Asia | South East Asia | Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) | Mekong | Don Det – Day 32 – Don Det, Laos
Todays lesson was one of humility with a pinch of groveling and great smiley calm papered over the internal grumbling and occasional desire to explain to various power-tripping border guards how best to combine certain parts of their anatomy which are rarely introduced to each other.
On a rational level I totally understand that poverty necessitates less-than-principled actions and I am, fortunately, in no position to pass judgement on people in such conditions. But the gut of pride does not have a direct neural pathway to the brains centre of logic, if there be any connection at all. And so it has been 24 hours of swallowing hard and trying to keep the big-picture perspective which includes the facts that Im Out Here, traveling, healthy and favoured in countless other ways; and, hopefully Ill never have to see these particular border guards again.
When I woke up this morning in Stung Treng, Olivier and Dominique (the French couple I had met the day before) were standing outside my door already thick in
negotiation at 6:15 am for a fast boat to the border. I shuffled to the door and opened it, and, as my brains horizontal hold and tint control adjusted to the bright Stung Treng morning, Olivier was explaining to me in a torrent of french that they had already been up for an hour, having given in to the chorus of roosters which had punctured but not popped my own slumber, and that they had bargained a $5/pax speed boat to the border.
They also had decided to blow off the meeting we were supposed to have with the chef to discuss our permission letter for crossing into Laos by river. By fast boat the border was a good hour away, so we knew we were risking the wasted time and expense of being sent back if, indeed, we could not cross the border without that letter. But the fact that the letter had a negotiable price indicated to all of us that it was about as official as a permission note from my mother would have been. It seemed clear the letter was just a cash-cow in town which the border police might simply sneer at and then charge us more. We decided to put all our eggs in the basket of the border police.
By 8am we were seated on the ribs of a fibreglass bath-tub boat whipping northwards out of Stung Treng along the Mekong, feeling good about having figuratively thumbed our noses (and not our wallets) at the chef. The ride to the border was magnificent; vast stretches of sparsely populated tropical forest, swamped islands, sun, cloud and free-fleeing birds.
The Cambodian border outpost consisted of a small clearing on the river bank on which a couple of wooden shacks had been built. We walked up stairs into the bigger shack where a t-shirt clad man scrutinized our passports, departure cards and Lao entry-visas. Next, another, more senior t-shirt was brought into the little room which was festooned with (among other things) uniforms hanging on the door hook, the uniforms sporting sewn on Border Police patches; a menacing floor-rack bristling with rifles behind the desk; a 1970s era CB radio on the desk; and an old calendar tacked to the wall with a picture of a topless Asian woman draped over a divan.
The senior t-shirt asked through the translation of the junior for our permission letters. As if we had rehearsed, we three travelers broke into academy-award-worthy looks of bewilderment as if we had never heard of such a concept, and we said as much. We were then told we would have to pay $20US each for Cambodian exit stamps because this outpost was not an official international crossing. Translated more accurately: please feed great bales of hay to our unregulated cash cow. And so the game was a-foot. We went through all the stages of logical argument (to wit: we had already paid to obtain visas to enter the country; one never has to pay to leave a country; etc.) Then we progressed to the cajoling pal-sy ploy and finally to the its just too expensive, the commencement of the realbargaining. Through it all, the senior t-shirt was un-bending. He was not actually unpleasant but firm, with the sureness of a man who has to sit in this ever more humid shack all day anyway and who knows he holds all the cards.
After a patient hour or so, when it was thoroughly clear that our spin of the wheel was going to cost us double-digit dollars we laid a total of $45US on the desk and, with a bit more arm-twisting and smiling, we were favoured with the stamp of freedom.
Next it was over to the Lao side. We climbed out of the boat and up a garbage-strewn muddy river bank a less-than-encouraging welcome.
A few rickety wooden shacks partially merchandized with hanging plastic bags of who-knows-what locally prepared foodstuffs lined the top of the riverbank and a gravel road lead up a hill, away from the river. We were greeted by a smiling english-speaking young man who offered to provide us with transportation to Don Det (Det Island) which happened to be where we wanted to go. He explained we would have to fork over a few dollars, just up the hill at the immigration office, to be stamped into Laos. Meanwhile he was waiting for a group of tourists who were soon to return from a dolphin-spotting excursion and then he would drive us all to the Don Det ferry.
We walked up to another shack which looked more likely to be a lemonade stand than an immigration office. This time, a short man climbed into the shack sporting an olive uniform. We filled out paperwork and had our Lao entry-visas examined. I had been told way back in Bangkok that it would be cheaper for me to obtain a Lao entry-visa using my Israeli passport than using my Canadian passport. However, my Cambodian visa and freshly-inked exit stamp were in the latter. The guard flipped through my Israeli passport but could find no evidence of my having been in (or officially exited) Cambodia. He asked me where my Cambodian exit stamp was so I produced my Canadian passport and showed him. A superior officer in a uniform was summoned away from his snooze, or so it appeared as he entered the booth. My double-passport seemed to be cause
for narrowed eyes and frowns of suspicion from the senior. I tried to put on my most innocent I am not a spy expression while always looking them straight in the eye, smiling.
