The Joys of Border Crossing

We walk up to the visa-on-arrival office at Poipet on the border of Thailand and Cambodia ready to deal with our very favorite part of travel—border crossings. We have in hand our passports and in our pockets the $20 we know the visa costs. We grab a visa application form and provide the requested information–name, passport number, date of birth, intended length of stay, and so on and so forth. We take out one of the many passport photos we carry with us and staple it to the form, and then we hand the passport and application form over to the immigration officer standing in front of the window through which it seems you’re supposed to hand in your application.

“Money,” the officer barks, so we pull out our crisp $20 bills and hand them over.

“No good,” he says. “Only Thai baht here. 1000 baht.” He’s a young guy, round-faced with splotchy facial hair and an expression that makes you think he hasn’t smiled once in his life.

We smile and tell him that we have no baht, though we have more than enough tucked away in our pockets. One thousand baht is about $30, $10 more than the visa should cost, and we don’t intend to pay that. We then point to the sign over his head, which clearly states “Tourism Visa: $20”.

He shakes his head and insists that we must pay in baht and we must pay 1,000. We smile again and say no. We tell him that we will pay in dollars only and that the sign clearly states the cost is $20.

He stares hard at us and then changes tactics, “Okay, he says. You pay in dollars. $20 plus $5.”

We stick with the party line. “It’s $20. We’re only paying $20.” We try to reach around him to pass our passports, visa applications, and $20 through the window to the officer sitting behind him, but the round-faced officer closes the window. They’re all in this together anyhow.

So it’s on to offer number three. “Okay,” he says again. “$20 plus 100 baht.”

Our response doesn’t change. He’s getting nowhere with us. But by now there are four people in line behind us, so he moves on to them. The Israeli guy behind us gets the same spiel we do, and sides with us. He’s not paying more than $20. The three guys behind him get a shortened spiel, asking directly for the $20 plus 100 baht. He tells them that the 100 baht is an “expediting fee.” They ask how long it will take if they don’t pay the fee. He says 2 or 3 days. I’d call his bluff, but they don’t, just handing over the 100 baht.

“Shit,” I think, “we’ll never win now.” How will the officer consent to just take $20 from us if others are so willing paying the fee, aka “bribe.” But we’re not about to give in. He isn’t either.

He shoos us off to the side and very quickly processes the three visas of the guys who anted up the extra 100 baht. We stand there and chat with our new Israeli friend.

This isn’t the first hassle we’ve had today. First it was finding a legitimate bus in Thailand, not one of the scam buses that after a marathon trip of fake breakdowns and multiple food stops delivers an exhausted you to a crappy guesthouse that has paid the bus to take you there and makes it very, very difficult for you to go elsewhere. Then it was getting our tuk-tuk driver to put the bike back in gear and take us to the border, not the “consulate office” conveniently located in a tourism shop on a side road near the border and charging a sweet 1,000 baht for the visa, the extra $10 a tip for the tourism agent and the tuk-tuk driver of course. Beyond the border, we’ll face the hassle of finding onward transport to Siem Reap. It was going to be a spectacularly fun day.

Border crossings are one of the unspoken joys of travel. For us, it’s gotten progressively more “fun” as we’ve traveled east. South America border crossings were cake. Hand over the passport, get a stamp, and move on. In Africa, the hassle wasn’t the actual immigration office—everyone we met inside the office was surprisingly honest—it was getting to the office through the gauntlet of touts, moneychangers, taxi drivers, and other border good-for-nothings. In Asia, it seems, the hassle is going to be with, well, pretty much everything, at least if it’s like the Cambodian crossing.

So there we were on the border of Thailand and Cambodia, being ignored by the immigration officer who was desperately looking around for his next victim to appear. Unfortunately for him, no one else wandered up. He had to deal with us. And shockingly, that’s what he does. With a sigh and an evil eye, he takes our passports, our applications, and our $20 (and no more) and passes them through to the officers on the other side of the glass. He then motions us to take a seat nearby while he himself sits down for lunch. We begin taking over/under bets on how long he’ll make us wait.

