We are now in Siem Reap having had the worst scam/border crossing corruption/unpleasant experience of our trip so far – and pretty close to being the worst ever.
As many of you will know, Matt and I are not naive or inexperienced travellers – our infamous, and I think still worst border crossing ever, was between Tanzania and Kenya some 25 years ago. The bus was so late (it was the rainy season and the road was a disaster) that we crossed at about 2am in the dark (Number 1 rule of travelling: never give your Passport to anyone, Number 2 rule of travelling: never cross borders in the dark!) and it was when the Kenyan official asked how much money we were carrying that we started to get worried. Somehow (Matt’s charm and the fact that he was born in Tanzania definitely helped) we got through without paying a bribe – but we’ve never forgotten it.
Incidentally, Number 3 rule of travelling is to try and always arrive at your destination in daylight and Number 4 is that if armed guards or police get on your bus pretend to be asleep and never, ever, ever look them in the eye.
Other bad border crossings include an equally infamous one between India and Nepal (the bus had bullet holes and the “hotel” had rats and cockroaches the size of rats) and another Kenya-Tanzanian one where the production of fresh dollar bills saved the day …. but I digress – the point being that we like to think we know what we’re doing!
We had booked a ticket from the islands all the way to Siem Reap and had checked what bus company we would be travelling with in Cambodia because a) our hotel in Siem Reap had offered to come and pick us up from the bus station and b) we avoid minivans at all costs and wanted to be sure we would be on a big bus. We were assured we’d be on a Sorya bus and as we’ve used them before in Cambodia we were happy.
From the moment we got off the boat from the islands the scam started. As we were walking up to the bus station we were called into a cafe where we were issued with new tickets and Cambodian visa papers to complete. In retrospect – and from reading other people’s experiences (including our friends Richard and Annie who are currently in Vietnam) – from this moment on we were in their scam and there was absolutely nothing we could do about it. They had taken our original bus ticket and replaced it with theirs. ** We waited there for half an hour or so and some people were told to hand their passports over here – we didn’t (Rule number 1). Then we were told to walk up to the bus station and had another half an hour wait where we chatted to a French couple and all agreed that the scam had started. Then the bus arrived and we were told to get on board “quick, we are late”, as if it was our fault!
** Since we arrived here and have mulled all this over we have wondered what would have happened if we hadn’t gone into that cafe and just carried on to the bus station.
On the bus the fix it guy said he needed all our passports and $40 each. We refused and pointed out that a Cambodian visa is $30. He, quite openly, said that this border is “corrupt” and it’s $35 here, plus $2 for Laos departure stamp plus money for “quarantine/health check”. We refused to hand over our passports and he said we’re going to delay the whole bus – divide and rule?! There were 5 of us who refused, including the French couple.
At the border we 5 got off the bus and the others stayed on it and were whisked through to Cambodia where we met up with them about half an hour later in (another) cafe. This is a major breach of border security – how do the Laotians know who’s leaving their country and Cambodians know who is arriving when they don’t even see them – a security joke! We had to pay $2 for our departure stamp – this was scam 1 – officially there is no exit fee in Laos but we had no alternative. The French couple refused to pay and tried to get into Cambodia without the stamp but they’re obviously in cahoots as the Cambodians checked for their departure stamp and wouldn’t give them a visa without it.
Then we came to Scam 2 – the quarantine desk – we have seen this before – we are asked to complete a form stating where we’ve been in the last 21 days and whether we’ve had various medical conditions and then we’re “scanned” with a thermometer and charged $1. We filled in the forms but said, from the start, we had no money. We had our ‘temperature’ scanned and left without paying. The French couple just said they had all their vaccinations and walked on!
Then came Scam 3 – a Cambodian visa costs $30 but here it was $30 for the visa and $5 for the “stamp”. I argued at length with the officials and even showed them my visa from Siem Reap airport in January which clearly says $30 and they just kept repeating $30 for the visa and $5 for the stamp. We only had $60 so ended up paying the stamp fee in kip – they wanted 100,000 (well over $10) but accepted 85,000 which was all we had. It went straight into their top drawer. Then got the “stamp” but the visa doesn’t say how much we paid for it!! The French couple managed to get away with only paying $3 each for the stamp by simply saying they had no more money. At the “stamp” booth you can’t even see the officials – passports are just passed through a little slot.
