Posted by: Tommy | June 20, 2011

A Well-deserved reptuation or Who’s been dying to hear another “bad travel experience” story?

During a leisurely week in Bangkok, we saw 0 sights, but we did see 4 malls, 3 movies, the inside of 2 different massage parlors and 1 frisbee game – that was abbreviated by a back injury, which led to all of the above rather than sightseeing (feeling better now, close to 100%).  Anna’s plan for SE Asia included a quick trip from Bangkok, east to Cambodia and Angkor Wat.  We delayed it a couple of days due to the back pain – nothing feels better than a 10 hour busride when your back is killing you – but finally left on Wednesday.

All of the hostels and hotels in Bangkok offer to arrange things for you – they all advertise buses going to assorted places around Southeast Asia.  Bangkok is the hub, so from there you can get buses to Laos, Vietnam – Hanoi or Saigon, Cambodia – Phnom Penh or Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) or to other parts of Thailand (Chiang Mai in the north, Kho Tao or Phuket in the south).  In other places we’ve been, these buses are always more expensive than figuring it out on your own.  If you go to the bus station and just buy your ticket, you can save 30-70% – of course, there’s more headache and more likelihood of a mistake, but it is cheaper.

From the beginning of our trip, we’ve foregone the simple option and have always tried to do it ourselves – that’s how we ended up taking a Russian bus and getting let out on the side of the highway, how we ended up hitchhiking in Namibia and how I ended up riding the bus with a goat in Nepal.  And it has always worked out – some of the experiences we’ve had are among our favorite stories from our trip.  In Asia, there hasn’t been much impetus to “do it ourselves”.  In Africa or Russia, saving 50% on a bus ride meant $30-40 saved.  In Asia, saving 50% means it’s $4 instead of $8.  For some reason, we forgot all of this, and only now, while reflecting on how we ended up doing what we did, can I pinpoint where and why we went wrong.

We spent the entire day before leaving for Cambodia researching for the final leg of our trip (we’ve decided on Fiji-China-Japan-Indonesia, heading home on Dec. 14 from Bali).  We needed to make some decision and I could lay on my back and use the internet.  During the research, Anna found some online discussions about the Thailand-Cambodia border crossings and instructions for making the crossing.  This border crossing has developed quite a reputation among backpackers as being difficult, so the instructions read something like “make sure you do X, don’t listen when they tell you that you have to buy a permit, or an extra visa or pay anything”  The X could be exiting Thailand, entering Cambodia, getting the shuttle – every aspect of this border crossing is known for being corrupt.

In some cases, we’ve read, the companies that run night buses from Bangkok to Siem Reap have actually pumped in gas, knocked out the tourists and stolen all of their stuff.  More frequently, backpackers have woken up to find a bus employee rifling through their backpacks.  We took the day bus and stayed awake the whole time.  According to Anna’s research, the trip could easily be done in 1 day if you knew what you were doing.  You take a bus to the border, walk across, then take the shuttle to a share taxi.  The share taxi would cost $20-$25. I considered asking our hostel, just for information, the cost of the private bus all the way but my back was hurting and I’d have to walk down 2 flights of stairs and back up.

We got up the next morning at 5:40am, stored one backpack (we’d be returning in 4 days) in the luggage room and set out.  We’d have to walk to the Skytrain station, then transfer once and ride to the end of the line.  From there, we’d walk to the bus station (looked close on the map) and find the bus to Poipet (Thai border town).  Easy enough.  We were actually slightly ahead of schedule when we got off the Skytrain (cost to this point: $3 for 2 Skytrain tickets).  Our map had the Northeast Bus Station marked in both Thai and English, so we were able to ask Thais for directions just by pointing at the map, having them read it and then pointing us in the correct direction.  We did that for about 20 minutes, walking further and further from the Skytrain station.  And finally, we came upon an old man.  I pointed at the spot on the map – he got out his glasses, read it and started gesturing.  I wasn’t understanding…so he decided to just tell me, in perfect English – “walk this way, cross the bridge, then it’s another 3 kilometers.” …. that’s almost 2 miles.  It turns out the map says, in Thai – “to Northeast Bus Station”.  The station is actually off the map, but the English translation leaves out the “to”.

We flag down a taxi, tell him Northeast Bus Terminal, and he agrees.  We’ve gone about 100 yards when he shows us a calculator with a 60 on it.  The calculator is how people who don’t speak English communicate cost.  This would be the first time (not the last time) today that someone tried to screw us.  The minimum charge for a taxi is 30 baht ($1) for the first kilometer.  Each additional km is 10 baht.  We indicated that he should turn on the meter – he did and moments later we arrived at the station and paid the metered price of 40 baht.

We got inside and quickly found the Poipet bus.  We got 2 tickets for the 8:00am bus ($7 each) and a box of Dunkin Donuts for the wait.  We’d now spent $18, total, to get both of us to the border.  Our bus left promptly and drove straight through, arriving at 1pm.  There were several Thais on our bus and 1 other backpacking couple; we talked to them along the way and made plans to split the share taxi to Siem Reap once we crossed the border.

