Status Update:

Current location: Bochum / Germany

50 countries, 1226 days, trip mileage: 124200 km

1 Apr 2009

Cambodia Border Crossing


Those of you whoe been following this blog might remember my border-crossing from Uzbekistan into Tajikistan, together with my (at the time) travel-partner Len: wrong visa date, limited food supplies, camping in no-ones land between borders for 2 days. A little bit annoying, but it turned out to be OK.

It's been a long time since Tajikistan, and I'd been wondering what the next "border crossing gone wrong" would look like. Now I know. This time around, it's my new travel-partner Elmar and I, crossing from Laos into Cambodia (Voen Kham/Dom Kralor border). Total time spent at the border: a record-breaking 4 hours.

71_Laos (Mar09)

Laos Customs: With a 12pm arrival at Laos Customs, we find the whole border department enjoying their lunch-break. Everything's friendly & relaxed, we're even allowed to take some photographs. Lunch-break? No problem! The custom's officer gets up, takes our Carnet de Passages (=visa for the bike), goes to his office and a few minutes later comes back with the Carnet stamped out of Laos. I'm stunned... one of the quickest Custom's procedures I've seen so far (5 minutes ago, the customs officer was officially on lunch break!).

Laos Immigration: When entering Laos, one of the border officers apparently forgot an important stamp. A quick chat with the boss - no problem. After stamping us out of Laos, we get asked for a "stamp fee" (=bribe) of $1. We tell the officer 'stamping is part of your duty', he contemplates for a brief moment, but then agrees and lets us go.

Cambodia Customs & Immigration: This is where it gets a little messy. Immigration greets us with a friendly "Welcome to Cambodia", followed by "First you have to do Customs for your motorcycles". OK. No problem. Then the Customs officer on duty comes up: drunk, cross-eyed, just about able to walk, hand stretched out towards us (no "Hello" or "Welcome"), yelling "Figh lola!". (Translation into sober language: "Five Dollars!"). Bribe-time? Elmar and I look at each other, shaking our heads. No. Let's see where this leads! We follow Mr Customs to his office, fill out the paperwork, and wait for him to stamp our Carnet (bike paperwork). (Which he does, prior to asking for the bribe. A normal (corrupt) customs officer wouldn't even touch the stamp before he's got the cash in hand. But after all, this guy's drunk, right?)

  • Mr Customs: "Figh lola, stamp fee".
  • Us: Just stamp the Carnet. We'll discuss the $5 later.
  • (Custom guy stamps the Carnet) "Figh lola"
  • We'll pay the $5, but we'd like a receipt.
  • No receipt. This law Cambodia.
  • OK. Nice try for a bribe, but: No receipt = no $5.

Well - we've got what we need, and we've already got the Cambodian Visa. Next stop: Immigration.
  • Immigration: "I can stamp you into Cambodia, but Mr Customs has a problem with your motorcycles. If I stamp you in, you can enter the country. But your motorcycles need to stay here."
  • "That's our problem. Just stamp us in, please"
  • (Immigration talks with Mr Customs) "No, I can't stamp you in. Customs wants to check your engine number & frame number with the Carnet."

Elmar and I know that this is bullshit. If anything, the engine/frame number needs to be checked before stamping the Carnet. So it's pretty obvious that the Customs guy is up to something. I'm usually quite together when it comes to border crossings, especially once I sniffed corruption. But for some strange reason (I'm blaming heat & dehydration), the Customs guy gets hold of my Carnet de Passage. And he's walking away from the motorcycles to his office. If he wants to read the engine number on the bike, he needs to walk towards the motorcycle... Not good.

But the guy's drunk. So whilst he's on his way back to his office, I'm trying to remind him that my motorcycle is standing right behind him, on the one and only road - and not behind his office. But obviously, he's not even remotely interested in reading the engine number. He's only interested in keeping my carnet. And that's worth €3000 to me, so to release the bond I paid for it in Germany upon my return there. I follow the guy back to his office. And once we get there, his behaviour changes from 'plain drunk' to 'sulky'. Body language just like a little child: No eye-contact with me, arms crossed in front of his stomach, head turned sideways staring at the floor in front of him.

So far, Mr Customs was wearing a white shirt. Now he puts on his Customs shirt, sits down behind his desk, hammers his fist on the desk, shouting "This law Cambodia". (Still no eye-contact with me). I'm trying to calm him down, and as I've lost literally ALL respect for this dude, point out the motorcycle to him again, trying to talk sense into the guy: You want to read the engine number - THERE you go! Nope - the guy won't move. No discussions. Not even about the $5 anymore! (Seriously, I am not that bothered about $5, I simply thought I'd try it on and at least steal a bit of time the guy has just gone SO sulky, he won't listen, he won't talk. We even try to communicate to him through his (sober & sane) Immigration collegue. To no success.

