Overland Travel Between Bangkok and Siem Reap by way of Poipet / Aranyaprathet
#2 - On a Package
Information current as of May 11, 2010
On a Package - Bangkok to Siem Reap
NOTE: Due to the fact that the road is now completed and the drive time from the border to Siem Reap can be achieved by bus in as little as two hours, one of the major elements of this travel option - dragging the trip out as long as possible to increase the likelihood that you stay in the guesthouse you are sold to - is no longer feasible. It is also quite likely that in short time, scheduled buses targeted at both locals and tourists alike, will begin traveling this route, however one year after road completion this still hasn't happened and this route remains the exclusive domain of backpacker buses.
It is therefore a little difficult to say at this time what the status will be of the KSR Scam Bus. For the time being they are alive and well, but for the first time, it is now possible, even probable that you could arrive before dark. Of course if you traveled independently a 7 am departure from Bangkok could see you in Siem Reap by 1:30 pm, but that's a story for another day...
Most agencies on Khao San Road sell the Siem Reap bus tickets for between 200 to 600 baht. Regardless of price it's all the same crappy scam bus service and you'll find once you're on the bus there will be almost as many different prices paid as there are passengers.
If you're staying off Khao San Road, perhaps in the Sukhumvit area, travel agents may quote prices upwards of 1000 baht.. Ask a lot of questions, because in all likelihood you're being sold the same service as the folks paying considerably less for their tickets on Khao San Road. There are however, some services that offer and deliver van service for the Cambodia portion of the trip. However, the prices for this service tend to be outrageously expensive (upwards of 2000 baht or more per person) and not worth the cost.
If coming from Koh Chang/Trat agents and guesthouses also sell a bus service to Siem Reap which links up with the Khao San scam bus once you get to the border.
Travel times from Bangkok to Siem Reap traditionally ranged from 14 to 18 hours and occasionally as much as 24. However, with the completed road, expect this time to be reduced to 10 to 12 hours.
If you're traveling from Bangkok, most of the buses will claim to depart from Khao San Road around sevenish. By the time they get everybody picked up and sorted out it may be a bit later. As you'll soon discover there are numerous delays along the way - most of which are pre-planned no matter how spontaneous they may seem.
Most of the companies are now using full-size buses in Thailand, usually a fairly comfortable one - A/C, reclining seats, toilet on board, etc., the complete opposite to what you'll get in Cambodia. It is also still possible to get a van or mini-bus for the Thailand portion of the trip.
When you purchase your ticket on Khao San Road they'll probably show you a picture of a bus, maybe two - one for each side of the border. For the Cambodia portion you can almost certainly assume that the bus you get will look nothing like the one in the picture. What you will probably get in Cambodia is a bus designed to hold about 28 people, though they've been known to pack in 35 and more, with no air-conditioning and springs popping through the seats. If you ask them why you don't get the nice bus you saw in the picture, "Sorry, bus break down today."
From Bangkok to the Border
This first part of the journey results in nothing more remarkable than the opportunity to become acquainted with your fellow passengers and stare out the window or sleep. You'll probably stop once for a cigarette/snack/toilet break. The real fun begins when you get near the border and the first scam hits. Actually it's the second scam - the first scam was buying the ticket in the first place.
The Visa Scam
Chances are you don't yet have a visa for Cambodia. This is not a problem as they are issued at the border and it's a very simple process to do on your own. However, for the bus company employees this is an opportunity to make money. It's quite possible that the travel agent that sold you the ticket informed you of various "border fees". There are no such things. The only fee is the cost of a visa, which if you do it yourself is ideally $20 (often with a 100 THB tip to smooth things over) and rarely more than 1000 baht. Any additional money you pay someone in excess of 1000 baht will only line their pockets so no matter what they may tell you, these people are not doing you any favors.
