Crossing from Laos in to Thailand requires you to travel across the Mekong River, one side the very much-relaxed Laotian authorities and on the other the stricter sterner Thai border control. Well so I thought. The border is chaotic with hordes of tourists crossing the mighty Mekong on a typically hot day. On this occasion, I was travelling with a total of six others. I was in my England shirt, not a good idea, as you find out further into the blog. So, we make our way to the border control.
As I approach the window to speak to the border control guard, he grabs my passport and starts flicking through aggressively. At this point I start to worry a little bit. In his broken English he shouts ‘Where is your stamp?’ so I proceed to the page with the visa which has a random girl’s passport photo where mine should be. Due to me not possessing my own passport photo, the Laos authorities used a girl’s photo from our bus as my visa photo. I seem to recall the guy joking and laughing about it when processing my visa. When you question it, they laugh and advise you any photo will do. Anyways, as I flick to the page of the visa I realise there is no stamp there to my horror and try to explain that there was no signs at the previous border for me to get am entry stamp. My friends were fine as they had a stamp but they had to wait for me by the boats as I then start to ponder what has gone wrong and what to do.
While I weigh things up quickly, the border guard continues to shout at me quite loudly for everyone to hear. Not understanding what is going on, I panic and shout at him to which I proceed to storm off to the boat across to Thailand, not my best move. My friends question what was going on but I told them ‘no idea he kept shouting at me’ and we crossed. I arrive at the Thai authorities’ window and he looks at me in disgust and simply tells me ‘no stamp no entry’. I try to explain to him it was fine to cross but he had no time for me and dismissed me across the river. I was in total confusion.
So, off I go again on another boat on my own this time back to the Laos border with a bundle of Thai Bhat in my pocket which my friends gave to me in case I needed it. As I arrive I see three-armed military personal waiting by the building looking my way. I try to sneak back to the same person but before I know it the military guy with the most stars plucks me out of the crowd and proceeds to lead me towards a room at the back of the building. I don’t think it would have been hard to spot me in my red England football shirt, I couldn’t exactly mix in with the crowd. ‘Here we go’ I thought, slightly thrilled but petrified at the same time. As I enter the room they were watching the UK Open in the snooker, I had to snigger to myself and try to make light of it by showing my interest, they were not interested in that!
The four of us sit down. It was like one of those tense negotiation scenes out of a gangster movie. There I was flicking my fingers on the table looking at the guard and there he was thinking about what to say. He broke first and said to me “Do you speak Laotian?” I replied with ‘no’ with an air of confusion as he asked in very good English and he knew from my top I was English and unlikely to speak Laotian. Then the bombshell hits. He tells me “You have no stamp in your passport therefore you must pay!” I reply “How much?” He then laughs and tells me $100. I disagree with this and he simply says” No money no stamp no Thailand” so what choice do I have?
To not give away my position and trying to act cool I decline and sit there to try and barter him down, a standard practice in Asia which travellers will get to know well as they spend more time there. I’m used to this at this point being seven weeks into my three months in Asia. I start to realise after all my chat and bartering we were not getting anywhere, well I wasn’t. As we sat in silence between negotiations we watched snooker together, for brief moments I felt there was peace and an appreciation of the art of snooker.
As we were all starting to get a bit bored I told him I don’t have dollars, which was the truth, he replied with that I could pay in Thai Baht. I asked how much that was and I got the figure of 3000 Baht. I quickly sat there and done some quick maths with the exchange rates in my head and figured I have chalked off about £15-£20 off the original price for the stamp in my passport. I agreed and proceeded to hand over the money. Once exchanged he then stamped my passport with a smirk on his face. I quickly got out of there and headed to the river again. I happened to get the same guy again on the Thai side and he started to have doubts over the stamp so I told him in no uncertain terms that I forked out for my mistake so please just let me in. He looked at me with no pity and stamped my Thai visa.
On reflection on the minibus to Chang Mai in Thailand, I was trying to figure how the hell this all happened. Simply it was my fault but not intentionally. On the Laos border from Vietnam there are no signs. Yes, I got my visa but I didn’t proceed to another window to get my stamp so in turn I collected my visa and headed to the coach, a grave mistake in hindsight. Being fresh to travelling I didn’t even question it or think that there was anything more to do or anything unusual or wrong. The advice I would give about land borders is to always check that you have seen someone for your visa and your entry stamp in to the country. I didn’t get the break I needed on that occasion and paid for it in the end with money but gained an experience I can now share and pass on.