The Journey Across the Laos-Cambodia Border

If you don’t know Zach, let me give you a tidbit of information that will give you some insight into his personality.

He is a researcher.

And do not read that word and take it lightly. I mean true researcher of all things. Not like the scientific kind with labs and tests and such things. I mean the guy has a professional level Google search ability that I keep telling him should be incorporated somehow in his resume. If I want to know something, say about if I could buy passion fruit in the US, in six minutes he would not only tell me each grocery store and location of places where I can buy it, but the process of how it’s grown, imported, and the tax rate on them if there is one or when one will be implemented. I love him 😀 I don’t even bother looking things up anymore half the time.

Anyway, all that to say, we knew what to expect when we were preparing to cross the border from Laos to Cambodia. He knew everything down to the corrupt health screenings they try to trick you into paying $2 for literally no purpose, but they make you believe there is one. But we soon were shown yet again research can only get us so far. We can’t prepare for everything.

Zach also has a way of stressing me out in these situations. In a loving way of course! When he was telling me about all the corruption that takes place between bogus fees and “express” lines, it sounded like we would be trapped at the border, never to be let through and sold into a slave business. My mind runs wild sometimes. Let me start at the beginning though.

We were leaving from the 4,000 islands on the Laos side and heading to Phnom Penh after getting through border security. We bought bus tickets the previous day, checked to make sure we still had our passports, and went on our way.

After a short ferry ride from Don Khon where we stayed, we got off and looked around for some, or any direction. A couple of tourists on the ferry started walking up a hill and so we followed the crowd. They seemed to know what to do.

We all stopped – about 10 of us total – at this little restaurant/travel agency. (For some reason everyone is a travel agency here.) A lady there took our tickets one by one and rewrote them onto a new ticket.

I don’t know if you can tell, but funnily enough they were the exact same thing so we still have no idea why this step was needed.
Then everyone just sat and waited. By now, we’re used to this “hurry up and wait” routine. It happens everywhere here and never have we really been given times of when things actually take off or even where they take off. Usually we estimate buses and trains take off around an hour before or after the time advertised if we’re lucky. Usually two hours later than the advertised time, but again, it’s super unpredictable. This time was no exception.

Zach and I knew the routine and immediately sat down with a few others. There were pairs of people still standing. They looked around anxiously, unsure of what to do next. My guess was they were new to this and didn’t realize the flexible departure times of public transit here. I caught the eye of one girl and gave her a half smile and a little nod. She looked dejected but went in and at down in the shade after that.

The wait was about half an hour when the same ticket writer motioned towards us, yelled something in Lao, and shooed us away up the road. Oh right! We were supposed to go up the road to a nondescript location. What were we all thinking?

We all took off and stumbled upon a row of buses in a parking lot so we knew we had to be on track somewhat. We waited here for another 15 minutes until someone came over and yelled, “Phnom Penh” at us and asked to see our tickets.

Score! We were going to be on our way! And only like 30 minutes behind schedule! Such a miracle and it’s little things that really help me in these long sweaty travel days.

Except I celebrated too early because it was a rouse! They set us up! We sat on the bus, the leather seats sticking to my thighs, waiting for an hour before we actually did take off. Oh how Mass Transit can tease a girl.

The actual sadness is it was only like a 30 minute bus ride to the border. The realization that we could have walked there faster hurt more than Mass Transit’s deception.

This was when the real fun began anyway.

The first step across the border was paying $1 each for some necessary stamp to be allowed to leave Laos. It’s such a scam. There is no government fee. It all just gets pocketed right into the hands of the border officers, proud of their scam. Because they literally won’t let you into Cambodia without this needed exit stamp from Laos. But it’s not supposed to cost anything. But, it’s only $1 each, so it’s not even worth the fight.

Except a group of young tourists at the front of the line thought it was worth the fight. So much so the guards opened up another line to get people through because this group was holding up the first one.

I mean, theoretically, you could just walk straight through past this stamp scam but you’d get to the other side and they wouldn’t let you get a visa because you didn’t pay off the first group of officers so they’d send you right back.

And Zach’s telling me all the while that he agrees with this righteous group. This is corrupt and stupid and shouldn’t be allowed. And I agree! Completely! I get it and something needs to be done.

But I also believe there is a time and place for battles to be fought and this is not one of those moments. A group of four tourists refused to pay their $1. So what? They move past you like they did. I’m not sure the right way to fight the corruption – I think that that is a loaded question – but I am pretty sure a small group of tourists trying to get into Cambodia isn’t going to produce systemic change.

So we pay our $1 and get our stamp then just start walking through what appears to be No Man’s Land, except there’s nobody with guns. In fact, there’s nobody really there at all except a few other tourists walking through with us.

I’m walking across this deserted path and can’t help thinking that if this was the US-Mexico border I’d be shot by now for sure.

