Crossing Into Country 20

By Stephen Ewashkiw | April 6, 2014

12,477 km so far.

Countless blogs and travel articles have warned us of the dangers that abound when crossing from Thailand into Cambodia at the Poipet border crossing. I was preparing for a lawless frontier: people offering fake visas, kids with slippery fingers digging into our pockets, and marketeers trying to foist upon us all sorts of stuff we didn’t want to buy.

Basically, it was going to be like a less violent version of Tombstone, AZ circa 1880.

grave in cambodia

Posh grave in Aranyaprathet.

So with guns at the ready, we set off for the Thai-Cambodia border.

Where Have All The Scammers Gone?

The stories warn of myriad touts enticing you into their ‘official’ visa office, to expedite your visa. Apparently they will give you a fake visa which is then, naturally, useless at the border. The only time someone approached me was when we stopped to take a few photos. He asked me if we had our visas and, of course, I said yes (not true). He then went on his way, looking for another mark.

One of the advantages of cycling is that we move pretty quickly. It is hard to hassle us as we ride past. We see lots of people lugging backpacks, or worse yet, dragging a rolling suitcase along the rough roads. Maybe the sharks are more likely to attack these stragglers.

To us, all the hype about touts and scammers was just hot air.

Border Madness

The border area itself is truly remarkable. It is by far the most interesting and busiest border we’ve been to since we crossed overland from Syria to Turkey in 2006.

There were people pushing or pulling massive wooden carts lined with tarps. These tarps were filled with fish – live fish – in water. The fish fetch a higher price in Thailand, but the people selling them don’t own trucks or motorcycles. So they use human power to drag their precious cargo from one country to the other.

man pulling a huge cart at cambodian border

Trail of cart-pullers, Aranyaprathet.

Market stalls and food carts line both sides of the road, and there is a giant goods market right next to the border crossing. Cars, trucks, bicycles, and scooters form a moving sea of steel, while people on foot flow along beside and through the traffic.

We weaved through this madness, following the huge signs that say “To Border”. There is a spot where the traffic crosses mid-intersection in the border area, switching from left-hand to right-hand drive. Incredibly, it works quite well.

Checking out of Thailand took just a few minutes even though we had to go upstairs in an institutional building. We left our loaded bikes with a couple of border guards, crossing our fingers that they would be safe. Of course, they were.

Brave New World

There is a section between the Thai border and the Cambodian border which is a no-mans’ land regulation-wise. It is home to huge but rundown casinos and people selling all sorts of goods brought in from one side or t’other of the border.

After we crossed the great divide, the check-in to Cambodia couldn’t have been simpler. We had to provide a passport photo, fill out a perfunctory form, and pay 20 USD each, plus a small semi-official bribe of 100 Baht each.

We’ve read that some people argue about the bribe to avoid paying it. For us this doesn’t make any sense; our mantra in these situations is “don’t piss off the border guards”.

Even with the ‘tourist tax’, the entry into Cambodia cost half as much as our entry into Laos, and only took about 5 minutes.

Welcome to Cambodia!

Welcome to Cambodia!

Cambodia, in its current form, has only existed for 35 years. It’s a country in its infancy.

Old police car, Cambodia.

Old police car, Cambodia.

Things are still advancing, modernising, getting paved, being rebuilt. In short, it is dusty.

Bringing Green Back

While the Cambodia riel is the official Cambodian currency, the US dollar is the unofficial one, accepted and requested almost everywhere. So we have pulled our emergency US cash from the bottom of our bags and can finally put it to use.

The small convenience stores and markets we stop in normally use the riel, but they are used to taking greenbacks and giving change in riel. This mixing of the currencies also eliminates the need for coins. Riel essentially are the coins, at least to foreigners.

teenage girl in cambodia

Universal pre-teen look meaning “you are such a dork”.

It would have been totally easy for someone to short-change us today while we tried to figure out this crazy system, but no one did.

ATMs here spit out crisp Ben Franklins. Since nothing we buy costs more than a couple of bucks, this is a pretty useless denomination.

No one has 400,000 riel sitting around to give you in change.

Apparently most jewellers will also exchange money for you in Cambodia.

Apparently most jewellers will also exchange money for you in Cambodia.

We stayed in a small town only 50 km from the border, so haven’t seen much of Cambodia yet.

Tomorrow we have a 100 km+ ride to Siem Reap, so I expect we’ll have plenty of opportunity to see a few more villages and ride past many more of the skinniest cows we have ever seen.  

Want to see the route map? View it on Ride With GPS.


  1. Comment by Michael Moldofsky

    Michael Moldofsky April 9, 2014 at 11:00 pm

    I just think about the 4km line of trucks when crossing into nicaragua from costa rica. Sometimes flying is just better.

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane April 10, 2014 at 2:23 am

      I wouldn’t trade our experience at the Syrian border for all the fast flights in the world. I’ve never seen anything like it, and probably never will again. I am thankful we had a tour guide navigating the intricacies of that one though.

  2. Comment by Scot

    Scot April 9, 2014 at 10:44 am

    Totally agree with your comments about warnings about crime being generally overblown. We have sailed in places that a lot of people avoid, based just on rumors of high crime rates. Our experience has been that, assuming we use the same amount of common sense that we use at home to avoid being victims of crime, we haven’t had a problem. I guess for people that do run into crime, it is a huge deal, and becomes highly publicized. But I definitely don’t think concerns about crime should stop anyone from travelling. By far most people, everywhere we have been, seem to just be going about their daily lives, and not particularly interested in perpetrating crimes against travellers.

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane April 10, 2014 at 2:21 am

      We have found that almost everywhere we go, people in one country warn us about their neighbours. So the Chinese warn us about the Vietnamese, the Vietnamese warn us about Laotians, and so on. The fact is, the most dangerous country we’ve ever visited is the good ol’ US of A. But maybe I just think that because they’re Canada’s neighbours.

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