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Crossing Over: Cambodia’s Border Corruption

Our Thailand travel saga continues as the sun rises and our pink Thai taxicab races along the highway through Bangkok’s sprawling expressway system toward the government bus terminal. Chaos ensues as we sprint across the open station toward a junky, old blue and silver bus just moments from departing. After a week of torrential rain forced us off Thailand’s beautiful beaches and into a sea-side bungalow to twiddle our thumbs, play cards and watch TV, we gave up on enjoying the islands and changed course.

A simple Google search revealed a monsoon warning had been issued for the Andaman Sea, but luckily, a quick SkyScanner search revealed a decently cheap flight to Thailand’s capital. A couple days wandering Bangkok’s streets filled with filthy, old men tethered to beautiful, young Thai women and tables laden with viagra and condoms, and a six hour bus ride later and we found ourselves at the Cambodia border.

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Thai Bus

It hadn’t been an easy ride.  Aside from Dan and me only one other foreign traveler was on the bus filled with Thais.  A young family, an older brother with his two younger siblings, made themselves at home in the torn, blue and grey seats behind us, and it was immediately apparent both children were sick.  The bus, smelling of dampness and dirt, rolled through Thailand’s countryside with the two young children repeatedly vomiting in the back.  My heart went out to the kids who looked about as bad as they felt, but I couldn’t help but be sickened myself by the sounds and smells from the back of the bus.  Feeling awful, but fully frustrated, we slowly made our way to the front of bus, moving seats each time someone in front of us got off along the way.

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Thailand Government Bus

Unfortunately, our move to the front of the bus turned out to be too easy.  As we inched closer to the Cambodian border, the bus slammed to a halt alongside the road and a member of the Royal Thai Army climbed aboard.  The thin man cloaked in camouflage, high-top, laced, black boots and a gun slowly walked the aisle of the bus.  With each step, his glance darted from side to side as he studied the faces of the passengers.  My hands twitched nervously in my lap, and my heart pounded out of my chest.  With my hand on my passport, I gave him a faint smile as he passed.

Just as it seemed all was fine, a second pass led the soldier to a man sitting a few rows ahead.  The soldier barked something Thai before pulling the man from his seat and escorting him from the bus.  The breath I was holding rushed from my mouth as the bus once again groaned to a start.

We read there were checkpoints along the route, but most travel bloggers alluded to them being abandoned.  I don’t know why I was worried.  We were doing absolutely nothing wrong and were in possession of our valid passports, but still I was shaken.  After all, it was the soldier’s duty to catch any illegal Cambodians who were trying to make their way back into their own country without being caught in Thailand.

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A guard stands at a checkpoint in Thailand

Military personnel stopped the bus three times before we reached the border, each time asking passengers for their passports and documentation – except us.  Unfortunately, it seems the guards obvious profiling or actual professionalism in checking passports worked.  Before we reached the border, seven people suspected of illegal immigration into Thailand were pulled from our bus.

As the bus rolled into the small town of Aranyaprathet about six kilometers from the Cambodian border town of Poipet, the butterflies in my stomach wouldn’t stop fluttering.  We were about to cross what was once known as the roughest border crossing in Cambodia.  The bus didn’t stop in the town and instead barreled its way all the way to border before pulling into a dry, dusty, empty parking lot.  We gathered our belongings and tumbled out of the bus into a sea of scam artists.  “Here we go,” I said to Dan who was busy pulling our backpacks from the bowels of the bus.

“Visa, visa,” the men shouted pointing in a hundred different directions.  They were well dressed, their polished black dress shoes shining against the dull dirt of the parking lot.  It was all part of the scam.  “Follow me to get your Cambodian visa ma’am,” one man said to me.  With my eyes set dead ahead, I shot a “No thank you,” his way and Dan and I walked toward the road as if we had a clue where we were actually going.  The hoards of men followed us, each one explaining why we needed to get our visa before stamping out of Thailand.  It was a complete lie.  Scam artists and visa companies now line the border and prey on unsuspecting travelers who believe their bull.  While they will in fact get you the visa you need, they’re notorious for charging two, three or four times the government rate.

“You cannot go to Cambodia,” one of the men said.  “Whatever,” I mumbled.  Dan was busy fighting off an equal amount of scam artists but charged ahead occasionally glancing to ensure I was still by his side.  A young man in a brown shirt that blended in perfectly with the dirt rising into the air approached us.  “This way,” he said in a hurried manner.  “No thank you,” we repeated again as if becoming old pros.  “No, no, no,” he replied.  “I am here to help tourists.”  “See,” he said as he shoved some sort of credential into our hands.  We didn’t believe him, but his first advice proved to be correct as he pointed us in the direction of the Thailand exit.  We made our way through a sea of mud-caked semi trucks inching slowly toward the border crossing.  Their roaring engines drown out any conversation we could have and forced us to walk into the Thai office in silence.

When we were stamped out of Thailand, we found our new “friend” waiting patiently outside in what seemed to be no man’s land.  Still unsure whether he was scamming us, I refused to take his advice on where to go next and wandered towards a welcome sign hanging to the right side of the road.  “It’s over here I said to Dan,” trying to convince him to follow me.  As we set off across the dirty road, I glanced back to find a woman wildly waving her hands in the air and yelling.  As I turned my attention back to finding the official government visa office, I caught a glimpse of the woman as she picked up a lime and launched it at Dan striking him in the back.  As I turned to face her, she jammed her finger into the air pointing in the opposite direction.  It took me a moment to realize the lime launcher was actually trying to help us!

