That Time Cambodia Almost Denied Me Entry

We were just getting into the groove of things in Vietnam when it was time to pack our bags and fly to Cambodia. SVV and I had volunteered to lead another Semester at Sea trip, and after our success in India scoring a stellar group, we were thrilled to find our little tribe of 20 was every bit as fun.

Cambodia field trip on Semester at SeaGetting from Ho Chi Minh to Cambodia is relatively easy and takes less than an hour. We flew Vietnam Airlines, over fields of extreme flooding posing as sprawling lakes, and arrived right on time at the small airport in Phnom Penh. Cambodia is one of those places that requires a visa that you buy on arrival (or can purchase in advance on the Internet), and we had been given very specific instructions as to how to pass through customs: Bring a crisp $20 bill in U.S. currency (no tears, no dings) and two passport photos to submit with your documents when you arrive at the airport in Cambodia.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Semester at SeaUpon landing, I quickly filled out my paperwork and was the first of our crew to go through the process. There was a line of eight customs agents all in row, and I handed over my passport and papers to the first one. He rifled through the various forms before passing them to the next agent and told me to pay my $20 at the very end of the line. I moved onto the last agent, who eventually received my passport, flipped through the pages and immediately got a look of concern on his face before flipping through once again then handing my passport all the way back down the line once more. When it returned to the original passport-taker, I was summoned over. This didn’t seem good.


“Uh…well, you see…I did have enough pages left for my Vietnamese and Cambodian visas and then Malaysia had the nerve to take up an entire page with just their one measly little stamp! Can you even believe that?!” I tried to make light of this hilarious scenario (in my mind), but he wasn’t finding the humor in the situation—the scowl on his face told me this much.

Before we left for the voyage, Semester at Sea told all participants to have a minimum of 10 empty pages in our passports. I had somewhere around that—maybe eight or nine—and would have liked to have had more added before we left, but many of us were hired so late in the game that it was a challenge just to apply for and obtain all of our visas in such a narrow window. Factor in the fact that I needed my passport in July to travel to Canada, and there simply was no extra time to send my passport off to the state department and hope it returned to me before the ship left. But this was hard to communicate to the customs officer, particularly with cultural and language barriers working against me.

Cambodia visa“Why did you not check and make sure you had enough pages in your passport before coming to our country?” he demanded again.

“Uh…I did. I promise! But I’ve been to a dozen countries since I left my country, and well, I’m really sorry but there’s nothing that can be done now,” was my thinly veiled apology. “Can’t you just put the visa over one of my stamped pages? I promise I don’t need them all!”

He considered this for a moment as I had visions of being sent back on the first plane to Vietnam—what a great example I was setting for our student group—and I remembered what I had been told about Cambodia customs and how lax they were, particularly in comparison to the strict Vietnamese customs (it is said that the customs officers in Cambodia will even let you wear their hats for photos). This turned out to line up pretty accurately with what followed.

He furrowed his brow, motioned me closer then slid my customs form across the counter back to me.

“OK, here is what we do. You pick which page you don’t need and write a note on the back of the form that says ‘I authorize you to stamp over page X in my passport, and I promise never to return to Cambodia again without enough passport pages.” I scoffed, thinking he was pulling my leg, but it turns out the Cambodians aren’t very tongue-in-cheek; he was very much serious.

Cambodia visaSo I did as the man said and finally forked over my $20, he pasted the shiny new green visa into my passport over the Morocco stamps and I was free to cross over into the Kingdom of Cambodia.


Afraid you might be turned away at the border and sent home like I almost was? Consider investing in cheap holiday insurance just in case something goes horribly wrong.

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Comments ( 41 )

  1. Like Bart in the opening of The Simpsons… I promise to….

    • *snort*

      I did half expect him to require me to write apologies over and over again on a chalk board, but maybe they were just running low on supplies that particular day =)

  2. Wonder if he thought you intentionally ran out of pages.

  3. Hahah! Love that you had to write a letter like you were in school :) Now I want to visit Cambodia even more.

    • It was really a beautiful country, filled with very kind, beautiful people. And the customs process only made my time there even more fun, I must say =)

  4. OMG I would have needed a shot or two after that experience! Almost as nerve wracking as Mexico after Cuba right???

    • Ha, I don’t think it was quite as stressful as Cuba but had they hesitated, I might have felt similarly =)

      (Speaking of, the treasury never got around to passing our travel license so we’re going to Guatemala now instead of Cuba. Such a bummer!)

  5. Did they make you write “I pinky promise…”? Because I don’t think it’s official unless you pinky promise.


  6. Crazy!! It’s nice they let you in!

  7. I had a similar problem with my documents trying to go into Cambodia one time. It took an hour of sweet-talking in the office to eventually get let in. But, like you, I had to write an apology letter to the Kingdom of Cambodia promising to never have the wrong documents again. “Dear Kingdom of Cambodia, I am very sorry…”

    • Haha NO WAY. So this wasn’t a one-time deal then! That’s so hilarious. We should go back to Cambodia together without passport pages and see if they still have our apology letters at the desk, just anticipating our return πŸ˜‰

      • Ha – that would be funny. I’ve always wondered whether they actually keep those things on file to use against you one day. My handwritten apology never really seemed too official!