It wasn’t until we got to the border that the shenanigans started.  The bus dropped us a little ways (3 miles) from the border.  The tuk-tuks were lined up under a big sign proclaiming a fixed price of 80 baht to the border.  This price is ridiculous based on other Thailand prices, but hey, they have a captive audience.  The 4 of us started getting into a tuk-tuk when we were informed that only 2 people were allowed per tuk-tuk.  You can take 4 in a tuk-tuk all over Thailand…except for these 3 kilometers, apparently.  It’s just under $3, so we relent.  We’re tired, we’re hungry and we want to get across the border as soon as possible to avoid the headaches.

So we split into 2 tuk-tuks and set out.  About 5 minutes later, we pulled off of the main road in front of a restaurant. We could see a sign proclaiming the border to be straight ahead…but we had turned right.  A young guy carrying a clipboard and wearing a lanyard demanded 1000 baht for the visa.  He tried to act very official, but we’d read about this particular scam and had heard that anything you buy on the Thai side is fake.  The Cambodian visa can only be purchased after leaving Thailand.  We got back in the tuk-tuk, told the driver that if he tried to scam us again we’d walk and he’d be out 80 baht and set off.  As we neared the border, he stopped right in front of a large area (still on the Thai side, but in view of Cambodia) offering visas for $25 (1000 baht is $33, so we were already saving $8!).  He didn’t press his luck, accepting the 80 baht without encouraging us to visit the $25 visa folks (also a scam).  We took our bags, confirmed that the share-taxi Swedes were with us and crossed over into Cambodia. Total expenditure to this point: $20.

Getting the Cambodian tourist visa costs $20, according to the large, professional looking sign above the window at Cambodian passport control.  But according to the Post-it that the Cambodian visa-giving official held up, it actually costs $20 plus 100 baht.  This was the most blatant shakedown try since Mozambique.  We watched the Swedes go in front of us – they were holding $20 and handed it over with their visa application and passport.  The guy taps the Post-It and says “100 baht”.  “Oh” they say and dig out their wallets.  “You don’t have a picture?” says the visa guy. “No” “Another 100 baht”.  “Oh” – reaches back into wallet.  The border guy is happy – he’s just put $10 in his pocket.

It’s our turn – I hand the guy both passports and $40.  He taps the Post-it.  I point to the large sign proclaiming the fee as $20.  He taps the Post-it again and says we owe another 200 baht.  Louder, I say that I’m going to stick with the large, pre-printed sign rather than the Post-it he’s written on.  He looks at the other potential marks behind us in line and decides that we can have our visa for $20 as long as I shut up.  Done – but annoyed.  We’ve been in or near Cambodia for 20 minutes at this point and have avoided 3 scams.  Good that we avoided them, bad for Cambodia that they are so prevalent.

After waiting in the interminable line to get our new visa stamped (you go to another building after receiving the visa, where we stood in line for just over an hour) we make it to the free shuttle that takes you to the share taxi stand.  We discuss with the Swedes – they were skeptical, but we’d read that the shuttle was legit – and finally get on the free shuttle.  There weren’t really any other options, as there were no taxis visible at the border.  The guys, posing (I think they were posing) as government employees told us that everyone takes the shuttle to the taxi stand. And an annoying-to-this-point day turned nearly unbearable.

The shuttle took us 15 minutes from the border town, to a large building in the middle of nowhere.  We went inside, hoping to get some lunch before taking the 2 hour taxi to Siem Reap.  We’ve already researched the cost of the taxi – $20-30, depending on your bargaining skills – for the whole car.  No problem – 4 people, $5-8 each. The hotel we’d booked online for Siem Reap had offered to send a car for $30, but we turned them down since I pride myself on my bargaining abilities.

We went into the huge building and immediately saw that 1) all the food stands were closed and 2) the prices were fixed.  $9 for a seat on the bus or $12 for the taxi.  We tried negotiating for the $20-30 cab ride we’d read about, but apparently we’d been taken to a different taxi stand.  For the 4 of us, they’d charge us $48.  The Swedes decided to take the bus for $18….we said fine, if the prices are fixed we’ll just pay the $24 and take our own taxi.  Nope – if we wanted to take the taxi now we’d have to pay $48 for the whole thing or wait for more people to show up to share it.  More people came – everyone opted for the bus.  At 2:30, we were informed that the bus was leaving and if we wanted to go we needed to get on.  Frustrated, we paid the $18 and got on the bus.

Where we sat.  For 30 minutes.  More people came.  I got off twice to buy some seriously overpriced chips – $2 for a tiny bag – since we hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast.  We talked to the guy working on the bus – he told us the ride would be 3.5 or 4 hours and would leave when the bus was full.  It was half full and people in the back had been sitting for over an hour already.  Someone asked if we wanted to share a taxi – we did, even though it would cost more.  At this point, everyone on the bus is getting pretty pissed.  We were the last ones to get on, 30 minutes previously, and there is still no sign that we’ll be moving soon.

