Land border crossings are a pain in my butt. And the granddaddy of them all has got to be the Aranyaprathet/Poipet crossing between Thailand and Cambodia. Most people who cross at this border are heading to Siem Reap.
Beware the Khao San Road Bus Scam! Khao San Road bus tickets are a complete rip-off. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you buy a cheap or expensive ticket, once you are out of Thailand and into Cambodia, the gloves are off and you are at the mercy of the bus driver and tour guide. This is a journey that should take independent travelers between 8 and 11 hours. Traveling with a bus company can take up to 18 hours if you get on the wrong bus and there’s no way of knowing whether you’re getting a good bus or a bad bus.
We departed at 8:20 am and had a relatively uneventful ride to the Cambodian border. Our only concern was being stuck with a load of other travelers who hadn’t arranged for visas.
The bus stopped 2km before the border. We were asked to collect our gear and walk the rest of the way. We actually crossed into Cambodia on foot. Our entry into Cambodia didn’t take long, but as we had feared, we had to wait for the rest of the passengers on our bus to secure their visas. Little did we know that our two hour wait at the border in Poipet would quickly descend into a long bus ride from hell. Once everyone was through, we progressed to the bus station, where we boarded an old, rickety bus. There were too many of us to sit comfortably. Everyone was jammed in and our luggage was thrown in the aisle. The exit to the door was completely blocked. We had to climb over luggage to get in and out of the bus.
Before we left, we were told our Thai baht wouldn’t be accepted in Cambodia and we were encouraged to switch our remaining baht for a ridiculously low exchange of 3400 riel to one American dollar. The actual rate is around 4000 riel to the dollar. This scam cheats you out of $15 and of course, it’s a complete lie. Baht is accepted in Siem Reap. However, we decided to keep our Baht for our return to Thailand. John was smart enough to change over $50 American to get us through to Siem Reap. We got a much better exchange rate when we arrived.
Our bus departed at 1pm. We were told the journey would take six hours. The road conditions were horrible despite the dry weather. The road was full of ruts the size of Texas and cloying red dust seemed to be seeping in the cracks and floorboards of the bus. The air-conditioning broke down after being on the road for an hour and a half. Pretty soon, every window was rolled down and the dust blew in and covered us within seconds. I wrapped my sarong around my head and put my sunglasses on to keep from choking. Other travelers followed suit. Everyone was absolutely miserable.
Our first bathroom break was on the side of the highway. Women were huddling behind sarongs and towels for privacy. When the guys wandered a bit off the road for privacy, they were warned about the possibility of stepping on unexploded bombs.
As day turned into night, we bumped slowly along. The road conditions were bad, but not so bad to warrant such slow progress. The driver was deliberately driving slow to prolong the trip. At 9pm, 8 hours into our “6 hour” journey, we still had another hour and a half before we would reach our destination.
We stopped at a ramshackle roadside restaurant for dinner. They served us fried beef jerky with several bugs mixed in for good measure. We also found out that the restaurant owner is the uncle of our tour guide. At this point, our guide drops by our table to give us a quick update and encourages us to stay at his guesthouse in Siem Reap. We tell him we have already booked accommodations and have arranged for a pick-up from the bus station in Siem Reap, which is where we are supposed to be dropped off. He tells us he has never heard of our hotel and offers to let us stay at his guesthouse for the special price of $5.
At 9:30pm, we are back on the road again on the last leg of the journey. Just as the city lights of Siem Reap’s airport come into view, the bus breaks down completely. The driver claims that the air brakes are gone. John protests and says that the bus isn’t equipped with air brakes. Actually, it didn’t really break down and John knows what he’s talking about as his family owns a trucking company. He offers to take a look and adds that in all likelihood, he can get the bus started. Of course, the driver and guide refuse. In the meantime, everyone has exited the bus and is waiting on the side of a dark Cambodian road which we can’t leave because there isn’t any light to see by. Again, we are warned not to venture too far in case of bombs.
We have to wait for the next bus to come. We end up getting into town shortly after 1am after being on the road for 17 hours. The bus drives directly to the guesthouse instead of going to the bus station. Most people are so tired they opt to stay at the guesthouse. A few of us decide to find our hotels.
Meanwhile, John asks to use their phone to make a local call to our hotel to get a pick-up. He spends one minute on the phone and is assured that our ride is on the way. When he hangs up, the owners of the guesthouse try to charge him $5 US for the phone call. John’s temper finally gets the best of him and he starts yelling. We’re immediately surrounded by a dozen angry Cambodians with John in the center giving it right back.
Our ride shows up just in time and we jump into the back of the tuk-tuk and speed away with several Cambodians running after us. I’m terrified they are going to follow us back to our hotel, where our friendly host assures us that this happens all the time. He has been living in Cambodia for several years and was caught on the same scam bus several years ago. He wonders out loud what will happen to the guests that are supposed to be arriving at his hotel the next day.
As it turns out, we saw a few of the people we traveled with the next day. The guesthouse promised them clean rooms at $5. They were riddled with cockroaches. When they check out the next day in search of better accommodations, they’re charged $8. And as for the guests arriving later that evening at our hotel, they got in at 1pm on the same bus with the same tale.