I often travel around Cambodia – of course, by bus. Don’t forget, I am a frugal traveler. Apart from my trips for my researches, I also have to go to border areas like every month basically just for the visa run. Since I had no knowledge about Cambodia’ Business Visa, I came into the Kingdom with a Tourist Visa which requires me to get a new visa every month. The Business Visa type can be extended inside the country and the process is not more complicated. There are agencies inside the country which can normally help you change ‘visa class’ from Tourist Visa to Business Visa without requiring you to leave the country. However, for other citizens, the service fee is ‘ok’. But being a Burmese citizen, the fees the agencies charge are very pricey. For that, I have no idea how come the price of being Burmese is higher.
The brighter side of this situation is that I have the sound reason to travel every month. You may think it sounds rather silly me required to travel every month since everyone can get an easy Business Visa. The total expenses for several trips to the borders and new visa fees for several times are still cheaper than the fee agencies asked for getting me a Business Visa. You see, in my own calculations, I am not that dumb. After two months in Cambodia, I have been crossing the borders into Vietnam and Thailand.
My second visa run trip was to Hat Lek, the southern Thai border town located on the southern coastal line shared with Cambodia. This time, I attained a business visa and it is good for me to remain inside the country until I leave the Kingdom. It means no more visa runs. I have already missed my trips to the borders- bus rides along beautiful rural areas of Cambodia, spectacular views of mountains and coastal lines along Hat Lek and Koh Kong area, and factoryies along the high way from the border to Ho Chi Minh city, unique and very delicious foods I can get only at the border towns, and especially, people I interact with all along the trips. Those experiences are such incredible ones for me.
I usually checked on the internet for the places nice to hang out, budget/low costs accommodations, transportations, and general conditions of the border areas I was about to visit. I did before I went to Hat Lek/Cham Yeam border crossing. As I went through the comments of the previous travelers’s blog posts and travel websites, one of the complaints most of them have about that border checkpoint is cheating behavior of the English speaking taxi drivers/touts/helpers. Some of them grabbed passports or backpacks but demanded tips/ more money to return them. Many on-line comments seriously warn not to get engaged with any helpers or taxi drivers. One travel site reads “Do not get engaged with the taxi drivers/touts/helpers. They can grab your passport at every stage of the process and demand a “tip” You don’t need to show them anything.”
The travel tips are right. Those annoying helpers/moto drivers were still around. I was filling up the forms while putting my passport under my arms and putting my backpack between my knees. They stand next to me and put their pen into my hand. Even though I politely refused and ignored them, they will still spell it out all the questions, as if I could not read in English, and as if they knew all my personal information better than I do. And, they were still trying to get my passport out of under my arms – as they said was, because they want to see how a Burmese passport looks like, and they also want to see my return bus tickets, as they claim is to check for me if it is the right bus. They forcefully try to get on my way and offered all different kinds of help I did not require at all. Even though I rejected all their offers, I was not surprised I was asked to pay for ‘tips’. Their blackmail attempt to this becoming “experienced cross countries traveler” faced an absolute failure.
Another complaint most of the travelers reported about is the extra visa fees the Cambodian/Thailand immigration officers asked at the border. Things get improved since a few years ago, however, some of the old corrupted aptitude still remained unchanged – the immigration officers are still charging, not a large amount of money, but like $ 5-10 extra. As I told before, Cambodia gives an easy on-arrival visa to everyone. The official visa fees are $ 20 for a Tourist visa, and for the Business visa, $ 25. But, it is true only at the international airports.
At the border, a lady officer from the group “resting” at the immigration office room told me with a lower voice than their usual tone, “Tourist visa? It will be $ 25. Aww, Business Visa? We can get it for you but you will have to pay $ 30. Alright?” And then, the visa was issued within five minutes. This self-proclaimed experienced traveler may win in the fights against the street burglaries, but not by the burglary of the State.
I have a general knowledge that Cambodia is one of the countries that the pay for civil servants is relatively low. But, when I saw all of the immigration officers (including the gentlemen officers) hanging (real) gold chains, as thick and heavy as dog’s chain, around their necks, and heavily piled other jewelries like every visible places of their body, regardless of my initial knowledge, I have no wonder they pay for them. (Because I never feel I do not have the answer to the question – why Prime Minister Hun Seng and all Cambodian high-ranking officials have many gated mansions like every where and all other lucrative properties much more than they could afford with their annual salaries.) Like many countries, corruption has been widespread in Cambodia and all the government middle and high ranking officials have been well off with the dirty money.
To avoid paying extra in the future, you are encouraged to claim/report to the ministry when you arrive in Phnom Penh. And, we can expect they would do some follow-up punishments and fix it one day. However, even they did, please do not take too much merit yourself from that. I am afraid of that I do not have a better suggesting than that for now because this single situation you encounter at a border check point is neither the root nor the end point of the whole corrupted system. At least, having less corruption is better, huh? So, for the sake of ethical reason, I reported about their corruption.
However, compared to many other immigration officers in other South East Asian countries I have met, many Cambodian officers are more decent in many ways – all the immigration officers I met in Cambodia are helpful to me and often smile broadly to me even if they do not understand well with what other tourists or I said to them – the manner you could not expect in many other countries. I won’t mind to take another trip to such so beautiful border towns.
On my way back to my country, I will take bus again from Phnom Penh to Bangkok through another Cambodia border checkpoint, Poitpet.