Cambodia: Poipet Border Crossing

First impression via point of entry is a curious introduction to a country. Express arrival through sterile gateways is had at the airport, with greeting that is composed and targeted. Would you like a Starbucks au lait, a shuttle to our white beach resorts, wine and dine at our five star establishments. How modern we are, let us show you (can you tell what parts of the world my travels take me to). The overland route goes through back doors, where a country is less prepared to receive guests, exposing social ills and systemic inadequacies, or perhaps better displaying an old world charm and raw beauty. Given time and energy, I attempt this passage.

And then there was Poipet.

The train ride from Bangkok to the border town of Aranyaprathet was uneventfully peaceful. With the tropical landscape rushing past my window, it was a tranquil start to the two-day journey. There I was able to hitch a ride to the border aboard a tour bus en route to Siem Riep and the premier destination in Cambodia, Angkor Wat. After the usual song and dance with immigration officials I crossed into Poipet and the Khmer Kingdom. (Overland border crossing is just the most paranoic encounter for me. The worst I expect is a fee scam. But what if they deny me entry? Or worse, confiscate my passport, my one internationally recognized proof of existence?).

And here it had to happen, a vicious assault of the worst kind. I was in a cafe with my adopted tour group pondering absently at the ache in my joints. Eight hours on an unpadded wooden seat can wreak havoc on the most tolerant constitution, more so for taller Westerners with less wiggle room for long legs. I always wonder what can pierce the everlasting good spirits of my 6’7″ husband and imagining Keith with me in those moments makes my heart smile.

Through this reverie a soft papery fluttering, too late, caught my attention. WELCOME to Kampuchea, prime real estate for the ubiquitous cockroach population of the large kind, equipped with the unfortunate mechanism of flight. The foul creature that fixated on me crawled for refuge down the front of my shirt as I flew into a fit. The next few moments were a blur until I snapped to sense and stopped, and found myself standing smack middle of upturned chairs, table, and parted crowd. A dirty little Khmer boy scampered after the creature, caught the lunch escapee in one hand, and dumped it into the fryer at the front of the cafe. Lordy if this isn’t a sign.

For my bright and cheery outlook on travel, I cannot find one good thing to say about that abominable hellhole this side of the planet. Poipet is a crossing point that opened to foreigners in 1998, and it instantly built up around the opportunities that presented. It’s described as a Wild West town, and the lawless atmosphere this implies is not exaggeration. Children cling to your sleeve and pursue handouts en masse, then kick your backpack as you walk away. Motorbike drivers crisscross insistently in front of you, undeterred by NO in Thai, Khmer, English. A growing mafia with the singular objective of scamming a deal aggressively harass travelers and are outright belligerent when refused. . . . And that is the tamer part of the scenario. Where normally I’d push positively onward, in this town my optimism reduced to irritation then alarm as darkness approached. I was actually disappointed to the brink of tears to see the last foreigner leave for Siem Riep and was tempted to talk my way again onto one of their groups.

I wanted OUT of Poipet ASAP, but the next means out to the part of the country I was bound for did not leave until morning. In my years of living in Harlem or traveling new cities, I’d never felt my sixth sense buzzing, not to be ignored, even in the dead of night, like it did in Poipet in broad daylight. I bought my bus ticket, hurried to my room, jammed the nightstand against the door, and rearranged the layout to maximize my advantage in case of intrusion. I lined up what belongings I could use as a weapon on the bed, near reach. It’s the kind of place where you keep your clothes on and sleep alert with your hand wrapped around a sharp object ready to spring the commotion rather than wait for it to happen to you. I am forever thankful to a new pal who kept calling/texting to check on me, offering to pay my taxi back to Bangkok should I decide to return “home”. He rescued my sanity that day and night. {{{You’re the bestest, Nirmal–yet again!}}}

The sun awoke over Kampuchea with the brightest crimson glare, and I concurred most crossly. I found to my complete disgust at the BUS station that I was traveling via PICKUP truck. While it is not uncommon hereabouts, balancing precariously on the sides of the flatbed is a recipe for pain. Besides that I was the only female of fourteen riders none of whom could I communicate with, and besides THAT it is a dusty nine-hour ride to Phnom Penh, which is WHY I wanted a BUS, with MANY people, PADDED seats, and AIR CONDITIONING. Of course that ticket man was nowhere to be found at 6am. So while waiting to leave, all manner of Poipet’s biting insects descended on me. Expletives I never knew I had in arsenal erupted to surface and hawkers converged when it registered that I wasn’t Thai or Khmer. Finally, half an hour past the appointed departure time we left. On the way out we passed a row of thatched-roof abodes that might’ve passed for the cutest stilt houses were it not for the fact that they were IN Poipet. Do you know they even had the NERVE to erect a sign entreating travelers to Please Come Again– lousy filthy &%$@! {{{fists in air}}}.

