Cambodia and Laos border scams

Cambodia, Laos

Cambodian “Quarantine” scammers in action at the border

Cambodia is well-known with backpackers for the scams on its borders. Here’s a quick write-up about my latest experiences of crossing three Cambodian borders.


The Veun Kham/Dom Kralor border from southern Laos to north-east Cambodia:

I book a bus to cross the border from southern Laos to northern Cambodia, and a small mini-bus picks me up from a tiny village close to Champasak, where I am staying. The bus has about ten other backpackers in it, all coming from 4,000 Islands. When we arrive at the border, we walk up to the Laos departure booth. There’s three women from Argentina waiting, looking pissed off. They have been told that their bus has already left without them (they have bought a ticket to Phnom Penh) and that they must pay for a new bus ticket (scam number 1).

The women are refusing to pay the unofficial $2 departure ‘fee’ (scam number 2), which they say they have witnessed going straight into the Laos border guards’ top pockets. They say that they want a receipt if they pay the $2, and the guard simply hands them their passports back without stamping their visas. They can’t exit Laos without the stamp. They wait for about twenty minutes and try to encourage other backpackers not to pay the fee. However, at the same time, someone (apparently a worker on the bus which will take us from the Laos border to our Cambodian destinations) is putting pressure on us all. “Hurry up and pay the $2. If you don’t come quickly you will miss the bus.” Everyone, including the Argentinian women, ends up paying the Laos guards. I wonder just how much money they must be pocketing on a daily basis.

When we cross the border and exit Laos, we are then told to go to a quarantine desk (scam number 3). We are told to fill in a health form and then our temperatures are checked, and then we are expected to pay $1 each, supposedly in the name of treating malaria!! I moan at the other westerners. “We shouldn’t be paying this. It’s a scam,” I say, but I can’t be 100% sure. Again, everyone pays the $1 fee.

We pay for our Cambodia visa (don’t pay in Kip like I did. Pay in dollars as it’s much cheaper. Also, you will pay another fine if you don’t have a passport photo with you).

When we enter Cambodia, there’s forty annoyed and tired western backpackers waiting in the cafe for us at the border. They left 4,000 Islands early that morning, and have been waiting one and a half hours for us.

Some backpackers tell me that they are are upset because when they reached the Laos-Cambodia border, their bus driver collected the westerners’ passports, saying that he would get their Cambodia visa himself and that it would work out cheaper for everyone (scam number 4). In fact, it would have been cheaper if they had just got out of the bus and done it themselves.

Some other tourists are annoyed because they were told in Laos that it would work out much cheaper to buy a bus ticket to the border, and then a new bus ticket from the border to Phnom Penh (scam number 5). In fact, they end up paying much more than the people who bought one ticket from 4,000 Islands in Laos to Phnom Penh in Cambodia.

Some people end up falling for all of these scams and end up paying quite a lot extra money.

We’re all packed onto a bus with taped-up windows and we travel onwards into Cambodia. It becomes quickly apparent that our bus is definitely not fit to travel on the muddy road from the border, and we travel at about 10mph as our bus throws us from side to side as it dips into the huge holes in the road.

The bus worker then tells us that some people in 4,000 Islands were not charged enough for their bus tickets to Phnom Penh and that they would have to pay a massive $50 extra to switch to a faster bus and arrive in Phnom Penh that evening (scam number 6). Someone complains loudly at the man: “This is no way to treat customers! You’re creating a bad image of Cambodia!”

When we arrive in Stung Treng (the first big Cambodian town after the border) we are all told to get out of the bus and we are then transferred into three different mini buses. I get out of my bus at about 7pm at my destination of Kratie, and feel sorry for the other travellers who are continuing to Phnom Penh and who will arrive at about 1am (after being told that they would arrive in the early evening!). I don’t know whether they end up paying the $50 extra for their bus journey.

So, the lesson to be learnt is: don’t let someone get your visa for you. Do it yourself, even if they insist that you will save money. Don’t pay the quarantine fee: it’s a con. And don’t trust the bus drivers in Cambodia at all! (I write more about the quarantine scam and dodgy bus drivers further down this post!)

On our bus from the border Laos-Cambodia border

On our bus from the border Laos-Cambodia border

The Bavet/Moc Bai border between Vietnam and Cambodia:

I travel from Saigon to Phnom Penh and decide to use the Mekong Express bus company. The workers are really friendly, except for one thing: with big smiles on their faces, they lie about the cost of the visa at the border.

“The visa has increased. It’s now $35,” the smiley woman says to the tourists (scam number 1).
“I think that it’s $30, actually,” I reply.
“The cost of the visa increased last week.”
“Yes, but it increased to $30.”
“If you use the express service it’s $35,”
the woman tells me.

By “express service” she means that the bus company will collect all of the passports and take them to the booth for you. It’s definitely no more “express” than doing it yourself.

