The day started out like any other day in the Mekong river town of Kratie. I woke to the alarm of school children half singing half screaming the Khmer alphabet in the schoolyard adjacent to my guesthouse. I rolled out of bed, excited to be grabbing an early morning bus to Laos and some island time. Little did I know, my journey there would be rife with misery and trepidation.
As I made my way to pay for my hotel bill, I realized that the 100 dollar bill that for some reason the ATM gave me might not be the best option for a small hotel without a lot of change. I walked around five blocks finding no shining money machines in the bustle of the morning market. I gave up 15 minutes before my bus arrived and borrowed a bike from the hotel so I could race to the ATM across town I had used the day before. After being turned away from one "local" ATM, I finally got some cash in hand. As I pedaled back to pay just when the bus pulled up, I checked the time on my watch. It was the date that caught my attention. FR 13 glared like a road sign flashing a warning of danger around the bend. This was only the beginning.
The first minivan ride was pleasant enough. A bit longer than advertised, but to be expected on the dusty roads half torn to pieces during construction season over here. We arrived in the small river town of Stung Treng, about 60 km from the border. The purpose of our layover was to catch a new van to the border, a common occurrence on the patchwork bus routes around here.
The three of us moving on to Laos were ushered over to a few shabby umbrellaed tables perched on a boardwalk above the sluggish river. We were joined by our new guide who had slithered out of thin air as soon as the van dropped us off. He looked like the owner of some run down Vegas casino miles from the strip. I'm going to call him Slick just for fun. Slick wore a wrinkled blue and white striped button down, giving the impression that he wanted to look nice to swindle his next customers, but couldn't be bothered to look really nice. His hands constantly flitted between two phones, one smart and the other simple and shady. These phones rang off and on as he ordered us lunch at a nearby restaurant ( actually a fair priced and quite delicious BBQ sandwich), reassured us that the new van would be here in an hour, and handed out visa forms for us to fill out.
Despite my reservations about the overtly helpful manner and rapid phone conversations in Khmer, I wanted to trust Slick somewhat. Our group had grown to five with some additions off of a bus from Phnom Penh, and there was safety in numbers. But as soon as the Cambodian smooth talker saw my wary eye on my passport and one of my comrades asked a simple question about the visa price, out apparently tenuous pleasantries were over with.
Slick's mood changed like a harsh fluorescent light snapping on in some shady roadside motel. He got defensive, claiming that he was only here to help, that his English was all we had, and that this was why he hated dealing with distrusting tourists. The rant continued as he took back the forms we had filled up, informing us that we could do it ourselves at the border if we were so confident. He had already exchanged our tickets, and refused to give the old ones back. No apology or confrontation could bring a halt to his tirade, until an empty minivan pulled up to the curb across the boardwalk. Slick quickly shuffled over to the vehicle's front window before we could join him. A few words uttered and our presumably only transportation to Laos turned right around and drove off into the rising afternoon heat. Slick came back to us and said he had to go somewhere to go, hopped on his motorbike, and drove off in the same direction of the van. We were by all accounts stranded.
At this point I feel obliged to highlight the misery loves company aspect of the day. I had luckily been marooned with four folks who were willing to roll with the punches, keep the laughs coming every once in awhile, and work to get out of this mess. First we asked some people around time of there was a another bus today. But as it was two in the afternoon, that was a resounding no. Then we called the bus company to explain our dilemma. Low and behold, after our complaint, Slick came riding back into town 5 minutes later.
After being gone for over an hour, Slick informed us that the minivan had broken down and we would have to wait another hour and a half for a bus coming from Phnom Penh. He said he would take us via tuktuk to the highway and had arranged for the bus to pick us up. At this point we really had no choice but to except his explanation or hitchhike. And considering how the day had gone so far, the inside of a strangers car didn't have a lot of appeal.
Unbelievably, Slick finally told the truth. A double decker bus pulled up 4 hours after our original bus was supposed to arrive, and we got on free of charge. As we entered the air conditioned haven, stories of respective scams bounced between the cushioned seats in various English accents with the current passengers and the new. It felt good to vent our frustrations and lament at the opportunistic locals. We drove through a landscape where the bone dry wind shuffled through the grass and rare stilted shacks. I couldn't help thinking that the ever present divide between tourist and local had grown as wide as those plains glowing in a dying sun.
Our troubles only escalated as we reached the border with Laos. A blocky gate stood as the portal to our final destination. It would have been a simple enough passage, but corruption and the fight against it stood in our way. After getting your visa to Laos, everyone is asked for an extra two dollars for the entry stamp. This is certainly illegal, but one can hardly refuse because the terse guard hiding behind his bullet proof glass has all the power. But that didn't stop some from trying.
When we approached the window, a few new members of our group demanded to get a receipt and threatened to phone the embassy or stay the night at the border. One little firecracker of a Ukrainian girl was so fierce in her refusal, the guard slammed his window shut to all. A standoff ensued.
Answers were demanded of the bus driver who merely shrugged while trying to hide a smile that said, "we've got you by the balls you stupid foreigners." As dusk took over the sky and the bus idled on, I came to the conclusion that I just wanted to get across. I certainly understand the principle behind the social crusade we were witnessing, but a desolate border surrounded by wealthy tourists is not the place to fight a battle such as this. Corruption is fought through global teamwork and communication, not empty threats heard only by guards who could care less. In the end, most people seemed to have the same mindset as me and paid up. Two hours later (13 hours from our original departure) the twelve of us finally received our stamps and we drove into the welcome darkness of a new country.
Needless to say, the tall beer and pad thai that night tasted especially delicious. Good food and company are the best hands to shake the etch a sketch of a bad day clear.