We had decided after a month of traveling through Thailand that Cambodia would be our next stop. We had a fully paid ticket from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, but this was purchased for the sole purpose of having a return ticket out of the country in case someone at the airlines or customs was having a bad day and wanted to give us a hard time. No worries though, the tickets were just $30 each and were factored into our budget as a necessary cost. Also, logistically it just made more sense to go to Cambodia next and not Vietnam because we can bus to Cambodia, travel through, and move on to Vietnam. Had we flown into HCMC and backpacked our way up to Hanoi, we would miss Cambodia completely and the tickets from Hanoi to Siem Reap or Phnom Penh are out of our budget. Anyway, like most posts, I digress.
Today i’m here to write about our experience traveling from Bangkok to Siem Reap via bus and crossing the Thailand-Cambodia border. While it wasn’t my favorite experience in the world, I think it’s worth talking about as many backpackers like us will have to make the same crossing and want to have some first hand knowledge on what it’s like.
There are a few ways to get from Bangkok to Siem Reap, but if you’re on a budget and backpacking the region there really is only one viable option : the bus. There are two different possible bus routes : the direct bus and the indirect.
The direct bus, run by Nattakan, will take you from Bangkok to the border town of Aranyaprathet, wait for you on the other side of the border in Poipet, then take you from Poipet to Siem Reap. You leave your baggage on the bus the entire time and the whole process is generally hassle free. If you want to purchase tickets for this bus you can book them on BookMeBus or go straight to the Nattakan office, located inside Morchit Bus Station ( Bangkok Northern Bus Terminal ). The cost is $28 (as of May 11th, 2016).
The fancy schmancy Nattakan Bus.
The indirect route, which Breada and I took, will take you from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet, you go through the border crossing to Poipet bags and all, then have to find a ride from Poipet to Siem Reap.
The Not As Nice Indirect Bus to Arunyaprathet.
Had we been able to we would have taken the direct bus, but its only
offered at 8 and 9 am and we arrived in Bangkok too late in the day.
This post will explain how to go from Bangkok to Siem Reap the indirect way, however should you be in Bangkok early enough I would suggest the direct route. I only saved about $10 USD taking the indirect route, and I would gladly pay that extra money to avoid the hassles of doing everything yourself.
Your journey will start at Bangkok’s Northern Bus Terminal, also known as Morchit Station, or Chatuchak Bus Terminal. There is a Morchit BTS ( Skytrain ) station so make sure you’re heading to the right place. When you enter the bus station you’re going to be overwhelmed with dozens of different ticket counters, but don’t worry! Head to the ground floor and head to ticket counter #30, which is where you’ll purchase your ticket to Arunyaprathet. Busses typically leave every hour and the ticket will cost 205 baht (~$5.86 USD).
SCAM ALERT : There are plenty of busses being advertised along Khao San Road. While not all of them are scams, I’ve read of many people getting scammed through these businesses. Many of them will stop at a “visa office” to get your visa ( will explain these later ) and will force you to get it there, no matter how much you bitch and complain. What’s worse, some of these busses have been known to have someone hiding in the storage compartment underneath rummaging through your things and stealing valuables. Stick to the government busses or a reputable company. The few dollars you think you’re saving are not worth it.
The bus ride isn’t going to be anything special. The aisle is tiny, the seats are stiff, and if you’re lucky you’ll get some air blowing out of the vents, but not necessarily cold air. The seats do however recline surprisingly far back. Breada and I moved to the very back to we could recline them fully, but later realized we were right on top of the wheel well so it was a bumpy ride to say the least. Anyway, the ride will take about 5 hours and make a few stops along the way. It will end up dropping you off about a mile or two away from the actual border, but there are plenty of tuk-tuks waiting to give you a ride. Don’t pay more than a few dollars for the ride. The drivers are hoping you don’t know common prices and will try to jack you up for a few extra dollars. Just stay firm and if they don’t budge, move on to the next driver.
