Fishing boats at sunset in Koh Kong, Cambodia

Whether you need to leave and come back to activate a new visa entry or get a new visa-exemption, or you’re moving on to Cambodia, overland crossings out of Thailand can be a nightmare. Here’s a step-by-step guide to hopefully minimize the headache for you. For Koh Kong travel information, scroll down or click here to move to that section.

Getting from Trat to the Had Lek border

You’ll almost surely start the last leg of your journey to the border at the Trat bus station. The minibus to the border town of Had Lek departs from one of the last bays on the right, all the way in the back of the station. It is clearly marked, and the buses leave fairly regularly – every hour or so, but more often if they’re full. The fare is 120 baht.

The bus will drop you near the Thai immigration. It’s one straight road, just walk until the end, you can’t get lost. Departure is on the left side, arrivals across the road. The Thai immigration officers are always professional and courteous, and don’t try extorting you. If you have overstayed your Thai visa, you pay the 500 baht per day fine on the arrivals side of the road.

The border between Thailand and Cambodia at the sea

No man’s land between the two countries

Cambodian visa on arrival

There is a 100 meter long walk from Thai immigration to their Cambodian counterparts; I wish I could tell you everything is as easy on the other side, but that’s just not the case. You’ll walk around a gate they lift to let cars pass and you’ll see the immigration building on your left. The most direct way up (and out of the hot sun) is a ramp. Don’t take it. You’ll be greeted by an army of touts and a quarantine station that charges a fee for a piece of paper. It’s a total scam. Walk 5 meters further and go up the stairs with the flagpole at the bottom.

Get your Cambodian visa here, and get scammed in the process

Walk up the stairs in the middle to show the touts you’re not a complete amateur

If you bought an e-visa online in advance, skip the next steps and go straight to the arrivals window. You need to plan ahead 3 days for the e-visa, but it’s worth doing. It costs $7 extra but saves time, hassle, and a page in your passport. Apply here.

You skipped the ramp, well done, but you’ll still be approached by touts offering to help you and asking where you’re going next. I don’t find them to be terrible guys even though they’re trying to rip you off. Be friendly but firm and just say “no thank you”, and they’ll basically leave you alone. At the top of the stairs just to the right is a window with a sign over it that says Cambodia Visa Service. Open the tinted sliding glass window and ask for an application. Most likely a tout will hand you one and offer to fill it out for you. It’s quite simple to do on your own. When you’re done, open the door to that office and head inside. Give them your application, passport, passport photo, and the $30 US visa fee. The fee for not having a photo is around $3, or 100 baht.

The fee for a Cambodian tourist visa increased from $20 to $30 USD in October 2014. The border scams saw a corresponding price hike.

Here’s where things get interesting. The scams change all the time, but there’s sure to be one. Sometimes they’re only accepting Thai baht, even though you’re supposed to pay in US dollars. Lately they ask for 1500, when the $30 fee should be under 1000. They used to have the official prices posted so they’d have to run a currency change scam or make up non-existent fees, but they’ve since removed all signage entirely.

On this latest trip, they had a new game. They had a printout of a recent press release announcing that the online e-visa would have a fee increase. It is now $30 + a $7 processing fee. They’ve whited out the ‘e’ before e-visa and are presenting that as an official government document. This is pretty egregious; at that rate, they’re stealing thousands of dollars per day! It seems small, and personally I don’t mind so much parting with $7, but it’s where it goes that I have a problem with. Small businesses in Cambodia surely see less money as a result of this thieving at the border.

A scam that operates at Cambodian borders with the tacit approval of the immigration officials

Looks official huh? Don’t be fooled

In the past, I’ve politely told them that I know how much the fee should be, and gotten on with things pretty quickly. I’m always polite, keep a smile on my face and never get angry or insult them. This most recent time, after telling the officer that I knew the correct fee and that I could clearly see that they had whited out the ‘e’ on the e-visa press release, he literally threw my passport at me. I continued politely insisting, and they continued rudely declining.

They refused to direct me to a supervisor, and refused to tell me their names. Their shirts have name tags on them but they’re in Khmer script. One was wearing his but wouldn’t allow me to take a photo of it. The rest just sit around in their undershirts. After years living in Asia, I can sit and take abuse and keep a smile on my face, and I continued politely asking them to issue me a tourist visa to visit their country. I showed them the price on my previous visa. One of them started shoving his finger in my face, just a hand-length away. That was a bit of a shock. In retrospect, I don’t think he was angry, I think he was trying to provoke me.

