Thursday, December 5, 2013

Bangkok to Siem Reap Overland Crossing

I've never really considered myself a backpacker. And part of not being a backpacker is that we value time a little more than money. For example, we'd rather pay a little more for a 2-hour flight than save $20 by taking a 7-hour bus. I've crossed a lot of borders, but none in Asia. We've always flown, which is very simple and regulated. I've heard lots of stories about the Cambodia-Thailand border, and I really wanted to experience it for myself.

Big mistake. We should have flown. Especially today, but we'll get into that in a minute.

We took a $2 taxi to the Mo Chit bus station just before 6am (if you're keeping track from last night, that gave us about 4 hours sleep). We hadn't purchased a ticket yet, and when we got to the booth, today and tomorrow were all sold out (there were still plenty of buses if we wanted to do it in pieces, but we were hoping for a straight trip from Bangkok all the way to Siem Reap, which only has one trip in the morning. Since our visa expires in two days, we couldn't wait. So we went to the window for Arranyaprathet, Thailand's border town, and mistakenly asked for a bus to Siem Reap (we were crazy tired and not really thinking straight). By the grace of God, she said she had two seats available for today. I kid you not, this was a full-on miracle. 750 baht each and we were all set. We found out later from the German guy sitting next to us on the bus that his friends were supposed to be in our seats, but they couldn't make it, so he returned the tickets last night. For anybody researching this crossing, make sure you buy your tickets at least two days in advance.

We killed the three hours in the bus station basically half asleep and glazed over, standing once for the pledge of allegiance to the king thing they do at 8am. Which, America, you should totally do.

The bus left on time at 9am. This is a nice bus with four seats across and a nice bathroom. Just one level of seats, not the premium VIP bus like we took to Chiang Mai, just one step down from there. Comfortable and enough room for my skinny six-foot frame. 

Almost immediately, they hand out snacks: coffee, OJ, and a muffin.

It took a while to get out of Bangkok, and then we drove through a lot of nothing. Finally, around 1pm, we arrived at a government bus station, where they recommended we purchase visas. This is at a much higher price than at the border. You would get to skip the queue at the Visa on Arrival building, which for us took about 5 minutes.

The bus started up again and they fed us a yummy lunch of fried rice and cucumbers.

At 1:45, after inching our way through horrendous traffic, we arrived at the border and were promptly ejected from the bus. I tried to get access to my bag, which was stored under the bus, because I had mistakenly left our passport pictures (which you need for your visas) in there. It was so early when we packed! My bad. Anyway, they wouldn't let me in because the bus was pretty much at the border and it was blocking traffic, so we got off and it kept going through.

We stood in a ridiculous line for our departure stamp. It was here that we found out that this is a holiday weekend. The king's birthday and Father's Day or something. So there were way more people crossing the border than normal. We got no special or preferential treatment for being on a government bus (I had read other blogs that we may). We stood in line and tried to make sense of the chaos until we finally merged into a line that was moving.

After 30 minutes, we finally got through Thailand's departure line and then walked into Cambodia and towards the white building on the side to get our Visas. Since I couldn't get our passport pictures from my bag, there would be an extra fee. We also couldn't change our money to USD yesterday because we got into BKK too late and we left this morning too early, so we had to pay in Thai Baht, which is another fee. Boo for us not being prepared. :(

Normal price for a visa is $20. A sign in the window gave us our options: $20 plus 100 baht (a scam that they were very adamant in sticking to, 100 baht is about $3.25), or 800 baht (about $26). I speak Cambodian, so I struck up a conversation with one of the guards, hoping he'd lower the price a little. He didn't. I asked what the penalty for not having our photos is, and he said 100 baht. So we ended up paying just under $30 each for our visas, mainly due to our unpreparedness. :(

Upon leaving the building, we saw our bus sitting there beside the Cambodian entry point, so we totally could have gotten our passport pics and saved a couple hundred baht. Boo again!

We hopped in line to get our entry stamp for Cambodia. This was a small hot  building with four agents working as fast as they could, but it still took a half hour to get through. I got through a few minutes before Isa, so I started talking to one of the guards outside. He was so excited to talk to a white guy in his native tongue that had a friend bring me a drink. Orange Juice. Yum! Isa came out and we thanked him for the drink and climbed back onto the bus. Exactly two hours had passed from when we got off the bus about 200 meters back on the Thailand side.

We passed through a few more hours worth of rice fields and nothing. Sunset was gorgeous...

We finally arrived at the bus station in the center of Siem Reap at 6:45pm. All together, the trip took 9 hours and 45 minutes, 2 hours of which were spent at the border.

The bus company provides free tuk tuk transport to your hotel, which is only free because the driver will try to convince you to hire him while you're there. We opted to walk, since our hotel was only a block and a half from the bus station (the bus station is by the KFC, on Sivatha Rd around Street Number 5. It's about halfway between the airport road and the Old Market).

So, here are our tidbits of wisdom:

1. If you have a specific date to cross and can book your tickets a few weeks early, FLY. It costs about the same and it's totally worth it.

2. Get your eVisa online. It takes 1 to 3 days to process, they'll email it back to you, and it costs $25. Knowing that there's going to be some scam for just a few bucks, it's worth it for the peace of mind and for being able to skip one line (even if it was the shortest and easiest line).

3. If taking the bus, book it at least two days in advance. You can do this at the station (Mo Chit) or online (for a fee).

4. Take the bus straight from Bangkok to Siem Reap (as opposed to taking a bus to Arranyaprathet, tuk tuk to the border, and then getting from Poipet to Siem Reap). It's so nice to just hop back on the same bus and not have to haggle with any tuk tuks or arrange a taxi. It's also very nice to not have to carry your bags with you through the border, since they stay locked under the bus the whole time. The cost ends up being about the same either way (maybe $2 or $3 cheaper if you do it in pieces and you're good at haggling), but the direct bus is so much easier.

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