August, 2015

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Crossing borders: Poipet (Thailand-Cambodia and vice versa)

It took hours of consideration before I was brave enough to decide that I would do it, I would cross the border from Thailand to Cambodia over land. Whilst searching for information I had come across many horror stories: from simple scams and long lines to serious blackmailing, threats and robberies, plus the fact that getting your visa on arrival would be an enormous hassle that would eat away your time. None of this is true.

There are multiple ways to find your way into Cambodia over land, one cheaper than the other, but none of them dangerous or unacceptably difficult. Here is how I’ve done it:

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The adventure started off as a night spent at Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok. This is an unnecessary step in the process, but our train would leave at 5.55am and our couchsurfing adress was a fair while away from the station. Bangkok being such a vibrant city, we probably would not have had to worry about finding a taxi at such a time, but we decided to sleep at the station, just to be sure. The train leaves daily at 5.55am from Hua Lamphong Station (or at 1.05pm, but if you choose the latter one it is unsure if the border will still be open when you get there). Tickets can be bought at the station on the day of departure (earlier is not possible).

Be very careful with the (tour)bus!
Many tour companies claim to bring you directly to Siem Reap, prices range from 300 – 800 baht (€7.80 – €20,-) and tickets can often be bought at Khao San Road (but sometimes elsewhere at tourist offices). What seems too good to be true usually is. Keep in mind that these tickets are only sold in touristic areas, locals won’t use them, meaning that they are mostly meant to get money from tourists one way or another. Even if you managed to score a 300 baht ticket, your trip won’t costs you only 300 baht.

One of the issues is that Thai bus companies are not allowed to enter Cambodia, likewise, Cambodian buses are not allowed into Thailand. A “direct bus” is therefore your first rip-off. You will need to get off the bus at the Thai side of the border and hope that another (Cambodian) bus will pick you up on the other side. This often takes hours (if it comes at all). Additional scams involve, but are not limited to the fact that many buses stop at a restaurant or shop and won’t leave until everybody has purchased their (disgusting) food for a certain price or that the bus will not leave untill all seats are sold. Tourbuses are also well known for taking you to an illegit “visa office” to buy your visa at an overpriced rate. These offices are official looking, but not trustworthy!

Lastly, the worst rip-off is that the bus will stop somewhere in order for you to have something to eat (or they pretend to have a flat tyre, or another problem that requires you to get off the bus). Whilst you eat or whilst they “fix” the car, they actually have plenty of time to go through everbody’s bags and confiscate anything valuable you’re carrying. Don’t leave your belongings in the car under any circumstances.

Not all buses do all of this obviously, but none can take you directly for sure! Buses to Poipet instead of Siem Reap are useally better, but taking the train will most likely save you a lot of time, money and verbal fights.

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Train to Aranyaprathet

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Step two would be the train. When I saw what the train we would be going on looked liked I fell in love. The train looked like one that had ran away from a Charles Dickens story: old, windowless and incredibly nostalgic. Not to leave out any information, the train ticket is going to cost you 48 baht (€1,25) to travel all the 248km to Aranyaprathet. That is €0.004 per km, crazy isn’t it?

The train is an experience. After having boarded, the conductor instructed us to rearrange to a different seat several times, with no apparent reason. However, we ended up having two private benches for the two of us, so that was alright. The trains are made of wood, so don’t expect any comfort. You will spend six to eight hours on this train, at one point not being able to stop wiggling around, because you don’t know how to sit anymore. It is not so bad as it sounds at all, I liked the train and it was perfectly managable. I absolutely loved my nostalgic train ride.

The thing that people on planes miss out on is included in your valuable train ticket: amazing views of the country side and untouched farm villages. Moreover, the trains don’t have the horrific airconditioning that makes all the tourbuses feel like you ended up in a snowstorm rather than in tropical South-East Asia. If you are fond of luxury though, the train might not be for you.

Tuk-tuk to Poi-Pet

Tuk-tuk to Poi-Pet

Once arrived in Aranyaprathet, it is still a small distance to Poipet, where the border is. This is the part that some people might consider as “tricky”. The tuk-tuk drivers are all gathered around the station when you get off the train, they know where you want to go and they will overprice the ride, this is not unlike any other tuk-tuks in the country, so don’t let this put you off. A fair price for this ride should be 80-100 baht for the whole tuk-tuk. The two of us found two other people to share the ride with and the driver started off by charching us 100 baht per person. We bargained down to 30 per person, which is not too bad.

