Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Into Cambodia

What an adventure this turned out to be! I was actually planning to stay one more day in Laos, but that was then I thought it was still Friday, or maybe even Thursday: I was completely freaked to find the bank closed, meaning it must be Saturday, and caught a truck south (no buses now, except for the early morning minivans). What a mistake - I had been told that if I got to this little town near the border, I'd be able to arrange minivan transport into the first town in Cambodia (Stung Treng). Unfortunately, I mentioned this plan to the truck driver - he volunteered to take me to the border. I had misgivings, as I'd then need to make my own way south from the other side, but thought "what the hell, it will work out".

Now, the thing is that there are two Cambodian border crossings - I knew to avoid the one by the river, as it could not issue visas. But I also "knew" that the Laos border post was in a little village off the main road, so that when my truck driver dropped me at a little village off the main road with a Laos border post, I thought nothing of it, and merrily exited Laos. I was told the Cambodian border post was "1 kilometre" with a vague gesture, with an offer to take me by moto for a dollar, which meant it was probably around the corner. So, I walked. Then I walked some more. And then some. It got dark. I kept walking - I'd already figured that the border post they meant was the river one, so was really looking for the other border. No sign of it, so I thought it best to go back to where I had started from. This meant walking back up this narrow little dust track, cratered with potholes and with a ravine down the centre, in the sort of complete darkness produced by having the moon in my eyes. By the time I got back, my clock said it was 8:30 (it got dark around 5:30). About half the village was already asleep. Within a couple of hours, they all were. Such is life in a tiny Lao village.

I was officially out of Laos but not in Cambodia, and with a used up visa for Laos, feeling just a little bit concerned for my position. Plus, there was nowhere to sleep, except for this concrete slab outside someone's house. The funny thing is - while I sat there, a few guys wandered around, a motorbike made several trips past me and yet having some foreign bloke preparing to sleep seemed no more unusual than seeing a chicken wandering around. One fellow, on his way past, said a cheery "hello" and that was it.

Since the motorike I had seen was the only vehicle I had seen the whole time I was there, I thought my transport options to Cambodia were a little limited. So, at first light, I snuck back over the border into Laos: a dog barked at me; that was the only official response to my illegal entry. Back out on the main road, a proper minivan to Cambodia picked me up and took me down a different little track in the bush to a different Laos border post and the right Cambodian one. My troubles were not quite over: the Cambodian border people were all "you left Laos yesterday, you cannot enter with that stamp" and the Laos border people were all "you have used your visa, go to Cambodia for a new one" Luckily the minivan driver knew the whole story and got things straitened out for me, or I might be still there, confined to a 100 metre stretch of dirt between the two countries.

There is one little post-script to all this. The region is notorious for its scammers and, indeed, both border guards had imposed spurious overtime charges and even the damn bank had not used the right exchange rate in taking back my unused kip (the girls had giggled to each other, one pointing out the sign with the official rate to the other as she charged me a different rate). But fighting these little scams (always a dollar here or two dollars there) takes up so much energy. Plus, the bank is then just as likely to say "no dollar today" or, as the border guard did say to one woman who protested "you come back Monday". So, I was down a few dollars (and a night on concrete if you include my helpful truck driver). But when I handed over my $21 for the Cambodian visa, the very cheerful fellow handed me back $30 in change.

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