Coaches and Corruption: Crossing the Lao-Cambodian Border
The longboat ferry departs Don Det right on schedule, contrary to local custom. The short trip brings us to the riverbank near the Lao-Cambodian border, but in accordance with local custom, no guidance is provided as to where to find the bus to take us on to it.
I join the group of foreigners as we follow each other toward and up the road in search of something that resembles a bus station.
“You! Yellow ticke’?” calls the Laotian. “You go Cambodia? You wai’ here.”
“Okay… the bus will be here soon? To the border?”
“Okay you wai’ here okay.”
An hour passes and more foreigners turn up from the boats. Eventually a bus arrives, and by 10am we are finally on our way to one of the most corrupt borders in South East Asia.
Being a remote border between two of the weakest economies in the region, underpaid officials on both sides are known to exploit their position and invent additional fees that travellers have to pay just pass through. You can argue, but you can’t make them put a stamp in your passport and give it back to you. Only $2 would do that.
The bus stops outside the gate and a guy boards the bus. Wearing a white shirt and black pants with a shiny belt, there is nothing to suggest that he works for border security. But he speaks to us in English and explains what’s going to happen.
What’s going to happen is he’s going to come up the bus and collect everybody’s passports and $40USD to sort out our exit stamps and visas for us. “Beco’ we make easy for you,” he explains.
One French passenger is ready for this and immediately protests the apparent discrepancy with what she knows to be true: “But a visa to Cambodia only costs $30.”
“No. It $35 for lan’ crossing . And you also pay exit fee for stamp from Laos $2. And entry fee for stamp to Cambodia $2. And $1 beco’ we make easy for you.”
The girl continues to protest. She is right. There is no such thing as an exit fee from Laos, and for them to charge one is illegal. But what are you going to do about it? We all have to wait while she argues over $10. She wants to go through immigration herself, but the guy flatly refuses to let her off the bus. Eventually she relents so he can get on with our visas.
Despite the obvious scam, my encounter with Cambodian border security is relatively painless. My most awkward encounter comes when I have to present my passport with its fresh visa to the officer behind a pane of black glass. He enquires as to my wellness, to which I reply cheerfully that I am very well, and find it polite to return the query. He responds by silently examining my passport for what seems an unreasonable length of time. I watch the beads of sweat ebb from my brow in my reflection in the glass; not all are caused by the heat.
After a lunch break at the border, we all pile onto the bus and continue south. An hour later, we stop at a petrol station where all passengers for Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, must get off. A mini van will be along in 10 minutes to pick us up to continue.
The petrol station is well air conditioned with a great range of snacks, drinks and Nerf Guns. The bathroom is clean enough, but no toilet paper is provided. I purchase a pack of three-ply tissues for 85 cents: the smoothest wipe my buttocks have received in months.
10 minutes becomes one hour, one hour becomes two. I am admiring the Mutant energy drink cans branded with the Monster logo when a van arrives in the forecourt. I wonder if it might be ours. The driver in his denim jacket wanders inside and talks to the cashier, ignoring the large group of foreigners sitting around at the bench along the window. He starts talking on the phone and then calls to the closest foreigner to the counter – me.
“You! Speak English?”
I nod. He gestures the phone to me.
Apprehensive, I take it from him.
“You follow driver”
“Uhh… What? Who is that?” I turn to the guy in the denim jacket. “Are you the driver?” He eyes back at me.
“Who is the driver? Is this to Phnom Penh?”
“Okay you follow driver okay.”
“Yeah but who?”
“Follow driver!” He hangs up.
Uncertain of what just happened, I report back to my curious group of fellow bus passengers. If he is our driver, he doesn’t seem in a rush to get us in any vehicle despite arriving over two hours late, and there’s still a six-hour journey ahead.
Another guy comes out of the van and motions for us to follow. This seems conclusive. When I’m the first to arrive at the van, I start to open the boot, but they stop me. The back does look like it’s been rear-ended by a bus at some point, so perhaps it’s best to leave it alone.
The vehicle is held together with rust and hope. Its leather interiors have peeled so much that very little of the sponge underlay remains. What looks like a bullet hole in the windshield has been plugged with blue putty. Dust billows into the air as I climb over the seats to the far window and fill my nostrils with the stench of must.
Thank goodness the bus has finally arrived.
Unable to access the boot from the back, they begin stacking the bags up across the back seats. As we pile in, it becomes apparent to a group of French people yet to board that there are not enough seats for everyone. The Cambodians don’t see what the problem is: there are four seats per row, just get in. To the French, there are only three seats. The same girl who protested the corruption at the border is refusing to board the van.
They tell her there will be another van in an hour and a half.
“Is unacceptable! I pay $20 for bus, not this shitty van. We cannot fit!”
I just want her to shut up and board or go back inside the gas station, but we can definitely fit. It won’t be comfortable, sure, but if she doesn’t want spend at least four hours at this gas station, she should just get on so we can go.
The phone gets passed around to different people and eventually to me because I’m not French and speak English as a first language. It’s the same guy as before. He tells me there are to be four people per row and I find myself arguing their case, even though I completely agree with him. In the end he hangs up on me again.
None of the passengers are particularly big. The two remaining girls could fit in the fourth seat on each of the back rows, and the tall French guy should take the front seat next to the driver.
So the other girl and the guy take the two remaining back seats and the girl who wouldn’t shut up, the smallest of them, takes the front. It’s 4pm and we are finally on our way.
Shortly up the road we stop at a police checkpoint. The driver grabbed the case of about 20 bottles of water that we thought were for us and gives them to the officers without much of a word, and we set off again.
After a couple of hours, I am relieved to pull over because I was just about ready for a leg stretch after having them cooped up between bags, a toolbox and a coil of rope. Another van pulls up behind us and, with no explanation, they start pulling all of our bags out and tie them to the back of the other van with some old rope. I kinda liked the first van and how everything fit on the inside.
The French girl again makes a fuss when she is last to board and the only seat left happens to not be fastened to the floor. Once again, the Cambodians don’t understand what the issue is. Eventually, she takes the seat and we set off again and the new van, though it looks nicer (marginally), struggles to exceed 25kph. With 250km to go, quick maths tells me that our ETA is now going to be very late.
Despite our lateness, the driver takes the opportunity to take the back roads and apparently run some errands on the way. We stop next to a guy on a motorbike with a stack of large paintings strapped to the back beside a rice field in the middle of nowhere. He hands our driver a huge wad of cash, who then returns him a single bill. We then stop at someone’s house to pick up some bags, later to pick up four Cambodian teenagers (in South East Asia, the bus is never full), and finally at a mechanic. Within a few minutes we are on our way and something under the hood has been fixed, and now we are overtaking everything on the road.
We arrive at Phnom Penh at 11pm, over three hours late. I later learn from a fellow busmate that our French friend complained about the quality of the tuktuk for the whole 4km journey to their hostel. Bless her. I hope the electricity was working when she got there, it wasn’t at mine.