The next trick is about the visa. Obviously, your driver will have some friends around the corner that are happy to sell you a visa for twice the price as the official office at the border. Your driver will get a good comission for it and not be so dissapointed that you “only” paid 100 baht for the ride. This scam is not too expensive, but I’m sure you have better ways to spent an additional 40 US dollars and it is easy to avoid. Just tell the tuk-tuk driver that you already have an (e-)visa* and he’ll see no point in bringing you anywhere else and bring you to the border without a hassle. Also, think wisely, you don’t need a visa for Cambodia in order to leave Thailand, so make sure you pass the passport control first (get stamped out of Thailand) before looking for the actual office where you can get your visa. The visa is $30, nothing more. Don’t pay more.

*Why not get an actual e-visa? For me the reason was because the e-visa is valid for 30 days from the date you apply. Since I did not have wifi everywhere I could only apply a few days before actually entering Cambodia. That is a waste of days on your visa. An e-visa also costs $7 extra.

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And there it is… the entry to Cambodia. It has a miniature version of Angkor Wat on top, just like anything else remotely important in Cambodia. This is what you will see after having exited Thailand officially, this is also where you find immigration, on your righthand side (because in Cambodia you are supposed to drive on the right, as opposed to Thailand and other countries in the region).

As I mentioned before, the visa costs $30,- it is easiest to have this amount in cash in dollars. I was oblivious enough to think that border control would have an ATM accesible, but obviously this is not te case. It is Cambodia after all. I was lucky they let me pay in Thai baht, a price that equaled $34 dollars, but officially US dollars are the only way to go. Also make sure that you can provide a passport photo. Cambodia is very easygoing on visas, people from any nationality can get one on arrival! If everything is present the process won’t take more than 15 minutes.

After you’re done, you can finally enter throught that beautiful entrance port and next up the Cambodian passport control. Congratulations, you officially made it into Cambodia.

At the border and beyond it, massive casino-resorts wil be your only sight. During my trip I had no idea what a mini Las Vegas at the border would have to add to either of the countries economics. However, I recently learned that gambling in Thailand is illegal, the casino strip is just before Cambodian immigration, allowing Thai people to gamble in Cambodia without having to pass immagration. Who would have thought it, as the two nations still detest each other…

www.visitcambodia.nl

So unless you are a Thai looking to gamble, or a non-Thai having spent so long in Thailand that you have the urge to gamble at the border, you won’t want to stay in Poipet.

Now from here you have options. There is a free shuttle service bus that can bring you to the international transfer terminal. This bus is legit and it is only a short ride. The problem with it is that once at the international transfer terminal, you have nowhere to go. There are no ATMs, and the buses you can take from here only accept US dollars or the Cambodian riel. If you are stuck with Thai baht you are forced to change them at an unfavourable rate. Plus, I found the buses rather expensive. From the terminal, you can get a bus or minivan to either Siem Reap or Battambang. The buses to Siem Reap cost you $10 US dollars, which is not too bad for a 150km right, but I assume that there is a cheaper option that does not involve a minivan full of backpackers, as we got a cheaper ride on the way back from Siem Reap to the border as well.

The other problem with this bus from the international terminal is that it brings you to the outskirts of Siem Reap, not the city centre. They offer tuk-tuks to finish the right, but they will make you pay for those as well, making your seemingly $10 ticket more expensive. We got mad at the company and demanded to be taken for free, which happened in the end, but others still had to pay.

An alternative would be to look for a bus company in Poipet itself (before getting on the free shuttle to the internatioal terminal). I am not sure if you will find one, because I did it the international terminal way, but it is worth having a look around. Many Cambodians don’t have a car and they too need to get from the border around the country, but you don’t see them in the minivan. I am fairly positive that a local bus company should be present.

Cambodia to Thailand

If you are looking to cross the border the other way around, you can do the same thing vice versa: Take a bus from anywhere in Cambodia to the border, cross it, find a tuk-tuk to Aranyprathet where you wait for the train. Easy as.

