makes right on the roads here.

I read a couple of articles in a copy of Scientific American I had been saving, and after the first hour decided to eat the cashews nuts. The pineapple turnover was breakfast and was eaten before the bus made it out of the station. After about two hours of reading, punctuated by exciting driving, broken up by brief stops to collect or disgorge people, the bus pulled into a bus station and the driver and several passengers got out for a rest break. "Some 'em if you got 'em". The driver ran off to the toilets at the end of the parking lot while others dashed out and grabbed food or had that smoke. From the way the driver had been carrying on, some might have thought this could be their last cigarette.

About 20 minutes before arriving in Aranyaprathet, the bus was stopped at a road block and some military-looking people checked ID cards and passports. The guy who looked at my passport lifted the card that was stapled inside to see if I my current visa was still valid. I guess if it was not, it was a chance for him to pull me out of the bus and give me the opportunity to tip him or be dragged off to the "monkey how" (jail). Fortunately, everything was in order, so the fellow climbed down and we were back on our way to Aranyaprathet and the border.

Four hours and 15 minutes after leaving Mochit, we pulled into Aranyaprathet. Tuk-tuk drivers swarmed the bus and I hired one of them for the 10 ride to the border for 50 baht.

I had read about the border area at http://www.talesofasia.com and some other web sites -the confusion, the noise, the dirt, the beggars, and the touts before coming here, but knowing is not the same as understanding. One nice thing was that around noon, there weren't many tourists crossing the border. The longest wait I had in a cue was less then a minute. The tuk-tuk dropped me off and within a half dozen steps,young girls, maybe 6 to 12 years old came and held umbrellas to provide some shade. As soon as I would shoo one away, another would appear. A number of touts, young men trying to sell me anything they could imagine I might want, approached me. I managed to get most of the touts to go away with "Mia ow cop kuhn cop", Thai for "not want thank you". One tout was quite persistent and dogged me all the way into Poipet and back. I ignored him to the extent possible, and at one point looked at him and said "You know, I'm not going to pay you/" and that appeared to dampen his enthusiasm for a few minutes.

The border area is about 200 meters of dusty street. I was there from about noon until about 1:30 and at that time, the street was full of large trucks crossing the border. There are four immigration offices - entry and exit for Thailand and Cambodia, with a couple of SARS screening stations mixed in. There are about a dozen casinos for Thai who can visit them -I guess they are technically inside Cambodia since casinos are outlawed in Thailand -and a visa for Cambodia is not required to enter the casinos and gamble.

With the help of the persistent tout, I found the building from which I would be stamped out of Thailand. The tout wasn't allowed inside the building and so he watched me wait in line and get processed out of Thailand with his face pressed up against the tinted window.

Next, I went to the Cambodian visa service. The price of a visa is US$20, but they insisted on 1,000 Thai Baht, which is about US$24.10. The immigration officers were keeping the difference for themselves. I asked for a receipt but was told the amount would be noted in the visa. It was: $20 was stamped in in the space for "Amount". The greedy so-and-so's.

The tout continued to pester me as I walked toward the entry point to Cambodia. As I looked around, he kept steering me to the entry point. This was very distracting and annoying. I spotted what looked like a duty free shop and went in to look around. Walking through the tinted glass windows I was greeted by air conditioning and spotless tile floors, a welcomed relief from the hot dusty street outside. Most prominently positioned were rows of slot machines to my left and a fellow with a metal detector immediately in front of me. I walked through the metal detector and the guy sifted through my bag, not finding anything interesting except my camera, which he only inquired about.

To my right was a duty free store with waist-high shelves filled with whiskey, wine, cigarettes and chocolates. Two or three neatly dressed young women followed my every move in anticipation of helping me buy something. I strolled through. The wine was very expensive, and I didn't recognize any labels. Through the door beyond was expensive luggage - something I wasn't the even the least bit interested in. Reluctantly I walked back through the tinted glass doors into the hot, dirty, and confusing street, where "my" tout waiting patiently.

