Visa Stamps in Passports

Border Crossings and Bribes

One of the things we can’t quite get used to in Asia is the corruption which forms an ordinary part of everyday life here. From knock-off goods to rigged taxi meters and other tourist scams, travelling is a whole different ball game here compared to in regulation-crazy Europe. While we’re now resigned to the fact that we’ll be charged tourist prices everywhere we go, we’ve found that making overland border crossings in South-East Asia presents some of the most frustrating examples of corruption.

The Problem with Overland Border Crossings in Asia

Flying in and out of countries in South-East Asia is one of the most sure-fire ways to avoid paying bribes; you might have to pay airport departure taxes but there will almost certainly be a set visa cost which is adhered to. If you can only afford to make overland crossings though, that’s where the problems start.

So far we’ve made four overland crossings around South-East and were made to pay bribes or ‘administration’ charges at three of them. In each of these instances our money went straight into the pockets of either border control guards or travel companies; in the case of guards this activity is totally illegal but basically ignored by authorities. You may only be asked to pay a couple of dollars here and there in bribes (we’ve paid around £20 altogether so far), but just imagine how much money corrupt guards are making when hundreds of thousands of tourists cross over their borders every day.

Visa Stamps in Passports

Personally, we don’t like feeding corruption and would prefer our ‘bribe money’ to go into the local economy and to people who really need it rather than into the back pockets of well-paid, iPhone toting border guards. What can you do though if someone refuses to stamp you into their country until you pay them a bribe? Yes, you can refuse to pay and hope that they’ll eventually give in before your bus leaves, but you’re essentially powerless in this situation. From our experience, most people grudgingly accept the charges after making a token complaint; Lonely Planet even lists the bribes alongside legitimate visa costs in their guide books.

For some people, however, refusing to pay bribes becomes a matter of principle. When crossing from Cambodia to Laos, we saw two separate tourists refuse to pay a $2 bribe to be stamped into the country. While a French guy got angry and defiant, a softly-spoken American patiently explained that he was going to report the guard to authorities in Vientiane. In the end, after about forty-five minutes and just as their bus was about to leave, the guard stamped their passports without receiving payment – a victory. Interestingly, other tourists in our group seemed mildly annoyed by their refusal to pay up, almost accusing them of being miserly for denying locals money they must ‘desperately’ need.

Here are the overland journeys we’ve made so far in South-East Asia and the bribes we’ve been made to pay along the way.

A Corruption-free Crossing from Thailand to Laos

Our first overland crossing in Asia from Chiang Rai in northern Thailand to Huay Xai in Laos went remarkably smoothly despite getting ripped-off at a currency exchange booth on the Thai side, which was arguably our fault anyway. After a short boat ride across the border we were charged the correct and standard Laos visa fee for British nationals – $35.

Crossing from Vietnam to Cambodia overland

We booked a bus through a travel agency to take us from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh. While on the bus a conductor came around, telling us that we could either pay $25 each for the company to arrange our visas or queue up ourselves and pay just $20. Scared of being left behind if the process took too long, we eventually gave in and paid the higher fee. We regretted this decision when we saw how quickly and easily another couple negotiated the process on their own – we basically gave away an extra $10 to the bus conductor for no reason.

Crossing from Cambodia to Laos overland

I don’t think overland Cambodia border crossings are ever easy. We had a frustrating journey from the get-go on our way to Laos; leaving Kratie on a packed minivan Andrew was forced to perch uncomfortably between two seats while we bumped over severely potholed roads. After three hours we were deposited onto the side of the road to wait half an hour for a larger bus to the border.

While on board the conductor told us we needed to pay him $45 each to get our visas for us. We refused along with several other tourists, telling him that we knew they only cost $35 dollars. The conductor pressured us for a while, saying the bus might leave without us and lying about visa prices varying in different parts of the country.  Upon arriving at the border we did pay the standard $35 and had plenty of time, in fact we ended up waiting over an hour for our next bus to arrive.

One charge we couldn’t avoid though was the $2 per person bribe to get stamped out of Cambodia. Laos border crossing guards seem just as corrupt and took another $2 each in bribes to stamp us  into the country – all in all these guards must have made a couple of hundred dollars in bribes from our bus alone.

Crossing from Laos to Thailand overland

When crossing from Pakse to Bangkok our bus left at three o’clock, making it to the Thai border just after four which meant we had to pay a guard an ‘overtime’ charge of £0.80 each to be stamped out of the country. There was no reason why our bus couldn’t have left half an hour earlier to avoid this charge; it was just another way for corrupt officials to make money during the Thailand to Laos border crossing.

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26 Comments
  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    Posted at 14:44h, 15 March Reply

    I’m sorry you were nabbed by the $5 bribe to Phnom Penh as we were too (although in our case we were pretty much told point blank that if we didn’t pay we would be left behind. If we had any assurance that the bus would wait for us, we definitely would have opted to do it ourselves). As a matter of principle, I really resent paying bribes, especially if I’ve done nothing wrong! I know the amount of many is of little concern to each individual who pays, but as you point out, with so many people crossing these borders every day, these people are making a fortune. Little wonder government officials in Cambodia are running around in the huge SUVs while the average Khmer lives on $1/day!

