16 August 2002

9. - 16 AUG: Border crossing into Laos, dolphins, Dong Khong

The last leg of the Mekong ride in Cambodia is the most difficult and adventurous. There is no scheduled public service from Stung Treng to the border with Laos, just after Kaoh Nang island. In fact, until very recently this border post was not officially open at all except to Lao and Cambodian nationals, though stories abound that anyone willing to fork out the necessary tips would be let through.

The only way forward is to rent our own fast boats, two pirogues, each powered by what must be the world noise level record holders for marine outboards. Their bulky engine blocks are placed, at about one third of the boat’s length from the stern, and their shaft extends backward, almost horizontally, for several meters from the rearmost tip of the stern, until the small flimsy two-blade propellers sink, just, below the water level. This design serves the skippers well in the dry Winter season, when the Mekong’s water level is at its lowest, and every centimeter that can be shaved from the boat’s draft counts. The roaring churn of the props produces a feisty wake, whose shape resembles that of a giant cock’s tail and shoots up in the air a good couple of meters. The frequent inevitable cavitation as the skipper struggles to keep the blades underwater adds to the mayhem of the unmuffled exhausts, but it all makes for an adrenaline pumping ride. A fresh wind slaps the boat spray on our bodies and faces, which is fine, we are used to it by now, but I must take extra care for my cameras and lenses, their electronics would not enjoy a shower, not even a pictoresque one like this. My US $1 poncho from Phnom Penh is put to the test!

We proceed for a bit over an hour, and our two boats seem to be the only ones heading for the border this morning. The landscape is quiet and flat. Only a small village or two on our way, and the rest of the banks are almos completely uninhabited. A few local boats cruise by, their occupants looking at us rather perplexed. Then, without any prior warning, the skippers steer to port and we make a land fall on a muddy embankment, which at first looks no different from any other muddy embankment. I look around and, some fifty meters inland, a shiny Cambodian flags flies on a rather disconsolate mast, a tell tale sign of officialdom, and behind it a house on stilts which must be the Cambodian border post.

We disembark, pass by the flag pole and a goat which meekly tries to come closer to meet us but is prevented by a very short leash tied to a tree, and climb the steps up the stilt house into the offices. The house itself comprises one office and three bedrooms, plus a pleasant verandah with a riverview where we can sit down and await instructions. The smiling Cambodian border officers are smartly dressed in their green uniforms and quite polite. We hand over our passports and three of them get on with their busy work of stamping, registering, again stamping, stapling, etc.

Meanwhile, I look around and notice that in one of the bedrooms three Kalashnikovs and one M-16 machine gun stand neatly lined up on a rack, while a couple of posters of naked women adorn the otherwise austere walls above them. One of the ladies looks like some sort of Madonna, halo and all! I instinctively reach for my camera and arm my flash unit, but am held back by Roberto, who is monitoring the stamping and stapling, and who sternly admonishes me not to even think about taking pictures like that, at least not until we have all our passports back and are cleared to leave the country.

After a good twenty minutes or so, our passport are ready. The commanding officers checks them one more time, counts them and smiles brightly as he hands them back to us and …asks for a tip. Just like that, he says, could you please give a tip for the officers. How much? Two dollars per person – per passport, that is, not per officer. I smile back and say this is too much, we are poor budget travellers and propose one dollar per person, and the tour leader free, just like the travel agents do, for a total of ten dollars. The commandant quickly agrees, we shake hands and I compliment them for their meticulous stamping work. After we put our passports securely back in our pockets I approach one of the officers and tell him how I am really impressed with the way they keep their weapons so neatly on their rack, and would he like to pose for me? He is manifestly quite flattered and after a quick questioning glance toward the commandant, who nods back, he agrees to pose with the Kalashnikovs, the M-16 and the porn posters. We head back for the pirogues. Adieu Cambodge.

One more minute of slow crossing and we are at the border post on the Laotian side. This is a much more spartan arrangement than their Cambodian counterpart. A small office on stilts shelters two officers, but no machine guns, no elaborate registries and no posters. The guards are stone faced and curt. They look through our passports, stamp what they have to stamp and then dryily ask for a tip, much the same way an airline clerk would ask for a boarding pass at an airport gate if you are late for your plane and everyone is already on board. Again Roberto and I engage in some negotiation to reduce the extortion, pay up and we are welcome to Laos.

Dolphins, monks and waterfalls

Sabaidy! (ie Hi! Ciao!) The most onomatopaeic phrase of any language I do not speak! We will hear it and say it hundreds of times over the next few weeks and every time it sounds new, sweet, alive. The first time we hear it is at the first frontier village, just meters from the Cambodian border, where our pirogues dropped us before quickly turning back. We walk around after a quick lunch by the riverside and the atmosphere is distinctly more relaxed and easygoing than in any Cambodian village we have seen. As we are just by the border crossing, we are obviously not the first visitors they see, though since the crossing was restricted to Laotians and Cambodians until very recently they may not have encountered all too many pale Western faces. Swarms of children, mixed with baby pigs and cocks, parade around and curiously (the children!) peep with astonishment into the viewfinder of my zoom lens.

At dinner in Muang Khong, we start a conversation with a soft spoken obviously Anglo-Saxon man who is eating by himself. For one, some of us need to sit at his table as there are no other places available in the small restaurant. P. is German, actually Bavarian as he makes it a point to specify, has been riding his motorbike (a BWM, of course, how silly of me to ask) from London and is on his way to Singapore. In the Spring he was “made redundant” at his financial firm in the City, given a gold handshake and set free. So he decided to take time off before getting back into the grind and as he always was an avid biker he thought of driving across France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, back to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, from where he would ship his bike back and hop on a plane home. He has had a smooth ride so far, except for some not so friendly Kurds in Turkey – Kurds don’t especially love Germans as so many Kurds live in Germany and have a hard time getting a passport even after many years of residence, even if they were actually born there…

He also said the Laotian border officials wanted “tips”, but he got through without paying any. And how did he do that? We are a bit envious since we have just been victims of tip extortions ourselves. Simple, he said, I just refused to pay and after seven or eight hours they relented and let me through. Now, that is what you call true German resolve! I refrain from asking him whether he thought wasting seven or eight hours of his time at the border post was worth a few dollars, it would have been beyond the point… We shared a few good Beerlao – a truly good beer which will become a contant presence at our tables – and wish him a safe trip. Tomorrow he will be at the same Laotian border post we were at today and after that the Cambodian officers with the guns and posters in the bedroom will take their turn. If he insists not to pay their tips he may end up spending a long time in the region…

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