I’m generally a very tolerant person who prefers to avoid physical confrontation, and Laotians tend to be extremely calm and easy-going people.
That’s why it came as a surprise when three largely-uneventful weeks in Laos ended with a team of Laotian border guards seizing my passport and threatening me at gunpoint.
Much of Asia is rotten through with corruption, which cripples entire nations while allowing a fortunate and avaricious few to circumvent laws and line their own nests. This culture of corruption rarely affects the international traveller directly, except in dealings with police and other government representatives.
At many border entry points in Asia, for example, officials will habitually add a few dollars to the cost of a visa, inventing names for imaginary fees and taxes… And who can argue, in the absence of any higher authority?
These additional costs are generally between one and three dollars – an amount calculated to cause nothing more than frustration and annoyance amongst travellers, avoiding any genuine resistance. In the course of a single day, a team of corrupt border officials could easily amass hundreds or even thousands of dollars in tea money – a fantastic sum of money in this corner of the world.
This occurs at countless border entry points across Asia. This week, however, I encountered something new – a team of border officials who were charging an extra fee at a national exit point.
These officials have been entrusted by their government with a very simple duty – to stamp the passports of travellers departing the country. As it is supposedly impossible to cross the border without an exit stamp, these men have chosen to capitalise on their one brief moment of power.
Their price was two American dollars.
In many places, the border guards will tack some form of sign in the checkpoint window declaring the additional fees, to lend their demands an air of legitimacy. Here there was nothing. Having passed through Laos on numerous occasions, and as recently as seven weeks earlier, I was certain that no such fee existed.
I was curious to see would happen if I didn’t pay, if I caught these men between their greed and their duty. Very politely, I informed the officials that I had no money other than the precise sum required to purchase my visa on the other side of the border.
I was told that if I stood aside until the paying passengers from my bus had all been processed, I would then be stamped out the country. I was joined first by an Italian woman, and then a Greek man who had misplaced his departure card and was required to pay an absurd US$7 for an otherwise free replacement, of which a tall stack were visible on the counter.
When everyone else had departed, we returned to the window, but the officials simply repeated their demands for payment. When the Italian and I requested proof that such a fee legitimately existed, the men left the window and began pointedly and childishly ignoring us.
Three stretched out comfortably on mats on the floor while the only man remaining at the desk turned his back to us, refusing to speak to us. The message was clear: they’d acknowledge us only when there was money on the table.
Aware that it would take time to process our busload of visas on the other side of the border, we decided to wait and see what would happen. After half an hour had passed with no softening on the part of the guards, another group of travellers arrived to receive their exit stamps.
The officials returned instantly to their desks, ready to receive payment.
By this time, we had become familiar with their little tricks. If we stood at one window, they simply opened the other, and they loved nothing more than to reinforce their power by slamming the windows in our faces.
We decided to join their game. The Italian stood at one window and I stood at the other, propping it open with my elbows. Politely but firmly, we attempted to inspire their sense of duty, and requested once more to be stamped out of the country.
At no point was the behaviour of these men befitting that of government representatives. Now, however, the official with whom I was speaking lost his cool entirely and, though he spoke excellent English, began berating me in his own language.
In the middle of his tirade, I raised a small camera to his face and took a photograph – and all hell broke loose.
Enraged, the man yelled, grabbed my camera and attempted to wrestle it from me. I held it firmly and stepped back from the window, beyond his grasp. All of the officials were leaping out of their chairs, and shouting for reinforcements from the entry checkpoint across the road.
One man drew a pistol from the holster on his waist and pointed it at me. Another made a handcuff gesture. They demanded my camera, which I’d surreptitiously slipped to the Italian in anticipation of a full body search.
I’ve never been threatened with a firearm before, but I wasn’t inclined to concede to a gang of overgrown children in uniforms. I stepped it up.
I demanded the return of my passport, which had been slammed inside a desk drawer. I told them it was against international law to withhold my passport from me, and said I’d call my embassy if it wasn’t returned to me within one minute.
(At this point I’ll admit to my ignorance of any applicable laws, and the fact that I had no means of calling any embassies, not having owned a phone for over four years.)
The men demanded my camera first, but I stood firm.
After a long, tense staring competition, the drawer opened, and my passport reappeared. Once more, I requested an exit stamp. They demanded my camera, I insisted on the stamp, and none of us got what we wanted.
Passport in hand, with the Italian and the Greek at my side, I simply walked away. We didn’t know what would happen if we attempted to cross the border without our exit stamps, but were about to find out.
On the other side of the border, we paid for and were granted visas. Here, it seems the guards ran a more sophisticated racket – rather than demanding any additional fees, they had simply increased the visa price, leaving no room for any debate.
Our bus stood ready, and only one hurdle remained – an entry stamp. The Italian went first, received hers, and got on the bus. The Greek had his passport returned unstamped, and I was told to go back to Laos.
I told them it was impossible to go back. They told me it was impossible to go on. My new visa was removed from my passport, and my money returned. The Italian woman was hauled off the bus. None of us were to enter the country without Laotian exit stamps.
The men from the bus told us to take our luggage and go, as they would not wait for us. We were to be left stranded at a remote border crossing with no food, no accommodation, no visas, and no means of travelling in either direction.
As our bus prepared to leave, we were left little alternative but to return to our Laotian friends for exit stamps. They erased the photograph from my camera, and demanded apologies from each of us. In our absence, the effects of inflation had driven up the price of an exit stamp from two to ten American dollars.
Aware that our bus was departing, they deliberately lingered over the one simple deed with which their nation had entrusted them.
And so, grinning from behind the stars and badges of officialdom, the forces of greed and corruption prevailed.
And we got on the bus.