"Plan B", it seems. No Cambodia. Maybe back into Laos? Elmar goes back to Laos Immigration to see if we can get back into the country. In the meantime, I grab my mobile phone and call the German Embassy in Lao to see if they can help. And whilst I'm making that phone-call, I make sure that Mr Customs realizes that I'm writing down his officers' number (a good thing he put on his official uniform ;). He quickly takes off his uniform - too late.

To cut a long story short: Laos Immigration is more than happy to let us back into Laos. We tell the Cambodian side that we have 2 options: we either get the Carnet back NOW (and then go back to Laos), or: if we don't get the paperwork back, we will pitch a tent in front of their front garden, wait as long as necessary and THEN go back to Laos. Elmar and I hope that they understand that the result would be the same: no $5, and no Cambodia. But as you can probably imagine: it's hard to explain this to a drunken Customs officer. As for the German Embassy: Mr Customs has committed theft. And because of that, the Embassy is going to try sort things out with Cambodian Customs head office.

Whilst we're waiting for a call-back from the Embassy, we decide to take some pictures of Mr Customs and his flash Toyota HiLux (which is standing right next to the hammock he's now lying in). The result: A stone-throwing Mr Customs, who's desperately trying to catch Elmar and get hold of Elmar's camera. At times it's so ridiculous, Mr Customs is even hiding in his hut, so we can't take more photographs of him. By now, the whole thing has been going on for over 3 hours. We've already set our mind on camping in front of Mr Custom's hut, when suddenly his boss comes out of the big office on the other side of the road: he has a brief chat with the (sober) Immigration guy, who translates to us the unexpected: if we delete all the photographs we took at this border, we will get my Carnet back. And we can go into Cambodia. Finally. In front of the big boss's eyes, we delete all photographs, get the Carnet back and we're stamped into Cambodia. And as we're rolling our bikes into the country, the drunk customs guy is still sitting in front of his office, arms crossed in front of his stomach, head pointed downwards - still the same sulky body language as 3 hours ago.

Was it worth it for us? Certainly not just to save $5. But it was an interesting experience. And overall, I think it was the right thing to do: generally, I'm trying to avoid paying bribes as much as I can. By paying bribes, I'm not going to change the way things are in a country. Not paying bribes MIGHT change things on the long run. That said: as a traveller, I'm fortunate enough to have embassy-support in a case like this (stolen carnet). In a corrupt system, the local people usually don't have this kind of privilege, because the police is often just as corrupt as the person they're dealing with.

Although I'm not too serious about it, I still have a personal "no bribes record" (if there is such a thing). It's a bit of a game that keeps me entertained at times. But I'm fully aware that there will be a time when I'll have to pay a bribe: In fact, 1h into this Laos-Cambodia border crossing game, I was prepared to pay the $5. But the rather peculiar setting (sulky customs guy, stolen Carnet de Passage, him throwing stones, no discussions!) somewhat caused a stale mate situation. And the fact that he didn't even say "Hello" certainly didn't appeal to me either. If he had projected a little more authority (instead of just stealing an important document of mine), there wouldn't have been two ways about it.

Apart from the border crossing, we felt very welcome in Cambodia and went to see the "S21" concentration camp on Phnom Penh, and the world's biggest religious site, Angkor Wat, in Siem Reap. Here are some samples from the Cambodia Album on FlickR:

02_One of the very few bad roads we encountered in Cambodia(Mar09) 04_Inside the 05_Inside the 06_Inside the 07_Inside the 08_Posters in Cambodia, calling for participation in the Khmer Roughe trials(Mar09) 10_Ice-cream vendor in Phnom Penh(Mar09) 11_Motorcycle transport in Phnom Penh(Mar09) 13_Man on his way home from the market, Siem Reap(Mar09) 15_Elmar & Holger inside our tuk-tuk to Angkor Wat(Mar09) 18_The Bayon, Angkor Wat(Mar09) 21_Ta Promh Temple, Angkor Wat(Mar09) 22_Inside the main temple, Angkor Wat(Mar09) 23_Angkor Wat(Mar09) 24_Angkor Wat main temple(Mar09) 25_Anja, Holger & Elmar taking a picture of Angkor Wat(Mar09) 26_From left to right- Elmar, Holger, I and Anja with the friendly hotel staff in Siem Reap(Mar09) 27_On the road from Siem Reap to Poipet (border-town to Thailand).(Mar09) 28_On the road from Siem Reap to Poipet (border-town to Thailand).(Mar09)