Visa runs are usually required because of some archaic law that requires foreigners to leave the county in order to get the proper visa, which allows them to return and work in the country they just left.
I recently changed jobs in Bangkok, and since there was a gap between when my old visa ran out and when I was to start my new position, I had to leave the country to get a new non-immigrant “B” visa so I could get a new work permit and continue to legally live in the land of smiles. I have previously made three visa runs to Penang, Malaysia, which involved a nearly 24-hour train ride each way. Now Penang isn’t the worst place to spend a couple of days, but since I’d already been there and done that and really didn’t have the time for a time consuming journey, I ruled out Penang as a destination. I have also previously done a visa run to Vientiane, Laos, which was an interesting trip but I thought, since I don’t have as many opportunities to travel these days as I used to, I might as well go someplace I have never been before and may not have the chance to see again. I chose to make this visa run to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
I only had a few days to make the trip, and I’m getting to the age where making long bus journeys over unpaved roads no longer seems very exotic, so I chose to fly. It is possible to make the overland journey for the more adventurous, or cost conscience, by traveling to Aranyaprathet, Thailand, crossing the border over to Poi pet, and traveling to Phnom Penh from there.
I flew on Bangkok Airways for a round trip cost of under $150; tickets are available at all travel agencies throughout Thailand. The actual flight took less time than it took to get through Bangkok traffic and go from my house to the airport. I didn’t bother getting a Cambodian visa before leaving Thailand since it is an easy affair to get a visa upon arrival in Phnom Penh for a fee of $20. The Phnom Penh airport is very small and to get your visa and passport stamped, your paperwork has to go through the “line.” The line consisted of six uniformed men each performing a single task. The first one would place the visa sticker in your passport, the second would look at it and then sign it, followed by a third who would check it to make sure it was correct. The other three did a similar procedure in order to give an arrival stamp in my passport.
A month previous, I did a border hop to Poi pet, since my visa had expired and this was cheaper than having to pay 200 Baht a day for a month’s overstay, so this was my second trip to Cambodia, if you want to count the 10 minutes I stayed in Poi pet. In Poi pet, the differences on the two sides of the border were extreme. Thailand may seem by western standards to be very poor, but the children in Thailand are clean, well fed, and have the opportunity to go to school for at the very least a few years. This is not the case in Poi pet where the visitor is greeted by poor, obviously undernourished children, amputee beggars, and other equally depressing sights next to a multitude of garishly decorated casinos where rich Thais can come and lose some money. After this first experience into Cambodia, I was expecting Phnom Penh to be a city where extreme poverty was rampant. But this was not really the case.
While there certainly is poverty, and some cases extreme poverty in Phnom Penh, the thing that most struck me was how normal life seemed to be. Most people seemed to have a place to go and things to do. While the pace of life is much slower than in Bangkok or New York, it didn’t appear (on the surface) to be very much different from a Thai provincial capitol.
Outside the airport I was told would be a multitude of motorcycle taxis to take me into town. But when I arrived in the evening, the only transportation that was available was a regular taxi with a standard fare of $7. There are number of guesthouses and hotels throughout the city with a variety of prices. There are a number of cheaper places down by the Tonle Sap River, which seems to be the center for western budget travelers. I ended up staying at a place called the Paris Hotel near the Central Market, which was clean, had very large rooms and about 60 channels on cable for $20 a night. Whether this is a good deal for Phnom Penn or not I can’t really say but I was satisfied. The hotel had a restaurant downstairs, a snooker room on the second floor, and a massage parlor on the third floor. I don’t play snooker so I stayed off the second floor.
I used motorcycle taxis to get around. There are regular taxis available, but they aren’t always easy to find, and bus service is extremely limited. I always paid a buck (US$ 1) for a trip; I’m sure old hands in the country pay less, but it seemed reasonable enough, and for that price the taxis would wait for you for the return trip. Interesting use of money, the US dollar was the most commonly used currency and the local currency, the Riel, was used as the ”change.” The exchange rate was roughly 4000 to the dollar, so a thousand Riel note was used as a quarter would be used in the states. It was weird for me to be an American who had to change Thai Baht into US Dollars to go to yet another country. A loaf of French bread or a glass, yes a glass not a cup, of coffee was 500 Riels or roughly 12 and a half cents, to give you some idea of prices. Unlike Thailand, they drive on the right in Cambodia, but since many of the cars are left hand drive seeing where you are going while driving seems to be more than a bit of a problem. Like in most SE Asian countries venturing out on to the roads is always an adventure. One very interesting thing I saw when I made a couple of trips around 11 kilometers outside of town was the use of homemade wagons where up to 20 people could sit attached to a common motorcycle as a crude bus service.