NOTHING in the Khmer countryside was alluring; it was barren and lifeless with an occasional lone coconut or palm in the distance, even the jagged rocky excuses for elevations looked wasted. The roads were in HORRIBLE condition, with massive craters the size of small Pacific islands marring our path so the truck drove a swerving tango, rattling my senses ad infinitum. On the flatbed were sacks of pineapples, and when I fell on one from a jolt of exuberant driving across a series of chasms I nearly flipped myself over the edge in haste to avoid impaled death by pineapple. In the middle of a rickety one-lane bridge as I erred in apprehension over a cheery gust of wind, our driver stopped, got out, and rearranged an UNBOLTED plank of steel to cover a gaping hole that an entire vehicle can plunge through to the muddy waters not a very near distance below. Finally I had it, anything was better than this. So I got off at the side of the road and flagged down the next runt of transportation that chugged along, where I squeezed between a pregnant lady who needed all the space she could hog, and her sack of durian and jackfruit (another spiky stinky blob of a fruit straight out of a science fiction scene). Unbelievable. Reality just sucked at that point so I forced a nap.

First impressions indeed–I am now here, in this broken country with a tragic recent past, I’m getting a new cellular number, I’m searching for a new address.

By the way, for those of you in touch with my parents, I appreciate not a word of these scenarios coming around their way! While I love them dearly enough, the wildest adventure of a paper cut sends them reeling into a doting frenzy, so my placid Tales of Asia back home are benignly uneventful, which pleases them. I’d rather not shatter their notion of my posh care and accommodation with a college friend in Bangkok whom they’ve come to know and trust. {{I shudder the thought if they knew the truth about you, Doualy!}}


  1. Poipet is hard to describe to anyone who has not been there. The people are truly desperate, and scams are rife. I have been through there to Siem Reap twice. First time in 2007 it was an adventure, exciting and for that reason fun. Late last year it was getting scary. The taxi mafia really needs to be dealt with to not scare too many tourists from visiting this wonderful country. I can only advise anyone entering this way to research what the scams are. I used and found this a great resource. Happy travels!

  2. Phnom Penh, Cambodia says

    How do you edit your own posts?! grr.

    Sadly, going beyond initial exposure to the desperation in Poipet is a luxury in time most people passing through don’t have. Good luck with your work…

  3. Anonymous says

    Poipet is full of absolute and utter beauty, not in the garbage and not in the stench of the air, but in the people. If you look past the few rude men at the border crossing, the women and children especially are the most gentle and caring people I’ve ever met. I was in Poipet for 2 weeks living in a church and working in a variety of villages and an orphanage. It was 2 of the best weeks of my life! I was inspired to see beauty in even the seemingly ugly. If you get to know the Cambodians, you will find that they are so sweet and just looking for hope in their suffering. Alot of people in Poipet are so poor in money, but so wealthy in family, faith, and the things that really matter. I challenge anyone who travels to a place like this to look past the garbage, to the people. And go deeper.

  4. Ha! Your description of the journey brings it all back fresh in my mind. Thanks for the reminder, it’s been quite a while since being in Poipet. Phnom penh is my home for the time being. Thanks again! Will

  5. Anonymous says

    I went to Poi Pet and Seim Reap (Thialand Defeated) in April 2005 and had a wonderful time. I hired a private car from Poi Pet to Seim Reap for 15 dollars and took one of those pickup trucks with about 15 people for the return trip. The people were freindly and helpful and I had no problems. It is a third world country and should be enjoyed as one. It is not like America and thats why it is excitement and adventure to visit.

  6. Macapuno Rising says

    It doesn’t get better with subsequent visits unfortunately!! I went again with my husband, it’s in a June or July entry, and we almost got kidnapped!!

  7. I have just read and enjoyed your letter re Poipet,which must be really be hell on earth, and the road(?) to Siem Reap.
    As young-at-heart, but not so young in body backpackers my husband & I have just returned from surviving that trip and I whole-heartedly agree with your sentiments. At least your driver moved the plate back. Our bridge just collapsed under us! Happy travelling.


  1. […] I just didn’t think I could handle that! The road to Poipet border crossing has much improved since I’ve been through it last, but decreasing the number of uncertainties while I’m heavily pregnant is a good […]

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