Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of Poipet before—you’re one of the lucky ones. A Cambodian town on the border with Thailand, Poipet has become a miniature exhibition of sorts, displaying everything that’s wrong with Southeast Asia in one convenient location.
Many visitors to Cambodia avoid ‘the toilet’ altogether by flying into the country. The rest of us take a bus and most of those pass through Poipet. If you take a public bus, congratulations; for slightly more effort at the beginning (Bangkok, most likely), you get a free pass for many of the annoyances in store for those who fell for the promise of simplicity pushed by travel agents on Khao San Road (and elsewhere too, of course).
I took a public bus myself; as a result, the first part of this post is based on second hand accounts and not first-hand experience, which is why you’re reading this, instead of a news story about my 20-year sentence in a Thai prison for punching every fake border guard in sight.
I’m sure (maybe sure is too strong a word) there are some private transport companies in Thailand that won’t try to take advantage of their customers, but I’m not aware of any. Basically, if you opt for a private bus company, you will arrive at the border after it has closed for the day. No matter how early you leave and despite it not being that far a trip, something WILL delay you just enough to arrive too late.
Obviously this means you’ll need a place to stay for the night and wouldn’t you know it, there’s a place right next to the bus! Of course you could walk around and try to find someplace else in the dark, but most likely you’ll just stay where you are, for convenience’s sake. If you pay attention, you might even get to see the hotel owner slip the bus driver an envelope, but usually they’re pretty careful.
The next morning you will be taken to a poorly constructed little shack staffed by border guards in ridiculously ill-fitting and poorly-made uniforms. They will take your money and supply you with a visa. If you pay attention, you might even get to see them slip the bus driver an envelope, but usually they’re pretty careful.
These ‘border guards’ are not real. They are just scammers playing dress-up, who will take your passport and filled-out form to the actual border, get your visa and pay your fee, then return and charge you double the actual cost. And they’re not alone; several of these little outposts line the streets outside the real border crossing, each of them paying different bus companies to drop off their victims. At least one of them calls itself the “Cambodian Consulate.”
Should you choose to wait until you get to the border to get your visa (easier, faster and cheaper), they will naturally give you a long list of reasons why that might be a bad idea ranging from convenience, to long wait times, to possible prison time, to death—I have no doubt they’ll try every angle. Ignore all that and you will eventually find yourself at the actual border. This is where those who took a public bus join the story.
Once you’ve made your way through the army of fake border personnel and ‘helpful’ locals (just remember, NO ONE actually wants to help you), you’ll see a few windows and a waiting area. Fill out a form (hint: you don’t need help from the guy who can’t read or write his own language, much less fill out a form in English, despite the snazzy little name tag he keeps waving in your face). Take the form to the window and get ready to bargain.
You see, the price indicated on the official looking plaque is about 50% higher than the actual price. The current price is $20, but the sign and the guards will claim it’s $30. They’ll probably quote it in Thai Baht, so know the exchange rate and bring US dollars; you definitely don’t want to pay the hugely inflated Thai Baht price. But remember: never EVER change money at the border, despite everything they tell you—and they will feed you all kinds of horror stories about changing money after the border, but none are true.
Most people just pay the posted price, but if you point out the discrepancy, they will naturally have many reasons for it. A favorite is expediency. “Pay and it takes 5 minutes, don’t pay and it takes five hours. Oh, and have we mentioned the SARS fee, the fee for not having a vaccination card and the left-handed fee? You’re NOT left handed? Oh…..of course not. I meant……I’m left handed. You pay for having a left-handed border guard, but I’ll give you a little discount since you didn’t know….”
Don’t pay any of that. I paid $20 and had my visa in five minutes. If they seem to be delaying yours, just start telling other tourists about the real visa fee and they’ll have you all set and out of there in no time.
Once outside, you immediately run into Poipet’s hardest-to-avoid scam: the transportation monopoly. Free shuttle buses will take you to a transport depot just outside town where you can choose between an incredibly overpriced bus to Siem Reap or an even more overpriced taxi. While waiting, you can snack on ridiculously overpriced food.
If I remember correctly, the taxi costs $48 and the bus $9. If you find three people (they won’t allow more) to share with, you can get your cost down to $12. These prices are extremely high for Cambodia and everyone gets a cut, except for the actual drivers. As usual, they get screwed while everyone else gets rich (relatively speaking, of course).
You could try to avoid this scam by telling the 2000 people trying to usher you onto a shuttle bus that you want to enjoy Poipet (they might laugh at that and for good reason), spend the night, or whatever excuse you can come up with to not get on a bus and just keep walking down the street. Once you get past the roundabout, the pressure will ease and a little further on, you can try to hire a taxi that’s not part of the monopoly. Just make sure no cops, real or fake, see you. They WILL ‘encourage’ the driver to no longer pick up fares for a fair price.
As for the town of Poipet itself, it apparently consists of little more than tobacco shops, liquor stores and casinos, all designed to further impoverish the already pretty poor population of Thailand who cross the border to enjoy vices that are either expensive (tobacco and alcohol) or illegal (gambling) in their own country.
In other words, you want to leave Poipet. It truly is one of the world’s toilets, with absolutely no redeeming qualities and every bad quality you could possibly name. For much more detailed information on the scams and on beautiful Poipet in general, you can check out the Poipet Wikitravel page (opens in a new window). The ‘See & Do’ section mentions a slum and a minefield, which pretty much tells you all you need to know.
