Given the close proximity between the two destinations, it’s not surprising that Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple is a popular excursion for backpackers and other tourists visiting Bangkok — and “tourism professionals” in the Thai capital are well aware of this. Avoid getting talked into scams in Bangkok and other places along the road to Cambodia to save yourself time, money and perhaps most importantly, your sanity.
KHAO SAN ROAD SCAM BUS
Any budget traveler who’s paid a visit to Bangkok is no doubt familiar with the city’s Khao San Road area, home to cheap hostels, bars and restaurant — and even cheaper hookers. Several travel agencies also operate within the district. Although many of these companies provide legitimate services like flight and tour bookings, they also have a tendency to gouge unwitting tourists, deceiving them into paying exorbitant prices by promising quick, hassle-free transport.
The reality is that most of the Cambodia-bound buses departing Khao San Road — and other areas in Bangkok, for that matter — are in poor condition, require frequent stops will probably take a better part of the day to get you to Cambodia. Prices vary widely: I’ve personally heard people bargain prices down to as little as ฿500 per ticket, but you can more realistically expect to pay ฿600-800 unless you read my article on how to bargain.
TRAIN FROM BANGKOK TO ARANYAPRATHET
Of course, I would recommend you don’t waste your time bargaining at all. Instead, hop in a taxi and tell the driver to take you to take you to Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Railway Station, the hub of the country’s rail network. So long as your driver is honest and users his meter, the cab fare from Khao San Road to the station shouldn’t be more than ฿50 — ironically, a rougher tuk-tuk ride over the same distance costs more. If you’re staying in an area of Bangkok served by any of the city’s rail networks, ride from your nearest station to the MRTA’s “Hua Lamphong” stop, its southern terminus.
Trains depart Hua Lamphong for Aranyaprathet, a tiny town on the Thai-Cambodia border, twice daily, at 5:55 a.m. and 11:35 a.m. as of May 2011. The seven-journey costs just ฿85 and allows you to take in the beautiful nothingness that dominates most of Thailand outside Bangkok from the comfort of a wooden bench in a fan-cooled, windows open cabin. The experience is decidedly local, but a surprisingly comfortable, low-stress and even relaxing way to travel. For this and other journeys, always purchase your train ticket directly from the attendant inside the station — and never from any of the hustlers lurking outside.
CROSSING THE BORDER AT POIPET
After arriving in Aranyaprathet, you’ll need to take a tuk-tuk to the actual border crossing, a 10-minute journey that should cost no more than ฿40 per vehicle. In order to avoid being shortchanged, I recommend you bring exact change. Once you arrive at the border, you must clear Thai exit immigration. Lines can get long, but Thai officially are generally efficient and professional — and their border facility is more or less comfortable — so the process is relatively painless.
Once you cross under the “Kingdom of Cambodia” archway, however, things can get more complicated. Welcome to the beautiful town of Poipet! Pronounced “poy-pet,” the town name’s rhyme with the word “toilet” is all too appropriate a coincidence: in addition to the fact that the-house-always-wins casinos, overpriced souvenir shops and dodgy food joints are among the only activities to partake in there, the area between the border the official Cambodian immigration facility is literally blanketed in fake border crossings.
A good rule of thumb to get where you need to be is to follow the crowds and not talk to anyone who approaches you, no matter how official he looks — real Cambodian border authorities only leave the comfort of their seats at the end of their shifts. Heading toward Poipet’s town center, the legitimate processing area is located on your right side and will probably have a long line extending from it. Just be patient.
Cambodia requires all foreigners who enter to be in possession of a visa but thankfully, issues visas on arrival. As of May 2011, these run $25 — and I strongly advise you to carry this sum with you in U.S. dollars if you don’t want to fall victim to whatever baht-to-dollar exchange rate the border officer feels like quoting you, which almost always favors him. The U.S. dollar is also Cambodia’s de-facto currency, so having a stash on hand will make your entire trip easier.
Don’t allow the officer to take your passport out of your sight and make sure the passport he returns to you is your own. Although the majority of mix-ups are honest mistakes, it’s best to be vigilant to prevent one from occurring in the first place — a lost passport stays lost, regardless of the intent of the person who lost it.
TAXIS TO SIEM REAP AND PHNOM PENH
The only way to travel from the border to Siem Reap or Phnom Penh at the time of writing is taking a taxi. Taxis — most of which are simply unlabeled, private cars — are plentiful at the border and drivers are generally willing to bargain on the fare, particularly if a lot of them are swarming you. Generally, you can expect to pay between $25 and $50 per car to Siem Reap, a price which can rise to $75 if you head straight to the Cambodia capital of Phnom Penh. Don’t agree to pay more than this in any instance.
If you’re traveling alone, ask a group of two or three other travelers to share a taxi. They’ll almost always say yes, as it not only lowers the fare, but provides you an opportunity to share travel experiences and stories on the journey, which takes about an hour and a half to Siem Reap and three hours to Phnom Penh. When I visited in February 2010, I met two people named Kale and Amber, who actually happened to be from Texas and Arkansas, respectively. Six months later, the three of us traveled through Vietnam and Laos together.
Unless you’ve arranged the taxi through your hostel or guest house — and I strongly recommend you do so if you have the option, as this is usually even cheaper than getting a taxi when you arrive at the border — it will probably take you to a spot in the center of either Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. You’ll need to take a tuk-tuk from here to your hostel or guest house, but don’t accept a ride from someone who tries to charge you more than $1.
Also, dismiss claims that your hostel has closed or is full. The driver is simply trying to take you to one of his friend’s accommodations, which is likely dodgier and more expensive than the one you’ve already booked.
GETTING BACK TO BANGKOK
The process of getting back to Bangkok is generally cheaper and easier than getting to Cambodia, namely because your hostel or guest house can provide a discounted taxi to the border.
Trains depart Aranyaprathet for Bangkok at 6:40 a.m. and 12:05 p.m. and since you can conservatively expect to spend two hours exiting Cambodia and re-entering Thailand, leave from Siem Reap at least four hours in advance of your planned departure and from Phnom Penh at least six hours before you need to board the train. I personally recommend taking the 12:05 p.m. departure, which begins rolling into central Bangkok just as the sun is setting, providing a breathtaking “Welcome Back” to the city.
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who’s been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as “CNNGo” and “Shanghaiist” along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.