We set off in the direction she pointed and ducked into the government visa office to find about five police officers crowding the visa window.  A seemingly kind gentleman handed us two visa application forms, and we took a seat in the few small chairs set up in the gigantic, echoing room. With our filled out forms and a crisp $20.00 US bill each in hand, we walked to the window and handed our forms to a police officer standing in front of it. He looked at the $20.00 bills, looked down at the application and then back up at us.  “And, 100 Baht each,” he barked.  “No,” I simply replied as I looked to Dan for support. “It says $20.00 dollars,” Dan replied curtly.  The man picked up a simple piece of computer paper with a 100 written in chicken scratch..”And, 100 Baht,” the policeman said firmly.  “No,” I said again.  Dan pointed to the sign, “Twenty dollars,” he replied.  There we stood engaged in a staring contest and showdown with a Cambodian police officer.  “100 baht,” the cop repeated.  Dan began to look around the room.  My blood was boiling.  I was not going to give this scheming, bribing officer a cent more than it cost.  “This is bull s@#*,” I whispered rather loudly to Dan who by that time had turned his back with a confused look on his face.  It was his tactic – just act confused and ignore the officer.  Once we stopped giving the officer our attention, he angrily threw the passports, applications and two twenty dollar bills through the window to the officers inside.  “Sit,” he ordered.

Only two minutes later another police officer called our names and handed us our passports now containing an approved Cambodian visa.  Appalled by the open attempt to extort additional money from us, we left the office and followed the signs to customs.  The line to clear customs was extremely long as dozens of travelers seemingly appeared out of nowhere to jam into the smallest, darkest office alongside the roadway running through the border.

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Cambodia Border Crossing

The customs agents had no sense of humor and didn’t even open their mouths to bark orders, but instead gave orders with the flick of a finger or the wave of a hand.  Again, I was nervous.  I watched them quietly demand answers or additional forms from each traveler ahead of us, all while maintaining a sour look of hatred on their faces.  The circus in front of me was enough to make anyone laugh.  A french couple had sent their two young children to cut in line before they joined them at the front.  As if that wasn’t infuriating enough, the couple didn’t have their paperwork complete, and instead of moving from the line, they stood at the counter trying to argue with the police officer behind the window.  After the officer waved them out of the way and to the back of the line, the man had the audacity to turn around and ask to borrow my pen.  Fuming, I handed it over.  When the family finally got their forms together and cleared customs, I walked to the window and rolled my eyes pointing at them.  The slightest smile spread over the officer’s face before it quickly disappeared.  He ran down my paperwork and pointed to the camera.  I looked directly into the little ball hovering over the counter and flashed a big grin.  The moment the photo snapped, the police officer burst into laughter.  “Is it that bad?” I asked.  He just grinned and handed my credentials back.  Chuckling..I took my passport and crossed into Cambodia.

Chaos ensued as we tried to find a cab to take us two hours to Siem Reap.  It was then, the friendly man with the seemingly fake tourist service badge reappeared.  In a matter of moments he secured a beat up, old black Toyota Camry for us, told the driver something in Khmer and sent us off on yet another death ride.

The economic gap between countries was clear from the moment we set foot on Cambodian soil.  The country is extremely impoverished and the infrastructure poor.  The car sank into pot holes, rolled over dirty patches where the asphalt crumbled away and wove in and out of cattle, people, and tractors idly sitting on the so-called highway.

After two hours of dare-devil driving, we pulled in to an unpaved parking lot on the outskirts of Siem Reap.  The driver simply stopped the car and sat looking dead ahead without saying a word.  A small, feisty Cambodian man climbed down from his tuk-tuk nearby and opened our door.  “I’ll take you to your hotel,” he said in good English.  “No, our driver is taking us,” Dan replied.  “No, no, no,” the man muttered.  “Cars cannot go into Siem Reap. I must take you.”  A lie.  We knew it was complete bull, but it seemed our hands were tied.  The driver sat silently and refused to respond to our pleas for him to take us farther.  “It’s OK,” the tuk-tuk driver said.  “It’s free.”

I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach, and Dan was clearly frustrated as he got out of the car to argue with the tuk-tuk driver.  The man did his best to ease our frustrations, but it wasn’t working.  Eventually, our bags were tossed into the tuk-tuk, which struggled to move under the added weight.  As we set off into Siem Reap, the driver turned around.  “I’ll take you to the temples tomorrow,” he said matter of factly.  “Today, I give you a free ride and tomorrow I take you to the temples.” Dan just shook his head.  “No, we have a tour,” he responded.  Confused our driver replied with the same negative head shake.  “I take you tomorrow,” he insisted.  “No,” was all Dan could muster again.  I could see his blood was boiling, and now the driver was furious too.  We continued on in silence.  When we finally reached our hotel, the driver turned around, grinned and asked what time we would like to leave in the morning.  “No,” Dan said again, “We already have a driver.”

It was yet another lie, one of many told by us and others that day, and honestly we had no problem being untruthful.  From the moment we set foot even near the Cambodian border, we were scammed and lied to, even by police officers and government officials.  It was truly shameful and disheartening.  Fortunately, the corruption and scams aren’t representative of the general population.  Cambodians are some of the kindest and most resilient people despite the horrific attempts to oppress them.

In the small town of Siem Reap, tourist money is the must get.  It’s what supports a large percentage of the town and the people, many of which work hard to capitalize off soft-hearted and giving Westerners.  Had we not done our research before crossing the border, our blissful ignorance would have ended with our pockets inside out and left a sour taste in our mouths.  But, we held on to our money and arrived at our beautiful boutique hotel without a new-found disdain for the place and only a reminder to keep our eyes open and our wallets closed when dealing with officials in Cambodia.