  8. Wow, this is really timely, considering I’ve just realized I need TWO blank pages to enter South Africa (despite the fact that I don’t need a visa, so technically they’re really only going to be stamping one.) I do have two, but one is the last page in my passport, and one is blank but has a really really heavy stamp on the page behind it (thanks Barbados and your super-strength ink!), so it’s bled through and can be seen on the “blank” page. I’m so worried, because TECHNICALLY it’s blank — as in, it hasn’t been stamped on — but it could be picked apart if they want to pick it apart. I was up til 1am last night reading horror stories of people who’ve been turned away at South African immigration and sent back home. Am basically vomiting with fear. Glad everything worked out for you though!

    • That’s weird, as in South Africa they really only put a stamp and a small sticker on there. I can see needing half a page or maybe one full one, but two seems a bit excessive. I’m sure you’ll be fine! Are you meeting up with Angie while there??

  9. HAHAHA I promise to never do it again. It’s actually pretty cute.

  10. I’m with Gaelyn, did the agent think you ran out of pages on purpose? I mean it’s just one stamp, right? But, at least he let you in! Something like this probably shouldn’t be taken so seriously, but maybe the man really likes his job!

    • It’s one sticker visa, which does take up nearly a full page but I did have a couple pages that were only half full that I didn’t think it would be a problem to use! Apparently, it was. And then Japan almost didn’t deny me entry either, even though there’s was just a small little sticker not even an inch wide and there was definitely space remaining for that!

  11. Hahah, my beloved Cambodia. That story is AMAZING. Is the photo of you writing the apology a re-enactment? I would think they might get a bit pissy at taking photos of the process!

    • A total re-enactment! You caught me =) I felt a lot like I was on Unsolved Mysteries or one of those other shows that does the cheesy staging of “real events.”

  12. What a dick hole! Did he paddle you, too? Put a ridiculous hat on your? Make you apologize to the class? I get that they have to take things seriously, but surely he didn’t have to belittle you in the process.

    Just tell me what his name is, I’ll go over there and kick his ass for you.

    • I would have loved if he had put a hat on me! I actually was grateful to him for giving me a bit of blog fodder as I feel like my travels these past three months have been a bit TOO tame… πŸ˜‰

  13. I just read the Lost Girls book and I think one of them had a similar experience. I believe there was some written declaration as well – maybe you had the same customs officer and that is his MO! Now I have no excuse not to be prepared if I ever travel to Cambodia. I’m glad you made it in!

    • Funny, I actually did an edit of that book for the girls but don’t remember that part–must not have been one of the chapters they asked me to read, otherwise I would have been better prepared, ha!

  14. He was just offended you didn’t come to Cambodia first, I suppose.

  15. Amazing. I feel like if there had been a chalkboard there you would have had to write it out 100 times before he granted you entry.

  16. woah! this may be one of the most important posts ive read! haha. first of all, ive learned so much!
    A) did not know Cambodia is still a Kingdom. Thought it was only Jordan Saudi Arabia and liechtenstein
    B) did not know Cambodia does online eVISA. Thank you for writing about that!
    C) i am running out of pages too! and your situation just freaked me out a bit (lol). definitely going to take the time/efforts to go add more pages in now just to be safe.

    Thanks KL! you are the best! πŸ˜‰ And Im Sooo glad you got into the Kingdom. no clue how he would have treated me since you are a pretty blonde American- you actually get treated differently in south east asia. Cant wait to see Angkor Wat pics πŸ˜‰ i wonder if theres going to be any jumping ones!!!

    • Ha, you know me too well! I might have even gotten a jumping-related injury at the temples…but I can’t say for sure πŸ˜‰

      • we’ll just have to wait for the pics!!!!!! or should i stalk your flickr?? haha!

        that was kind of a creepy statement…i do know you a little bit too well i suppose. i guess thats the results of 2-3 years of reading what comes out of your brain on a regular basis! hehe

        but i must say that you have been one of my biggest inspiration !!! i think today is a good day to THANKYOU! [happy thanksgiving]. and also, thank for replying to my multiple comments despite your busy work schedule AND limited bandwidth on the ship. and Thank you for being my inspiration of course! I got my VolumeVII newsletter today…my first one : ) a little late on the bandwagon but better late than never ya? im finally going to make it to Dubai this January so it all began when…..KL got food poisoning on Emirates! haha. whenever i hear/see that airline i seriously think about your food poisoning and cringe a little….And i want you to know that i recommend a lot of my friends who are jealous of my traveling to your website!!!!! gotta source the inspiration πŸ˜‰


  17. Hi Kristin,
    I hate when border agents do that. During my last trip to Ecuador, I had 3 stamps on 3 fresh pages and I was very frustrated. I don’t know if next time I should tell the officer to find a page that’s partially used. This is so unnecessary, but I am glad you got through.

  18. The note you had to write is hilarious! I’m glad you were able to sneak in though – I would have been freaking out about being turned away.

  19. Ha ha, those Khmer customs guys are scary! I once thought they would turn me away, cos I didn’t have passport stamps – just could not for the life of me find them after a couple of weeks travelling over land. I had retained some really basic Khmer from the first time I was in Cambodia, and amazingly managed to charm my way in to get the visa….and maybe with the aide of an extra US bill!

  20. HAHAHA! What a legend! I love that he made you write that! Silly foreigners….
    (Ps How have I not found your page sooner?! Love your writing!)
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  1. […] Phnom Penh, we traveled further into Cambodia and took a propeller plane a half an hour to Siem Reap, home to the temples of Angkor. We arrived […]

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