Last week, I took the 6:30 AM morning bus from Phnom Penh to Poipet. I went on this 9-hour trip for the most unusual of reasons: my German SIM card (Blau, E-Plus) had stopped working. E-Plus’s Cambodian roaming partners (SMART and Metfone) suddenly rejected the card, and I needed roaming to access online banking.
My hope was that by being close to the Thai border, I would be able to receive Thai mobile network signals and use their roaming feature to access my account. And indeed, I was lucky: the major Thai operators were available in Poipet, Thai GSM accepted my SIM card, and I was able to conduct my business.
After having traveled for more than 400 kilometers, you can imagine how happy I was that everything had worked out.
For German travelers: As soon as possible, I am going to ditch my budget phone company and switch to something that works. I will try to stay clear of E-Plus affiliated brands in the future. Please let me know which German operator you have found to work well in Cambodia.
Anyway, in the past I had passed through the Thai-Cambodian border at Poipet numerous times, but never taken the time to check out the city. Biased because of numerous negative reviews, I had never ventured beyond the main road. I usually secured onward travel to Battambang or Siem Reap – and off I went. This time I was going to give Poipet two nights and check it out properly.
Poipet Duty Free Zone (Casino Area)
I came from Phnom Penh via Capital Bus (33000 Riel). Most people are continuing to Thailand, so the bus takes you right to the border (the roundabout before the departure immigration office).
Wanting to get as close to the Thai border as possible, I went off the bus and right into casino land, a special economic zone that is still located in Cambodia, but beyond the Cambodian immigration check points. As I didn’t want to leave Cambodia, I just walked by the Cambodian departure immigration on the right side of the road.
An official said “Check out here,” and I replied, “No check out, go casino,” upon which he smiled. Exiting the casino area, I just walked back on the same side of the road, again passing by the departure check point. During the next two days I walked back and forth several more times, but never got asked again.
Do not exit Cambodia to go to the casinos.
Otherwise, you will have to cross into Thailand and get a Thai entry/exit stamp combination. You will also have to get a new visa for Cambodia. Contrary to what some people claim, the casino area is not in no-man’s-land; it is a duty-free zone that belongs to Cambodia.
I am not a great fan of gambling, so I just peaked into the casinos and otherwise spent most of my time at True coffee shop (attached to one of the casinos) to log into the Thai mobile network and do my banking. They have got friendly staff, great coffee, all kinds of delicious milk shakes, and good WIFI.
On the other hand, if you are coming from Thailand and plan to stay for a few nights at the casinos, you may want to formally enter Cambodia first, before heading back to the casinos. For this you will need to pay for the Cambodian visa, which is available before the Cambodian arrival immigration (coming from Thailand on the right side of the road).
Otherwise Thai immigration might not let you back in for the lack of a Cambodian entry/exit stamp combination, and Cambodian immigration might create problems because your Thai exit stamp and your proposed entry date into Cambodia don’t match. (If in doubt, ask Thai immigration what options foreigners have for visiting the casinos.)
There are several restaurants (Japanese, casino buffet, beer-garden style, burger outlet) to choose from in the duty-free zone. I found walking around the area quite entertaining: you get to mingle with all the casino goers from Thailand, China, Korea, etc., and you can also watch Cambodians pushing wooden carts with all kinds of wares back and forth. There is a huge border market, Talat Rongkleua, on the Thai side. To get there, foreigners have to exit Cambodia though.
In the following, whenever I refer to “on the right side of the main road,” I mean on the right side coming from Cambodia. The road is National Highway 5. Distances are given from the roundabout close to the Cambodian immigration.
Where to stay in Poipet?
There are several guesthouses at and around the roundabout to choose from. I stayed at Phnom Pich guesthouse, which is about 500 meters before the roundabout on the right side. The room was totally adequate (aircon, hot water shower, fridge, small flat-screen TV, WIFI, $11). They also have fan rooms for $7. Best of all, I was still able to get a strong Thai GSM mobile signal there.
At night, I found the area around the roundabout quite vibrant. There is an outdoor sitting area offering burgers, pizzas, and beer on the left side. Further down the road (towards Cambodia) you’ll find a few small restaurants that serve Khmer dishes and beer and offer Karaoke. I had a nice chat with two Cambodian fellows who, as it turned out, make a living pushing carts between Cambodia and Thailand.
What else is there in Poipet?
Poipet is more than the main road to the border. In fact, it is a city of 100000 people, and unlike in the past, now most side streets are paved. In the streets to the right of the main road, you’ll find restaurants, rooms for rent by the month, and the spotty-clean new market with plenty of shops around (about 1 km before the roundabout).
Walking around for a good day, Poipet appeared to me just like your typical Cambodian town where people go about their daily lives.
People are friendly and if you flash someone a smile, you are bound to get one back. Some of the houses look quite fancy indeed; cross-border trade, the Cambodia-wide building boom, and the casinos seem to have brought in more than enough money to revamp this city. This isn’t to say there isn’t any poverty or seediness (and you should watch your belongings as in every city you don’t know), but the place has come a long way.
On the left side of the main road is the old railway station.
Behind the station, they are rebuilding the tracks for the railway line that is going to connect Cambodia and Thailand, and there is also a smaller market.
Air-conditioned coffee shops:
I had good coffee at True Coffee in the casino zone and at Amazon Café on the main road (1 km before the roundabout on the right side). A bit further down the road from Amazon is Destiny Café, a large NGO-run café that also features western and Cambodian food.
Transport to Battambang and Phnom Penh
I often use Capitol Bus to travel between cities in Cambodia. They generally charge tourists and locals the same price. As of January 2017, Poipet to Battambang is 15000 Riel and Poipet to Phnom Penh is 30000 Riel (6:30 am, 8:00 am, 9:00 am, 10:30 am, 1:45 pm). Capitol Bus is about 1 km before the roundabout on the right side. As of January 2017, it is marked as being on the left side in Google Maps, which is wrong.
To get to Capitol Bus from the border, walk past all people telling you to get on the free shuttle and continue along the road until the touts have stopped bothering you. Hop on a moto taxi to avoid walking in the heat.
Poipet is an interesting place to check out. I am not a big fan of gambling, but just watching the border area, taking a look at the casinos and strolling around town make for an interesting overnight stay.