There are a few things to remember about this though: first of all, the train from Aranyaprathet to Bangkok only goes twice a day. In this direction one at 6.40 in the morning, the other one around 1.55pm (check the train schedual at any station for exact times), you don’t want to miss the train or you’ll be stuck in Aranyaprathet, where there is not much to do and accomodation is rather expensive compared to Bangkok. For this exact reason, we decided to go for a more expensive tour bus, that would still save us money, because we could stay the night in Bangkok for so much cheaper.

Secondly, citizens of many nations can get a 30-day Thai visa when flying into Bangkok. Over land, almost all of these get a 15-day visa instead of 30 (except USA, UK, Germany, France, Canada, Italy & Japan). Of course your visa can be extended while in Thailand, but plan this carefully in your travel plans.

I assume this is all you need to know for a safe and rip-off-free border crossing at Poipet. Don’t let horror stories put you off and enjoy!

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How not to get lost in Bangkok

Bangkok is an ugly city. Not meaning to be offensive, but it is filthy, messy, noisy, chaotic and full of scammy tuk-tuk drivers. Honestly, if they would only understand that tourists would be so much happier and willing to pay more if they weren’t hassled for overpriced tuk-tuks and taxis with every step they take.

Anyway, with the negativity off my sleeve, it is not only bad words that I have for Thailand’s capitol city. Bangkok is also rich of beautiful temples, friendly locals, delicious streetfood and so much more, all carefully hidden in the mess of the urban jungle. Most of all, if there would be the need to describe it in one word, the city is overwhelming.

Bangkok-view from Baiyoke Sky Hotel

Bangkok-view from Baiyoke Sky Hotel

Many people only have a few days to spend in Bangkok, to recover from a long flight before moving on to more rural areas, a party island or one of Thailand’s neighbouring countries. If you are short on time, it would be a waste to spend one or two days dwelling around the city, still carrying your massive, overpacked backpack in search for your accommodation. Unfamiliar with the knot of dozens of different systems of transport in Bangkok, that is unfortunately what I ended up doing. With this guide about the transportation in a nutshell, I hope to prevent any future travelers to make the same mistake.

Airport Rail Link: Assuming that you fly into Bangkok (Suvarnabhumi Airport), the Airport Rail Link system will be one of the first of Bangkok’s transport systems that you will walk into. As the name might suggest, this is the line that connects the airport to the city centre and its BTS-line (keep reading). The Airport Rail Link system works well and is great to get to the centre. Whether you will continue by BTS, taxi, rental car or something else from here, it saves you the express highway toll fees, so you can’t really go wrong here.

BTS-line: BTS, short for Bangkok Transport System, is some sort of aerial metro that makes its way through Bangkok. The BTS is cheap* and flies over all of Bangkok’s traffic without a hiss. Many hotels and guesthouses, often the little bit more expensive ones, are located somewhat next to a BTS-station. If this is the case, it won’t be any trouble to find your hotel using only the Airport Rail Link and the BTS. Lucky you.

Airport Rail Link, BTS and MRT lines (www.buzzquotes.com)

Unfortunately, many of the (cheaper) hostels are not situated next to a BTS-station. The cluster of backpackers around Khao San Road can not be reached by BTS (nor can the temples in the same area, even if you are in a conveniently located hotel), not even speaking of hostel located in non-touristy areas. If this is the case, don’t do it. Not on your first day anyway. Do not forget that Bangkok is massive and that what looks like a short walking distance on your map might actually turn out to be a good hour walk. In 30° Celcius. In a humid environment. With at least 10 kg strapped to your back…

*The BTS is not horribly expensive, between 25 and 50 baht (€0.70 – €1.30) depending on distance, for a single ticket. However, if you are going to be using the BTS a lot or going long distances, it might be profitable to look into day- or weekpasses .I only found out about these after my time in Bangkok had passed, because they are not advertised very well, but they are there and can safe you a lot of money! Just ask about them at the ticket desk.

MRT: The reason that most of Bangkok’s metro system is aerial, is because it was built after most of the city was built and it would have been impossible to dig a regular metro tunnel. However, there is one metro line, that in its turn connects to the BTS. This metro line is indicated as MRT and works exactly the same as the BTS, but underground. The MRT can be used to get to Hua Lamphong station!