We got off the bus and walked over to the ticket window, just as another shuttle from the border was unloading.  I informed the guy in the window that we wanted to change our tickets to take the taxi – and he said no.  We could pay the full $12 and take the taxi, giving up our bus seat or we could take the bus.  No refunds.  Which made me crazy – I turned around and strongly encouraged everyone to take the taxi (in retrospect, that just made us sit longer waiting on the bus to fill up, but I was angry).  At 3:30, the guys finally decided that the bus was full enough and we left.

I couldn’t decide whether to be happy or more upset 10 minutes later when we passed a sign showing the distance to Siem Reap as 130 km (80 something miles).  How could that take 4 hours?  I found out at 4:30, when we stopped at an overpriced restaurant.  We’d been driving for an hour….why are we stopping?  A bus employee guy (there were 3 of them, plus a driver) stood up and announced to everyone that we’d be stopping to toilet, eat, drink, relax…for 30 minutes.  About half the bus got up and exited the bus – the other half looked around in disbelief.  We’d been driving for an hour, it was 4:30 in the afternoon, not exactly prime dinner time (even though I was hungry) and we were stopping for 30 minutes?  No wonder it was going to take 4 hours to go 90 miles.  I said something to the bus employee about how we didn’t really need 30 minutes, we could just use the bathroom and get back on the road.  Several people on the bus agreed with me, urging the guy to get us moving.

But the bus company gets paid by the restaurant to bring the tourists by and keep them there, spending money, for 30 minutes…so we stayed.  About half of us decided to sit on the bus, even though the A/C was off, in protest.  So tried to make us get off – he said that they couldn’t leave us on the bus, since someone’s bag might get broken into; someone told him he could stay on the bus if he liked – others just put in their headphones or pretended to sleep.  Eventually he gave up and left us on the bus.

At some point, I got off the bus (Anna stayed).  The bus guy came over to me (to seriously overstate it, I was the leader of the rebel faction) and wanted to know what was wrong.  I explained to him that everyone on that bus had gotten up very early, taken a 5 or 6 hour ride from Bangkok, gotten hassled at the border and then screwed into taking their overpriced bus because of a fake government shuttle.  I don’t think he understood half of the words I said.  Then he told me that we only had 1 more stop, also for 30 minutes, at 6pm.  What?!?!  We’d go another hour, then stop again.  He explained that it was for toilet, eat, drink, relax.  I went ballistic.  I tried to control myself, and it worked, sort of.  When we got back on the bus, I announced, sarcastically, that “hey everybody, good news, we’ll be stopping at 6 for another 30 minutes”.  This drew a round of angry “What the hells?” and some groans.

10 minutes later, the bus guy magnanimously got up, announced that we’d be going straight through and no one would be allowed off the bus.  I applauded, silently.  We ended up arriving in Siem Reap (at a tuk-tuk station, so we could be overcharged again to get to our respective hotels) at 6:05.  Apparently the second stop is right outside of the city.  We caught a tuk-tuk for $1 and got straight to our guesthouse.  We’d passed a Mexican restaurant on the way in and joked about margaritas being the perfect cure for a very long day.  When we got to the hostel, the owner (a Brit named Mark) asked about our experience.  We relayed our story and he said it was not unexpected.  Then he told us that the private bus that runs all the way from the hostel to downtown Bangkok runs $10.  Then we asked for a restaurant recommendation – he surprised us by recommending the Mexican place we’d seen on the way in.

All told, we walked, rode the metro, walked again, took a taxi, took a bus, took a tuk-tuk, took a shuttle bus, took another bus and finally took another tuk-tuk to get from downtown Bangkok to the hostel in Siem Reap.  We spent $3, then $1, then $14, then $3, then $18 and finally $1 ($40 total), not counting the money spent on donuts or overpriced chips.  We’ve already booked the private bus back to Bangkok and hopefully next time, we’ll remember the expensive (and annoying) lesson from today.

A little more math (Anna and I were discussing this and depressing ourselves during hour #10) – it took us just under 13 hours to travel the 222 miles from Bangkok to Siem Reap.  That averages out to roughly 17 miles per hour.  An Olympic sprinter runs about 27 mph.  That means that sprinters could run a relay race from Bangkok to Siem Reap in just over 8 hours, arriving almost 5 hours before our bus.  The border crossing took about 90 minutes.  That means we were traveling for 11.5 hours – still 3 hours slower than the hypothetical relay race.  Horses can average 15 mph for up to 13 miles at a time.  If we’d decided to rent horses in Bangkok, then change horses every 13 miles, we would have finished less than an hour behind the bus.  Cambodia – welcome to the Industrial Age!

Luckily, that day did have one thing go right.  The best margaritas of the trip, so far.

Viva Margaritas!



  1. Such a cute picture of Anna & such a terrible story. I don’t know how you do it. I would need serious medication. This cannot become one of your favorite trip stories!!

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