Thursday, 7 June 2012

Day 76 - Cambodia/Laos border crossing: A caravan and a tin shed

I now backtrack to Day 73 when we arrived in Laos, across the border with Cambodia.

The North of Cambodia is really quite uninhabited, and as we approached the border crossing we realised we hadn’t passed any other vehicles for some time. There wasn’t even the usual smattering of huts and platforms on stilts throughout the fields, and we saw more “don’t walk here, you might get blown up by a landmine” signs than we saw in the whole of the rest of Cambodia.

We stopped a few kilometres short of the crossing to get out our passports and paperwork and separate our cash. We all kept around $5 in $1 notes in our wallets to be used as “fees” if necessary, careful not to have too much in case it comes to an “empty your pockets” situation. Then we had $35 each stashed but readily available for our Laotian visa when we got to that side of the border, and the rest of our cash stashed as safely as possible inside bags in the boot.

And on to the border. This really was the middle of nowhere – there was no building higher than a couple of meters, and it was so hot and still that the few people that were around weren’t doing a whole lot of moving. The usual group of tuk-tuk drivers, guesthouse spruikers, shop keepers and locals carting goods across the border were just nowhere to be seen.

There was a handful of cars parked at the side of the road, but unsure of exactly what the protocol was we drove up to the boom gate, where we were waved at and told to go back and park with the other cars. There were of course a couple of ladies under corrugated iron roofs who tried to sell us cold drinks from their ice chests as we were parking, but we resisted their offers and walked up to the small wooden hut  at the boom gate. There we were greeted by two policemen, their jackets strewn to the side in the unforgiving heat, who told us to go to Customs for our car.

Customs was one of a handful of huts a few meters behind Passport Control, this one with four walls, but both bare except for a table and chair, and the officers’ jackets hanging on nails in the corner. As we approached, the man sitting outside in front of the “Customs” sign quickly got up and went inside to his desk. He stared at us for a bit, and then asked for our papers, to which we told him we don’t need any because the car’s a temporary import and we’re using a Carnet. And then he repeated “your papers?”, and he got the same response. After repeating the same thing a few times, he seemed to be satisfied and sent us back to Passport Control. The two original policemen were happy enough that we’d gone to Customs and so proceeded to stamp our passports out of Cambodia. The” fee” required for this privilege is $2 per person, and this certainly isn’t a border where we were inclined to argue with the men with guns. There was one other civilian there at this time who had a handful of Vietnamese passports. We assume one of the parked cars was his, but we’re not sure who all the other cars belonged to, or where all the people were whose passports he had.

Once our “fees” were paid, the manual boom gate (operated by a rope at one end) was lifted for us and we entered No Man’s Land once again. This one was a lot less note worthy than our last experience at Poipet, where we spent a night in a Casino between the borders. Here we were faced with 100 meters of road, and a handful of Laotian guards playing bocce under a tarpaulin. Once again we parked at the boom gate, and this time with our $35 on hand, walked past the boom gate to the caravan parked under a tin roof, proudly flying the hammer and sickle, that was Laotian Visa and Passport Services.

At Window 1 we were given our arrival/departure cards to fill in, with one pen between us. A small veranda had been built in front of the caravan, resulting in the windows being uncomfortably low (even for tiny me), but if you’re willing to stand doubled up with your head at waist height,  it was possible to get a brief but terrific blast of the air conditioning from inside. So one at a time we handed over our filled in cards and passports to Window 1, where we were charged only $30 for the visa (everything we’d previously referenced said it would be $35, and we had been prepared for them to ask for more, so this was a pleasant surprise not to be argued with) and asked to go to Window 2. At Window 2 we waited while that guy finished reading his magazine so he could wake up the other guy, who came and returned our passports to us for a “fee” of $2 per person.

Back to Trevor we went, a weight lifting off our shoulders as the boom gate was raised for us. Straight ahead there’s a grand gate under construction, with a wide new road going through it, but in the mean time there’s a very narrow unsealed track that goes around this future gate. This is the road we entered Laos on.

Of course we got all excited at this point, what with having successfully entered another country. But alas, we realised our excitement was premature when we reached another boom gate a couple of kilometres down the road. A man waved us over from the side of the road, and we realised the brick building here was Customs and he wanted to see our Carnet. Laos isn’t even a country subscribed to the Carnet, but ok. The man at the window flicked through, obviously confused, as Ben tried to point him to the bit he actually needed to look at. Then he ran off with our $950 document, and so we ran off after him, adamant not to let it out of our sight. We realised he’d gone to get his boss to do the signing, who drove his scooter across the road and met us at a bunch of plastic chairs and a table under a tarpaulin. This is where the glorious ceremony of the signing of the Carnet took place. Each country gets one page in the booklet, which is split vertically into three sections with perforations in between. The bottom section should be signed and stamped and kept by Customs for their records on import. The middle section should be done on export, and the top section stays in our booklet signed and stamped on both import and export. Much to our frustration though, he jumped in and signed the wrong side of the top section. Ben spoke up straight away, and this guy obviously having no idea what the story was, just signed and stamped the other side as well. Satisfied with this, the boss scootered himself back across the road to continue hanging out, and we chased the first guy back to his window, where he retrieved the slip from a previous Carnet as reference of what he was supposed to do now. He tore off the bottom part of the page (which is actually correct), and sent us on our way for no fee – a nice surprise. So according to our document we have already imported and exported the car to Laos, and because they never signed or stamped their part, they don’t actually have a record of us ever having our car here.

Once again we set on our way, chastising ourselves for having gotten prematurely excited about successfully crossing the border. This time however, it seems we had completed all the required tasks and were able to make our way onto Don Det in the 4,000 Islands where have now spent the last three days.

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