What annoys me about Mekong Express is that they don’t tell the tourists that they can get off of the bus and do the visa themselves for $5 less. They just tell them that the visa is $35 and that they are going to collect all of the passports for the crossing. So unless you challenge them, they don’t give you a choice. I tell the woman that I’m getting off of the bus to get my visa myself, and that I will meet them on the other side of the border.

Mekong Express also don’t tell us about the scam Quarantine Service (scam number 2), where you fill in the health form and pay $1. At this border, the quarantine/health desk looks VERY OFFICIAL. It’s in the main building, near the border guards who scan your fingerprints. The guards who are working on the health desk are in border uniform, and look quite scary. There’s five of them at the desk as I walk through the border control.

“You need this health form,” a guard tells me.
“No thanks. I have one from last week,” I say, showing them my piece of paper from the last time I was scammed at the Cambodian border.
“No. You need a new one.”
“No I don’t.” I walk away.
“LADY! COME BACK HERE!” The border guard shouts at me.
“No. I don’t need the health form. I know that we don’t have to pay this money.”
After a little more shouting, they give up on me, and I walk away.

The quarantine desk here is much more intimidating than at the other borders (at the other borders, the desk is just a picnic table outside). This one looks so official and the guards are very stern. I am nervous when I challenge the guards in their uniform, but I’m so glad that I have the courage to argue with them.

To be fair to the Mekong Express bus company, when we arrive in Phnom Penh they explain to me how to walk to my hostel so that I don’t have to take a tuk tuk. I appreciate their honesty about that because it seems that everyone involved in buses or taxis or tuk tuks lies in Cambodia!

So, the moral of this border crossing is, once again, don’t believe the workers of the bus companies, don’t pay the quarantine fee, and do get off of the bus and do the visa yourself!

The Aranyaprathet/Poipet border

The Aranyaprathet/Poipet border


The Aranyaprathet/Poipet border from Cambodia to Thailand:

For this border, I hitchhike from Siem Reap to the border at Poipet. It’s the most crowded border that I’ve ever seen, with lots of people with huge piles of sweatshop clothes waiting to get their merchandise over the border. As I walk down the street, through the crowd of people, carts and cars to the Cambodian departure building, I am surprised that no-one approaches me at all! I walk past the Quarantine desk and take a quick photo of the scammers in action. My experience of exiting Cambodia is a very peaceful one. However, having read the Hitchwiki article about this border, I think that entering into Cambodia by this border can be really stressful. Travelfish is an amazing website which gives so many tips about South East Asia, including the border crossings.

Happy travels, everyone!

The queue in Poipet

The queue in Poipet

9 thoughts on “Cambodia and Laos border scams

  1. Your advice for the Vietnam-Cambodia border crossing saved me $5. Everyone in Saigon told me it was 35 including the bus driver but when i insisted it should only b 30 he knew i knew it was bullshit and said i could get the visa myself at the border which i did no prob.

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  2. I did the Thai boarder run by crossing over at O Smach, Cambodia. I heard it was 1000 baht but I came a little unprepared. Actually it is $30 usd for Cambodia visa but they asked for 1500 baht which I paid. Then when I left they said I needed to pay 300 baht extra as I was ‘leaving within 24 hours’. I paid that too. So, foolishly I paid 1,800 baht for what is currently about 1,100 baht.

    I emailed to the Cambodian tourism board and told them what happened. I told them that this cannot help tourism numbers if this is happening quite often, though I’m not shore that they care. They suggested that I get an e-visa so that I would not pay too much. Trouble is one cannot use an e-visa at this particular boarder. Surely they would have know this if working in the tourism board and so I may well have purchased an e-visa (which is invalid) had I not looked a bit deeper, and then had to pay cash as well – double fee!

    Honestly, I don’t reckon they could lie straight in bed!

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  3. Thanks for sharing the story. Here’s an update from oct 2015 on the situation on the lao-cambodia botder scam. we managed to avoid most of the ‘unconventionnal free’ (ie corruption money), save for a posted ‘1$’ administration fee.

    On our transfer from Kratie to Don det, we  ran into the classic 4 steps scam of over-border crossing.

    Stage 1  the ‘ restaurant’ stop
    First they stop you in a restaurant for a bus transfer. There is a van there. But it leaves  and  they tell you to wait….  (so that you have lunch there and spend money… we didn’t !
    After waiting  one hour, they said 1h more.
    We said ” no, we want to go now. We don’t buy anything”
    Our spanish friend raised his voice and 5 minutes later, the bus was there (same bus and driver as the one that was there on arrival).

    Stage 2 border preamble
    200m from border, they stop us in a bar where a dodgy guy wants to ‘ help and explain’ with the border crossing. We politely decline (we had read about him), and request to be taken to the border right away. They don’t. We start walking. They give in and take us there.

    Stage 3 Leaving Cambodia
    Now to the border crossing : the cambodian guy at the gate asks 2$ to stamp the passeport out of the country. We politely decline, pretending to be stupid, and wait while he checks our passports in detail.
    He finally gives in and stamps and returns the passports.
    There was a ‘malaria quarantine testing facility’ in front of the gate but nobody was there.

