Tuesday, April 2, 2013

I know they have machine guns, but they won't really shoot us, right?

Our border crossing, and the machine guns!!
"I'd read in an online forum that they had quite the racket going on charging all sorts of additional "fees" for exit stamps, a "health check", visas, and entry stamps.

The only real cost of the border crossing is $20 for the Cambodian visa. The rest is just bogus, but everyone is in on it from both sides of the border including the tour companies shuttling tourists across.
Many on the forums suggested fighting the corruption and trying to get through without paying the fees, by the several stories of people attempting, it sounded pretty difficult, and few actually ever accomplished it.
Sure the extra "fees" only amount to $10 but  the principle of the thing made me want to attempt it and Julie was kind enough to humor me.
The tour company we hired to drive us to the border offered to help travelers get visas for $30 each, enough for the bribes and some for themselves.
The tour company guy wasn't very happy that we were going to go across without his help and during the process said the bus would just leave us at the border if we took too long.
We arrived at the border and went to a little building on the Laos side for our exit stamps.  Julie waited to the side and I handed our passports through the window and sure enough they asked for $2 for each exit stamp. I said no and that I knew there were no fees for an exit stamp and asked them to please give us the stamps. They pushed the passports back at me and told me to move aside for other travelers. I refused and stood my ground. They slamed the window shut leaving the passports in front of them inside the window. 
More and more travelers and tour operators were lining up behind me so the border guards opened the window and again told me to pay the fees or move aside and pushed the passports back at me. At this point I put my elbow in the window to keep it open while pushing the passports back at them and boxing out the various tour operators trying to push their stacks of passports through the window with bribes inserted. 
This continued for several minutes, including an episode of me taking a picture of the guards to try further to persuade them to just give us the stamps. 
One of the guards started trying to negotiate with me by offering to give the stamps if I let some of the tour operators go through. Wary of possible trickery I still decided to give it a try since the stale mate we currently were in was going nowhere. After letting a couple tour operators put their passport stacks through I asked him to stamp my passports and again he said no, not without paying the fees. I reminded him that he promised to do it and said I wasn't going to move until he stamped them. He finally grudgingly stamped our passports and gave them back to us. This all took about 20 minutes.
I thought to myself, "Wow, all that, just for the Laos exit stamps. I can't even imagine how difficult the other things will be, especially the Cambodia visa."
As we walked across the border, on the left side of the road was the Cambodia Health Check station, just a tent with some tables and border guards.  All the other tourists were lined up at the health station. 
Basically the guards just swiped the tourists forehead with a thermometer and charged them $2 for it. Again, this is not anything official, just another scam! Haha. 
I told Julie to just ignore it and walk right by it all. Just then a guard in the middle of the road tried to direct us to the tent but we just kept walking, ignoring him while all the other tourists watched. He kept asking us to go and Julie said in a very kind, pleasant voice, as the diplomat she always is, " Oh, we don't need, it but thank you!" She flashed them this convincing smile, like what she said was really genuine because it was. haha

The guard looked shocked and didn't know what to do, so he just said thanks back, and we passed by him. 
As we were walking to the Cambodia visa station one of the visa guards called over to the health station guard we just passed. I'm not sure what was said but my guess is he was asking wether or not we paid. 
I figured the visa was going to be the hardest part, and I was right. 
There was one guard outside the booth directing people and several guards in the booth working on visas. We filled out paperwork and I stepped up to the window and handed them our passports with the paperwork and the money for visas. 
They asked for more money, I said no and that I knew the official visa price was $20 each and wouldn't be paying more. They tried to hand everything back through the window but I blocked it and so they dropped it on their desks inside their office, and told me to move aside. 
The window was wide so I couldn't block everyone else but I held my ground in the middle of the window and wouldn't budge. The guards were getting more and more upset that I wouldn't move or pay more money and eventually the main guard in the booth yelled at me that we wouldn't be crossing the border today, tore up our paperwork, and told me to go fill out more. I wasn't sure what would happen but thought I'd try the "take a picture" strategy. 
So I grabbed my camera and snapped a quick shot. The camera flash set off an uproar from the guards and other tourists. The guards were all yelling and it got a little crazy for a moment and other travelers were saying I would get arrested. 
As I was trying to find some info on my phone the main guard quickly reached through the window and grabbed my phone putting it in the top drawer of his desk.
They kept yelling to sit down and fill out forms again.  Julie convinced them we would sit down as it was getting heated, and I decided to sit down and let things cool off.  We filled forms out again and sat patiently for a bit. I then said I'd delete the picture and held up the camera to show them that I did. 
After a bit Julie very nicely asked the guard outside the booth if we could get the visas now and after a minute he asked me to follow him to a little table outside the visa office. 
For a second I wasn't sure where he was taking me, perhaps out back to rough me up...haha.
 He asked me to show him that I had deleted the pictures, I did and he then tried to get me to pay more again, but I said no and he eventually asked for the passports, paperwork and visa money. I gave it to him and hoped he would really take care of it but thought he might just take everything and leave us hanging. He came back a couple minutes later with visas in the passports and we headed to the entry desk/gate to get the entry stamp. 

They asked for $2, I said no, they set the passports aside and were helping others for a couple minutes then stamped ours and we were in Cambodia. 
Standing your ground here is not for the faint hearted, and honestly with corruption that deeply ingrained, I understand why 99.99% of people just go along with it. Not just here, but in any place where corruption is that ingrained in the system.
 I am glad that I did it, but they started to get pretty hostile, and it could have gone south, with me ending up in Jail. 
What is the real answer to these types of problems?
Once across the border we waited a few hours with everyone else while the tour companies tried to get us all sorted and squeezed onto various buses. This part of world travel often seems so chaotic, hectic and unorganized. We finally ended up on a bus packed wall to wall, with a full aisle of people as well.
Welcome to Cambodia.

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