Overland Travel Between Bangkok and Siem Reap by way of Poipet / Aranyaprathet
#1 - Introduction
Information current as of May 11, 2010
This section has grown outrageously large since it began in August 2001 as a brief description of how to travel solo from Bangkok to Siem Reap. It originally appeared as part of my monthly column, Cambodia Update. This section was NOT written in a single sitting, but is instead an evolving piece that I try to update at least once a month. Please bear with me with this cumbersome tome, as it really does include EVERYTHING you could ever want to know about overland travel between Bangkok and Siem Reap.
The border crossing at Aranyaprathet, Thailand and Poipet, Cambodia was opened in early 1998 and in little time did the 155-kilometer road from there to Siem Reap achieve legendary status. Fourteen-plus-hour drives, craters bigger than a pick-up truck, bombed-out bridges, drives through rice fields, roadblocks and demands for money, no other choices but to sit in the back of a pick-up truck with twenty-two Cambodians, etc. all created the kind of adventure that traveler legends are made of. Not surprisingly the road quickly became popular and traveling out of Poipet turned into scam/tout/hassle/rip-off central and that helped launch this section of the website back in August 2001. But in time the road got better, bridges were repaired, rice fields became only rice fields, roadblocks disappeared, touts were driven off, and into 2006 I began to wonder sometimes if this lengthy section was still even necessary other than hopefully to keep people off the tourist buses because that was about the only rip-off left. But then towards the end of 2006 there were new lows when touts literally bullied and intimidated people into paying $60 to $70 for a taxi, that even with the premium price, should never cost over $45. So the section continues. But as I state at the beginning of the "On Your Own" page and I will state it here again, the distress that once characterized this border crossing has for the most part long since faded into oblivion. Other than long immigration queues, overpriced visas and transport, beggars and pickpockets, there really is nothing complicated or particularly intimidating about this crossing. There are now much worse around the planet.
But May 3, 2009 marked a milestone in Southeast Asian travel history as they laid the final few meters of asphalt thus completing the road, seven years late, and tens of thousands of stories behind. The end of an era.
Since April 1999, I've made over 140 border crossings at Poipet/Aranyaprathet so I've seen this road go through a lot of changes, good and bad.
[Note: All travel times given are in using local transport and not the Khao San Road tourist buses which take two to three times longer due to a variety of reasons that have little to do with actual road conditions.] From 1998 through the 2000 wet season, the road was a general disaster. The 155-kilometers needed seven to eight hours to cover when it was dry, and fourteen to twenty hours when it was wet.
In early 2001 the road received its first major reconstruction that brought travel times between Siem Reap to Poipet to as little as two and a half hours even in the height of the wet season. However, come 2002 neglect once again saw the road deteriorate - sometimes dry season does more damage than wet season as the top layer of dirt, loosened by a daily beating from scores of overloaded trucks, blows off into the surrounding rice fields. This creates a road that becomes bumpier by the week until large craters start to form. Furthermore, dry season brings a lot of airborn dust and visibility can become a real problem.
In the third week of September 2002, the road flooded out in several locations and completely broke apart in two other areas. During this time the fastest one was able to travel to or from the border was about five hours and for many people, traveling on a particularly bad day, that time was much much longer. The road became so bad that tourist buses suspended operations for four weeks from mid-October to mid-November 2002. Some trucks were stuck out on the road for over a week.
The problem was not so much heavy rains, but incompetent road reconstruction. A proper road is constructed of multiple layers of dirt evenly packed down creating a stable road base. The Cambodian version of road building is simply to throw down one large pile of dirt and pack it down. Though a quick way to build a road, the result is the lower level of dirt is too soft to hold off water and the whole road collapses and washes away when the rains come.
The road was put back together again at the end of 2002 - the Banteay Meanchey side was done quickly, the Siem Reap side, well that needed some prompting from PM Hun Sen who in early December at a disaster management conference, threw a well-warranted tantrum over the incompetent management of National Highway 6, offering Siem Reap Governor Chap Nhalivuth what may be the political quote of the year, "Don't wait for the road to come visit you, please visit the road." And you've never seen a road put back together so fast.
Since the beginning of 2003 until 2009 the road has been an endless cycle of repairs / deterioration / repairs / deterioration, with two particularly bad times for the road. By September 2005 neglect (and not rain!) had let the road fall into its worst condition since late 2000 and then again in October 2006 heavy rains caused several sections of road to wash away completely and much more of it was submerged. As in 2002, this shutdown the tourist scam buses (good riddance) for awhile, and there were a few days where taxis could barely get through and once they did it still took twelve hours from end to end.
The real construction to bring the road up to international standards that was originally scheduled to begin in 2003 (err, that was the second time, the road was actually supposed to be finished the first time in 2002) finally commenced with much pomp and circumstance with the announcement in October 2005 that this time they really were going to build the road and this time they really really mean it. I guess stealing all the money a third time would be a bit of a stretch...
For a few months all we had were some billboards to look at, but real construction did finally begin in 2006 and the final bit of asphalt was laid, with no pomp or circumstance, on May 3, 2009 , although the initial target date for completion was 2008. But hardly anything is ever done on time here, and two, the Bangkok Airways monopoly on the Bangkok - Siem Reap doesn't expire until 2009 anyway. Imagine that.