We then joined our fellow bus passengers in their cafe by the road – the Cambodians hadn’t verified any of them against their passports – security, what security? We got in our bus and waited and were then told that everyone going to Siem Reap should get in another bus – clearly some kind of deal was being done by the drivers.
We were then taken to Stung Treng and yet another “cafe” behind someone’s house – definitely not an official bus station. Again, we were told it would be about an hour and many people bought food – they even had the nerve to charge for the toilets! After about an hour our tickets were changed (again) and we were all piled into 2 mini vans which had been sitting there all along. Here we are sitting in this latest “cafe”:
At this point quite a few of us complained (loudly) that we hadn’t paid to go in minivans but had paid for big buses. We were basically told that there were no big buses now because we were so “late”. In retrospect I would say that at this point we had been commercially kidnapped.
Both minivans were overloaded and the drivers picked up more locals off the roadside, which we all kicked off about.
About 2 hours in we stopped at yet another “cafe” which, as you can see, is a thoroughly salubrious spot and we are all looking thoroughly fed up:
Shortly after leaving that “cafe” our van broke a suspension pin with a hell of a bang, at speed. We all initially thought it was a puncture but it was rather more serious than that and clearly caused by a combination of lack of maintenance and over-loading. Perhaps not surprisingly given what happened to us 18 months ago I was completely hysterical at this point and our fellow travelers were all incredibly kind once Matt had explained why! The two minivan drivers then “fixed” the suspension on the roadside using a bolt they found and a nut they bought off a passing farmer and then we carried on. I was absolutely terrified, especially when our driver increased in confidence and was roaring along seemingly without a care in the world:
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By the time we arrived in Siem Reap it was dark and we were dropped in some dark back street area – definitely not a bus station. One thing we had noticed as we were standing at the roadside waiting for the van to be fixed was that no buses passed us all day. It’s hard to know which route these minivans are taking but it definitely isn’t the new road they advertise – we suspect they are using a circuitous route to reduce the chances of being stopped at police road blocks.
In retrospect we think these scams are carefully co-ordinated and planned from Laos to Cambodia. We were all told we would be on big buses in Cambodia and we think they’re taking the money for the big buses and then putting us in their unlicensed and, most probably, uninsured minivans. The border officials and the bus drivers etc are all in cahoots and obviously sharing the loot. I saw paper folded over and stapled to make an envelope and full of dollars on the desk of the “stamp” desk, clearly someone’s share. If 100 people are passing through this border daily and most are paying out $40 then the profit on top of the visa fee is $10 per person – that’s $1,000 per day. A nice little earner, as they say!
We have now got the bit between our teeth on this one and have already contacted a couple of blog sites who have recently given their experiences and added ours. In addition we are in the process of contacting the British Embassies in both Cambodia and Laos as they ask for scams and corruption to be reported. We will also contact the Cambodian and Laos embassies in the UK. There are a couple of other sites here in Cambodia which we’ve been advised to contact by expats living here.
Interestingly, the Cambodian ambassador to Seoul was arrested 2 days ago for, amongst other things, embezzling over $100,000 by selling visa stamps!!
Our main concerns are:
- the lack of security at this border;
- the blatant corruption by the border guards; and
- the dangers posed by travelling in these un-maintained, unlicenced and, presumably uninsured, minivans.
One day some backpackers will be killed in these vans, of that we have no doubt.
The problem is that once you’re a piece of kidnapped cargo in their scam it’s impossible to get out unless you’re happy to be left at the roadside and pay twice – and they know this.
I know that this is rather a serious post for a supposedly light-hearted travelling blog and it’s ironic that this happened just a few days after I’d posted about the joys (and otherwise) of journeys in this part of the world but these scams need to be addressed so I’m going to do my best to get this known to the powers that be. If nothing comes if it then so be it but if we can warn just one more backpacker of this scam then that’s OK.
If anyone is reading this prior to starting this journey the only way round the minibus part that we can see is to just buy a ticket to Stung Treng. You’ll then be taken to the bus station from where you can buy a ticket from a reputable seller for your choice of onward transportation. At the moment we can’t see any way of avoiding the border corruption but you can certainly save some money by going through the border post yourself and not handing your Passport and $40 to the (very persuasive) man in the bus. We have also been advised that you should ask for a receipt and take down the name and number of the guard(s) on duty and tell them you will be reporting them to your country’s embassy. I appreciate, though, that this is easier said than done when you’re feeling flustered and intimidated. Good luck!
If you do get scammed then please do report it to your country’s embassies in Laos and Cambodia.