To Cross a Border

By Amethyst

Really, by yowling at sunrise, the dogs were doing us a favor, making sure we did not miss our bus. Our mournful canine friends lived under the raised bungalow where we were staying in Siem Riep, just a few miles from the incomparable Angkor Wat. The surprisingly modern bungalow was technically in the city, but still the jungle rose around us. Dusty dirt roads wound through houses in various states of disrepair, while fences provided support for the vines and wildflowers of the ever-creeping wilderness. The dazzlingly colorful wildflowers themselves provided a snack for wandering cows.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

We had arranged for Kim the tuk-tuk driver to take us to the bus station. A friend of the hosts’, over the previous three days he had provided us with cheerful three-dollar trips into town at our whim. Before climbing aboard that morning, we asked him where there was a mailbox along the way that could receive our half dozen postcards. Kim apparently has little use for the mail system, and so we scouted (unsuccessfully) for a box on our way into town. Only once we arrived did the lanky, burned-out Australian man who ran the bus company’s waypoint tell us where Ruby could send the postcards West. And, he quickly added, she should really go herself and not trust the tuk-tuk driver to drop them off.

Ruby returned with success to the bus station in just a few minutes. The skin-stretched Aussie soon launched into a well-rehearsed and mostly incomprehensible summary of the journey before us. The main points were that we would be taken to the border, we would pay a probably illegal two dollar fee to the Cambodian government and not refuse or we would be left behind, we would walk through no man’s land to Laos, we would collect our visas, and finally we would get on another bus to take us the rest of the way to Don Det. Any questions? No? Good.

We got into our “luxury van,” which, like every other vehicle in Cambodia, was at capacity. We were blessedly and surprisingly not over-full of luggage, though, and so were able to rest our feet on the floor rather than our bags. “Luxury” takes on a different meaning when backpacking, and we relished our foot space. Soon, our driver took off, quickly overtaking the van that had left five minutes prior. The van sped turbulently down roads that might have at some point been called “paved” with questionable regard for other drivers. Southeast Asian driving culture says that any time a vehicle is going too slowly for your liking, you may pass it by crossing into opposing traffic. Checking for oncoming cars is highly recommended, but by no means required. As an added safety measure, drivers honk at the car they are passing to be sure that they do, in fact, realize they were driving too slowly.

Our driver was, the astute reader may have guessed, doing quite a lot of such honking. Halfway to the Laotian border, we stopped to change vans: we were continuing northeast, others were heading south. Since the ride was so delightfully and dangerously efficient, we arrived an hour early at the station. And so, in efficiency’s name, we passengers – and the driver – waited for an hour and forty five minutes instead of forty five minutes for the next leg of the journey.

Since we had so much time to kill, I took my trusty roll-up hammock across the street to the banks of the Mekong to have a nap. Also needing a recharge, Ruby ordered a cup of coffee, which earned the unqualified distinction of the worst of her entire life.

We continued our Shake-Weight-sponsored trip north, stopping just before the crossing at an unremarkable Cambodian market. We had been told by the driver that we’d have the chance to change money at this market before going into Laos. Off the bus and inside the market, the driver explained in broken English that one might be able to get 8,500 Laotian Kip per dollar in the big cities of Laos, but at our destination, the tiny river island of Don Det, everyone, everyone sold Kip at 8,000. So, by stopping here, he was giving us a real opportunity (yes, dear reader, we missed that red flag) to change currencies at an 8300 kip per dollar rate. We have chosen to chalk up that 200 Kip/dollar (about 2 cents) difference in rates as a donation to the local economy, rather than consider ourselves victims of a scam supported by the transit company’s employees.

After paying our tithe, we were taken another half mile to the border.

“Ok, bye bye!”

“So do we just…go over there?” I pointed at what resembled a toll station with an office attached.

“Yes, you go, bye bye!” Our bus driver/international currency con-man had places to be. Traversing the remaining hundred yards to the passport office with our packs gave us the opportunity to survey the border crossing. On the Cambodian side were the aforementioned ticket booths and the government-plain passport control office. On the Laotian side were more toll booths, another passport office, and an impressive covered area for trucks and vans to pay their tolls and be processed. The rooflines rose to the sky in classical Asian architectural style. The whole area was flat, having been cleared of trees and brush, and roads crisscrossed between the countries to imbue the scene with a decidedly dystopian vibe.

We entered into the Cambodian office through the door marked “DEPARTURES.” With little hassle, the official stamped each bewildered backpacker’s passport and took our treaty-violating two dollars. We were called up, processed, stamped, and dismissed.

Standing on the other side of the window, Ruby asked, “Ok…now what?” Getting no answer, we walked down to the ARRIVALS door, where an official was leaning against the wall outside.

Sua stai, um, where do we go?” I held out my stamped passport.

“Yes, you go.” He pointed out the door in Laos’ general direction.

“Right, yes, but…where?”

“Yes, you go.”

“Right.”

With trepidation we exited Cambodia into the seventy five yards of not-actually-in-any-country expanse of dirt and pavement that was clearly not designed for pedestrians. The jungle stood, ready, fifty yards to our left and right.

Looking toward Laos from Cambodia customs

Approaching the structure we correctly guessed to be the processing office, we entered the ARRIVALS door. Waiting for us was a woman sitting behind glass.

“Hello!” I handed her the passports. I try not to be so unabashedly American, but I hadn’t learned Laotian greetings yet. The uniformed woman smile-grimaced, but said nothing. She opened my passport, and inside found the visa application with my photo stapled to the top right corner: PHOTO HERE. We came very prepared.