The senior fixed me with a stony look and said Two passports? I tried to explain this apparently very suspicious double-passport sleight-of-hand but words like cheaper and dual-citizenship were not having the desired effect. Finally, the young man who spoke english arrived in a pick-up truck containing a flatbed full of tourists and my back-pack all ready to roll for Don Det. The young english speaker was summoned shack-wards by the senior border guard whose expression, along with my hopes, was souring by the minute. For the first time in my life I actually felt scared at a border crossing. I explained the situation to the young man and he translated. The superior threw up his hands as if convulsed by unseen forces, looked me icily in the face and said, Two passports, I not stamp Lao entry you. I tried one last smiley-faced go at reasoning while my sinking heart pounded somewhere around my large intestines, but an imperious wave of his hand cut me off. He then said, Go back Cambodia. My life started flashing before my eyes. Then he added, Cambodia exit stamp here, and he jabbed beside my Lao entry-visa in the Israeli passport. He turned and left the shack.
Olivier and Dominique looked at me with pained expressions both because of my being cast away and because they were now going through the shake-down for dollars with the other Lao border guard. We said au revoir and I skulked to the pick-up truck, shouldered my pack without being able to look at the tourists who were looking at me, feeling like a criminal (who is refused entry to Laos, one of the ten poorest nations in the world?), and shuffled back down the road to the waters edge.
I engaged a long-tail boat to ferry me back to Cambodia where I would be even more at the mercy of the gun-rack gang on that side. As we crossed back over my thoughts raced. What if the Cambodian guards asked for more money for another stamp? How much would I be willing to pay? What if they wouldnt stamp me at all? I had already officially exited Cambodia and had no visa to re-enter there, while Laos would also not let me in. What if neither country would take me? I had visions of having to float down the Mekong until I finally emerged into international waters, the South China Sea, the fantastic irony of being a Western boat-refugee not lost on me.
Perhaps having already profited from us the equivalent of six weeks pay (or thereabouts) for the average Cambodian, thanks to skinning us for $45US earlier, the Cambodian guard was all smiles, much to my relief, and stamped me out of Cambodia for the second time in less than an hour. That second stamp marked the end of what surely must be one of the all-time shortest visits to Cambodia, all 120 seconds of it.
Back across the 200 metres of river separating the two countries for the third time, I wondered if that little square inch of red ink had now rendered me less of a security threat to the Lao national interest (or perhaps just a fatter, more vulnerable target for the inevitable shake-down). At the Lao lemonade and immigration shack, the junior uniformed guard took my Israeli passport, glanced at the new stamp in it and called over his superior. It was now close to mid-day and the heat was stifling, but I was glad for the excuse to be dripping rivulets as the superior guard scowled at my passport as if it contained some insult of both him and his mother. A small circle was drawn in the air by his nose as he tossed his head, turned on his heel, flipped my passport onto the counter and left. The junior guard then inked the stamp and graced me with another square inch of red ink that would entitle me to explore thousands of square kilometres of Laos.
But!! The junior guard now fingered my passport, holding it lightly and smiled yellow teeth. You pay ten dollars me. I smiled so disingenuously that I could hear my cheeks creaking. I pleaded my case of having already paid so much money to leave Cambodia twice. How much? I wasnt falling into that trap and just said big. After more pleading and cajoling he dropped his price to $5 I dont know why given that he held all the trump cards, and my passport. Now that he had blinked I decided to push for further reductions. I offered 10,000 Kip (about $1.10US) but that was obviously a non-starter so I upped it to 20,000. Further refusals so I tried to tempt him by laying 30,000 in cash on the counter, but he wasnt biting. Remembering how patience had eventually helped us get a reduction on the Cambodian side, and noting that there was no vehicle in sight for onward transportation anyway, I decided to take a break from the bartering and sat down. Suddenly the guard said cancelled, pulled out some stamp, opened some ledger book and without even looking at the page (he was gauging my reaction) stamped.
Cancelled he said again smiling broad and cold. I knew he hadnt cancelled anything since my passport had remained untouched. However, when he pocketed my passport and started to leave the shack, the end-point had come and he had won the last round. No cancel, I said and smiled again. Ok, five dollars. I stood up and paid up while a tide of sweat made its way down my back.
Somewhere from heaven a silver pick-up truck crunched its way down the dirt road and pulled into the mangy outpost. I mentioned the name of the next town toward Don Det to the driver but he shook his head. Then, an angel, in the guise of a Lao man said, Can I help you sir?. I smiled for real, said the name of the town again and he smiled back and nodded. Get in, and he pointed to the empty clean flat-bed of the pick-up. As we pulled past the guard shack I stared down at my feet, not trusting my eyes to make contact with the guards, and not wanting to look at them again anyway.
Twenty minutes later, my angel dropped me at the head of the dirt road which lead down to Ban Nakason and the ferry to Don Det about three kilometres away. I was quite prepared to hoist pack and lumber it but the offer of a motorbike ride from a young boy in a nearby shack made good sense to me in the heat of the day. I made it to Don Det.