Getting my visa wasn’t much of a problem, dropped it off one day and picked it up the next. There was a delay, probably because I didn’t have one official document that was required but used a photocopy of a brochure instead, on the second day, and I had to wait around the Thai Embassy for the better part of an hour. While waiting I did watch a guy who made two cardinal mistakes of doing things in SE Asia and the difficulties he was encountering.
The guy, who was British, claimed to be a journalist for some obscure French organization and clearly his paperwork wasn’t exactly in order. First mistake, he showed up wearing the typical backpacker’s uniform of shabby looking worn-out clothes with lots of pockets, and he needed to borrow a pen to fill out the application form. (A journalist without a pen?) Now, showing up claiming to be a journalist looking like this may impress on Khao San Rd. (the center for backpackers in Bangkok) but it surely will not help your cause when dealing with an individual who comes from a country where journalists wear suits and ties. When dealing with SE Asian bureaucrats leave the torn jeans, bandannas and tie-dyed T-shirts at the guesthouse.
Second, he told the clerk that the clerk was wrong and demanded to see the Consulate General. The clerk smugly agreed, and refused to further discuss the matter with him and said that the Consulate General would see him, when she (The Consulate General) found the time to talk to him. My guess is that wouldn’t be until after it was too late to get your application in for th
e day, but I didn’t wait around to find out. Don’t lose your cool and make demands. No one likes confrontation, but it is especially disliked in SE Asia. Dress respectably and avoid raising your voice when dealing with bureaucrats, especially if your paperwork is a bit dodgy.
Food there was ok, but didn’t see a McDonald's or any other western chain restaurants. Some of the guesthouses supply good western food at affordable prices, and there are a number of Khmer restaurants, also. The Khmer people are very friendly and don’t worry, you can always just point at things that look good. There was a fast-food type place there called lucky burger, it was ok and the prices were low but it’s only for real fast-food addicts who need their fix.
There are not a great variety of typical tourist attractions. I did go to the national museum, which is worth an hour of two of your time, as is the Royal Palace. I decided not to visit the “attractions” associated with the Khmer Rouge regime; I didn’t want to spend my few days there looking over morbid sights. The Khmer people seem to have for the most part put that part of their history behind them and are now getting on with their lives.
I decided to check out the nightlife, and some of the places where a lonely traveler can find some companionship, strictly for research purposes mind you. Sharkey’s Bar was an interesting place where a traveler can find a variety of ways to quench a thirst while playing some pool or chatting with individuals from a multitude of nations. Strange thing, there seems to be an unusually large number of Khmer or Vietnamese women that appear to be very friendly to the weary traveler. Martini’s Disco is another interesting place, but I didn’t see a lot of dancing going on there, and many of the ladies would have been way too young to get into an American disco. For the most part I found Cambodia to be a fairly normally place with isolated pockets of outlandish decadence.
One of my favorite things to do in a new place is to take long walks without really having a plan on seeing anything in particular, and I often did this in Phnom Penh. This was a great way to see how the average citizen of Phnom Penh lives. However the Khmer people think this is crazy. Why, do they ask, would anyone with money in their pocket choose to walk in the heat when they can ride a taxi or motorcycle to get where they want to go? So every motorcycle taxi, and there are countless numbers of them, has to stop and ask if you need a ride. One of the joys of taking a walk is to have some time to think while getting a bit of exercise, but this constant appeal for use of their services by the motorcycle taxis makes continuing any train of thought for over a few moments next to impossible which is a bit annoying. I never felt unsafe during my time there.
The biggest problem the country has is obviously a lack of jobs, but there sure isn’t a lack of NGO officials driving around in Land Cruisers. I wish I had the Land Cruiser dealership there. The country would be better off if all the NGOs sold off all their Land Cruisers and used the money to open factories that would actually employ some common people. Investors with the resources for some foreign direct investment could do some serious good for the people and would be most welcome.
All in all it was a successful visa run, I got the visa with a minimum of hassle, I went someplace new, meet interesting people, saw new things, didn’t spend too much and basically enjoyed myself. If you have to make a visa run, or happening to be visiting SE Asia, you should consider making a short trip to Cambodia.
Scott A. Hipsher is an English teacher in Bangkok Thailand. Scott is an Escape from America Magazine contributor submitting articles on overseas education and teaching abroad. He earned his BS degree from the University of Maryland (Asian Division, Sasebo Japan) and his MBA from Bangkok University.
Do you have questions? Visit our forum