Daylight robbery at Laos/Cambodian border: not worth the fighting

Lao border at Houey XaiI have crossed several borders overland in recent years, and even now there is a strange sense of excitement and apprehension as I approach the border guards. They have it in their power to make life very difficult for someone, and it is always my hope that that someone will not be me that day.

We approached the Cambodian border with southern Laos at around 2pm on a hot December afternoon. There was no-one in sight, and as the Lao driver who had brought us on the final stretch of road to the border waved us off, we walked to the Lao departure point, an old wooden hut holding the final Lao flag that we would see on our trip. “One dollar” the surly official said, and then added “two people, two dollar”. I had read about these processing fees and was not too surprised, but wanted to query him further. I got an irritated stare when I asked him what the dollar was for, and following a subtle kick from my wife Sam under the window I paid up and moved on; a dollar is not worth getting a man in uniform angry about, but still an imperfect ending to an otherwise outstanding 16 days in Laos.

Walking through no man’s land for 100 metres, we were soon greeted by the Cambodian guards. First we had to have a health check. This consisted of a thermometer to the forehead, and the official gave us our all clear with a big smile. We waited with baited breath for the magic words, and he didn’t disappoint: “one dollar”. Thank goodness I had brought lots of single dollar bills. Next we went to the visa hut, and while these were being processed, a young lad was eyeing us up from the corner of the shack, rather like a cat sizing up its prey. He knew we were far from town, and he had a car. How much could he get from us? He asked where we were going, and his starting price for the trip to Stung Treng (90km) was $50. He insisted that he normally takes a car-full for that price but as we were the only ones in sight we would have to pay for the whole car.

While we were negotiating with him our passports were returned and we were shown to the final booth to collect our Cambodian stamp on our newly issued visas. You’ve guessed it: one dollar visa fee. Our driver friend was waiting for us, and when he insisted that $40 was the lowest price we headed towards another car parked up around 50 metres away, and he finally settled on $30. I suspect I could have got him down lower still, but I figured $15 a head is only a little more than the bus which charged $10 for the same trip and had already made its last trip of the day.

It is a real shame that both Cambodia and Laos allow this behaviour to be common practice at their borders. I don’t bemoan the loss of $6. I’m sure those guys are not well paid, and seeing a rich foreigner passing through must present an overwhelming temptation to impose these small untraceable ‘processing fees’. The real damage is done to the reputation of the country and the perception of honesty of its people.

We encountered very little scamming of tourists during our stay in both countries. Tuk-tuk drivers, often the worst at over-charging, were remarkably fair in Cambodia in particular, and even in Laos where they tried a very high figure to start they quickly agreed a fair price and always with a smile.

But when a government official, dressed in uniform and carrying authority starts to demand unauthorised cash from visitors, it reinforces the image of a corrupt and unreliable system without any accountability. It will be great to hear someday that the Laos and Cambodian governments are taking this matter seriously, but I won’t hold my breath…

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3 Responses to “Daylight robbery at Laos/Cambodian border: not worth the fighting”

  1. HA! You brought back memories of traveling overland from Bangkok to Cambodia, on my way to Siem Reap. The corruption at the border was pretty bad and the road was almost indescribably horrible. Check out what I went through:

    January 4, 2010 at 6:21 pm
  2. I loved reading your post Barbara, and can understand how you resented paying the bribes. Sometimes we have to grin and bear it… Glad you made it safely to the other side

    January 5, 2010 at 9:43 am
  3. Andreia #

    I did that crossing a year ago…at the time i had a Cambodian visa that i bought in Bangkok….they charged nothing…all the people that didn’t have a visa, were charged many fees….
    So guess this is a way to avoid this situation…

    January 5, 2010 at 11:01 am