I like to think of myself as an old hand at border crossings. I have stood in front of immigration and passport control countless times and feel like I have it down. Unfortunately, crossing land borders is another story. I figured crossing the border from Cambodia to Thailand would be much like crossing over from America to Canada or America to Mexico, where they kind of just wave you over with a cursory glance at your passport. However, this belief was not based in reality. The border crossing probably would have been relatively easy had I just been paying better attention or had more common sense.
This adventure starts when my travel partner Castaway and I were picked up in Phnom Penh. We slept poorly on the hard mattresses on the Vikram overnight bus as we made our way through the night of continual twists and turns. Eventually, the bus stopped and the driver informed us that we were at the border to Thailand and we would have to walk across the rest of way. After passport control another bus would pick us up and drive us to Bangkok. They gave us green laminated lanyards with tickets attached for the next bus and pointed us in the general direction of the border and what is known as the “Friendship Bridge.” The previous night we had met a young boy named Roland, from the Netherlands, and since he was alone and this was his first time away from Europe he sort of attached himself to us. When we first started on our way to passport control I noticed a building labeled “Departures,” but figured it was unnecessary, we would get our departure stamp at the passport border station.
We made our way across the Friendship Bridge between the two countries of Cambodia and Thailand and on to passport control at that magical hour of 0700. A time when the air is cool, the birds are chirping, and the streets are not yet crowded. After filling out our immigration cards we waited in a delightfully short line for passport control. We all went to separate passport control stations at the same time, and then we all three got denied at the same time. The reason being, we had not gotten departure stamps at the Cambodian immigration station. Apparently that is something that you need, and not something I had considered even though my passport is filled with them.
Back to the bus station we trudged, the sun had risen higher in the sky and the humidity was increasing by the tens of thousand percent as we walked. We let the bus station agent know that we were going to be late crossing the border and may not make our bus to Bangkok. We then headed to the building I had seen earlier that morning that said “Departure.”
Waiting in lines in Southeast Asia is a new experience. The masses of people that form no real lines and push in front of you is an overly polite anglo saxon nightmare. I did try to stop one woman that stepped in front of us, saying that their was a line and I was waiting in it, but she responded with “no it’s ok.” So who was I to tell this small Asian woman she was wrong in her own country? Eventually we got inside the room, which was probably the size of a large classroom. It was packed with so many people that a fire marshal in the States would have had a heart attack. I almost had a heart attack. Everybody was hot and sweaty and anybody that was near you automatically rubbed up against you as a result of us being packed so tightly together. There was no avoiding it. Suffice it to say, it was a miserable experience. In particular, when I realized this was definitely going take a hundred years at least. Eventually, Roland and Castaway started pointing out that we were not actually standing in lines, that we were just a compact mass of bodies. As they did so they made large exaggerated hand gestures. I think some of the immigration officers noticed this and immediately started forcing people to form more orderly lines. Not long after that an immigration officer walked up to me and grabbed my arm and quietly led me to the front of the line. Roland and Castaway followed wordlessly. A second immigration officer pushed Castaway to the front of one line and me to the front of another and Roland was placed right behind Castaway. Unfortunately an unhappy young man, that understandably probably wasn’t pleased that he had waited so long only to be passed by Westerners, was very quick to step in front of me and push me behind him. I accepted this as matter of fact, as white guilt very quickly washed over me. Unfortunately, another officer came out and grabbed my arm once more and pushed me in front of the boy again. I kind of awkwardly hung my head for the minute longer I had to wait until I was called forward to get my departure stamp.
After we all finally exited the building we made our way back to the passport control station at the Thai border. This time the sun beat down on us much more harshly than the easy breezy temperatures of the morning. Roland and Castaway chit chatted behind me about the experience while I concentrated on not sweating. An impossible task. Unfortunately the line had grown exponentially at border control from the short line of an hour and a half ago. But we eventually made it through, and I had the added fortune to go to the same guy who had denied me access earlier, but this time with different results. We all made our way down the stairwell, officially finally in Thailand. A gentlemen from the Vikram bus line met us at the door and brought us to a nice air conditioned bus that would take us to Bangkok. Oh sweet air conditioning, I will never take you for granted again.
Admittedly it’s not a particularly harrowing experience, more of an annoyance really. It would have been far more exciting with guns and military police instead of me just being really inconvenienced out of my own stupidity. I tell this story more as a warning to others that are making the journey across land borders in Southeast Asia to remember to get departure stamps.