Present Road Conditions
The road was completed on May 3, 2009. There is no reason to think about road conditions.
It's 1:30 to 2:00 hours by taxi and 2:30 to 4:00 hours by bus.
THE PHOTO ARCHIVES
Bad road: Photos taken December 7, 2000.
Good road: Photo taken September 2, 2001.
Bad road: Photos taken September 23, 2002
And an image of the future - this is one small paved stretch of highway seven kilometers east of Siem Reap as of September 2, 2001. Someday the entire road from Poipet at the Thai border to Bavet at the Vietnam border will look like this. Water buffalo included.
Repairing a bridge between Siem Reap and Sisophon, August 24, 2002. This repair took about 45 minutes.
Another bridge repair near Sisophon, November 27, 2002. This one took most of the day and people had to walk across the bridge and change vehicles to continue their journeys.
MORE RECENT DISASTERS: October 25, 2006
Depending on what route you take it's either about 260 kilometers or just over 300 kilometers from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet, which is locally referred to as Aran. The town proper is located about six kilometers from the border. The border to Siem Reap is another 155 kilometers. The road across Thailand which the buses use, most of it route 33, is paved highway. A first class public bus takes from 3:45 to 5 hours to cover the distance, while a second-class bus, due to more frequent stops may take a little longer. Due to the location of the bus terminal in Bangkok, traffic in and out of the city is usually not a problem, but you have to expect some traffic if arriving late in the afternoon. Getting through the border can be done in as little as ten minutes if you're lucky or as long as two hours if you're not. If you choose the more expensive, but particularly fast option of taking a metered taxi between Bangkok and Aranyaprathet, they will take a faster and more southerly route that can cut the distance to 260 kilometers and the time down to three hours.
Depending on how you travel on the Thai side, an independent journey should take from between 6 to 9 hours door to door. At present, using local transport and not tourist buses, drive times between Poipet and Siem Reap are 1.5 to 2 hours.
This trip comes down to two choices, on your own or on a package. The package trips begin on Khao San Road in Bangkok and tickets can be purchased at most Khao San Road travel agencies. Going the other way you can get a ticket at any Siem Reap travel agency or through your guesthouse. After several years of ridiculously cheap bus tickets, sometimes as low as 80 baht, tourist bus tickets are now in the neighborhood of 200 to 600 baht ($6.20 to $18.60) on Khao San Road and as much 1000 baht ($31) on Sukhumvit Road. A little hunting around may produce a cheaper ticket. If you're intent on using this form of transportation you might as well shop for the cheapest price because it's the same crappy scam-riddled service regardless of what you pay or what any agent tries to tell you. From Siem Reap to Bangkok the prices are presently about $10-14 (310-430 baht) depending on the company and point of purchase.
Personally, there is nothing I can say that's positive in regards to the tourist bus ticket from Khao San Road. As Poipet has become much easier to navigate in the past two or three years, the concerns for blatant rip-offs that intimidated many tourists away from independent travel are no longer much of a problem. You stand a far better chance of getting ripped-off for greater sums of money if you opt to buy a bus ticket on Khao San Road then if you were to do this trip on your own. You have been warned!
The page "On a Package", is a detailed report of how the KSR-package deals work, and how they try to rip you off and scam you and how you can avoid these rip-offs and scams (ideally, by not buying the ticket in the first place).
The page "On Your Own", is comprised of detailed instructions on how to do the overland trip independently and what rip-offs and hassles you may encounter and how to beat them as well as the new procedures involved with the local government control of all transport out of Poipet.
The page "Conclusion", is a brief summary of the advantages and disadvantages of each form of transport.
Myself, I always travel independently using a moderately more expensive but much more comfortable and much faster Toyota Camry taxi. While I find the trip to be a bit of a drag, I've done it over one hundred thirty times(!), most people making this trip for the first time have found it, though long and uncomfortable, a memorable experience and worth the effort. I would agree. But whatever you do and however you go, bring a sense of humor.
Most of the information on traveling independently is from my own personal experiences with a few added bits from other travelers. The information on package trips is from a variety of sources. While I have used the tourist buses a couple of times it hasn't been since March 2001 that I rode in one and I have no intention of riding in one ever again. The regular stream of stories I hear from new arrivals in Siem Reap is more than enough to convince me of what a crap service it is. I have also interviewed travel agents on both Bangkok's Khao San Road and in Siem Reap. I have spoken with employees and touts of the bus companies and independent touts in Poipet, hotel and guesthouse owners in Siem Reap, and of course received by e-mail and in person dozens and dozens of accounts from travelers - tourist and expats.
If there's anything constant about all of this (the highway, the border, the bus companies, etc.), it's that nothing is constant. I try to keep this page as updated as possible, adding my experiences each time I travel and relying on travelers to inform me of their experiences. If you'd like to share your experiences, good or bad, either from traveling independently or on a tourist bus, please e-mail me. Traveler's reports are posted here. But please keep in mind, for every traveler covering this stretch there is a story to be told and I'm constantly hearing of newly invented ways of separating tourists from their money. Even on my own I sometimes encounter new situations that I hadn't previously planned for. That said, while I'd like to think your journey will be much as I describe, don't be too surprised if you experience something slightly different from what I have written. Enjoy the ride!
All text and photographs © 1998 - 2009 talesofasia.com. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.