Crossing the border in Pong Nam Ron

Every ninety days I have to leave Thailand.  Not because I get my fill of the traffic or som tam, but because the conditions of my year-long visa (and most other non-immigrant visas, for that matter) require it.  I can fly somewhere on holiday or even just step across the border and then re-enter: it doesn’t matter so long as I leave Thailand.

Over the past two and a half years most of my border runs have been combined into already-planned travel: Tawn and I take a weekend in Hong Kong, go for a visit back to the United States, etc.  So far, there have been only two times when I’ve had to make a border run specifically because I needed to leave the country: the first was a day-long trip to Penang, Malaysia on August 31, 2006 and the second was about three weeks ago.

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Above: Me at the border with Cambodia in the background.

There are a dozen companies that help expats and tourists conduct border runs to Laos or Cambodia and border runs are one of those topics that have a place in the mythology and folklore of expats in Thailand. 

Down on Khao San Road the backpackers share tips and insights on how to stay here as long as they can, how to work the system, and how to avoid overstaying their visas.  For those just sliding by on tourist visas, even with the recent “crackdowns” restricting those who receive visas on arrival to only ninety total days within a six-month period, there is something called the “three thirties, a sixty and a seven” that can net you just over five consecutive months of stay with minimal effort.

Even for those of us who are here legitimately and hold nonimmigrant visas, the topics of what visa type, where did you get it, and how are you handling border runs is still a common topic of conversation.

The Cambodian day trip is one of the most common border runs.  For about 2,000 baht (about US$65 but rising fast) you can hop into a van or a bus with several dozen expats and make a nine-hour roundtrip to the border.  I’ve been hesitant to make this trip because I’ve heard that the experience is a nightmare.  Not only the hours and hours cramped in a vehicle but then at the border you are attacked by beggars, limbless war victims and children, who swarm to the foreigners like so many mosquitos. 

It is easy to understand why, in a country that is still so impoverished, people would take this route to earn a living, but it is horrifying to know that giving some spare change isn’t doing anything to alleviate their suffering.  Perhaps this is a copout and I’m just a westerner who doesn’t want to come face-to-face with the legacy of genocide, but this does not make for a pleasant day-trip.

When Roka told me about a border run she had taken with a company called Sawasdee Transport and her story painted a very different picture, one that sounded much more promising.

So I emailed the owner, a German named Claudio and he confirmed that there would be room on Friday’s trip.  Please meet the van at the Tesco-Lotus at On Nut BTS station at 7:30 am, he said.

Arriving about 7:15 at the large parking lot, I was at a loss as to which van I was looking for.  White and silver Toyota passenger vans are even more common here than street-side food vendors and since On Nut is the terminal station for the Sukhumvit line, dozens of vans transport workers from the parking lot to destinations all around the eastern side of the city.

Spotting another farang I approached her and asked if she was waiting for Claudio, too.  She was and in just a few minutes Claudio came pulling up in his car and pulled into a space next to three other vans.  A large group was going today, so there would be a total of these three vans plus Claudio ended up having to drive his car to the border, too.

Of the three dozen or so passengers, almost all were Filipino laborers. I have one Filipino friend here in Khrungthep and didn’t realize just how many people the island nation exports to Thailand.  Our van had a British national, the Canadian-Belgian dual citizen I had met a few minutes before, and seven Filipinos, one of which had a lovely voice and quietly sang a capella nearly the whole trip.

I liked the transparency and honesty with which Claudio did business.  The expat community is rife with tales of unscrupulous border run operators who will get you to the border only to discover that your visa or paperwork is not in order and you cannot cross the border that day.  Often that is a waste of money and it is always a waste of time.  Claudio, on the other hand, thoroughly reviewed everyone’s documents in advance of the trip and double-checked before leaving that everyone had everything they needed. 