But it’s not so bad. We use the bathroom, we get a snack, we chat with our new friend. And guess what? It’s only about 15 minutes later that our passports come back out the window, visas inside. It didn’t take the threatened 2-3 days. Who would have thought? Though in the end it came down to 100 baht, or $3, it was about more than the money. It was about standing up for ourselves. It was about standing up for what was right. It was about saving our dollars to hand over to the hard-working and honest guy cleaning the bathroom rather than lining the pocket of an official who pre-bribe is probably already better offer than 90% of his countrymen. It was a small victory for sure, but it felt good. We’d stood our ground against corruption, and we’d won…at least this round.

12 Replies to “The Joys of Border Crossing”

  1. Loved this post!! Such a frustrating part of travel but good on you for standing your ground. It’s important for us all to try and do that, so they don’t start overcharging every foreign face that crosses their paths.

  2. and that…is Thailand. Once you get away from the tourist strongholds, the people are aazing. If they wear a uniform (other than a school one), I wouldn’t trust them. With all the political unrest, it is probably worst than when I was there. However, just stick to your guns, never accept the first, second or third offer. Make taxis use their meters. Do not accept free drinks on a bus or train. Trust Lonely planet more than other traveler recommendations. You have no idea how many westerners are in cahouts with the locals there. At the end of the day, keep your perspective. It is only money and a desperate society. Also, in thailand…a girl is not always a girl, a good deal usually isn’t and a “happy ending” has nothing to do with a fairy tale 🙂

  3. I am interested to hear how you get from Poipet to Siem Reap – because that was probably the WORST border crossing and transport of our entire journey. I wish you all the best! Hopefully you can outsmart them better than we could!

  4. We were just talking with a British couple the other day about the corruption at this border crossing. We entered Cambodia from Vietnam along the Mekong Delta and had no problems, but they entered at Poipet and had the same deal (I think they paid the 100 Baht). I’m sorry to hear this is the norm.

    But, the rest of Cambodia is lovely. The people are warm and resilient, which is kind of a miracle considering all that they went through under the Khmer Rouge. If you have a chance, take the boat to Battambang from Siem Reap and take a ride on the back of a motorbike around the villages. This was the highlight of our visit to Cambodia. Also, the cooking school in Battambang – Smoking Pot – is a lot of fun and very inexpensive. Enjoy!

  5. Cindi – we ended up hiring a taxi for $30. The “tourist bus” was $10 each and a shared taxi was $13 each with four people. We just paid a bit more and went now now. The whole city is one big scam and we didn’t feel we could trust anyone, but so go the border towns. In additional hassle related matters, we got up at 4:30 AM to catch the train, only to come to understand it wasn’t leaving. Sure, everyone said it wasn’t going heading into the train station, but it actually wasn’t going. We were shocked. So then we had to head to the bus station and pay quite a bit more. Oh well.

  6. when you come from vietnam into cambodia, its 20 dollars. no bribe. On the thailand side, its the 1000 baht because so many people go through there.

    in the end, i don’t care. You can hassle and argue but 3 dollars isn’t that much and, at the end of the day, the guy still needs it more than you do. That immigration guy isn’t make much money and that bribe is shared with everyone in the department.

    anyways, cambodia is amazing. make sure you go down south to the beaches and up north for some hiking. When you stay in phenom phen, head lakeside for cheap accommodation, an all you can eat Indian place for 2 dollars, and the drunken frog bar- a great place to hang out!

  7. Good for you all for standing your ground against corruption –somehow I am not surprised! Love the picture I can tell you all are having a great adventure

  8. Yikes! This sounds worse than Luxor.. and I thought it was bad there. I was actually getting irritated as I read this. Anyway, love your site… I’m just about to head out on an around-the-world trip… I think your posts will be extremely helpful!

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