I’ve made three border crossings by land on this trip. Actually, when I got to Europe I made several bus and train crossings, but they were all seamless, and all but one were in EU countries, so I don’t really count them. The ones that stand out are Thailand to Laos, Cambodia to Vietnam, and Canada to the United States. Guess which one was the most aggravating?
I’m used to either shuffling through the EU, where they glance at your passport, grunt, and move on; or flying into a new country and standing in a long line at border control, to have an official scan my passport through some criminal system, take my fingerprints, sometimes even snap a photo. The land crossings I made on this trip fell somewhere in-between these types.
Thailand to Laos
Crossing from the town of Chiang Khong, Thailand to Huay Xai, Laos was pretty simple. I walked up to the small hut near the bottom of the hill, filled out the card that border control had stapled to my passport when I entered the country, and turned it in to the guard, who literally did not look up from the pile of papers he was stamping. He just stamped my card and waved me away. At the bottom of the hill I bought a ticket to cross the river, waited until there were enough people for a full ride, then climbed in the skinniest boat I’d ever been on.
I suppose that technically this was a water border crossing instead of a land one, but whatever, the main thing is I hardly breathed as that tiny boat skimmed across the Mekong River. Once on the other side, I filled out a long form and helped a Japanese guy fill his out; he had a little English, but not enough to navigate the customs questions on his own. An Israeli chipped in when I had trouble explaining a concept, and then we all went up to the window to get our visas. Most Westerners owe $35 (except for Canadians, who owe $42—what did Canada ever do to Laos?). I had crisp tens and twenties, as I had read enough to know that beat-up bills might be rejected, and then you’re screwed, because they want payment in US dollars, and where are you going to find an ATM with US dollars on the western border of Laos? I had read it was good to have exact change, but not necessary. Well, for me anyway, they wanted exact change. I had two flimsy dollar bills and was wondering whether to insist they take three tens and give me five back, or just tell them to keep the five, when the Israeli next to me in line said he could help out. He gave me $3 with a smile. I peeked in the office and saw three officials standing around and two creating visas, which seems a standard ratio of layabouts to workers for government offices worldwide. Eventually, I received my visa, shiny and pink, and I was officially allowed to stay in Laos for 30 days.
Cambodia to Vietnam
My bus from Phnom Penh was mostly full of Cambodians and Vietnamese, which I think explains why some aspects of the border crossing that are infamous on internet boards were absent in my experience. No one charged me an extra dollar or three for a “health exam,” for example, and I didn’t get taken to a fake border control office. Unlike in Laos, the bus didn’t drop me off a kilometer or two from the actual border, forcing me to hire a tuk-tuk to get to my actual destination.
Instead, our bus pulled up to the Vietnamese border control office (we never did anything to say goodbye to Cambodia), and we were waved off and told to bring everything with us, including our bags from the hold below. We stood in a clump in the mercifully cool border control building and watched our driver hand over a stack of our passports to an official, who then stamped each one without a glance or a scan anywhere. The driver then called out people whose passports were ready. I grabbed my passport, walked past an empty “health exam” window, and put my bags on an x-ray belt. I picked up my bags on the other end, showed my passport with its stamp on my visa to a guard slouching in a folding chair, and walked to the bus, which had been moved to the other side of the border. Voila!
Crossing from Cambodia to Vietnam was pretty painless. Officials didn’t hassle me or anyone on my bus, and security was light. The bus was carrying goods for some small businesses, and they must have checked those while we were inside, because when I put my bag back on the bus, everything was back in there, customs approved and ready to go.
Canada to the United States of America
Here’s where it got annoying. Trying to get from friendly neighbor Canada to my home country was way harder than it should have been. They are strict! And by “they” I mean the US Border Office. The bus I was on breezed through Windsor, Ontario and took the tunnel under the Detroit River. When we popped up on the other side, the bus pulled over at the super clean border patrol office. We unloaded our gear and stood in line. Probably it would have been fine if it hadn’t been for one officer.
This guy was a total tool, almost stereotypically power tripping. He targeted me and two other people, all of whom had backpacks instead of rolling suitcases. I showed him my US passport and he waved me ahead, but the woman from New Zealand and her boyfriend from South Africa, these needed special attention. He demanded to see their visas; the Kiwi said she had the waiver that she’d filled out online. Nope, doesn’t count, he made her fill it all out again on paper. Isn’t the online form supposed to save us from wasting time like this? He grilled the South African on just why he wanted to visit America anyway—what were his intentions? He didn’t plan to stay, did he? Worse was when it was the Kiwi’s turn. She explained that they were couchsurfing in Chicago, and that they’d been traveling for nine months. Why would you want to travel for that long, and what is this “couchsurfing” you speak of, etc., etc., and all in a smarmy tone. He leered at her as he talked, and when we got back on the bus she said it felt like he was hititng on her. While making her feel small and trying to find a way to keep her out of the country. Ugh.
Even I got a bit of a hard time from the officer checking my passport. Where was I living? How long had I been gone? Why had I gone to so many countries? I just want to go home, yeesh! Then I sat in the row of hard chairs with the rest of the people from the bus (about 15 of us) while we waited for any one of the four free officers to turn on the x-ray machine and run our bags through them.
The South African and the Kiwi were camping for much of their trip, so there were pots, a tent, and a large carving knife in the guy’s bag. The officer pointed out the knife to a civilian standing next to him at the x-ray machine and said, “Huh, wonder what’s up with the knife” and waved him on. So that seemed like a secure process. Not that it had been any more secure at the Vietnamese border, but they weren’t pretending it was, and the US officers were definitely treating us like we were all smuggling in kilos of drugs and AK-47s, while not really checking to make sure we weren’t; but they still did their best to make us all—including the American citizens—feel super unwelcome.