But regardless of what you were told by the travel agent, you hopefully did not give them any money for a visa, because if you're going to do it in Bangkok it's probably cheaper to go to the embassy and do it yourself (or better yet get an E-Visa) - probably becuase it all depends on how you transport yourself across Bangkok. Still, on the bus most of your fellow passengers will be in the same situation - without visa and probably informed that the cost will be somewhere between 1100 and 1500 baht, with 1200 to 1300, or around $35 US, being the most commonly quoted prices.
When you reach Aranyaprathet (the border town on the Thailand side) the buses will stop at a restaurant either a few kilometers before the border or even as far as twenty kilometers before the border. While the opportunity to eat may be welcome, they essentially have you held hostage because you're too far away to get up and walk yourself to the border. So they start by playing the convenience game. A smiling Cambodian (usually Cambodian, but always smiling) will lead you to believe that it would be so much easier for you to sit and eat while he goes and takes care of that silly visa business for you - and it would be easier except that he's going to charge an additional 100 to 500 baht per person to perform this service.
Do the math. Let's say he's in a good mood and only asks for 1200 baht. And let's say there are twenty of you. That works out to an overcharge of 4000 baht, roughly $120 USD. Hardly the picture of a hapless poverty stricken Cambodian is it? Granted this money gets split between a few people, but folks, $120 to have somebody disappear with your passports to do something you can do yourself in five minutes?
Look, there are a lot of poor Cambodians who need the money more than you do and charity is always appreciated, but these guys aren't the ones that warrant your sympathies. This is not the place to say, "Oh, Cambodia is a poor country, let's help these folks out," because these are not the people you want or need to help. Save your charity for folks who really deserve it.
No matter what they may tell you, the Cambodia visa process is incredibly easy. You don't need their assistance! Have your lunch and then go do the visa yourself at the border for $20 or if you can't get around it, 1000 baht ($25 is a fairly common compromise these days and given that the crashing US dollar puts 1000 baht at around $30, this is not a bad deal). Still, if you try to hold your ground and refuse to hand them your passport, they have all the answers to your objections. And all their answers are lies.
Lie #1: "It will
take too long to get the visa on your own."
Lie #2: "But you're from (XYZ
country), it's difficult sometimes to get the visa if you come from there."
Lie #3: "This is an express
service, we have to charge more. If you got your visa in Bangkok it would
have been $20."
Lie #4: "The bus
to Siem Reap can't wait that long."
Lie #5: "Because
there are many of you they have to process you as a group."
Lie #6: "Today is
Sunday. There is an extra charge as normally the office would be closed
Lie #7 - "$20 gets you only a three-day visa, a 30-day visa is..."
Of course you can also tell them you have a visa already and to get lost if they ask to see your passport. You're under no obligation, legal or otherwise, to show anybody your passport except for the folks in uniform in the visa services building (if you're buying a visa) and the immigration officers stamping you in.
If you really want to let the guy get the visa for you, go ahead and give him your money, but this is money completely wasted. You can delude yourself by thinking how nice and convenient it is that they do this service for you, but you really are suffering from delusions. No matter what they tell you, the visa procurement process is very fast and easy. And isn't saving money one of the reasons why you bought this bus ticket in the first place? So why are you handing this guy two hundred or even three hundred additional baht to get your visa for you? Do it yourself!
Change money scam
There's a good possibility you will be told that you must change as much as $100 US (or Thai baht) into Cambodian riel. There is no such regulation in Cambodia and the US dollar remains the de facto currency of Cambodia. But the real scam lies in the fact that you may be given as little as 3000 riel to the dollar or if changing baht, as little as 70 riels. Presently the riel exchanges at around 4150 riel to the dollar and has remained reasonably close to that for several years now and one Thai baht is worth roughly 120 riels. This rip-off will cost you as much as $15 if you fall for it. DO NOT CHANGE ANY MONEY HERE! They also may try this scam on again in Sisophon. Various lies used include:
Lie #1: "US dollars are no
longer accepted in Cambodia."