Zach preps me that on the other side there’s going to be a person trying to get us to pay for the health screening to make sure we can go through. He tells me to ignore it and walk right past them to the visa counter.

Well as soon as we get close to the Cambodia immigration building, a man points behind us and tell us to get in line for the health check. Zach and I knowingly smile to each other, but follow to where the man points.

We get to the counter and see another young woman, looking upset and angry, bent over her backpack trying to dig something out. It’s such a mess we don’t do anything, but watch as she is searching everywhere and we start to wonder, “Whoops what do we need?” The woman at the counter asks us for our passports and hands us this little sheet of paper to fill out that asks us about any diseases we have had recently. We start to fill it out and midway through the woman digging through her backpack finally pulls out this bright orange booklet that has a medical symbol on the front. We find out this has all her immunizations listed in it.

I let a brief moment of panic fill me because Zach and I don’t have anything like this. We don’t even really know what immunizations we have. Adulting fail. But then I remember – this is fake. It’s just a show to get more money. And as the girl in front of us collects her stuff to leave I hand our half filled in forms back to the lady and say thank you and turn to leave – not giving her an opportunity to fine us or give her our passports. Zachary, the good rule follower that he is (even though he warned me against this trap) was digging for his passport while I tugged his arm and we left.

The next step was even trickier – the actual visa part. We needed an ordinary visa instead of a tourist visa because we would be volunteering at a hospital in Cambodia. We hoped this wouldn’t be too much trouble, but we were young and naive.

When we first got up to the counter there was nobody else in line except the backpack girl we saw at the health screening. We fill out the form, hand it back to the officer who looks at it, grunts, and points to the man down a window.

The visa office is set up as one large desk with glass windows separating the employees and the customers except the windows are short. We could see over the tops and each of the three officers behind the counter could see and hear each other clearly.

We follow the grunt and the pointed finger down to another man. He looks at our application and asks for $40 each. (And yes US dollars. We had withdrawn a lot of cash before we left for Asia because Zach had read that at all the borders we would cross at Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia they take US dollars everywhere. Plus, it’s actually more expensive to pay for the visas in any other currency.) We have our money ready and with a smile hand it over. Such a breeze! We had nothing to worry about.

He takes a look at our bills and points to a marker line on one of the 20s. He shows his partner who shakes his head and hands it back to us.

“Change money.”

Wait what? We have no other money. The rest of our bills are in our backpacks under the bus which we had no idea where that was located.

We ask what’s going on, but every employee knows we have “bad” money and doesn’t even glance at us. We stand there holding up the line asking what’s wrong. “We brought this money from the US. It’s fine!”

“Change money! Change money!” They keep yelling – several of them now. The guy originally helping us just gets up and walks away. Another replaces him who doesn’t look any happier with our dollar bills.

Now none of them are paying attention and we just stand there looking like fish out of water with our mouths gaping wide open. We’re asking if there’s an ATM nearby and no one cares to answer our earnest pleas for help. (We later found out there was no ATM nearby.)

At just the moment when I thought we really would be sold into that slave labor I originally thought was only a nightmare, I remembered we had put 4 $5 bills last minute in Zach’s wallet. We take the twenty with the mark on it, and replace it elatedly! Except if you remember as clearly as we do, they were ignoring us. Even as we point to our new bills. No one was having it.

We keep trying to tell them, “We changed it! We changed it!” By this time a whole crowd of people have joined in the line around us. They are ignoring us too. They walk around us to skip us in the line and continue down their journey. I don’t blame them – it was awkward. They didn’t know what to do or say. I wouldn’t either.

By this point, we feel like everything is moving around us and we are literally invisible.

The cherry on top as we are fumbling around trying to figure out something to do, is the fact the visa is actually supposed to cost $35. It even says the price on the visa stamp and a sign at the back of the building. We are going to be paying $10 right to the hands of these scammers who didn’t even accept our cash.

For the second time that day, I gave up hope that we’d get through to Cambodia. But then the original officer who refused our cash came back and saw us still standing there.

“You change money?”

“Yes yes! Look!” We hand over the three 20s now and four $5 bills we changed out. This time he points to a tiny rip in a different $20 bill, looks at his friend, and bursts out laughing.


I think he can visibly see the despair in our faces and God must have come down and made his heart full of mercy because the guy just nods at us and takes us into his care. He writes up the forms and stamps our passports with visas himself. Even comes to our side of the counters explains how the visa worked, how long it was good for, how many times we could come in and out of the country and all that. He even walks us to the final step where we get one last stamp and then they finally release us into Cambodia.

I really think it was divine intervention that helped us get through that line. Both in terms of changing the man’s heart and keeping me from having a heart attack while standing in line between Laos and Cambodia.

Moral of the story? Everything turns out to be okay in the end. God takes care of us even when we feel completely alone and helpless. I need to learn to trust in Him more, especially in times like these.

Oh, and have brand new bills if you ever find yourself going through the Laos-Cambodian border control line.