The smile half of her expression disappeared. “No copy.” She held up the photo. I raised an eyebrow.

“No, that’s not a copy, it’s the original. I, uh, printed it out…”  I realized from her blank expression that the signal wasn’t getting through. “No copy. Original.”

She shook her head. “No copy.”

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you, lady, that’s not a copy, I don’t have another one, and I can’t go back to Cambodia.”

Ruby interrupted. “Amethyst. Be nice.”

“It doesn’t matter, she can’t understand me!”

Thankfully, that “requirement” seemed to be just a helpful suggestion. My quip at the passport lady was borne of needless frustration. I had assumed that a fully completed visa application would be mandatory to enter a foreign country. As needed as, say, checking for oncoming traffic before changing lanes. And so, I thought, we were about to be denied entry. But the photos were simply torn off the visa application papers and discarded.

We were motioned to sit and wait. Other travelers filed in and went through the same process, except many of them had been tipped off about the professional photos. We waited and compared itineraries. The first question that backpackers ask is “Where are you from?”,  followed quickly by “Where are you going?” and “How long are you traveling?” Only then, and only in the desperation that comes if another topic of conversation hasn’t been found, do we sometimes hear “What do you do?”

At the visa output window, our passports, now with Laotian visas inside, were held up one by one. An attempt was made to pronounce our names, but few are the Laotians who have mastered our alphabet. So we all looked at each passport as it was presented. “Looks like a German passport, isn’t he from Germany?” “That one’s red, I think? Italy?” “Ah, good ol’ USA.”

Having collected our papers, we again wandered, bleary-eyed, back into the sunlight. “Ok, there,” helpfully suggested a Laotian man, who maybe worked there. Uniform dress codes were unreliably followed.

“What? What’s that? Is that where we’re getting picked up?”

He furrowed his frow at us. “Restaurant. Go there.”

“A restaurant? Sure.”

Aside from its lonely location, the restaurant was like any of the umpteen thousand “restaurants” by the side of the road in Southeast Asia. The same smattering of fried quasi-ethnic foods as we would find in the rest of the country, a couple of decades-old drink coolers, a few unidentifiable objects for sale, a small kitchen, and a door to a bedroom. Two features made this food stand (“restaurant” is a stretch) stand out, though: the contingent of two dozen foreigners that quickly gathered to wait for our rides, and the six-feet-cubed cage that held a large tropical bird which would squawk wildly, loudly, and somehow majestically every few minutes, forcing all of us to stop our conversations and wait thirty seconds for the end of its display.

We struck up a conversation with a guy perhaps twenty years our senior who seemed to live on the road. He told us about running across the border in Nicaragua, about a poorly-timed Ugandan visa, and other exotic mixups. We told him about buying black market cash in Cuba, where he had never been, to our great pride.

Fifteen minutes later two military-style trucks pulled up. No friendly bus driver got out to round us up, no placards announced their destination. We simply climbed aboard.

“Where does this truck go? Don Det?” Ruby took the lead.

“Yes.” Unbeknownst to us, the driver had just used half his English vocabulary.

“Ok, this bus, it goes on to Pakse?” Pakse was the next stop for many of our fellow travelers, north of Don Det.

“Yes.”

“Great.” We all passed our bags up to be loaded on the roof. Below the flat sheet of aluminum on which our luggage sat, there were two red benches running longways on each side of the truck bed. Six travelers fit on each. It was cozy.

“Ok, making sure. THIS truck goes to Pakse?” a fellow tourist confirmed.

“No.”

“No?”

“No.” There was a flurry of activity.

“Oh goodness, get your stuff off. Everyone get your bags off if you’re going to Pakse!”

Where such an announcement might lead to panic and hysteria on a New York – DC bus, this one was met sighs. Those headed to Pakse started removing their bags. We decided to triple check, since there were no other busses in sight.

“Wait, ok, hold on, where does this bus go?” we asked the nonplussed driver.  

“Don Det, Don Khon, Pakse.”

“So it goes to Pakse AFTER Don Khon?”

“Yes.”

“OK FALSE ALARM! Get your stuff back on, let’s go.”

After about two miles, the truck stopped to let off the Pakse-bound, while we turned left and continued to Nakasong, which was plastered on the banks of the Mekong as a jumping-off point to get to 4,000 Islands. A few of this clearly exaggerated number of islands held a collection of tourist outposts, catering to Chinese tourists seeking loud karaoke, retirees seeking luxe days at the river spa, or hippies looking for “happy” pizza, yoga, and cheap beer. Even though yoga was out due to a sprained wrist, we vastly prefer wine to beer, and we don’t eat pizza, happy or otherwise, the promise of a laid back hippie town drew us in.

We climbed into a long, narrow ferry to take us to Don Det. Passing by many of the “4,000” Islands, we realized that perhaps there were actually that many, if you counted the mounds of dirt that were little more than shrubs sticking out of the water.

Due to all the difficulties and unexpected delays, we arrived just as the sun set behind the mountains on the other side of the river. The width of the Mekong seemed to push the mountains back, giving the sky the illusion of being especially large. Reds, blues, and yellows played on the tree-covered hills that quickly rose and sank in and out of the water.

There is no adventure without courage, there is no courage without fear. We all dream of adventure, but sometimes we forget that travel can mean real setbacks and uncertainty. We’ve recognized this unfortunate reality and are learning to accept it. Rather than complain about what we perceive as obvious procedural errors in the actions of our foreign hosts, we have learned instead to say “always an adventure!”

The captain cut the engine and we glided into the dock.

Sunset over the Mekong from the ferry to Don Det

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