Crossing the Border
At some point each of you will probably be issued some kind of identification card to wear. This may be a laminated business card or just a colored card or sticker. It's to identify which company you're going to be transported by across Cambodia and to identify you to the touts in Cambodia that you are already paid for and not available to be hijacked.
Representatives of the transport companies are usually hanging around the border and they do a good job of locating their cargo and helping you through immigration (not that the help is needed) as they don't want to lose any of you. You'll also find that if you were able to avoid paying the crooks at the restaurant to get you your visa, the bus company representative will happily steer you in the right direction and probably not try to charge you any extra money. So get your visa now, then breath deeply and say "my, getting that visa certainly was easy!"
But whatever they do, they'll probably make you wait at the border for an hour or two or three or four or ... bring a book. They'll tell you stories like they're waiting for gas money, the bus needs to be repaired, they're waiting for somebody, etc. It's all nonsense. They do not want to get you into Siem Reap until well after dark to be as sure as sure can be that you will stay at the guesthouse you are delivered (sold) to. Did you know that almost every bus has a mechanical problem almost every day?!?!?!?!?!?! It's amazing they can run at all!!!
Eventually they'll toss you into some kind of bus and slowly get you all moving along. It might be 2 pm, more likely it might be 5 pm.
Getting to Siem Reap
Once you finally get on the road, you'll travel all of about 50 kilometers to the town of Sisophon where, you guessed it! A food break! Yes, you ate a few hours ago at the border but they need to waste more time. They'll tell you it's a fifteen-minute break and then the van or bus will drive off and not come back for one or two hours. They'll tell you it needed a repair, though you'll be forgiven for not noticing any mechanical problems with the bus, because most importantly, they are just wasting more time. Nobody's repairing anything, they're off doing karaoke or something.
Now, the restaurant does pay the bus people money for bringing you in, but that's a worldwide business practice and I have no complaint with this. What I do complain about is making you wait for up to two hours even though everybody finished their meals in twenty minutes.
You'll probably then manage to travel all of another 50 kilometers before, you guessed it again! another stop! This time in Kralanh which is the toilet capital of Cambodia. Or it was anyway, ... it's a long story. Okay... Cambodians are great imitators. About six or seven years ago somebody got the idea to build a block of clean toilets and advertise this fact with a large sign in English, Thai, and Khmer. The plan worked as taxis, buses, trucks, etc., especially those carrying foreigners, pulled up and weary travelers poured out en masse paying the happy toilet owners 500 riels for the privilege of using the clean facilities. So what happened? All the neighbors began building their own rest facilities and at one point there were about ten of these places in this small village. But competition being what it is, most didn't last a year and now there really are only about two.
Eventually you'll finally reach Siem Reap and pull into a guesthouse that paid as much as $7 a person to have you delivered there.
For some time I had been cautioning tourists about being hassled for trying to leave the guesthouse they are sold to. However, while the problem has most certainly not been eliminated, I am hearing less frequent reports of tourists having problems leaving.
That said, the best advice is that you take a look at the place you're delivered to. If it looks good, stay there, though don't expect a particularly favorable room rate as they do have all those $7 kickbacks to recover. But, if you want to leave, perhaps you had another place in mind, or a reservation somewhere, then leave. Some of the guesthouses have been quite cooperative, even supplying a motorbike driver to deliver you to your chosen destination. What will likely happen is they will ask you where you want to go and if it's a guesthouse they know will pay back some or all of the $7 as a commission then they will of course obligingly provide you with transportation to the other facility.
In the unlikely event you are on a large 40+ seat buses, they usually stop the bus outside of town and then shove everybody into smaller vehicles for delivery to various guesthouses.
When the nonsense of selling the entire busload of tourists to a guesthouse began there were many problems with how some of the guesthouses treated their purchase. In some cases, if you tried to leave you were at the very least told lies about Siem Reap being dangerous after dark. This is nonsense. Nobody's been held up here in years and the locals all know that if they were ever caught sticking a gun in a tourist's face their punishment would be fast and harsh. The Siem Reap authorities are very image conscious and the result is that Siem Reap is one of the safest places is Asia.