I still had yet to get stamped into Cambodia. On the way to the entry line, I was stopped by a guy in a surgical mask. This was the SARS screening station. I filled out a form that asked where I had been and where I lived. It also asked me to check a box indicating whether I was exposed to SARS, not exposed to SARS or did not know. As far as I know I wasn't exposed to SARS. I was not in total isolation the two weeks prior to the trip, and there were a lot of people on the bus, and they offered the "not exposed" option. Which one would you have chosen to avoid a potentially lengthy delay?

At the Cambodian entrance window, my tout told me to only pay the officer 100 baht. This figure was recently reported as the amount of the bribe one needed to pay so they won't prevent me from returning to Thailand on the same day. As the Cambodian immigration officer looked over my visa, I consulted my notes to see where the Thai entry point was. The immigration officer stared at me, as if he was sizing me up. He didn't ask for the 100 baht bribe, and I didn't offer. He just stamped my passport and slid it across the counter to me. I was now officially in Cambodia.

As I stepped out of the office, the tout came up to me again. Did I want a woman? Did I need a ride to town? Where was I going? I walked around a little bit and took a few pictures of the immigration area from the Cambodian side. A lot had been posted on the web about this area, but there were no photographs of it, so I decided to take a few, even though I was being pestered constantly by this tout. I walked a dozen meters to a traffic circle.


The picture above was taken at the traffic circle at the end of the border area. A road at the far side of the circle lead to Poipet, a few kilometers away. The fellow smiling in the lower right-hand corner is "my" tout. In the few minutes I was there, several load of good, brought by tuk-tuk and human-powered carriage were delivered to the traffic circle, presumably to be taken across the border. One two-wheeled cart was stacked more than two meters high with goods and was so heavy that it had seesawed into the air, lifting the guy pulling it off the ground. Several men and boys came to his rescue and pulled him down to a stable position.

Having taken a few pictures, I was ready to conclude my travels inside Cambodia. I had always wanted to visit Cambodia and was glad I went. I will cherish these memories for a long time, but it was time to get back to Aranyaprathet and catch that bus to Bangkok.

Leaving Cambodia, the immigration officer asked for 100 baht (this was a request for a bribe). I told him that I had already paid, gesturing across the street to the entry point. He gave a derisive glance in that direction then stamped my passport and I was out of Cambodia.

Coming back into Thailand was a breeze. The immigration officer joked about my picture (I had shaved my beard since the passport photo was taken), and he carefully studied the Chinese and Hong Kong visas in my passport, then stamped my passport, good for another 60 days, with a smile. I felt sorry that Cambodia was so far behind Thailand in terms of fighting corruption. "My" tout walked back to the tuk-tuks that would take me back to Aranyaprathet, all the while he helped shoo away young girls with umbrellas. I gave him 50 baht for his help. Thinking back on it, this was the wrong thing to do, as he will continue to pester other tourists.

On the bus going back to Bangkok, I sat in the middle this time, and the bus was configured so that the passengers were in a separate compartment from the driver, and our view foreword was blocked by a large picture. Not being able to see the road ahead made for a much more relaxing trip. About 20 minutes on the other side of Aranyaprathet the bus was stopped for an immigration check. Looked like the same guys who stopped my bus on the way towards the border. Again, the fellow checked the validity dates on my stamps and the bus proceeded toward Bangkok.

When the bus arrived at Mochit station in Bangkok I walked to the taxi stand and got a taxi-meter to my apartment, agreeing to go by way of the toll way, which should cut between 30 minutes and an hour off the trip.

When I got into the taxi, it seemed a little strange, and as it pulled out of the bus station, there were two things that struck me about the taxi: the driver had put advertising stickers at the top edge of all the windows to keep the sun out, and the left-rear wheel was making a funny noise, "whoop...whoop...whoop...whoop...". The faster the taxi went, the louder and faster the whoops. I've had cars with problems, so I could sympathize with the guy, but this was very loud, and was accompanied with a slight swaying of the car body. I wondered if we were going to make it all the way to the apartment. I tired to use my telephone while in the car, but it was too noisy on the toll way.

Once we were off the toll way, I gave the driver directions to the apartment in Thai (or what I thought passed as Thai). Somehow, he managed to get me to the front door of the apartment building just less than 12 hours after I had left.

I had taken care of my visa all in 12 hours for a cost of US$37, including the overpriced Cambodian visa. I was very glad to be back home.


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