Grow up in an ocean-locked collection of islands, and border crossings will be the stuff of Hollywood movies.
It took us maybe four hours, traveling by ferry, bus, and then bumping along in the back of a truck, to reach the remote Thailand/Cambodia border between Ban Pakard and Psar Prum. Amenities and infrastructure are arranged such that locals and tourists alike tend not to have much use for this place. We drove for miles in eerie silence — no other cars, cattle, bicycles, motorbikes or pedestrians on the road. After about 45 minutes in no-man’s-land, Beth began to worry aloud.
In her world, a border is the dangerous place where dramatic scenes in movies are played out. And lonely countryside is where a country’s militants stop passing cars at gunpoint and demand money or worse. I did my best to reassure her that I was somewhat certain this type of thing wasn’t going to happen to us, but what did I know?
I’ll tell you what I do know about borders: they’re great places to get scammed. Get your head on your shoulders and a smile on your face, because you’ve just become a walking money tree. Fear and the postures, behaviors, and tone-of-voice that accompany that emotion will just empty your pockets faster and make the experience truly horrible. Knowledge — as much as possible regarding how much things should cost and how everything is supposed to go down — is your best friend.
Examples: Is there a departure tax? How much is it? Do you need a visa for the country you’re entering? How much should it cost? Will they take the currency of the country you’re coming from? Is the visa significantly cheaper in U.S. dollars? Or Euros? Where do you get the visa? What angle do the touts in this area tend to use to misdirect people (an office is closed, it’s cheaper over there, etc.)? How far is it between immigration offices? What modes of transport are available between the border and your next destination and for how much?
Next, treat every tout like your prankster buddy from college who’s always swearing your car just got stolen. Letting touts see that you’re annoyed by their onslaught of questions puts them in a position of power. Instead of attempting to ignore them, engage. Chances are you need information from them anyway. Let a big fat smile — like you’ve just been offered a bet on whether or not the moon is made of cheese — spread across your face. Learn a name. Fire questions right back at them. Be blunt. “Hey, Eelo. Why is it that these jokesters over here are telling me a visa is $40, when I know it’s only $20?” and “A taxi from here to the city is $30! Are you serious?! C’mon man, can’t you give me a better price? $30 is crazy! Please?” and “I gotta think about this for a minute. So you’re saying $30, and your friend will take us all three places and to the city? Are you sure we can’t do $25? Let’s ask him.”
Finally, expect the unexpected. Upon arriving at the Cambodia side, amongst the multitude of service windows, the one we needed was empty. A few texts and phone calls to the missing visa officer, and a flash SUV rolled up with a uniformed man behind the wheel. He sauntered over. The whisky on his breath nearly knocked me flat. He reached through the window, grabbed some forms, and thrust them at us. Then he disappeared around the back of the building. When it came time to close the deal, as expected he asked for $40 each instead of $20. In the same way a waitress might tell you she’s out of mashed potatoes, and would you mind fries instead, I just said “I don’t have that. I have $50,” and handed him the money.
The slight overpayment (possibly combined with him being too drunk to care) worked wonders, and we were off to Battambang! ♣