I recall once I met some tourists who were deposited at a guesthouse on the edge of town and when they tried to leave they were told that the Khmer Rouge were still active in the area and kidnappings were a possibility!!!!! In case you're wondering, the Khmer Rouge ceased to exist in 1998 and it's been much longer since ANY westerner has been grabbed (except maybe by these guesthouses!!). IT JUST DOESN'T HAPPEN ANYMORE! By the way, the Cambodian government, and certainly the Ministry of Tourism and the local tourist police, would love to have the name of any guesthouse telling tourists about Khmer Rouge kidnappers lurking in Siem Reap!
In more serious instances some guesthouses have held tourist's bags and demanded payment for their return or they simply locked the gates and refused to let you leave. If you find yourself in this situation the first words out of your mouth should be "I'm going to get the police." And do it. One guesthouse was fined $2000 for locking tourists in and threatened with closure if it happened again so don't consider it a waste of time to visit the police.
But to reiterate, this seems to be a less common occurrence now and it really seems that most of the guesthouses have sorted themselves out in respect to this. Still, as this problem hasn't completely gone away, if the guesthouse does cause any problems for you, do not go to one of the Siem Reap pubs, order a cold beer and whine to your mates and the bartender about it. Go to the tourist police!!! That's what they are there for. And while paying commissions (kickbacks) is a perfectly acceptable business practice in Cambodia, grabbing bags and threatening tourists is not acceptable nor legal and believe it or not the authorities in Siem Reap do give a shit sometimes about what happens to tourists, especially if its something that makes Cambodia look bad. And this makes Cambodia look bad.
Going to the police may not get you any money or anything, but the police will have words or more with the guesthouse owners, if for anything, just to get the complaints stopped. So make it a little easier for the next group that comes along and have a word with the police if you are met with this nonsense.
The tourist police office is near the Angkor ticket booth a few kilometers north of town. Motodrivers all know where it is.
Telephone numbers for the tourist police are apparently 012-969-991, 012-950-091, 012-837-768, 012-862-629, 012-402-424 and maybe 012-893-297 and 012-893-298 (probably better to just go in person). Don't be afraid to use their services. It's what they are here for.
SUMMARY - Advice to follow if you are using the Khao San Road bus ticket:
1.) Ask yourself again, "Why am I
doing this and not exploring the option of taking a government bus to
the border and a taxi onward to Siem Reap?"
On a Package - Siem Reap to Bangkok
This is a simpler, more hassle-free process as there is no visa required for most western nationalities to enter Thailand and as the ride terminates on Khao San Road there is no guesthouse to "kidnap" you. The only potential delays are they will likely take a rest break in Kralanh and a lunch break in Sisophon, and another break in Thailand but they are less likely to hold you up for two hours as there is no reason to arrive late in Bangkok. With no visa scam or guesthouse commissions available, the companies do a better job getting you to your destination in a reasonable amount of time with much less fuss.
Prices range from $10 to about $18.
Some form of transport will take you from Siem Reap to Poipet, again this should be a small bus or van, that probably will not have working A/C and may be over-sold, which is solved by either offering the excess passengers plastic chairs to sit on in the aisle, or perhaps another tourist's bag. In Siem Reap they'll pick you up at your guesthouse telling you 6:30 a.m. and probably arriving a little later. They can't be everywhere at 6:30, now can they? At the border some representative of the bus company will manage to find you and they'll get everybody and everything sorted out and on a bus bound for Bangkok, probably a large bus. They'll dump you on Khao San Road.
One thing to beware of is excessive delays at or near the border. If you prepaid for travel all the way to Bangkok you can expect to be the last people that get transport from the border to Bangkok? Why? Becasue either the bus isn't full or they are using vans and if they are using vans you can bet they are far more interested in obtaining new customers who haven't paid any money yet than transporting you as they already have your money. One more reason not to buy combo transport tickets between Cambodia and Thailand.
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