It is raining outside, heavily. Very heavily. We have done little really but travel for the last couple of days since leaving Bangkok, and now we are in Sihanoukville there is little to do because of the weather. So to say we are not having the best time is a bit of an understatement, and contemplation of an early return to Thailand has already crept in (though the weather is bad there too). But this is at least largely my own fault for not checking up on Cambodia’s weather patterns in closer detail before leaving Thailand. It is certainly not the reason why I still feel a niggling reluctance to spend money here and support the country; the same kind of reluctance I felt when I travelled to Siem Reap for the first time back in 2008.
I have done two previous land border crossings from Thailand to Cambodia at Aranyaprathet/Poi Pet so, while this was my first time through the Had Lek/Cham Yeam border near Koh Kong, I knew roughly what to expect by way of touts and scams. On reflection, I think Cham Yeam was better (or at least less worse) than Poi Pet, if only for the slightly fewer touts by number and the distinct lack of begging, arm-grabbing children following you through no-man’s-land. Yet it still amazes me that the problem of immigration scams and corruption is so endemic – that a country which can manage to successfully run an online e-visa service can’t manage to knock this severe problem on the head.
Cambodian visas on arrival should cost $20, but most people don’t get them for that. If I recall correctly, on that first trip to Siem Reap I got mine for $25, the $5 going into the immigration officer’s pocket. The onward journey to Siem Reap presented many more opportunities for the scammers to try to catch us out, but we at least felt like we managed to avoid most of them – as naive, first time travellers to Asia and having spent the previous four weeks sheltered on a tour of Thailand, who knows how much we were taken for a ride.
When I did a visa run last year, I clean forgot to bring any dollars with me, so I had already accepted that I would have to pay the common alternative rate of 1,000 Thai baht (at the time around £20, or $35-40, now closer to £25, or around $40). I ended up paying 1,200 baht; 1,000 of that went to the immigration officer, and 200 to the tout who ‘helped’ me to fill in the form I would have been perfectly capable of completing myself.
On Thursday I was asked to pay 1,200 baht for my visa on arrival at Cham Yeam. We had already been taken through the new quarantine area to be ‘checked’ for H1N1 swine flu. Quite how shining a torch in our eyes for a split second enabled the border guard to tell whether we had pig flu or not is beyond me, but we paid 20 baht each for the privilege anyway – no receipt, of course. I had again come without any dollars, so 1,200 was as much as I had mentally readied myself to part with for the visa itself (though my misunderstanding of their Thai gave me a fright for a second, when I thought they were asking for two thousand, instead of one thousand two hundred). I paid and mine was processed very quickly.
Then, along came the real stinger and the bit which has nagged at me since – my boyfriend is travelling with me and as a Thai citizen is entitled to 14 days’ visa-free entry to Cambodia under ASEAN immigration agreements; the same rules that mean travelling to Vietnam, Malaysia, Laos and elsewhere is relatively hassle-free for Thais (it certainly goes some way to make up for the stick they get in applying for visas for Europe and elsewhere). And yet here we were, being asked for 300 baht for him to be stamped into Cambodia! ‘Yes, the visa is free, but the stamp costs 300 baht’, pleaded the arrogant touts in response to my protests, trying to insist that there were new rules in place and that Cambodians going the other way suffered the same plight.
We sat for a while arguing about it, and I made it clear I knew what they were telling us was absolute rubbish, but ultimately we were getting nowhere and paid the fee. We got 800 baht change back from a 1,000 note, so were charged slightly less than they had claimed, but inevitably you are going to feel insulted and taken for a mug either way. To add insult to injury, these same touts then expected a tip afterwards (and made no bones about asking for one). If they thought they were getting one then they were mistaken. I am confident that they already got 200 of the 1,200 baht I paid for my visa, and that 1,000 is still what is being demanded by the corrupt immigration officials themselves. Even if they didn’t, as they were insisting, frankly that is their own lookout. I am the first to respect anyone who is simply out to try and make a living for themselves and their family: be honest to me, and I’ll help you achieve that – lie to me and you’re on your own.
I read an interesting perspective online this morning in someone’s account of their journey through a Cambodian border – she put forward that those of us who don’t actively take a stand against this corruption and refuse to pay the fees demanded are the ones keeping such a system alive; that if we’re not part of the solution, we are part of the problem. She is right, of course, and I wish that this time and in the past I had had the patience to sit it out; accounts are plentiful online of people who are strong willed enough to do just that, and get there in the end. All too often I lack this resolve, and give in far too quickly – partly also from a dislike of confrontational situations like these. But the experience of this crossing certainly make me more prepared to stop them from getting away with it again next time.
I also thought for a while that we had been ripped off for our taxi ride into Koh Kong city – we were told by a taxi driver that the 30B riverboat taxi had finished for the day (this was at about 5 or 6pm). Maybe it had, maybe it hadn’t. We paid 300B between us for a taxi ride to our chosen guest house; I have since read in one place online that it should not have cost more than 100B, though I am relieved to see another site quote 200-300B. Of course we also ignored the driver’s offers to drive us to Koh Rong (how he managed to get his car across the sea, I have no idea!) and then to book us tickets for the following day’s boat once we had turned that down, and finally to exchange our baht to riel. The desperate guy even jumped at my small talk about having some leftover Vietnamese dong in my wallet, from my trip there three years ago, and offered to exchange those too. In reality I have the equivalent of about £3 in Dong, but I told him I only had 500 Dong (about one and a half pence) and that he could keep it as a souvenir; anything to shut him up. With our agreement, this same taxi driver ended up accompanying us for the evening, having a drink with us at the guest house and taking us to a club; I distrusted him at the border, later trusted him more and then when he drove us home and under the influence of a few drinks started demanding more money, I realised my gut instinct had been right all along. But you live and learn.
There is no denying that travelling to a country with more of an off-the-beaten-track path has its own appeal, and perhaps a lack of enforcement of rules and regulations like this is just part and parcel of that. But there is a difference between having a rough-and-ready experience and being ripped off just for trying to support a country’s tourist economy; and until Cambodia sorts out its corruption and extortion issues, it will surely carry on putting off more tourists from coming.