We recently had the pleasure (probably not the right word) of experiencing one of the most notorious border crossings in Southeast Asia, the land crossing from the 4000 islands in southern Laos into Cambodia. Going from one corrupt country to another, more corrupt, country, via a lightly-used crossing point is a recipe for, I don’t know, hilarity/disaster/a good blog post, take your pick.
Up until three years ago, the only way to cross this way was by boat on the Mekong river, apparently run by one guy who didn’t pay his fair share of taxes (bribes) to someone. Now he’s out of business and the only way to cross the border is by land.
The first interesting bit happened when we were in the minivan bus on the way to the border and our driver told us that the Cambodian visa would cost $30 instead of the widely known actual cost of $20. The increase, he said, was because this was a “small border crossing.” In actuality, the extra $10 was to cover the bribes on both sides of the border and, presumably, his fee for paying the bribes. We had read about this little scheme and some of the horror stories from people who tried to make the crossing on their own while refusing to pay the bribes. So we handed over our passports and $30 each to our bus driver/ diplomat as we did not really have a choice.
So we get to the border, where the immigration office on the Laos side was a hut made of straw and bamboo. From here our diplomat bus driver points our group in the direction of another large bus just down the road, past two large gates a few hundred yards apart representing the border line, and says that we should get in the large bus and he’d bring us our passports after some paper handshakes.
Sounded simple enough. Alison and I take the lead as our group of 10 starts the 200 yard stroll into Cambodia. A few feet before going through the second gate we get flagged down on the side of the road by two women who are dressed like nurses:
Nurses: “Come here! You have to get medical check.”
“Medical check?” we thought, and just kept walking, assuming they were talking to someone else.
At this point, an armed guard steps in front of us and directs us to the nurses, who are yelling hysterically at this point:
“Why you no stop!?!? Is something wrong with your eyes??” referring to my sunglasses, which are apparently uncommon in the dry season around here since they get sunshine all day every day.
Me: “Umm, no. These are sunglasses” as I walk over to their makeshift tent.
One of the women points some kind of device at my neck, presumably to take my temperature or something, and the device beeps twice:
Nurse: “Something wrong with you. You can’t come in. You are sick” as she directs me to a small area with a “Quarantine” sign.
I then watched as Alison got one beep along with the rest of our group (which I guess meant they are healthy).
So now I’m stuck in no man’s land between Laos and Cambodia and the only people who can let me in to Cambodia are saying I have malaria and can’t enter their country and are supported by an armed guard. Fantastic.
While the head “nurse” had her head turned, I convinced the other “nurse” to try again with the neck temperature thingy. Thankfully, it only beeped once.
“See, no sick. One beep.” I said as I walked swiftly through the gate to hide on the bus where hopefully they wouldn’t come after me. As I was walking away, I heard the main nurse yell at the one who had given me a second go at it. We later came to find out that this was another scheme – I probably would have been held in the “quarantine” area until agreeing to pay a bribe for them to let me pass.
So there we were in Cambodia, having safely crossed the border. But we didn’t have our passports, which were still in Laos with our ambassador friend.
15 minutes passed…30 minutes (apparently a lot of paper handshakes)…almost an hour later the Laotian minivan driver hops on our bus and delivers our passports, visas attached.
We’re not in Kansas anymore.