    • Amy
      Posted at 08:49h, 16 March Reply

      That’s just it Steph, the principle of it. Perhaps the border is different at different times of the day and there may be time constraints but we would have been fine to go through ourselves without being left behind; it’s most likely scare tactics though. If everyone refused then there would be a change. If the money was going to the ordinary people then we wouldn’t necessarily complain.

  • Catherine
    Posted at 01:18h, 16 March Reply

    Can totally understand your frustrations with not wanting to pay but feeling you have no other choice! From your experiences does everyone have to pay the bribes, or is it just white tourists?

    • Amy
      Posted at 08:36h, 16 March Reply

      That’s a good question Catherine, I think everyone had to pay the bribes, but then again we didn’t seen any locals crossing at the same time as us so perhaps they don’t have to. It’s frustrating!

  • Kerri
    Posted at 13:05h, 16 March Reply

    Ugh…I totally agree with you. It is so frustrating when you feel like you have no choice. While in Morocco, Jason and I had issues with a taxi driver. He told us one fee initially and then changed it when we arrived to our destination. Although it was equivalent to a couple dollars, Jason on the principal of the matter flat out refused to give him the extra money. It nearly came to blows, but luckily a by passer stepped in and held the taxi driver back while we walked away.

    • Amy
      Posted at 07:13h, 17 March Reply

      Dramatic stuff Kerri; I applaud you guys for standing up for yourselves. Luckily that hasn’t happened to us so far but we always try to be on our guard, it can be hard though when you’re constantly on the move.

  • Jamie Newman
    Posted at 02:55h, 17 March Reply

    Great blog Amy, as usual. We’ve discussed this before, but I’m definitely on the “not pay” team. It’s not a matter of the cost, but the principal IMO. To each their own, but I’d sooner not pay the bribe, raise awareness and give the money to a charity.
    We didn’t pay at the Loss Thai border. It helps to have a few others on your side!

    Jamie

    • Amy
      Posted at 07:11h, 17 March Reply

      Yep it definitely helps Jamie. I think you have the right idea sticking to your guns, even if the bus driver threatens to leave without you, sometimes it’s worth taking a stand if your nerves can handle it!

  • Dave
    Posted at 04:44h, 17 March Reply

    Hi Amy,
    All fun isn’t it! We were the only two people who got off the bus at the Cambodian border between HCMC and Phnom Penh, telling the conductor that we only had $45, so couldn’t pay the extra $5 each anyway. Either because of this or because we were the only ones, he didn’t seem to mind. And although it took ages to get acknowledged by the border officials who were more interested in the stacks coming off the buses, and although our bus did actually leave, they left behind one of the bus attendants to whizz us down the road to the bus pit stop where the rest of our bus load were having lunch. Victory!
    Dave

    • Amy
      Posted at 07:05h, 17 March Reply

      Good tactic Dave! We definitely felt more confident about getting the visas ourselves when we could join forces with other people – a united front works well!

  • James Long
    Posted at 18:55h, 17 March Reply

    Hi Amy,
    It would seem we have missed out on all this fun. We only did Thailand to Laos and back overland this time around. The Laos border guard actually sent me back to change the Baht into US dollar and it saved me 2000 Baht!! He didn’t have to. 🙂 Last time we did all the overland crossings we only found two incidences of corruption. The Cambodian ambassador in Beijing put the $50 for two visas into his top pocket and told us to come back tomorrow. 2001 was a while ago but $25 a visa was a bargain anyway you look at it. The border guard did struggle to read the visa as half of it was in Chinese. The other occurred in the middle of Laos when on the same trip we hired a bike and drove north out of Luang Probang. Stopped by soldiers we had to pay about $7 but I only had $4 on me. The soldiers said I could leave Alyson as a deposit and return into town and get more!! Needless to say I didn’t, but on return to the bike shop he actually made me take him back out and he got the money back. This man, against 8 armed soldiers and he had no fear. I on the other hand was quite happy to forget the money and get back in one piece. It would seem that as more tourist cross overland the bribes have also increased. I wouldn’t pay it on principal but that said with kids we seem to fit a different class as our recent Laos experience showed.
    James

    • Amy
      Posted at 08:42h, 18 March Reply

      Wow, I’m glad you didn’t leave Alyson as a deposit! What a brave guy getting your money back for you! Interesting that you have different experiences with this kind of thing when travelling as a family too.

  • Rob
    Posted at 23:04h, 19 March Reply

    We are about to do our first border crossing soon, Mexico to Belize. After reading online about the fluctuating rate of costs (or bribes) we are bracing ourselves for the worst. I guess we will just see what they decide to charge on the day…

    • Andrew
      Posted at 03:47h, 20 March Reply

      It’s annoying that we have to deal with these situations, good luck with getting to Belize! 🙂

  • ben
    Posted at 16:27h, 24 March Reply

    Being member of the countries in south-east Asia, I cant blame you guys about this corruption. It’s kind of a disease that no cure on it. But I thank you for still visiting our country and spending time here.