    Stage 4 : entering Laos
    Now to the Laos border. The tricky part. We pay the visa fee + and a 1$ ‘administrative fee’. Ok it’s officially announced – see picture on my blog)…
    But then the guy in uniform refuses to return our passport unless we give him 2 $ each.
    We had read the trick that if you wait, you get into their ‘afterhours’ and it becomes even more expensive plus you miss the bus…
    So we said we had no money.
    They said ‘go back to Cambodia’. Victoria says that would be a ‘visa run’ and it’s illegal (and sometimes enforced since the bomb attack in thailand earlier this year)… Maybe the reference to ‘legality’ triggered something, so we scrape our pockets for 2000 riels and 17 baths (less than 1$ alltogether) and show them.
    We ask ‘is there an atm ?’ (we knew there wasn’t)
    in the end, after patience and staying polite, with the smile of Victoria and some diplomacy, we managed to get our passport back… for free !

    Stage 5 (same as stage 1)
    On the other side of the border, there is… another restaurant. They tell us to wait… 1 hour… we know the trick, sit outside the restaurant and start playing music and eating our pic nic. It seems they don’t like harmonica around here and that we woke up some people having a nap, because 5 minutes later, 2 side car are there to take us to the harbour. Then everything went smooth,  as a boat dropped us on the sleeping island of don det.

    Conclusion : patience, calm, non confrontational approach with uniformed officials will get you far for free.

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  4. What a hassle you people endure for such a lousy few dollars! Scrootch could learn a thing or two from all you experiienced world travellers. Best wishes and keep your hands on your purses 😜

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  5. Hi, we came from Don Det to Siem Reap yesterday. Same kind of scams – off the islands to a cafe where they gave us new tickets and Cambodian visa papers to complete and we waited for half an hour or so – some people were told to hand their passports over here – we didn’t. Then we were told to walk up to the bus station, another half an hour wait. Then the bus arrived “quick, we are late”, as if it’s our fault!

    On the bus the guy says he needs all our passports and $40 each. We refuse and say a Cambodian visa is $30. He, quite openly, says that this border is “corrupt” and it’s $35 here, plus $2 for Laos departure stamp plus money for “quarantine”. We refuse to hand over our passports and he says we’re going to delay the whole bus – divide and rule?! There were 5 of us who refused.

    At the border we 5 got off the bus and the others stayed on it – how do the Laotians know who’s leaving their country when they don’t even see them – a security joke! We had to pay $2 for our departure stamp – scam 1 and no alternative. A French couple refused to pay and tried to get into Cambodia without the stamp but they’re obviously in cahoots as the Cambodians checked for their departure stamp and wouldn’t give them a visa without it.

    Scam 2 – the quarantine desk – we filled in the forms but said, from the start, we had no money. We had our ‘temperature’ scanned and left without paying. The French couple just said they had all their vaccinations and walked on!

    Scam 3 – and this seems to be new – the Cambodian visa was $30 for the visa and $5 for the stamp. I argued at length and even showed them my visa from Siem Reap airport in January which clearly says $30 and they just kept repeating $30 for the visa and $5 for the stamp. We only had $60 so ended up paying the stamp fee in kip – they wanted 100,000 (well over $10) but accepted 85,000 which was all we had. It went straight into their top drawer. Then got the “stamp” but the visa doesn’t say how much we paid for it!! The French couple managed to get away with only paying $3 each for the stamp by simply saying they had no more money.

    We then joined our fellow bus passengers in another cafe by the road – again, the Cambodians hadn’t verified any of them against their passports – security, what security? We got in our bus and waited and were then told that everyone going to Siem Reap should get in another bus – clearly some kind of deal was being done by the drivers.

    We were then taken to Stung Treng and another “cafe” behind someone’s house – definitely not an official bus station. Again, we were told it would be about an hour and many people bought food – they even had the nerve to charge for the toilets! After about an hour our tickets were changed again and we were all piled into 2 mini vans which had been sitting there all along.

    Both minivans were overloaded and they picked up more locals off the roadside, which we all kicked off about. Our van broke a suspension pin with a hell of a bang, which they fixed on the roadside and carried on- absolutely terrifying. We were dropped in some back street area in Siem Reap.

    We think these scams are careful co-ordinated and planned from Laos to Cambodia. We were all told we would be on big buses in Cambodia and we think they’re taking the money for the big buses and then putting us in their unlicensed and, most probably, uninsured minivans. The border officials and the bus drivers etc are all in cahoots and obviously sharing the loot. I saw paper folded over and stapled to make an envelope and full of dollars on the desk of the “stamp” desk, clearly someone’s share. We all need to contact the Cambodian and Laos authorities in our home countries as well as locally to bring this to their attention before a minivan of travellers crashes and they are killed. This will happen.

    The problem is that once you’re a piece of cargo in their scam it’s impossible to get out unless you’re happy to be left at the roadside and pay twice – and they know this.

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