Wow you make Poipet sound like the Do Lung Bridge in Apocalypse Now. But I’ve crossed through dozens of times and never encountered problems like these.
To be fair, I had no problems either both times I went there, but I read up on the town and the border crossing beforehand. Most don’t and end up paying much more for everything than they should.
And I’m not alone in my assessment. Witness the introduction from the wikitravel page: “A gritty border town, Poipet hosts a bewildering array of touts, beggars, thieves and dodgy casinos for daytripping Thais, which all contrive to separate money from the unwary.”
Daniel recently contributed to world literature by posting..Tha Khaek – Why Are We here?
Thailand is the worst country I’ve been to for people trying to rip me off – especially when I was on an island and I ‘had to’ get a boat. There really isn’t another option than paying what they ask, and they know it!
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Daniel McBane says
I agree. I found Thailand to be the worst too. I haven’t been to Vietnam though and from what I hear, it could give Thailand a run for its money.
Daniel McBane recently contributed to world literature by posting..Drinking Yak Sewage in Ngawal
Areli Escalante says
I feel Bad to say this but for me and my friend was also the worse experience of all got “kidnap” by one gang and they did not let us alone until they were certain that they will not get more money and not even the police could it help us the make us to travel on a “buss” with cockroach and sleep on one stinky “hotel”.
I will recommend to all the people is better to use air transportation.
Daniel McBane says
Sounds like you had a much worse experience there than I did. I’m not surprised the police wouldn’t help–they all either get paid to look the other way or they are outright members of the gangs themselves.
Daniel McBane recently contributed to world literature by posting..Keeping Las Vegas Safe From Litterers and Al Qaeda
Poipet Rhymes with Toilet . This title is an insult to the 100 000 inhabitants living in Poipet .You do not mention at all the bad condition of living of all this people . This town is a laborious city, people are working very hard to have a living .I am sure that you find less pickpoket and gangs in Poipet that in Las Vegas or Berlin… .Please return to your username civilization to eat your rotten hamburger
I know at Poipet some ONG taking care with children and giving them an education and hope. Do you think these children are encouraged to read your lines?What can they do? What do you suggest?
I travel very often to Poipet, it is true that the city is dirty, but you can find something you ignore completely,This is called the friendliness of the people .Try to speak with them you will be astonish of their kindness
Daniel McBane says
Of course there are good people in Poipet, just like there are good and bad people everywhere; I simply don’t feel the need to point out something so obvious in every single post.
When it comes to the bad, Poipet has much more than its fair share–the amount of corruption, crime and scams in this little town is quite shocking and I am far from the first to point that out (see the wikitravel article for one).
I applaud you for wanting to help the good people of Poipet, but I have to say, commenting on a blog post read by ten people is not going to change anything. Sure, you can feel good about yourself, feel like you made a difference, but you didn’t.
If you want to actually help, you need to take on the officials in Poipet, as their corruption, not my blog post, is responsible for the hardships faced by the local population. Taking them on is difficult, though, so I understand why you’d much rather just leave a comment here. You’re a true hero of the people…
Daniel McBane recently contributed to world literature by posting..Why was Pedro in Beijing and Why Was He Naked?
The name of the city Poipet in fact does not rhyme with toilet, as the real name is Poi-pite and it rhymes with kite. But obviously you’re too ignorant to even know the name of a city you’re writing about, and this is a reflection of you, and not of the city. Your entire article you’re focusing on the bad 1% of the city, and ignoring the 99% which is just an ordinary Cambodian city, where friendly folks go about their daily lives. Did you even bother to leave the main road ? I imagine you didn’t even enter the city.
Daniel McBane says
The way it is pronounced internationally, it rhymes with toilet (sort of). The Germans don’t pronounce Munich the same way it’s pronounced internationally and the same goes for the French and Paris, the Chinese and Beijing and pretty much every other city on earth.
You’re right, I didn’t go far from the border area and this is very clear from my post. I’m writing about my experience and what I saw. Border town in general are notorious for being the worst places in most countries and my experience in Cambodia was in line with that. Poipet was the worst place I saw in the county. Read my reply to the previous commenter (Philippe) for more.
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Stephen Baker says
Interesting article and I note that you certainly upset a few people! When I was living in Bangkok I had to travel to Poipet for the so called Visa run and stayed a couple of days. I went with a reputable company, so everything had been explained and to be honest, I didn’t experience the problems you did. Maybe things have changed with time? But I did meet some great locals and ended up returning to Poipet for a holiday! And all the Cambodian and Thai immigration officials I encountered were extremely professional.
Daniel McBane says
It’s been about 15 years since I was there. I imagine things have changed quite a bit since then. And from your experience, it seems they’ve changed for the better.
Stephen Baker says
Yes, I think you are right that things probably have changed with time, because I had heard that people had a far from pleasant (!) experience crossing that particular border, so I was somewhat surprised to find that I positively enjoyed my trips to Poipet, met really friendly and helpful people, especially a motorbike taxi driver who showed me all over Poipet, and at night the open air karaoke/restaurant really was incredibly good value with delicious food. So maybe things have well changed with time.