Saturday, May 28, 2011

Comedy of errors

The sign that adorned the two railway sleeper carriages that masquerade as the Laos visa offices. Beware weekend tea money!
Finally made it back to Phnom Penh tonight after what I would call a comedy of errors, once I'd left Pakse at 8am this morning. I was in the southern Laos city for the Mekong Tourism Forum where I was one of the speakers, very briefly for under ten minutes I must add, and where Hanuman had a booth and was one of the Forum's sponsors. We travelled up to Pakse on Thursday, arriving at 7.30 at night, the Forum opened the following morning (yesterday), I was on the microphone at 11, we enjoyed the Gala Dinner that night and I was back on the bus heading south early today. A bit of a whirlwind but it's important to keep the Hanuman name in the eye of industry professionals and the media and this was a perfect opportunity, as was the Asean Tourism Forum a few months ago. As for this morning's fun and games, I squeezed into a sweltering minibus for the first stage of the trip as we headed towards the border with Cambodia. The minibus pulled off the road 2.5 hours later, and I was plonked onto the back of a motorbike for the last fifteen minutes of the trip to the border crossing. The rest of the minibus headed for the 4,000 Islands. Lots of building activity at the border as both countries are building brand new immigration and visa facilities, though the one official on the Laos side wasn't exactly the friendly type. He demanded a $2 backhander because it was a Saturday and he said he was on overtime and refused point-blank to stamp me out of Laos until I paid up...which I did, though made sure he knew what I thought of his abuse of his position (once he'd stamped my passport of course). I walked across no-man's land to find another official, Cambodian this time, beckoning me over to a table where $1 got me a health certificate and clearance into Cambodia, at the border post known as Dong Kralor. With eight uniformed officials waiting at the visa desk I was deciding in my head how much I would argue about paying more overtime, when my passport was checked and stamped and I was waved through without a murmur. I was in a state of shock. No mention of any tip, backhander, tea money, whatever. So today it's the Laos border officials who get a big thumbs down. Which is a real pity as everyone else I met in Laos was lovely.

There was a Paramount bus waiting at the border, which was a mite disconcerting as one of their fleet blew up last week and was completely gutted, including the belongings of its 20 or so passengers, who were unhurt. We finally left the border just after 11am, bypassed Stung Treng though we did touch base with Kratie, Chhlong and Kompong Cham before the wheel axle had enough of the bumpy road and gave up the ghost. A passing bus picked up the waifs and strays stranded on the side of the road and I made it home by 9pm, in time for a curry from Mount Everest restaurant. My fellow passengers had come from the 4,000 Islands and were moaning that the VIP bus they'd booked never materialized, they had a endure a second-rate bus with no toilets and the timings they'd been promised were way off the mark. Unfortunately, another poor introduction to Cambodia for a bunch of first-time arrivals, which is something all too familiar from anyone who has crossed any one of the land borders into the country. Corruption, lies and lack of service gives an all too sorry prelude to their holiday here.
Arriving at the Laos border crossing on the back of a moto
This is the original entrance gate into Laos, looking across no-man's land to Cambodia
The new visa and immigration facilities being constructed on the Laos side of the border

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