We were walking on the road. It was starting to get dark. There were no streetlights, no cars. We hadn’t seen any sign of life or civilisation and we had already been walking for 2 km. Turning back wasn’t an option, there was just the Lao border crossing behind us. It was seven of us, large backpacks on our back. We had just won an epic fight against corruption, but it had cost us our bus ride to town and any hope on a place to stay for the night.
A seemingly smooth border crossing
Getting my stamp out of Cambodia was easy going. In fact, I thought everything was running incredibly smoothly at this border compared to my last border experience. Next up: handing in my passport, money for my visa and filling in a form. I refused the bribe they asked (“because it was after 16.00”; it wasn’t) and they kindly let me go without much trouble. The only thing left was to get a stamp to enter Cambodia.
After waiting for a very long time, I informed if my passport was ready yet. They told me I needed to pay them 2 dollar to get the stamp. This of course was completely ridiculous. The stamp is free. The only thing the money is, is again a bribe, going straight into the pockets of the officers behind the counter. I refused to pay. With me, a bunch of other travellers had the same idea: they were not going to support any form of corruption. They wanted their passports back free of charge, as it was supposed to be.
When things started to get tricky
Most of the people on the bus we came on had already passed this checkpoint. They were still waiting for us. After a very long time of waiting, the bus driver, or actually minivan driver, came to us to see what the problem was. We explained. He told us we needed to pay, otherwise he was going to leave us behind. Now this would be the guy, who we had seen with loads of passports, ‘arranging everything for the tourists’. This basically means that tourist pay him a large amount of money (more than needed). He brings the passports and forms to the counter, the officers get the money for the visa plus an additional bribe, and the driver also gets a cut. So of course this guy is telling us to pay, because he gets a share for every extra amount of money that is paid. He was being best friends with the officers, laughing with them while they handed him money.
Things were turning ugly quite quickly from here. The driver had already ‘fake left’, but when that tactic didn’t work he came back again. Now, the driver was shouting at us. He didn’t want to listen to our calm explanations or requests to at least talk to the officers for us. At this point one of the girls in our group was fake calling to the embassy. One girl decided to pay the money, because she was scared about missing the ride. In retrospect, that was probably the smart thing to have done at this point. But it had turned into something much bigger than 2 dollars. We were at war. We had a cause, and we were fighting hard for it. If we would stick together, we were strong. We already paid for the bus ticket. They wouldn’t just leave an entire group of tourists to fill a minivan behind.
Well, they did.
We waited, nothing happened.
When things started to turn plain ugly
I decided to go and try to reason with the officers. I talked to them for 10 minutes. They ignored me, with stern looking faces. I asked questions, they still ignored me. I talked to them 30 minutes. Occasionally they would communicate, but mostly to just tell us we needed to pay. I tried normal reasoning with them: “The stamp is free, there is no reason to make us pay.” “Even if it would cost an additional fee after 16.00, we already handed in our passports before 16.00.” Then there was my attempt to use humour. “Ok, I’ll make you a deal, you can have my cookies, and I get the passports.” That was the only point where I got a smile out of one of the officers. But unfortunately I observed that this guy had only one star on this upper arm, while the really unfriendly looking person who seemed to be in charge had three stars. “I understand that you have to do your job, but you also have to understand that we already paid a large amount of money to pay for our visas, and we just want to enter the beautiful country of Laos.” Now one of the guys started to shout at me. “Stop talking!” “I would be happy to stop talking, perhaps you could start talking then and explain to me why we are still waiting for our passports.” Mister 3 Stars walked up to the little counter window, and slammed it, to shut it. Unfortunately for him, my arm was very strategically still blocking the window from closing. “Well, that’s not a very nice thing to do.” More shouting. I was still talking in a very calm voice, friendly smiling, even though he had just slammed the window into my arm. We looked each other straight in the eye. I didn’t look away. I was not going to give in. I was not going to move my arm. I was determined and not at all scared of Mister 3 Stars who seemed to have a lot of authority.
Now, you need to know that this tiny window was maybe just above my belly button. You couldn’t see much standing up, because the glass was covered in paper. So this whole time I had been standing with a bended back, my arm leaning on the counter, so I could look in. It was starting to get very uncomfortable. But I couldn’t move. I couldn’t lose my position of communication. If they would shut the window, there was only waiting left for us, and they still had our passports. I was standing there already for an hour now.
They had already offered me a one dollar bribe instead, but I refused. This wasn’t about the dollar anymore. This was about norms, ethics, principles.
Another girl came in to help. She started talking to them, I was very grateful for this, because at this point I was pretty certain that the officers hated my guts. It was good to have a good cop figure show up. It didn’t help though.