We headed up to the border, stopping once en route for a toilet break.  The ride was comfortable enough and I read a bit and visited with my seat mates.  The Canadian-Belgian woman had the most interesting story: she had come to visit her parents about two years ago as her father had set up a company in Thailand six years prior to that.  She so enjoyed it that she has spent the better part of those last two years here living with them.  Since the limit on tourist visas using the “three thirties and sixty and a seven” is about six months, she just switches passports every six months and then travels for a few weeks in between to get all the way to the six months.

P1050992 Our destination was the Ban Laem crossing in Pong Nam Ron, Chanthaburi Province.  This is a smaller crossing and less popular with the larger border run operators than another crossing nearer to Khrungthep.  As such, there is much less traffic and, because of the way the border and the casino are laid out, you don’t have any contact with the Cambodian locals.  In fact, it is arguable whether or not you ever really arrive in Cambodia.

As gambling is “illegal” in Thailand, the Thais go to casinos set up right across the border in Laos and Cambodia.  At Ban Laem the casino is actually placed before the true entry point into Cambodia.  The physical order of the border is: Thai border control office, Thai border guard, bridge over the muddy creek that is the actual border (above), casino compound, then Cambodian border guard.  The Cambodian border control office is actually on the casino grounds so clearly the business is there to cater to foreigners doing border runs.

When I say “casino”, by the way, don’t think Macau or Las Vegas.  Think of the local chapter of your Rotary Club with one of their linoleum floored halls filled with folding chairs and faded card tables.  Needless to say, no cocktail waitresses serving free drinks.  No pictures allowed, unfortunately, so let your imaginations run with that image.

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Above: Looking from Thailand into Cambodia, the entry to the casino is just behind the white, circular sign.  There is a red-roofed shack behind that where the Cambodian border guard is located. 

Below: Standing just outside the Cambodian border guard shack looking into Cambodia.  Interestingly, the disparity between income on the two sides of the border is amazing.  While both are rural and poor, the Thai side has nicely paved roads and some development.  The Cambodian side is much worse off.  That might be attributable to the fact that the people coming over from the Thai side never go any further than the casino.

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We were on the Cambodian side of the border for about an hour.  The Canadian-Belgian woman and I tried our chance at the fried rice and then did some duty free shopping.  The best news of all was that Cambodia has no duties on imported wine and, as I learned from the British man on the way back, there really are no practical restrictions placed on the quantity of items you bring back into Thailand, even though the legal restriction is 1 liter of alcohol.  I bought two bottles of a nice Australian wine for 350 baht (about US$11) each and discovered that at the store here in Khrungthep they were being sold for 1789 baht each thanks to Thailand’s 400% duty on luxury goods.

P1050989 This alone is enough to encourage me to make more border runs to Cambodia.  Maybe I can even bring the car and buy a few cases!

We crossed the bridge back towards Thailand, a blue and white sign in Khmer script saying (I assume) something like “farewell and come again”, right.  Who knows, though?  It could have been propaganda denouncing the decadent westerners who don’t do much to actually help the lives of everyday Cambodians.

Below: Looking back into Thailand, the new immigration offices on the right hand side.  The British man was telling me that just a few years ago, the offices were literally a shack, just like on the Cambodian side.  The rickety wooden pedestrian bridge is a remnant of times past.

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We were back at the Tesco-Lotus by 5:00, having hit some heavy thunderstorms on the way back.  According to the British guy, he has never done this trip when there weren’t afternoon thunderstorms as the area is in the mountains.  Talking with him, he has an interesting story.  Married to a Thai woman for more than eight years, he hasn’t applied for permanent residency but instead has a working visa sponsored by their company, which makes and exports wedding dresses to the UK and other parts of Europe.  They have recently started to do made-to-order dresses online, so if you are interested in having a wedding dress (or, I suppose, any other type of dress) made to order and then shipped to you, I’m sure you could find some good deals on their website.  Not an endorsement, by the way, just something I picked up on the trip.

All in all, the trip was fairly painless and a convenient way to do a border run without having to plan and pay for a trip somewhere outside Thailand.  As much as I love flying, I can’t fly outside Thailand for much less than 6,000 baht given the price of fuel these days.  For that, I can do a Cambodian border run and buy a dozen bottles of wine.