Saturday, March 10, 2012

Making a Stand at the Border

Bikes on a Mekong ferry boat
Our original plan was to spend two full days on Don Khong before moving on to Cambodia, but we were antsy (we can only relax for so long) and got back on the road the next morning. Actually, before we were on the road, we were on the ferry. While we loaded the bikes and waited for breakfast, Colin noticed a vehicle ferry that was tied up right below us. There was a group of men sitting around waiting for something, and he asked them about the boat, if it could take us across, and how much it would cost. The answers were yes, it could take us, and 40,000 kip, which was what we paid for the ferry to the island. Colin agreed to the price, and the men immediately started laughing. I think there might have been some wiggle room in the price. We rode down the steep, sandy hill and onto another multi-hull (this time, two) boat with a wood platform across it. We both made it on safely and rode slowly back to the mainland. Once across, we rode off the boat and into the sand, then up another steep, sandy hill. 

21 of the Four Thousand Islands
The Four Thousand Islands area is less than ten miles from the Cambodia border, and we made it to Lao Customs, got our Carnets stamped, and then moved on to the Lao Immigration office by about 10:00. This was where things got interesting. This particular, Dong Kalaw to Don Kralor, border crossing has a reputation for being corrupt, so we expected to be asked for “some off the books” payments. When I approached the Immigration window, I smiled, said hello, and handed our passports to the man inside. He examined our passports and then told me to pay two dollars per person. Trying my best to look perplexed, I told him I was confused and asked what the money was for? He said it was a stamping fee. So, in order for him to stamp us out of Laos, we needed to pay him. I smiled and told him that according to the Laos government website, we do not need to pay, “since we are American,” (thus giving him an easy out and a way to save face: “Ah, yes. Americans don't have to pay,” was what I imagined he might say). But he then frowned, and told me that yes, I must pay if I want him to stamp them. I said no, I would not pay, and he slid our passports back through the window and closed it. 

Colin heading to Laos Customs- no problemo
Quite a line of other travelers who were waiting to leave Laos had formed behind me. The man inside studiously ignored all of us as he glued photographs to applications for Laos ID cards for people who weren't even there. The natives were getting restless, and I motioned to the man in line behind me to go ahead, because I wasn't paying. This prompted him to ask what and why, and I told him. He was rather offended by the idea of paying a bribe, but the thought of missing his bus was worse, so he grouched at the official, took his picture, and paid. As did the rest of the busload of people.

the future Laos border crossing
Once their bus left and the next bus had unloaded its passengers, I stepped back up to the window, slid our passports across the counter, and tried again. The man said, “two dollars per person to stamp.” This time, I smiled and asked as nicely as I could for a receipt. His eyebrows rose to his hairline, he animatedly shook his head as he said NO, and gave me back our passports. The couple in line behind me was Belgian, and the man asked what had just happened. I explained to him that I was refusing to pay a bribe and thus could not get stamped out of Laos. He thought this was outrageous, and when he handed over their passports and was told to pay, he refused. The Dutch family behind them did the same thing, and then, a young French couple refused to pay. They were all riding to Cambodia on the same bus, and the Dutch woman started referring to the older Belgian man as “Che,” which caused great hilarity among the group. The seven of them decided to try to cross the border without getting stamped out of Laos, so they took off on foot down the road to Cambodia. 

I sat on the railing as the rest of the travelers in line paid their money and went on their way. As the morning wore on, it just got hotter. There is no shade, no water, nowhere to escape the elements. I tried again at the window, and this time, the going rate for the use of a rubber stamp dropped to one dollar each. I said no. A few minutes later, Colin came over and sat down next to me on the rail. He suggested leaving our passports at the window next time. So once again, I approached the window and said, “We have been waiting a very long time. May we please have our stamps?” The man said pay one dollar. I said no and left our passports before I sat down on the rail. Several minutes passed, and finally, he took our passports off the counter, stamped them, and motioned for me to take them away. After an hour and a half, I guess he finally got tired of looking at me and figured he'd lose even more money when the next busload of people arrived if he didn't get rid of us. 

