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Cambodian Border Mafia

Cambodia is an extraordinary country – but let’s be honest, crossing its borders makes you want to strangle people.

For years, corrupt Cambodian border guards and customs agents have hassled visitors to their country demanding bribes for everything from entry stamps to bird flu health forms. Sometimes, requests for bribes are aggressive and threatening. More frequently, requests are tongue in cheek pleas which appear more like jokes. Either way it’s annoying.

For this reason, we were quite happy to see that the Cambodian government’s latest attempts to crack down on corrupt border guards at the Poipet crossing had been reasonably successful. Of course, the guards still demanded a bribe before issuing our on-arrival visas, but when we said no they didn’t fight it. (Hey, that’s some kind of progress, isn’t it?) Sadly, most of the foreigners crossing the border still nervously paid bribes, some stupidly not even realizing they had done so. Oh well.

But our enthusiasm at the government’s modest reforms was relatively short-lived. It turns out the scams connected to onward transportation are alive and well. And their latest incarnation has become somewhat threatening.

Exiting the border crossing, visitors traveling to Angkor Wat suddenly discover that they have very limited options for traveling on to Siem Reap. Taxis and minivans have been cleared from the border area and local buses are strictly controlled to make them useless for travelers. A single shuttle-bus stop advertises a free transfer to the “regional bus station and taxi stand.” I had read that the free shuttle bus took you to a private bus station located far out in the countryside where travelers had no choice but to buy overpriced tickets to Siem Reap. But the shuttle bus sign advertised that the bus station was only one kilometer from the border. Optimistically, I hoped that online warnings had caused the distant bus station to relocate to a more practical location within the city limits. Unfortunately, that was not the case, the sign is 100% lie.

So, trapped way out in the rice fields at the “regional bus station and taxi stand,” we were confronted with the choice between an overpriced taxi and an overpriced bus. The entire set-up reeked of scam – which it was – but most of the foreigners, who had never been to Cambodia before, assumed this was the way things worked in the country. Many of them jumped into taxis and proceeded on to Siem Reap.

Having been to Cambodia before, we knew that many of the long-distance taxis stop along the way and demand more money. Not up for more scams, we opted to wait for the slightly cheaper bus for the three hour trip. BIG MISTAKE. As soon as we stepped into the bus, we realized that they were pulling the notorious late arrival scam which used to plague travelers before the roads were paved. In the late arrival scam, bus companies drive as slowly as possible to Siem Reap hoping to arrive after dark. The assumption is that disoriented travelers will go to hotels connected to the bus company. Oh, so annoying.

But apparently, the old late arrival scam is no longer enough. Arriving after dark, our bus pulled into a walled compound outside of Siem Reap. Travelers were told that we were at the Siem Reap bus station, but Thomas and I had been to Siem Reap before, so we knew they were lying. As the bus doors opened and passengers were allowed to exit the bus, I noticed a worker closing the compound’s gates effectively locking us into the enclosure. Passengers were told that they would then have to buy overpriced tuk-tuk tickets to travel into downtown Siem Reap. (For those who don’t know, tuk-tuks operate like taxis. You pay when you get out; there are no tickets.) The implications were clear: we’ve got you cornered and you’ll have to buy your way out.

Locked into a compound somewhere in the countryside outside Siem Reap, most foreigners were easily intimidated into buying “tuk-tuk tickets.” But to Thomas and me, Siem Reap was not an intimidating place, but rather a friendly destination with wonderfully helpful locals. The only intimidating thing to us was the locked gates. We blew up and insisted that the gates be opened immediately. After a relatively short but ugly fight, the gates were unlocked and Thomas, mom, and I, along with one very intelligent Brazilian passenger Fabian, chose to leave.

To me personally, the most interesting part of the story is what happened next. Every other foreign passenger chose to stay behind. As Thomas, mom, Fabian and I walked out to the main road, the passengers zoomed by in their captors’ tuk-tuks. Clearly suffering from the travelers’ version of Stockholm Syndrome, many of them went so far as to taunt and mock us for for “being trapped in the middle of nowhere.” (This was said in a mocking way, not out of concern.) What they didn’t know is that 30 seconds later, we stepped into a passing tuk-tuk driven by a friendly, honest local who drove us to our hotel at a fraction of the price they payed. More importantly, we were able to walk away from the scam and make it clear that not all foreigners will willingly play the victim.

So many lessons in a single story.

But rather than break them all down, I should explain what we discovered later while talking to locals in Siem Reap. Apparently, the regional government of Poipet remains angry over the wealth and success that has come to the region around Angkor Wat. Corrupt Poipet officials are complicit in the transport mafia’s schemes and refuse to allow any competition to disrupt what has become a serious money-maker for their region: namely screwing over travelers passing through their domain.

Such border corruption continues to hamper the Cambodian government’s attempt to promote the country as a serious tourist destination. Poipet is by no means the only border crossing with such problems. In fact, it just might have the fewest problems. We can only hope that ongoing efforts to reduce border corruption expand to include the transportation infrastructure. Good luck Cambodia, you really need it.

Suggestions for Travelers Crossing at Poipet

Ultimately, the overpriced taxis from Poipet appear to be the best option. Currently priced at $48 per taxi, they are a reasonable option for groups of four. Unfortunately, the border mafia requires you to prepay the taxi, so you are at their mercy once you are on the road. Some taxis may stop and demand more money along the way.

Local Poipet officials currently rotate private bus companies which are allowed to operate between Poipet’s “regional bus and taxi station” and Siem Reap. Bus companies angered over the bizarre rotation scheme appear to now be using the set-up to their advantage by exhibiting some seriously unethical behaviors and assuming that passengers will not be able to identify which bus company they were actually traveling with. Locals in Siem Reap were quite surprised by what we experienced on our bus and said they had not heard of this happening before.

Many travel agents on Bangkok’s Khao San Road offer “direct bus tickets” from Bangkok to Siem Reap. In reality, many of these trips suffer from a number of scams including one in which they stop before the Cambodian border and force passengers to prepurchase over-priced Cambodian visas. In reality, they should only be $20. Moreover, many of these direct tickets require you to change to local Cambodian buses in Poipet.

The situation changes constantly, so get on travel forums such as Thorn Tree and start reading. Unfortunately, even the best informed travelers may stumble into a bad situation.

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Topics: Cambodia, Thailand, Travel Tips | 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “Cambodian Border Mafia”

  • avatar Philippe
    December 25th, 2010 at 1:35 am

    Thanks for the very informative post.
    We’ll be making a similar trip (from Koh Mak to Siem Reap) in a couple of days. It sounds like there are scams whichever method you use go so we’ll have to play it by ear but your post will help us be more aware and better prepared.

    How much were they asking for the “tuk-tuk tickets” at the compound? And how much did you end up paying for your flagged-down tuktuk?

    Cheers

    Philippe

  • avatar Thomas
    December 26th, 2010 at 12:58 am

    Philippe,

    The pre-payed tuk-tuk tickets were 100 Baht or $2.50 per person and the tuk-tuk we flagged down cost us $5 for four people. We basically ended up paying half just by walking out onto the street, but more importantly, we didn’t have to pre-pay but payed the driver when we got to our actual destination.

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