Then a girl came to the counter. She started taking pictures of the guys, as a way to ‘collect evidence’. This got them very angry. She walked away again.
One of the girls in the group asked with a tone that couldn’t hide some form of distress: “What will happen to us without a bus or any form of transportation? It’s a very long way still.” Nobody had a working cell phone with credit. We had already talked over the phone of the bus driver to the company. But even if we called the bus company again in some way, they left us here in the middle of nowhere so we probably couldn’t expect much help from them. “First, we deal with problem one: our passports and these guys. After that, we can deal with problem two: transportation. Let’s focus on the problem at hand, and only worry about the other stuff at the time when it becomes relevant”, I replied.
The office was going to close, still no passports
Now the officer started threatening. “If you don’t pay, you need to go back to Cambodia and sleep there tonight.” “Come back tomorrow for your passport.” “In 8 minutes it will be 6 o’clock, and we will close. Do you want to sleep outside?”
It was after 6 now. They turned off the light, but they were still in their office. My arm was still in the window. I knew they would have to shut this window before leaving. They discussed angrily.
Finally, they came to the window again, with our passports. They weren’t stamped yet though. “You need to delete the pictures”, they told us. “We will delete the pictures if you give us our passports.” “No, first delete the pictures.” “Ok, if you stamp our passports first, but keep them at your side, we can delete the pictures, and then you give us our passports.” “We will stamp one passport, then delete the pictures.” “Ok”. He searched for the passport of the girl who took the pictures. Finally, a stamp. Hope! She deleted the pictures, but he wanted to see for himself if they were really deleted. She didn’t want to hand over her camera, with the possibility of losing it. Now, she was holding her hand over the counter, still holding the cord of the camera, while the one star officer was looking through the camera. They got our passports out of a locked drawer, and started to stamp them very slowly, one by one.
Finally, they gave us our passports back. Quickly we checked if everything was right. We had our visas, we had our stamps, the dates matched, everything was fine. When the last passport was over the counter, and I had made sure my information was correct, I finally moved my arm.
“How do you say: “Thank you” in Lao?” “Kopchai” “Well, Kopchai” I put my cookies on the counter in a final attempt to end all of this madness on a friendly note. He pushed the cookies back to me, and quickly closed the window.
I felt utterly relieved to finally have my passport back. Now, we did have a next problem to focus upon: transportation.
Pleading for a hitchhike
This brings me back to where I started my post: walking on a dark Lao road. Spending the night at the side of the road was not something I was looking forward to. I only had 3 little sips of water left. Walking to the next town was probably around a 2 hour walk. I was ready to do that if necessary, but people with heavier backpacks and less energy were not. I was not going to walk for 2 hours on a dark road in the middle of nowhere alone. Mostly, we were hoping to find people on the road who could help us: make a phone call, give us a ride, anything.
We were already one man down: a girl decided to pitch her tent (she was the only one with a tent) for the night because she didn’t feel like walking anymore.
After a fair amount of walking, there was a road crossing. We saw headlights in the distance! As the car approached, we started jumping, waving and flashing lights to get their attention. The car lowered speed and stopped. It was a pick-up truck! Inside, appeared to be a Lao family, with 2 very cute small children. They didn’t speak any English, but we were trying to communicate with hands and feet, asking if we could hitch a ride to the next town. They understood and after a while agreed to take us. Some of us entered the car, me and three other girls climbed into the back of the open truck. We felt euphoric. It felt like we were going with the speed of light after walking for so long. We laughed, high fived and were so relieved about driving in the right direction. Slowly we started to see an occasionally house next to the road, until we finally arrived at the town where we were dropped off. We tried to show our eternal gratefulness (we did give them some candy at least when they picked us up) and went on.
No charming poses here, just the plain reality of a very long day, lot’s of wind from driving and hair all over the place, sweat and sqeezing eyes because of the flash.
After much hassling, we spent an ironic amount of 2 dollars a person on a boat (a boat trip that had been initially included in our ticket, but the ferry associated to our company wouldn’t leave until the morning again). Then, we finally arrived at our final destiny (Don Det). Here there were guesthouses, food, water and toilets. After a journey that took me 14 hours instead of 7, I finally arrived.
Oh and by the way, it was the same day on which our minivan got a flat tire on our way to the border (that’s a whole new story, but this one is already way too long).
My moral of the day: Deal with one problem at a time, don’t worry about problems that aren’t relevant in this exact moment.
Also, I completely (although unintentionally) covered another one of my bucket list items: hitchhike. I have to say, I wasn’t expecting to 1. Hitchhike during my backpack trip and 2. Do it under these conditions. However, life is about living. One more item to check off.
Welcome to Laos…