Overland border crossings into Cambodia or Laos must be the most corrupt ways of entering these countries. There have been scams reported left, right, and centre that when you enter these countries at one of the designated land borders (with Cambodia’s Poipet border with Thailand and the Laos/Cambodia border at Voeung Kam/Dom Kralor being the worst) you can be sure of paying more than you are supposed to pay.
My experience heading into Thailand at the Poipet/Aranyaprathet crossing was actually not too bad, though even to this day I still hear horror stories from other travellers about their negative experiences. Yet my border crossing at Voeung Kam into Cambodia still pisses me off just thinking about it! A lot of backpackers want to visit the Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands) area of southern Laos as a little ‘visa run’ while spending time in Cambodia. It is not always logical to travel through Laos north to south, so a journey from Siem Reap in northern Cambodia to Si Phan Don nestled low in Laos is a 12 hour bus ride that is increasingly popular, as you can mix in tropical riverine islands with the Temples of Angkor – and that is not a mix to be missed, if you’ve got the time to do it!
But as I found out, it’s not just about finding the time to cross the border at Voeung Kam/Dom Kralor…it’s about having the patience as well!
Coming from Si Phan Don on a tour bus back to Cambodia, you can be sure that the scams will start. Tour guides offer to get your Cambodian visa for you much cheaper than if you got it yourself, so you hand over your passport and money to them. When you get your visa back, you realise that it was actually $10-20 more expensive than it should have been. For Laos, Visa on Arrival is available for most nationalities at all land border crossings. This visa should cost $35 for everybody, and you need an entry stamp in your passport to validate your stay. Without the entry stamp, you could face imprisonment.
At the Voeung Kam immigration office at the Laos/Cambodia border, there are infamous accounts of corrupt staff who deliberately con tourists out of their money. One of the cons is to ask for an “entry fee” after they stamp your passports. Of course, these “entry fees” are not official policy and are actually illegal, but the staff at the border know they will get away with it. I know many travellers who flatly refuse to pay bribes at border crossings. In a way, I appreciate this stance, although I am not the same myself. If the border officials ask for an “entry fee” of $2 then I just pay it anyway. It is a nice thought to stand up for yourself but unless you want to get turned back (and potentially detained), then you HAVE TO PAY anyway.
When challenged about the legitimacy of the extra fees you have to pay, the immigration officials will pretend that they cannot understand your English, and perhaps get aggressive towards you – sometimes even closing the shutters to their ticket counter and going away for a cigarette, leaving you to stand there all alone. For Cambodia, a tourist visa (available at most border crossings including Dom Kralor) costs $30 and is valid for 30 days from the date of arrival.
It is a hard pill to swallow when you want to enjoy yourself in south east Asia and realise that customs officials are there to bribe you before you can enter their land. After all, without that “entry stamp fee” you won’t actually get a stamp in your passport, which means you are entering illegally (not that you could get past the border anyway). That’s why the corruption happens, as the officials at the border know we will pay. To us, it is just $2. For them, it is a nice little money-spinner…