SCAM ALERT : The border crossing is full of scams. One of the first scams you may encounter is your tuk-tuk driver taking you to the “visa office”. It’s not the real visa office, and the driver will get a cut should you use the service. This office will do the work for you in terms of getting the visa, but they’re going to charge a premium for it. Not only that, but you still have to cross the border yourself so why not just save your money and do it yourself? Should this happen to you ( It did for Breada and myself ) keep telling your driver “the REAL border!” Most drivers aren’t too persistent, they’ll give it a try and if it fails they’ll take you to the actual border.
When you do finally get to the first stop on your border crossing, you’ll likely see a large mass of people all going to the same place. Follow that herd. You’ll see signs for “Passport Control” and you’ll have to enter a fenced in walkway. Keep going until you get to a large white building. Many posts online covering this same topic will tell you to go to the 2nd floor, but when we made the crossing couple weeks ago, the 2nd floor was closed off. A few people kept telling us to go to the 1st floor, but thinking they were trying to scam us in some way we ignored them at first. When we finally walked inside the first floor area to ask someone official on where to go, they did tell us we were in the right place, so I guess not everyone at the border is a scam artist.
Passport Control Office Where you Get Your Exit Stamp.
They’ll be separate counters for Thai citizens and foreigners, but while we were there it didn’t matter. If you were next you could go to either. That may have been because it was late and they were almost closing for the night, I’m not sure. Either way you must have your departure slip, which should be stapled into your passport, filled out and signed. The Passport Control official will look over everything, make sure it looks right, give you that handy stamp that you so desperately need, and you walk through the other side and bam! You’re no longer officially in Thailand!
You’re now in “no mans land” arguably the seediest place i’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. My only advice is to just walk straight and don’t look back. Don’t stop for anyone trying to sell you anything or tell you they can help you with your crossing. You’re almost done with the crossing, you don’t need any help. Beware of pickpockets. There will be lots of kids begging for money, and they’re relentless. They’ll follow you and stand behind you begging until they find someone else to go after. They’re also pickpockets so guard your shit.
If you’re into gambling, or just someone feeling lucky, there are a bunch of casinos along this street. It was late when we got to the border crossing so we didn’t want to risk it closing for the night, and even still we don’t have enough money to be gambling. If you come early though I’ve read the food is decent and it’s a place to relax for a little while.
Anyway, you walk maybe 100 yards in the no mans land and eventually you’ll come to another white building. It should say above the entrance “ The Office of the International Border Checkpoint of Poipet”. This is where you’ll get your Cambodian visa.
Office For Your Cambodian Visa.
SCAM ALERT : While this may be the official building, there are also scams that go on here as well ( scams everywhere, I know). The cost for a Cambodian visa on arrival is $30 USD, but officials will often try to charge a 200 baht “processing fee”. There is no fee, this money is going straight into the pockets of the officials working in the office. If they try to hit you with this fee, hold your ground and tell them there is no such fee. Or just tell them you have no baht left. Whatever you do don’t pay the fee. After a little while you should be ok. I’ve read of people causing a scene and shouting about how the fee is a scam and they’ll rush them through so nobody hears them and they can get the unsuspecting people later in line. We personally didn’t get hit with the fee, possibly because it was late and they just wanted to be finished. We did however, have to pay an extra $5 because we didn’t have photos to go along with our visa application. All in all though I was happy to pay the $5, which was likely cheaper than me having to take a tuk-tuk to a photo lab, paying for the photo, then taking a tuk-tuk back.
SCAM ALERT : I’ve heard of people who haven’t had their photo have a tout ( con artist ) take you to a shop where they’ll take your photo and try to sell you a fake visa for more money than the real one. If you don’t have your photo, just go to the visa office anyway. A $5 dollar bill will solve your issues.
After 10 minutes or so, possibly longer if you go during a busy period, an official will call out your name and hand you your passport back with your new visa! You’re still not done though! You still have to walk a few hundred feet to yet another office, where you fill out an arrival form and get your visa stamped.
Building Where you Get Your Visa Stamped.
This entire process we had a guy practically following us from building to building helping us. Just when we thought he was gone he would pop out of nowhere with another bit of advice. When I walked by the official handing out arrival forms he popped his head into the building and told me to go back and get it. Friendly stranger? Not quite. He wanted us to take his minivan from Poipet, and we were going to but when the time came to leave he was nowhere to be found.
