15 Mar 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.
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.
What do you think about border bribes, would you pay up or protest against them?