Taxi: So, if not the BTS, what should you use then? As a Western European, a taxi sounds like a rather luxury and unnecessarily expensive option. However, the opposite is true. The meter-taxis in Bangkok have a starting fee of 35 baht (€0.90) and slowly rises as you travel more kilometres. This is not so expensive and could even turn out to be cheaper than the combination of a bus and BTS if you travel with two or more people!

Bangkok taxis

Bangkok taxis

The great thing about taxis is that they get you where you want to be, without having to change transport or anything. The drawback is that taxis are prone to traffic and the meter can run up a fair bit when your taxi can not move, thus be careful around rush hour! During this period of the day you are better off taking a moto-taxi if you are brave enough to get on the back of a motorcylce or boosted moped.

Also be aware that the express highway from the airport is going to cost you an extra 100 baht (€2,60) or more if your driver takes a more expensive one. Even more so, especially around the airport, be aware of taxi-drivers that are trying to arrange a price with you by not turning the meter on. If it is not running when you get in the taxi, just point at it and ask politely if he can run the meter, any driver will understand. If he refuses, get out of the taxi and wait for the next one, unless you want to pay at least a double fee. There are plenty of taxis around Bangkok so finding one shouldn’t give much of a delay.

Tuk-tuk: when you find yourself in South-East Asia, there is no way your are going to be able to spend your time without running into at least a few tuk-tuks and their obtrusive drivers. I must admit it, the first and second ride in these colourful wagons are fun and I am not saying you should avoid them completely. The thing is, that tuk-tuks, unlike taxis, do not have meters, and they will use this privilige in orde to charge too much. However, when you want to get somewhere on a day-trip out of the city, tuk-tuks are your way to go. You can rent one for a day for an arranged price and they will wait for you at whichever site you wanted to go to. Because you pay for the tuk-tuk and not the amount of people in it, it is great if you can find four people or so to share.

Tuk-tuk

Tuk-tuk

Water-taxi: Despite that I thought this was one of the most fun ways to move around in Bangkok, I only used the water-taxi once. As the name might give away, this is a “taxi” or actually more like a bus (because it is not private) on the water. It speeds along the river and the stops on the banks. Make sure not to confuse the water-taxi with expensive tourist boat services! The tickets are sold on the boat.

As I mentioned before, the temples can not be reached by BTS, however, if your accommodation is close to the BTS-line, I would recommend taking the BTS to Taksin and the water-taxi from there. It will take you straight to the Grand Palace (and all the temples surrounding it) for a mere 35 baht (€0.90) and gives you the great experience of seeing all the tourists sights along the river, while rushing over the water.

Bus: Taxis and tuk-tuks aside, Bangkok’s streets are probably most occupied by colourful, rather old buses. Buses are really cheap, no doubt the cheapest way of transport in Bangkok. Have I saved the best for last? Not really, unless you are planning to spend a lot of time in Bangkok. Buses are namely cheap, but horribly confusing, I haven’t been able to get hold of anything that looked remotely like a bus schedule anywhere, nor have I seen any other tourists using buses.

 

This observation is probably thanks to the fact that bus stops are blue signposts along the road. The signs let you know that a bus will stop there, but not which one and only God Buddha may know where each bus is headed. Most buses come every ten minutes though, and locals seem to be knowing where they are going, so your best guess is to just ask them and hope somebody understands English.Google maps can help too, but it is not always correct (got me on the wrong bus once or twice). In about five days in Bangkok, I managed to find three usable buses that would take me to almost anywhere in the city I desired and once it works, it works. Plus, all the locals love it when they find tourists on the bus, be prepared to have many seats offered to you when the bus is full!

Update: Additional information from a reader, who found a good website with bus times and schedules. Very helpful!

All in all, there are plenty of choices to get move yourself around in Bangkok. The issue is that many operators are not even remotely working together, one way or another. Having spent enough time in all of them, I think everybody will develop their own preference of transport methods or combination of methods. I personally thought that a combination of bus and BTS worked pretty well and if not I would get a meter-taxi. Most of all, having given you a heads-up about the systems, I hope to have saved you some time and a back ache from walking heavily loaded.

Nevertheless, don’t blindly trust my advice, do your own research and if you find anything outdated or have some additional information about anything I forgot, don’t hesitate to let me know and I will edit!

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