Illegally crossing international borders
Trip Start May 18, 2003
272Trip End Ongoing
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Shawn, Zohar and I agreed to rendezvous at around 7am, but Shawn doesn't have a watch so ended up arriving an hour early. We got our stuff together and made the short fifteen minute walk north along the river to the pier and immigration office.
Getting stamped out of Thailand was quick and easy, having arrived there before the throngs of backpackers who had arranged a Laos slow boat package to Louang Phrabang. The immigration office is open by 8am and the long boats are there ready and waiting to ferry you across the Mekhong river to Laos (20B one way)
Once at the other side it's actually possible to waltz right past the immigration office into the small town of Ban Houay Xay, as long as you don't attract too much attention to yourself by carrying a backpack. We of course got stamped in legally and paid the US$30 fee to get 14 days in the People's Democratic Republic of Lao. All the red and yellow hammer and sickle flags were a clear reminder that this is the first communist country I have visited.
There was a money exchange booth next to the immigration office that gave pretty good rates for changing Thai Bhat into Lao Kip, but we instinctively held onto our Bhat as border exchange places are usually notoriously bad. As it happens the rate we would have got there was the best for our entire stay in Laos, but we had no way of knowing how the currency would fluctuate over the next couple of weeks.
While Zohar was booking himself on a three day Gibbons Experience and Shawn was changing some money with an English couple I was looking for my Palm PDA and suddenly realised that I may have left it at the guesthouse this morning. Normally this would not present a problem, but this particular guesthouse was across the river in Thailand - another country!
After making a quick international phone call to the Namkhong guesthouse (which was less than three kilometres away as the crow flies) they told me they had my "calculator" and I could come back over to Thailand to collect it. I tried to convince them to give it to someone heading over to Laos, but the last of the backpackers had already left for the day. The woman at Namkhong seemed to think it was no big deal crossing the border again as long as I left my passport at the immigration office and explained the situation.
I was also running out of time as Shawn ascertained that if I wasn't back in an hour we might miss the last bus out of Ban Houay Xay going north east to Louang Namtha. So off I ran back to the Laos immigration office and explained that I had to make a quick visit to Thailand to collect my PDA. The officer I talked to said that was OK and didn't ask to retain my passport. Two minutes later I was back across the Mekhong on Thailand soil. Not having any bags with me must have rendered me invisible to the Thai immigration officers as I simply ran past and back down the road to the guesthouse.
When I got to Namkhong the woman I spoke to asked me if I had left my passport with the immigration office. When I told her I had not she looked a little worried and her face went quite pale. After handing me my PDA I was about to start running back towards the pier when she instructed one of her staff to give me a lift on a motorbike. The idea was that if I was on the back of a motorbike heading straight for the long boats I would be less obvious to Thai immigration officers. The plan worked, as I was back on a long boat heading for Laos without incident.
Once back on Laos soil I casually walked past the immigration office (they didn't pay any attention to me) and met up with Shawn and Zohar. The whole incident took about forty minutes to resolve but could have been so much more complicated and stressful if the immigration officers wanted to be awkward; or indeed stopped me.
Moral of this story: Always check the room for anything you may have left behind before checking out. This is doubly important when leaving the country too!