It’s time to renew my visa. Although I have a one year business visa, I have to renew it every 90 days by leaving and returning to the country. After previously visiting Myanmar, I’m travelling to Aranyaprathet in Eastern Thailand. Here I’ll tackle the notorious Poipet border crossing in Cambodia
Aranyaprathet has a strong military presence today
Aranyaprathet is about a five hour drive from Ayutthaya and I arrive at dusk.
After booking what looked to be a half decent hotel online I arrived just after dark to find the immediate area was ringed with soldiers and police who waved me through two road blocks.
On checking in, I asked why the large military presence and I’m told that tomorrow the Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and his entourage will be meeting with their Thai counterparts in the hotel to try and negotiate a solution to the current border dispute between the two countries.
All the fellow guests are diplomats and senior army and police officers and it’s becoming apparent that I’m the only foreigner staying there.
Ties between Cambodia and Thailand had been strained since a border conflict broke over land surrounding the 11th century temple, Preah Vihear, after it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site at Cambodia’s insistence.
The temple is owned by Cambodia but the territory around it, including the lead up to the most accessible gate, is in Thailand. The Thai-Cambodian border has long been a matter of dispute and maps used by Thailand and Cambodia to stake their claims have a shady history.
Peace negotiations sound interesting
The security in the hotel are happy for me to take a look at the conference room where the next day’s negotiations are going to take place and it is very formal and quite impressive.
At dinner the restaurant is full of senior officers from both sides and I’m invited to join in their delicious banquet which is followed by entertainment from Thai singers and dancers. It was a great evening.
Border crossing time
Next morning after an early breakfast with my new military friends, I drive down to the border about six kilometres away.
This is the most commonly used overland crossing into Cambodia from Thailand and I’ve been warned that it has of some of the world’s great border scams. It’s major local industry that includes local police who will look away and won’t be of help. Some of the more common scams I was warned about were:
- A tuk-tuk driver who offers to take you to a different visa office that has quicker and cheaper visas.
- Fake “Visa Offices” located at the border itself.
- An approach by an “Official” in your hotel foyer who “works for Thai Immigration” and will manage all your visa arrangements for you.
- If you arrive by train or bus you may be told to catch an ‘official’ Government Border Bus to take you to the ‘official’ building where your Cambodian visa will be issued.
- You’ll need a passport photo so you may be offered a cheap and quick “photo and visa shop” where you can do both and costs a lot.
I am determined not fall for any of these tricks and I fend off several potential “fixers” while I am waiting at the official Thai Immigration building at seven am.
Crossing the border
My passport is stamped and within a few minutes I am wandering across a no-mans-land littered with rubbish to the Cambodian side.
Coming in the opposite direction are hundreds of poor Khmer traders pulling and pushing hand carts loaded with merchandise to sell in the Thai border market.
At the Cambodian immigration office I pay for my official visa. Although the sign says 1,000 baht, when I hand it over the unsmiling official demands US$20 for the visa. I decline and the window slams shut. After a few minutes I meekly tap on the glass and wave a crisp US20 note. The window opens.
Armed with my new Cambodian one month visa, I wander out onto the street in Poipet. I’m in Cambodia.
Wealth and poverty side by side
Poverty and squalor alongside wealth and opulence came to mind. I’m struck by the number of people who are missing limbs, mainly legs, from the landmines that still cover the country.
Poipet is to me a depressing place. There may be things to do there but I’m not going to stick around too long to find out.
Standing tall in the dirt surrounded by filth and poverty are seven casinos. There are no casinos in Thailand so every day dozens of busloads of Thai gamblers arrive from Bangkok to spend their money on the gaming tables.
I walk into the nearest casino to get breakfast, spend a profitable ten minutes on the tables, call at the duty free shop and within an hour i’m exiting Cambodia and I’m back in Thailand.
This market is huge
My car is parked near the Rong Kluea market – the biggest border market in Thailand with 2,000 shops (you can hire a golf cart or motorbike to get around them all. Or walk). Time to have a look around.
It’s all there. Knockoff designer handbags and accessories, brand label jeans and clothing, brand name sports shoes and trainers. Top brand luxury watches, pirated DVDs, fake electronics and IT equipment, faux perfumes and colognes, dodgy car and motor bike accessories. Cheap cigarettes. Lots of them.
The stock mainly comes from Cambodia and includes second hand donated clothing from countries like the USA, Japan and Korea.I’m interested to see one shop with about 20 sewers repairing hundreds of pairs of second hand designer jeans.
Many of the buyers at the market are shop owners from regional Thai cities and towns who are buying merchandise to take back for resale.
Aranyaprathet town centre
I wander around the market and picked up a few things I need, and a few things I don’t. By now it is getting hot and crowded so I drive away from the border back to the Aranyaprathet town centre.
This an interesting little town with a clock tower in the middle. It can be easily walked around. The people are a mix of Thai, Khmer and Vietnamese (I’m enjoying an excellent Vietnamese lunch for 30 baht)
I arrive back to the hotel in the early afternoon.
Meantime, back at the negotiating table
By now the negotiations are in full swing and there are more than 500 soldiers and police. There’s an armoured personnel carrier with a cannon mounted on top and a few Humvees surrounding the hotel.
There’s an interesting collection of guns – big and small and one group of soldiers have bayonets attached to their rifles.
The soldiers l seem happy to see me again and I take a few quick photos. One group invite me to sit in one of their Humvee’s whilst they proudly point out its capabilities (in Thai).
The Cambodians have a small military force there who are quite shy but just as friendly.
The talks break up about 5pm and shortly after, a couple of noisy helicopters land nearby to collect the VIPs. After they depart, the military leave also, apparently with nothing being resolved.
It has been an interesting day and the hotel is very quiet that night.
The next morning I’m driving home and already planning where to go for my next visa run.