Now sweat-soaked, we got on the bikes and rode to the Cambodian side. Colin went in to the Customs building to handle the bike paperwork, which was an effortless process. Next, we stopped at the quarantine counter to have our temperatures checked. This cost a dollar (a bribe). We paid it. From there, we went to apply for our visas. I filled out the brief application for both of us and place them with our passports, photos, and 20 USD each on the counter. The two men behind the counter then said, it is 23 USD. Once again, I smiled, said I was confused, because the Cambodian Immigration website said the visa fee was 20 USD. One of the men said that was correct, but they charge 3 USD per person for their “processing.” I tried again, “I don't understand. I thought Americans didn't have to pay any additional fees.” He then told me that if I wanted a visa for 20 USD, I needed to go back to Vientiane in Laos and apply for one there. Okay, that wasn't going to happen since it would take us a couple of days of riding just to get there, which would cost a helluva lot more than the three bucks each they wanted, but I did not want to pay it to them. I asked if I could have a receipt, and the man offered to give me a printed receipt for 25 USD, if I paid 25 USD (which I was definitely not going to do). I sat down, and Colin gave it a whirl, with his smooth, lawyerly tongue, saying something to the effect of, “I know many Cambodian borders have had problems with corruption in the past, and the government is trying to crack down on it. I know the cost of a visa is 20 USD at the border, can we please have our visas?” They gave us our visas. 

Next stop: getting stamped into the country. Here, they wanted another 3 USD per person to stamp our passports (those must be some fancy rubber stamps and inkpads they use). Through clenched teeth and more of a grimace than a smile, I plead stupidity again. “I don't understand, your website says, no stamping fees for Americans. Thank you, but I am not going to pay.” Somehow, somewhere, the gods of border crossing smiled down upon me, because this time, the man just stamped our passports and handed them to me. HOOOOrah. I don't want anyone to think that when I specified that we were Americans, that we expected any special treatment because of it.  In southeast Asia, losing face is very bad, and the reason I tried bringing up our nationality is that it gave the officials an easy out (as in, "Oh yes, Americans don't have to pay, so I will not continue to harass you as will everyone else in this line) or excuse to not collect the "fee" from us without losing face.

Now on the road in Cambodia, we headed toward the town of Ban Lung, which is a small, provincial capital city with a volcanic lake on its outskirts. The road from the border was sealed and relatively smooth and we got to the turn off for Ban Lung in about two hours. Northern Cambodia is unlovely, at least during the dry season. All the vegetation is scruffy and brown, and there are few large trees. Making it even less attractive were all the bright red signs with a skull and crossbones and “Warning! Land Mines!” that were posted on many of the trees, even near people's homes. I cannot imagine living with that kind of worry looming overhead every day. 

We turned off the main highway onto the dirt road to Ban Lung. The first mile or so was smooth, but then it got rougher, more corrugated, and more trafficked by buses and trucks. After about ten miles, Colin pulled over and asked how much we really wanted to go to Ban Lung. Considering that we had another 70 miles of this road just to get there, and we would have to return on the very same road, it seemed much less important to go. So we turned around (yes, we backtracked). On the ride back, the wisdom of our decision was confirmed when out of the dust we saw an oncoming minibus overtaking a truck and coming right for us. It was shades of India, as we dove for the soft edge of the road, and I distinctly heard the clank of the minibus hitting Re's rear view mirror. Remember, our mirrors only clear the ends of our handlebars by about an inch... . Yes, it scared the pants off me. I had pulled farther to the right than Colin and actually came to a stop, and still I got clunked by a minibus. 

We now headed to the city of Kratie, which is on the Mekong River and is a good place to spot Irrawaddy dolphins. Riding along on the nice highway, I all of a sudden, heard a strange, airy, whirring sound. It happened twice before, somewhere between Madras and Prineville, on the very first day of our trip, but never again. I pulled off the road, and Colin circled back to see what was wrong. I told him what happened, and we swapped bikes so he could hopefully figure out what it was. Well, my bike didn't make the same sound for him, but Colin found other issues with it. Apparently, he deemed my bike virtually unrideable because of an oscillating noise and lurching problem. I hadn't noticed it was bad, I guess because it's progressed over time. The noise I'd mentioned to Colin and we thought it was just the chain rubbing on the chain case. The lurching? I dunno. We've been riding on a lot of really rumbly roads lately, so I didn't notice it. Anyway, we made traded back (bummer for me- his rides much nicer) and made it to Kratie by about 5:00 pm. I found a small hotel with a very nice room right across the street from the river and the market. As an added bonus, they let us pull our bikes into the lobby overnight! We schlepped our gear upstairs, guzzled half a liter of water each, cranked up the A/C, and hit the shower. After dark, we crossed the street to the night market for dinner.

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