Friday, April 27, 2012

Over the Border and Back

On Wednesday, Eric and I did a visa run to get new Thai visas, allowing us to spend fifteen more days in the country.  Border runs are normal part of life to people traveling long-term, and this was my first.  It was certainly... an experience.

We woke up early to catch our 7:30 AM bus out of Bangkok.  As we grabbed some orange juice and a snack on our way to the travel agency where we'd booked our tickets, I marveled at how different the city seemed at that hour.  The market stalls were just setting up.  There were coffee vendors all over, coffee vendors who apparently disappear by the time I show my face on the streets on any given day. 

After checking in at the travel agency, Eric and I began the waiting that would define our day.  A man came and walked us down the street to a different spot, where we waited for a minibus to drive us to Poipet, the border town.  Eventually the bus and other passengers arrived, and we all headed into the Bangkok traffic around 8:30.  After two half-hour stops for gas and snacks at 7-11, we eventually made it to the border just after 1:00.

At the bus company's headquarters/restaurant, a man pulled Eric and me aside, since we were the only ones who would be returning to Thailand that day.  He handed us the Cambodian immigration forms, then offered to get us our Cambodian visas.  We had already been warned against this — he would have us fill out the forms and pay him much more than the cost of the visa.  "No thank you," we said.  "We'll take care of it ourselves."  "You've done this before?" he asked.  We said yes, and I suppose he decided that since we already knew what a visa should cost, it wasn't worth the hard sell.  At that point, he and the other bus company men ushered us to the street, where they pointed in the direction of the border, assured us that it was a two-minute walk and they would meet us when we returned to the Thai side, and sent us off.  Apparently we hadn't earned the minibus ride right up to the border.

Leaving through Thai customs was pleasant.  There was no line, and the woman working at the booth joked with us and recommended cities that we should visit when we returned.  As I walked out of the office into the no man's land of Poipet, I was optimistic about our chances of breezing through the entire process.  We trundled through the dividing area, past the casinos and hotels, and lined up at the Cambodian customs office. 

One of several casinos in the area between Thailand and Cambodia.
Photo by Eric Reed

The Cambodian customs office starkly contrasts with the Thai office.  While Thailand's border control looks relatively modern and well-kept, the Cambodian office is cramped, barren, and run down.  A single large fan hangs off the wall with a line of ants running down from the electrical outlet.  The only signs forbid photographs and shouting and instruct you in properly scanning your fingerprints once you reach the desk.  The differences highlight the disparities between the two countries, in wealth and corruption.  After waiting in line for fifteen minutes or so, Eric and I discovered that we had come to the wrong office.  This was where we got our visas stamped — first we needed to get the visas.

We started back towards the Thai border, wondering how we could have walked past such an important office.  The officials we stopped to ask directions all answered, "Visa?  1000 baht."  When we said no, we would get the visas ourselves, they gestured in the direction of "farther that way."  Eventually we found the office, tucked behind a tree on the opposite side of the street from the one you enter from Thailand.  The building was labeled in Khmer and English, something along the lines of "Cambodian Customs Office."  Once inside, we filled out our forms and debated a bit with the Cambodian customs officials, who insisted that the Cambodian visa cost 800 baht.  The visa costs $20 American, which is roughly 600 Thai baht.  The office had a sign to explain charge in baht: "$20 US = 700 baht.  700 baht + 100 baht = 800 baht."  Aside from the blatant lie regarding the exchange rate, apparently they charged a 100 baht fee for not having American dollars.  After it became clear that we weren't going to argue the official into giving us a fair rate, we paid and waited for our visas to be issued. 

 As we sat in the large room trying to figure out what movie was on the TV mounted against the wall, a man approached us.  "You're going back to Bangkok — I'll be waiting for you on the other side of the border, near the Coke and Pepsi signs.  You need to hurry, you're the last ones in your bus."  I was relieved to hear that the bus company hadn't abandoned us, but now there was extra pressure.  I hate being the one people have to wait for. (Every time I went grocery shopping with my roommates, I managed to pick the slowest check-out line, no matter what.)  We got our passports back from the Cambodian customs men and hauled ourselves back past the casinos to the border office to get our stamps.

My Cambodian visa, used for all of five minutes
As we briefly entered and exited Cambodia, I may have started whining to Eric a little bit.  I was hot, sweaty, smelly, and the man at Cambodian border control had just slapped my passport back at me after I had taken my hand off the fingerprint sensor too quickly.  Rationally, I knew that if our bus left, we would just find another bus company.  At worst, we would have to pay more money for a trip back to Bangkok.  It really wasn't a big deal, but as I walked the quarter mile back to Thailand in the hot, dusty air, I just wanted to be whisked back to a cool, quiet place where I could be clean and relaxed without anyone trying to overcharge me. 

Once we made it back through Thai customs, it took us a few minutes to track down our bus company guy.  A kind woman at a refreshments stand let us borrow her cell phone to call him; he had handed us his business card earlier.  Once we connected with him, he told us our bus had left and we'd have to wait for another one in an hour.  He didn't mention any extra fees, and pulled out two plastic chairs where we could sit for a while.  Finally, I relaxed.  We had gotten our extra two weeks in Thailand and we had a ride back to Bangkok.  I opened my new PD James novel and settled in.

At 9:00 PM, fourteen hours after our initial departure from our hotel room, Eric and I arrived back in Bangkok.  Over a dinner of pork, rice, and hard-boiled eggs, we laughed about the various scams of the day and the random stops our bus driver made on the ride back.  I could appreciate the experience of a visa run, but I still needed a cold drink to end the night.  After that, I might be one step closer to truly saying I'm a traveler.

I'm sorry for the lack of pictures in this post!  The next will have more.
For a great article on a US-Mexico border town, see this piece by Paul Theroux 
from the New York Times.  The photos are gorgeous.

Do you have experience crossing borders?


  1. Good job getting through that process without paying the "extra fees." Any border run where you can avoid the cash-filled handshake is a successful one in my book.

    1. Thank you! I was relieved to make it through relatively fee-free. I'm sure you have some great stories from your travels - I hope to hear them sometime!

  2. Aunt Beth and Uncle BeauMay 4, 2012 at 4:23 PM

    Laura, I can appreciate your trials of border-crossing and visa renewals. We ran into much the same problems in Mexico, not only with visas but with checking in to and out of the various ports. In one place we checked in with the port captain, walked across town to pay the "duty" -then walked in another direction to get the appropriate stamps on our paperwork...... the entire day spent handling official paperwork that should have taken 15 minutes at the most.

    1. Ugh, that sounds like a rough day! It's always the worst when you know that all the fuss doesn't need to take nearly as long as it does. I'd love to hear more stories from when you lived on the boat!

  3. Aunt Beth and Uncle BeauMay 5, 2012 at 11:57 AM

    When you are back in the USA I would love to have you edit my stories - The Bold Venture Logs and Letters from Africa......that is if you have the time. I have the stories but really need some help with sentence structure and composition. Hope you are planning to put all of your stories into book form! It will make for interesting reading!

    1. I'd love to read them! I've really enjoyed the ones I've gotten to see so far. You have great stories to tell.

      I'm trying to keep a regular journal in addition to writing the blog. I don't want to forget anything!