    • Amy
      Posted at 04:56h, 25 March Reply

      Hopefully over time the corruption will die out; it may take a long time though.

  • David Elyk
    Posted at 16:18h, 25 March Reply

    Not that I am defending this practice, but I thought I would explain a little about how the system works.

    The Cop/Border Guard/Official has to buy his job and the family gets together and pools a large sum of money so their relative can get the job. I’ve seen sums as large as $25,000US for some jobs. Then the person has to pay everyone back. Keep in mind they are living on a salary of $200-$300 a month.

    Every level of Management has a Fee associated with it so to apply for a Supervisor job, they would pay again, some amount (higher I am assuming) and so on, up the chain.

    When the Official collects the “fee”, he does not keep all of it, merely some percentage of it. The rest gets kicked up the management chain.

    Travelling with a Tour company while more expensive has the perk that they will handle Visa’s/Bribes.

    While I admire someone for the strength and fortitude to not pay the $2 fee I hope nothing bad results from the decision. Is saving $2 worth the extra scrutiny/hassles? Is there anything in your luggage that you wouldn’t want found or to have to explain, or do you want to be moved into a private room and cavity searched?

    You are in their country and subject to their rules so that bottle of wine in your bag, or carton of cigarettes could end up costing you a whole lot more than $2

    • Amy
      Posted at 16:51h, 25 March Reply

      Hi David, thanks for the interesting insights; I hadn’t heard about the guards having to ‘buy’ their jobs. Can I ask where you got your info from? It seems that the only way to make sure workers get paid fairly and don’t have to ‘buy’ their jobs AND ensure that tourists aren’t subject to bribes is for the governments to step up and put some regulations in place. I do realise though that this is a complex issue given that corruption is probably endemic in government too – fixing the problem is a lot harder than it sounds.

      • stefan
        Posted at 12:28h, 08 March Reply

        We are in this situation now – wondering whether it’s worth taking a land crossing from south Laos to Cambodia, or just skipping the south of Laos and flying back to BKK (Nok air to a cheap fly and ride deal) and then fly to Phnom Penh from BKK. This is actually more of a silly excuse over anything because we want to go back to BKK for a bit.

        Our guide in Myanmar for the Kalaw/Inle Lake trek did tell us about how many government jobs (in Myanmar) are “bought”, eg you would pay a year’s salary in advance and then in a year’s time you would be guaranteed a job…

        • Amy
          Posted at 03:56h, 09 March Reply

          Hi Stefan, we also heard about people buying those government jobs because they can make so much money through them from bribes – unbelievable! I can totally understand the draw of going back to BKK for a few days, especially after you’ve been in Laos for a while. If it’s cheap enough to fly I’d say go for it; we flew from Laos to Vietnam in the end because we’d heard the overland crossing was dreadful and the officials were so corrupt. Have a great time in Cambodia, we loved it there.

  • Edor
    Posted at 12:55h, 22 April Reply

    I’m glad David gave you guys a different perspective on things. As one who has been travelling and living in Asia for 37 years, I remember the time I tried to educate the locals on morality, having no understanding of the reality of their life, feeling high and mighty.
    Paying large sums of money to obtain jobs such as a border guard is a reality in many South Asian countries.
    One more thought: Paying an extra $2 for a cup of coffee at Starbucks is OK, but not to a poor border guard.

    • Amy
      Posted at 12:40h, 23 April Reply

      Hi Edor, yes it’s great to get different perspectives on these issues. As I mentioned in the article, everyone has a different take about bribes; we nearly always pay them but we have met people who feel so strongly about the issue that they will stand their ground and refuse to pay. I think that it’s a great topic for travellers to discuss, which is why I wrote this article. I’d never go to Starbucks either by the way but I would go to a local coffee house 🙂

      • Rick
        Posted at 11:12h, 03 May Reply

        Same coffee different cup

    • Gabriela
      Posted at 04:28h, 19 April Reply

      Dear Edor. While I understand where you’re coming from, let me remind you that corruption is a deadly disease and we’re only helping to spread it by paying bribes. As long as I’m paying for a visa, and I’m paying frankly quite high city taxes every time I book a hotel, I’m buying food, drinks and souvenirs and whatnot, I’m helping the economy. Me and other tens of thousands f tourists every year. Why do I need to feed the corrupted guards as well? It was their choice to get these jobs. I just happened to “buy” a 5$ bribe to get stamped into Vietnam with 10 Eur. After having paid $25 for the visa. The bus attendant threatened to leave without me in case I didn’t pay. I had to accept of course, what else could I do? But I will never come back to this country and never spend my money here again. And I will make sure to tell everyone as well. And that’s not how tourism works. I can choose what to spend my money on, and I’d rather get a coffee at a Starbucks than pay a bribe to a corrupt guard, yes.

    • Gabriela
      Posted at 04:33h, 19 April Reply

      And one more thing, I work really hard for my money. So should they, and not expect money for free.

      • Amy
        Posted at 17:14h, 21 April Reply

        Thanks for adding your thoughts Gabriela.

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