A corrupt border crossing…

We read a lot of stories about the land crossing between Cambodia and Laos, so we knew that crossing the border at Stung Treng checkpoint cost a few extra dollars, and that custom agents (on both sides) were very serious about asking that extra bit of money to make people pass from one country to the other.

But we also read experiences from travellers who managed to pay less (or even nothing) by playing different tactics that usually came to the cost of time. But if it had to come down to time, we had it! And if we could be one of those travellers that say “No” to paying imaginary fees to corrupt custom agents, it would be a victory!

We travelled a long way from Battambang: we thought that from there we could take a night bus to Stung Treng (the last town before the border) but that connection in fact didn’t exist. So unless we wanted to go back to Siem Reap and spent a night there again, our only other option was the night bus to Phnom Penh and then a direct connection to Stung Treng in the morning. We were told we would arrive on time to go straight to the border, but the last bus ride ended up being much longer that expected. Since we needed time and strength to face the custom agents, we decided to stay the night in Stung Treng. 

 

We found a cheap little guest house, Adrien played football with local kids and I met another French Lisa who was travelling from Laos and gave us a few tips (and also told us she didn’t manage to avoid paying at the border that same day despite her strong ambitions not to…)

So we knew what to expect:

  • 2$ for the exit stamp in the passport when  leaving Cambodia.
  • 1$ for a fake medical inspection before entering Laos.
  • 1$ extra for visa “administration fee”
  • 2$ to get the passport back with the entry stamp into Laos.
  • And potentially 1$ if we arrived after 4:30pm as “overtime fee”….

We were well prepared after our intensive research and decided to take a bus only until the border (buses that cross only give 30 minutes to their passengers to go through customs and we didn’t wanted to be under pressure of time for our negotiations…) It was complicated to explain that we wanted to be dropped off at the border and not go all the way to Laos, but eventually the driver understood.

A TukTuk picked us up at 10:30 am at our guest house and brought us to a “bus station” (really just a restaurant), where 3 more people were waiting: two Austrian men (around 50) and one English girl about our age. They were drinking beer and quickly understood that it was not the first drink of the day!

We ended up waiting until 12:00 pm until a mini van finally arrived (which gave our trio some time to drink a few more beers). It was just us on the bus. The smell of alcohol was strong so we had to open the windows and the 45 minutes ride gave our friends just enough time to drink 2 more beers each (yes we counted!)…

Finally we were all dropped off at the border.  It was very hot, the sun was burning. The driver left us with no further instructions, picked up the few travellers that had arrived from Laos and left. 

Seeing our trio searching for something (probably a bar or a booze refill), we ditched them quickly thinking it was best to cross without them anyway and we headed towards our first challenge : leave Cambodia without paying 2$.

 

That first step was much easier than we thought: There was no one else around and the agent at the counter took our passports without asking us more that “leave?” to which we replied “yes”. He gave us the stamp and closed the conversation with “goodbye!”.

We walked to the Laos gates, expecting to be stopped for the “medical inspection” but here again, no one was around… It was another dollar saved for us!

Once on the Laos side, there were two counters: one to pay for the visa on arrival and one to get the passport back with visa and stamp. In front of the first counter was a billboard with the official prices for visa, for us it was 30$. We handed our passports with the visa application document and the exact amount of money to the agent. He didn’t ask for more, just told us to take a seat and wait. We were surprised he didn’t ask us to pay 31$ each and started to think that all these crossing stories might in fact not be true… But a few minutes later, seeing that a bigger group of people was arriving, we saw the agent put up a piece of paper in front of this counter that said “administration fee: 1usd”. It looked like we had been lucky once more! 

After a moment, another agent called us to the second counter with our passports in one hand and a stamp in the other. He looked at us and said “2 dollars for stamp!”

Here we go we thought!

Our tactic was to play nice and dumb. We asked him to repeat a few time pretending we didn’t understand. After the third time, we asked him why we had to pay, pretending to be surprised. We nicely asked him to show us where this fee was written, looking around as of we were looking for an official sign. We even explained that this was the first time we were being asked to pay for a stamp (and tried to show him all the stamps in our passports)…. He smiled, closed our passports, put them aside and put down the stamp. Playing our role, we asked him again to show us where that fee was written, but he sat back in his chair, smiled and pretended he didn’t know English any-more. He knew which game we were playing. He was playing his… “Game on!” was written all over his face.

We told him that it was fine, that we would make some research about this fee. He smiled back and showed us the seats behind us as if to say “please, be my guest… I have all the time in the world”… he then turn back to his friend in the office and laughed.

Of course we didn’t have internet but to research anything but we pretended to be looking up something on our phones, while planning our next approach.

In the meantime, our trio arrived. One of the Austrians, which  we decided to call the crazy pirate, was clearly completely drunk by now! We overheard that they paid 1$ extra for their visa, and at the second counter they paid 2$ each without asking questions… Later they also told us they were asked to pay 2$ to leave Cambodia! A good thing we didn’t wait for them…. Our problem now was, they were sitting on the same bench as us, in front of the second counter, waiting for a bus, and as long as they would be here, we knew we had no chances of negotiating with the agent.

Adrien went back to the counter, pretended to ask for the official immigration website but he just had time to say “excuse me…” that the agent waved him away and closed the window right in front his nose!

Adrien went back to the first counter and very politely asked “excuse me, I just wanted to know…” but the other agent waved him away too and closed the window.

It was rude and funny at the same time, we couldn’t help laughing… but altogether we also had in mind that we were now between two counties and our passports were in the hands of people would didn’t wanted to speak with us unless we paid them…

Now you might think it is stupid fighting for 2$, but when you travel for a while and always get scammed and end up paying more here or there, you eventually get to a point when enough is enough.

So we went back to our bench and waited for some time. It was around 4pm now and our trio was still there, drinking more beers. We tried to go back to the agent a few times but it seemed suddenly no one was speaking English any-more. One guy told us something like “her soviet, you must pay or problem”, but we are not sure we understood that right…

It was clear that as long as the trio was here, there was no chances to leave without paying. So we told them we’d seen a few mini vans on the other side and that it might had been the bus they had been waiting for. They picked up their luggage and left.

A few minutes later we went back to the counter. The window opened. Very calm, we explained one more time that we didn’t understand why we had to pay to get our passports back, and that if they showed us a proof of what they were saying we would pay. But it was like we were talking to a wall. 

In one last attempt, we took out the money and tried: “okay, we will pay but we want a receipt with your name on it as a proof that we paid”. The agent pretended not to understand for a second but then suddenly said :”okay okay you pay 1$ each!”

Bingo! It was late and we had to worry about a bus to go to Don Det… We decided to leave the negotiation there and pay 1$ each. It was kind of a victory already!

Even though he still pretended not to understand English, we told him it was a shame what they were doing, that if a fee was negotiable it certainly not was a legal fee. We also asked him again about a receipt, but he very quickly made a stamp in our passports, gave them back to us, took the money, smiled (at least he smiled) and walked away before we could say anything more.

So it was a combination of luck and patience but we were proud of having paid only 1$ to cross this border, when most people go the easy way, pay up to 5$ and encourage bribery to get through quickly and easily.

We probably would have paid more if we had had to negotiate at each point but luck was on our side this time! The key is to have a lot of time and patience, and cross the border be alone, not as part of a group.

We picked up our backpacks and left. We found the trio sitting at a local bar and joined them for one beer (which seemed to make them very happy!)

About 20 minutes later, the border was closing and the agent we had fought against all this time smiled and waved us goodbye as he passed by on his motorbike, as if he was saying “it was a good fight guys!”

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