It’s pretty well established that crossing overland into Cambodia is asking to get ripped off. Whether it’s bogus visa sellers, fake quarantine tents, artificially elevated transport prices or corrupt officials, somebody’s getting more cash than they should. I remembered that Rob and I had a little trouble last year when we took the Ban Pakard/Prum crossing, but I thought that was because we idiotically didn’t have the correct change. This time I was ready.
I’ve returned to Cambodia to catch a few durian details I missed last year. When my friend Durian Darrick decided to make a visa run to the border, I tagged along. Not only is Darrick a great partner in durian crime, but I felt that with a male team member we’d be sure to pass through the border unscathed.
To get to Hat Lek, you have to take a minibus from Trat. It takes about an hour and a half for the 120 baht ride, one that we almost missed. Just before boarding the bus Darrick realized he needed just a bite of the durian he was carrying concealed in his backpack. The moment the bag opened, the ticket man’s nose wrinkled. “Thurian,” I heard him saying disgustedly to the driver. When he spotted Darrick approaching the open van door with a golden pod in hand, the driver just about threw a fit. Darrick began eating the durian as fast as possible as the driver revved the engine and slammed the doors shut. At the last possible moment, Darrick jumped in as the van started to pull away, leaving a few golden pods of Nockyib in the trash.
That tantalizing taste awakened my appetite. When we arrived in Hat Lek I was hungry and ready for lunch, preferably durian. As the van approached the border I spotted it – a truck of it. Nearby a woman and a dog lounged next to another pile. We walked back along the row of shops and touts for money exchange to find some very decent looking Chanee and Kradum.
While I selected a Chanee, Darrick found the perfect picnic spot. It’s always such a luxury to eat durian on the beach. Who would have expected durian and a beach at a border crossing? I felt very content, like so far this attempt at the Cambodian border was going exceedingly well.
Reality hit the moment the Thai official stamped me out of Thailand. I’d read about the fake Quarantine stop, but it still took me by surprise. A woman in a white and blue uniform sat at a table beneath a yellow tent with the words QUARANTINE stamped across the front in green letters. I eyed it warily as I stepped up to the checkpoint while a young man moved in. “Miss, Miss,” he insisted, tugging me toward the tent. “Cambodia government requirement…” I told him no politely, but he wouldn’t stop insisting, pointing out that the woman in uniform was a government official.
Feeling nervous, I sidled up to another blonde tourist and asked her if we needed to do the Quarantine thing. “No, don’t do it!” she said. Her vehemence made the Quarantine man back off and I was assaulted by the next “helper,” who led me to the Visa On Arrival station. I smiled at the official and calmly handed him my passport, passport photo, application, and $20 USD.
Without meeting my eyes, the official refused my $20, asking for 1,000 Thai baht. I told him I’d been to Cambodia before and I knew the cost of a Visa-on-Arrival was $20. To my utter shock and horror, he threw my passport at me and slammed the window closed.
|Darrick judges a durian at the market in Koh Kong|
I didn’t know what to do. So I pushed the window open and held out my bill again. “One-thousand baht!” he demanded. I told him I didn’t have baht, just dollars. He demanded $25. When I refused, saying that on the Cambodia government website it said $20, he slammed the window closed again, this time locking it. I was befuddled.
I spoke to the blonde girl again, and she said when she arrived in Phnomh Penh she paid $20 for the visa. I was fuming. That’s when Darrick gently pointed out that there wasn’t much we could do besides turn around and go back to Thailand. The corrupt official had us, and he knew it. So grudgingly I dug out an extra $5 and waved the two bills through the locked window at the official. He opened the window without a word and 30 seconds later I had my Cambodian Visa. I was frustrated, but it could have been worse.
The next step was getting to Koh Kong, 10 kilometers from the border. The taxi drivers had gathered like flies while I argued with the official, tugging at my attention even while I was still waggling my $20 at the window. “Miss, Miss, where you go? Taxi miss…”
The lie among the taxi drivers was that there was a bridge toll of 120 baht on the way to Koh Kong. I was highly skeptical, but couldn’t find anyone with a different story. Finally we settled on a driver who agreed to take us for the low, low price of 100 baht each as he was on his way home anyway. I didn’t believe him either.
By the way, the bridge toll was really 5,800 riel, or 43 Thai baht. Called it!
With some relief I dropped my stuff at the first guesthouse we came to in Koh Kong and headed to the market. The market was crowded with women peddling mangoes and sugarcane juice, but we spotted them first thing – five small brown durians just starting to split. Our first Cambodian durian of the year! It was a little bit overripe, but the texture was soupy perfection.