So you got stamped out of Thailand, crossed the disgusting pit that is no mans land, received your Cambodian visa, filled out your arrival card, and got your stamp for Cambodia. You’re so close! Now you just have to find a ride to Siem Reap! With any luck, you should have plenty of options. To get to the bus station from Poipet, there is a government run shuttle that will take you there free of charge. From there you can board a bus to Siem Reap. It should cost about $9. We were tired and wanted to get to Siem Reap ASAP. It was getting late, and we weren’t in the mood for a bus making a bunch of stops and taking forever. Instead, we opted for a van, much like what our friend from earlier in the story was selling us. It cost $12 and we were told it would drop us off directly at our guesthouse ( which it did ).
We first had to take a tuk-tuk from the border to the bus. To be honest I was a little sketched out by this because the tuk-tuk ride was taking longer than I anticipated and Poipet is wicked seedy, plus there was a local riding with us who was overly friendly, which usually raises red flags with me. When he found out we lived near Boston he said he had family there, and I was curious if he was just trying to butter us up or if he was serious. When I asked him where they lived he told me Chelsea, so I softened up a little and figured he was either being serious or was the luckiest guy in the world for saying Chelsea. The only answers that could have been better was if he said they lived in Lowell or Lynn, home to the 2nd and 3rd largest Cambodian populations outside of Cambodia (*fun fact!*).
After a 15 minute tuk-tuk ride we got to the van, which already had about 4 passengers in it waiting. We got lucky because we were the last ones and it left shortly after we got there. The ride to Siem Reap took about 2.5 hours, but the van was air conditioned and comfortable so it felt much faster than that. When we arrived in Siem Reap the bus parked on the side of a random road and a man jumped inside. He told us that the roads within the downtown area where many of the guesthouses were are too small for the van so we’d have to tuk-tuk to our final destinations, which was included in the $12.
SEMI SCAM ALERT : The man who made the announcement, we’ll call him Dan ( I can’t remember his real name ), got in the back of our tuk-tuk with us and was chatting with us along the ride. He told us his tuk-tuk had broken down earlier that day, which is why he didn’t have his own tonight. His English was perfect and he was giving us little tidbits of history along the ride. I had done some reading on Siem Reap prior to this, so I knew where it was going but I let him do his schpeal. As we approached the guesthouse he made his pitch : for $12 he would take us on a day long tour to The Tonle Sap River and the Floating Markets, The War Museum, and The Killing Fields. We had planned on doing something like this anyway, so we agreed. It would be a nice introduction to Siem Reap. He said he would be at our guesthouse at 8am and to keep an eye out for him.
The next morning we were waiting outside for him when someone else, not Dan, but some random guy shows up telling us he’s our guy. When we asked where Dan was he said he wasn’t coming. So we’re already a little aggravated because Dan’s big selling point was his English skills, which are key for a guide. This guy didn’t say a word the whole time, but whatever we’ll get over it. Our first stop, the Tonle Sap River and The Floating Markets, was a full blown rip off. What Dan didn’t tell us the night before was it’s $25 a person to take a boat to the markets, and none of that money ends up in the hands of the people living there. Complete waste of time. We’re paying $12 for a day tour, we’re not coughing up $50 to see poverty and squalor. We walked right back to the tuk-tuk and told the guy we’ll move on to the 2nd stop. He told us he would bargain it down to $20, which is still a ripoff so we told him no.
The rest of the day wasn’t terrible. The war museum was just $6 each and The Killing Fields memorial was free, but we were aggravated with the deceptions from earlier. Had he just told us it was that expensive we would have told him to skip it and still paid him the $12 and saved him an hour of his time. In the end he wasn’t a guide, just a driver for the day. At the end of the day he was trying to get us to hire him to be our driver for Angkor Wat, which we politely declined. We found an amazing driver/guide/photographer Mao for Angkor Wat. If you need his info i’ll be happy to provide it!
Anyway, I digress yet again. So you’re finally in Siem Reap! Congrats!! Hopefully it wasn’t too painful and you didn’t have to bribe anyone along the way. With any luck you’ll never have to make that miserable journey again and if you do, just take the direct bus 🙂
Note : Not all these pictures are my own. Photo credits to :