Crossing the Vietnamese-Cambodian border

Visas just seem to be a money making scheme for the Cambodians while for the Vietnamese it is an exercise in sadism.

There are so many things that are just so different between Vietnam and Cambodia that books have been written about it. Each has its special ways at the border but on this border the Vietnamese really proved how well they have assimulated the worst of Soviet style meaningless bureaucracy and red tape.

The bus ride on Highway One to the Vietnamese border from Phnom Pehn on a Capitol bus was realtively fast, and so was going through Cambodian customs, about 20 minutes. The man from Capitol took our passports and went into the customs office where the visas were checked and then brought them back to us so we could walk through passport control.

This is where you can see how much foreign aid the Cambodians are getting when it comes to police controls. The police officers sat in neat glass cubicles in an area which looks like a motor-way toll passage. There all five fingers on both hands were scanned and our photos taken with a digital camera, asking nothing in return for the service. This was very strange because when we passed into Cambodia on the Mekong River, they demanded a dollar from me as I did not have a photo for my visa and they needed to take a picture. They never took the photo but they kept the dollar.

Once we got through Cambodian customs, the real ‘fun’ began as the Vietnamese ate an hour-and-a-half of our time in what has to be a planned exercise in how to make traverlers as miserable as possible. The Capitol bus man collected our passports again and took them to to the Vietnamese visa control while we had to offf load all our bags from the bus and carry them into a huge mausoleum type building where masses of people were waiting to get through a single bag scanner — Vietnamese do not line up so it is pure meham, as a couple of hundred people pushed and shoved. The scanner was another joke. My medicines did not attract attention and I walked through carrying my camera without putting it in the machine.

Then we had to haul our bags out the other side of the building and put them back on the bus which had advanced and was waiting for us. There we waited, and waited, and waited. When the Capitol bus man finally came back with our passports, the bus advanced to another uniform thirty meters further up the road and stopped. The uniform got on the bus to examine visas. Unsmiling and unfriendly but ever-so-important, he looked at my visa, turned it under the light, looked at it again and gave it back to me with a frown that said “I want to kill you.”

At no time, either going into Vietnam or leaving it, did anybody ever look at my photo page to see if it was really me in the passport!

The Cambodians can also be silly at the border but in a much more comfortable way than the Vietnamese sadism machine. We boated up the Mekong where the Vietnamese stamped our passports which were given to them by our guide. The border police never came out to take a look at us and compare what they saw to the photo. What a difference with the hassle they gave us going back in on the land border.

This is where our guide had to pay a bribe to the Vietnamese border police to allow a young Italian woman through with a passport so damaged by water that any serious policeman would have not allowed her to go an inch beyond the detention center. The arrogant twit complained that our guide was pocketing the money!

After we got our Vietnamese exit visa, we sailed another kilometer up the river, disembarked on the bank without even the semblance of a dock, climbed a steep embankment and entered a walled-in compound where we were allowed to sit under trees while our guide took our passports into the visa office with our visa requests: $23 if you have a photo; $24 if you don’t.

The guide spent some time in the dingy yellow concrete building that had a blue sign over it saying “UN Project on Drugs and Crime in South East Asia.” While waiting, khaki uniforms lazily walked hither and tither with no obvious goal in mind. A dog left her puppies under another biulding on short brick stilts to come and lie at our feet for a bit of calm.

Finally, our guide came back with our passports and visa stamps which we then took to the porch of a much nicer yellow building where there were two windows. Our passports were stamped and the loose exit visa stapled in (to be removed when we left the country). Then we headed towards the gate of the compound where we stood in line as another uniform, this time green, checked our visas and stamps, and, believe it or not, our photos. Once this was done, we got back on the boat. Nobody ever bothered to come and check our bags. So much for the ‘UN Project.’

Ten minutes later we went through a boat changing ceremony which could have come out of any of the worst espionage films. A boat was waiting on the bank, in front of fields … there was nothing for miles around, and nobody. Our boat pulled up next to it. Three people and their bags were brought onto our boat to go back to Vietnam while the fourteen of us and our bags, along with a sizable delivery of plastic jerry cans of fuel were taken onto this new boat which brought us to Phenom Pehn.