After a few minutes of this, they told me I had to wait an hour. I continued politely asking for a visa, basically just annoying them but with a smile on my face. Then they cut it down to ten minutes, and kicked me out of the office. I waited three minutes, and went back in. Two other travelers were in there getting scammed and they told me I had to wait for them to finish. This was their final face saving gesture. A minute later they were processing mine, albeit unhappily. I probably waited 10 minutes longer than I would have if I’d just payed the bribe.

They’ll try their best to scam you and intimidate you. If you’re in a hurry, there’s not much you can do except pay. The last bus to Phnom Penh leaves at 1 pm. They know it, so they use that as leverage. In the end, as long as you keep your cool, you’ll get the visa for the correct price. The e-visa avoids that hassle and saves a little bit of time, but costs the same amount. It also saves a page in your passport, and doesn’t feed into the corruption (actually it probably does), but you need to plan a few days ahead, something I’m notoriously bad at.

Cambodian border scam in action

“You! Pay money now!”

Once you have the visa in your passport, go to the arrivals window and get an arrival/departure card. Fill it out, then give it to them at the window with your passport. Hold still for photo, press your fingerprints down on the greasy scanner, and you’ll be on your way. If you’re doing a quick in/out and heading back to Thailand the same day, move over to the departures window. There you’ll find one final scam, the ‘same day tax’. They’ll try to charge you 300 baht if you leave the day you arrived. This, again is bullshit, but by that point you probably won’t have much fight left in you. Better to stay a night in Koh Kong, it’s a nice enough town and that 300 baht will get you a decent room too.

Getting into Koh Kong

The touts at the border will ask where you’re going once you’ve got your stamp. Generally, a motorbike taxi for one person with a small bag should be $2-3, a tuk tuk for up to four people $7-8, one of four seats in a taxi (Toyota Camry) $3, or $10 for the whole car. The bridge toll should be included, but for a motorbike it may not be. It’s 1400 Cambodian riel – about $0.35. The touts will start the bidding for any transport at three to four times too high. These guys are fairly friendly, and unlike the corrupt border officials aren’t stealing thousands of dollars per day. They and their families are probably just scraping by, even on days when they really rip tourists off. By all means, get a fair price, but understand, that extra dollar means a lot more to them than it does to you.

The drive from the border town of Cham Yeam to Koh Kong town is around 10 km. If you don’t have a place booked, your driver can take you somewhere where he’ll get a commission. Make sure you’re not too far from the center of town. Fan rooms start at around $4 a night. The $10 fan room at Apex Hotel is a great deal with its pretty nice swimming pool. $15 gets you air-con there. Other hotels have air-con rooms starting at around $10. If you want to splurge, and especially if you’re going to gamble, the Koh Kong Resort near the border is the place to be.

Angkor beer in Koh Kong, Cambodia

After making it through immigration, you definitely earned a cold one of these!

Around town

There’s not all that much to do in the town proper. Take a stroll down to the river front in the evening, grab a seat, a cold beer or sugar cane juice, some grilled chicken, steamed crab or dried squid, and watch the world go by as the day finally cools down. I didn’t see much in the way of nightlife. There was a club on the big road a few blocks up and parallel to the riverfront. I would have taken a look if I was with someone, but didn’t feel like wandering in alone. And it was early so I don’t even know if there would have been people.

Tuk tuk and motorbike taxi drivers waiting at corners whisper about massage and ladies as you pass (if you’re a guy, of course), but I declined that one too. I had a few beers at an expat bar called Fat Sams, but just couldn’t bring myself to strike up a conversation with the old local transplants. The casino is one of the main draws for Thais to this area, but it’s at the border, and I’m more of a poker with friends player than a lose-to-the-house guy. I ended up calling it a night at 10:30.

I was heading back to Thailand the next day, but checking out a local tour operator made me seriously think about planning a week-long trip to Koh Kong province. It really seems like there’s a lot to do there. Trekking, camping and dirt bike riding in the Cardamom mountains, kayaking in one of Asia’s largest mangrove forests, rafting down rivers, a number of waterfalls, and some supposedly beautiful and hardly touched tropical islands that are a bit off the tourist track seem to be the highlights. With 2-4 people, these activities run $20-$30 per person, per day. $100 for dirt biking. The border has a zoo called Safari World, but it’s the typical Southeast Asian “zoo” where they torture animals until they do tricks for you, then throw them back in tiny cages. Avoid it.

Hopefully I’ll have some good stories to share from Koh Kong pretty soon. I’ll be back with a link here when I do! If you have any updates or stories from this border, or you do any cool activities in Koh Kong, please let me know in a comment below.