The Joys of Border Crossing

We walk up to the visa-on-arrival office at Poipet on the border of Thailand and Cambodia ready to deal with our very favorite part of travel—border crossings. We have in hand our passports and in our pockets the $20 we know the visa costs. We grab a visa application form and provide the requested information–name, passport number, date of birth, intended length of stay, and so on and so forth. We take out one of the many passport photos we carry with us and staple it to the form, and then we hand the passport and application form over to the immigration officer standing in front of the window through which it seems you’re supposed to hand in your application.

“Money,” the officer barks, so we pull out our crisp $20 bills and hand them over.

“No good,” he says. “Only Thai baht here. 1000 baht.” He’s a young guy, round-faced with splotchy facial hair and an expression that makes you think he hasn’t smiled once in his life.

We smile and tell him that we have no baht, though we have more than enough tucked away in our pockets. One thousand baht is about $30, $10 more than the visa should cost, and we don’t intend to pay that. We then point to the sign over his head, which clearly states “Tourism Visa: $20”.

He shakes his head and insists that we must pay in baht and we must pay 1,000. We smile again and say no. We tell him that we will pay in dollars only and that the sign clearly states the cost is $20.

He stares hard at us and then changes tactics, “Okay, he says. You pay in dollars. $20 plus $5.”

We stick with the party line. “It’s $20. We’re only paying $20.” We try to reach around him to pass our passports, visa applications, and $20 through the window to the officer sitting behind him, but the round-faced officer closes the window. They’re all in this together anyhow.

So it’s on to offer number three. “Okay,” he says again. “$20 plus 100 baht.”

Our response doesn’t change. He’s getting nowhere with us. But by now there are four people in line behind us, so he moves on to them. The Israeli guy behind us gets the same spiel we do, and sides with us. He’s not paying more than $20. The three guys behind him get a shortened spiel, asking directly for the $20 plus 100 baht. He tells them that the 100 baht is an “expediting fee.” They ask how long it will take if they don’t pay the fee. He says 2 or 3 days. I’d call his bluff, but they don’t, just handing over the 100 baht.

“Shit,” I think, “we’ll never win now.” How will the officer consent to just take $20 from us if others are so willing paying the fee, aka “bribe.” But we’re not about to give in. He isn’t either.

He shoos us off to the side and very quickly processes the three visas of the guys who anted up the extra 100 baht. We stand there and chat with our new Israeli friend.

This isn’t the first hassle we’ve had today. First it was finding a legitimate bus in Thailand, not one of the scam buses that after a marathon trip of fake breakdowns and multiple food stops delivers an exhausted you to a crappy guesthouse that has paid the bus to take you there and makes it very, very difficult for you to go elsewhere. Then it was getting our tuk-tuk driver to put the bike back in gear and take us to the border, not the “consulate office” conveniently located in a tourism shop on a side road near the border and charging a sweet 1,000 baht for the visa, the extra $10 a tip for the tourism agent and the tuk-tuk driver of course. Beyond the border, we’ll face the hassle of finding onward transport to Siem Reap. It was going to be a spectacularly fun day.

Border crossings are one of the unspoken joys of travel. For us, it’s gotten progressively more “fun” as we’ve traveled east. South America border crossings were cake. Hand over the passport, get a stamp, and move on. In Africa, the hassle wasn’t the actual immigration office—everyone we met inside the office was surprisingly honest—it was getting to the office through the gauntlet of touts, moneychangers, taxi drivers, and other border good-for-nothings. In Asia, it seems, the hassle is going to be with, well, pretty much everything, at least if it’s like the Cambodian crossing.

So there we were on the border of Thailand and Cambodia, being ignored by the immigration officer who was desperately looking around for his next victim to appear. Unfortunately for him, no one else wandered up. He had to deal with us. And shockingly, that’s what he does. With a sigh and an evil eye, he takes our passports, our applications, and our $20 (and no more) and passes them through to the officers on the other side of the glass. He then motions us to take a seat nearby while he himself sits down for lunch. We begin taking over/under bets on how long he’ll make us wait.

But it’s not so bad. We use the bathroom, we get a snack, we chat with our new friend. And guess what? It’s only about 15 minutes later that our passports come back out the window, visas inside. It didn’t take the threatened 2-3 days. Who would have thought? Though in the end it came down to 100 baht, or $3, it was about more than the money. It was about standing up for ourselves. It was about standing up for what was right. It was about saving our dollars to hand over to the hard-working and honest guy cleaning the bathroom rather than lining the pocket of an official who pre-bribe is probably already better offer than 90% of his countrymen. It was a small victory for sure, but it felt good. We’d stood our ground against corruption, and we’d won…at least this round.