The border crossing from hell

Poipet is a small town in the north-west of Cambodia that borders on Thailand and acts as the main channel for travellers moving between Bangkok and Siem Reap. It is notorious for its chaos, casinos and corruption, and the scammers and pick-pockets targeting travellers.

Neither myself nor my friend Jules have much (or any) experience telling a trustworthy local from the ‘warning signs are flashing’ dodgy scammers. Hours of research online and walking the main streets of Bangkok to suss out the options for border crossings have not helped, so we finally concede and go with the bus transfer offered by our hotel. A little expensive, but we think it might be worth it for the security.

Seems we thought wrong.

After four hours on a mini bus with about 12 other backpackers, we reach what we assume is the border … but isn’t. Red flags start flapping when we’re taken off the bus at what looks like a large but barren house. Here, a group of men are waiting. They insist on separating us, and break us into smaller groups – maybe so we can’t communicate. I’m not quite sure just yet.

We’re told we are at the ‘embassy’, and that we have to hand over our passports so we can have the appropriate paperwork filled out to pay the border taxes. Hand over our passport? Now, I may not be the most experienced traveller, but that is not going to happen.

We refuse, and our guide, who seemed friendly to begin with, becomes increasingly persistent and aggravated. He tells us that the rest of our group has already filled out the paperwork, and we’re now holding them up, and that without these papers we would not be able to cross the border. He goes on to say that he’s personally insulted that I don’t believe that this deserted house furnished in plastic chairs is not the official embassy.

We hold firm. He eventually gives up and we climb back on the bus. Here, I discover an American couple and many more had also been pressured into paying around US$55 each. I’m now glad I didn’t give in to his demands.

Next, we pull up to the town of Poipet itself. It looks no less suspicious than the last town. In fact, the place is in a shambles.

Our guide kicks us off the bus and says that as cars cannot cross the border (a lie) we have to walk across, go through customs and meet with another guide on the Cambodian side. Customs here is basically a hot shed with a gaggle of people and thieves, but I am glad at least to discover the so-called ‘embassy’ had been a scam and I am now allowed through.

Normally, when travelling, a uniform sets apart the crooks from those who mean to help you, but Poipet is different. Nearly every official we pass would approach us asking for money for some sort of ‘tax’. After the first two payments, Jules and I establish a firm say-no-and-dodge-past-them policy that seems to serve us well.

Finally, we meet with our bus group on the other side, and I find a British girl in tears after paying at least three mysterious taxes and ending up nearly out of cash. We don’t have the heart to tell her it’s all a scam so we comfort her by saying that she’d now paid all the necessary fees and to ignore any further requests for more.

Believe it or not, I would look back on this part of the journey almost fondly after what happened next.

We wait for about an hour before a short man emerges and announces he is our new tour guide, but that our bus has been delayed so he suggests we all take taxis for the second part of the journey. Apparently, the going rate for a seat in a taxi to Siem Reap is US$50. We all decline.

He emerges again and again over the next few hours insisting that the bus has been even further delayed and, one by one, he succeeds in forcing our group into his mates’ taxis. Being tight on our budget and already having paid for the full journey, Jules and I are the only people from our original group who remain.

At this point, the ‘new guide’ entirely drops his façade and angrily tells us that our bus may never come and that he will leave us in this ‘dangerous place’. He tells us he knows some dangerous people around here and that we will probably die here if we don’t get into a taxi.

If there’s one thing I don’t like, it’s death threats.

We don’t want to associate with him or the taxis, but we also figure that the promised bus had also been some sort of scam and will never come. We have to get out of here on our own.

We spy a large group of American tourists coming out of the customs shed. They’re older than us, with wheeled suitcases and dressed like they’re going on safari. This means one thing: money. And, in theory, wealthy people travelling in packs aren’t generally subjected to the same scams as we had been.

Trying to look as dopey and innocent as we can, we slip in amongst them, and once their new guide gives a short welcome and lets everyone know they’ll arrive at their resort in just a few hours, we jump on the bus. Not believing our luck, we keep our eyes averted from the guide and speak in a forced American accent, blending in as the bus rattles down the dusty road to Siem Reap.

The bus pulls up in a resort area, and we snatch our bags and jump off, hurtling down the road to a more affordable part of town. I would only later realise that everyone on that bus knew we had snuck on, but were happy for us to find sanctuary amongst them. However, at the time I believed we had escaped the border town through stealth, some top-notch acting skills and, possibly, divine intervention.

I would also later read a review of Poipet that said the best part about it was leaving it. It was the most accurate review of the region I’d read. Overall, I can only describe the experience of crossing this border as one that’s as pleasant as shuffling through a pit full of snakes.

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Written by Liv Gardiner

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