The Village Report — The ins and outs of crossing borders in Southeast Asia

Dipika Kohli

By Dipika Kohli
Northwest Asian Weekly

Our brown bus got to Phnom Penh right at 4 p.m. as promised. My son, husband, and I alighted on Monivong long before the official depot in the center of town. This was going to be a different kind of arrival, without the swarming of a thousand and one autorickshaw- and tuk-tuk-wallahs thinking we’d only just arrived in Asia that morning.

We live very close to where we disembarked near a nondescript gas station, and waved to the 20-something couple from France that had shared the ride up from Ho Chi Minh City, where they, in fact, had arrived just that morning. The road was smooth and the bus was mostly empty. They casually asked what the holdup had been back at Vietnam-Cambodia immigration.

“Oh,” I said, “you know, corruption. The usual. But I got my 10 bucks back.”

Our European travelers were too tired to register the whole of what I was saying. It wasn’t so important to the touring folks — a few dollars here and there weren’t going to matter much. They said they’d only be in Southeast Asia for 10 days, so I decided not to press it. I’d save it for later, when I’d meet with a few new local friends who would be the ones to give me the lowdown on what things cost, and how much extra I’d have to pay — or not pay, depending on who’s been around for how long, and who knows who. No one really knows all the answers, not completely. This is Asia. Things are in flux, always.

That night, over a night of games with friends, I expanded on the exchange on the way in from Vietnam, how we knew from the Internet that there might be some trouble with the crossing, and to bring exact change for the visas. We had done that properly at the other border, from Thailand crossing in. But this time, we only had a $100 bill, which meant change was due, since our two visas together would only be $50. Children, free.

The man behind the window took our bill and returned two $20 bills.

“Ten more dollars?” we asked, in unison. I had a history of this, during an exchange on the border from India to Nepal, and I didn’t care to repeat it. Neither did my husband, Akira, who had to listen to my complaints during the overnight to Kathmandu.

“Ten,” said the officer, smiling but firm, indicating our son.

“Child, free?” Akira said.

“No. Ten dollar.”

Unless the rules had changed since that morning, we knew this wasn’t true. “Not free?”

“Ten dollar!” Getting amped.

Trusting me to resolve this, Akira went on to make sure we were still in decent lag distance from our bus group. Maybe because I’d been in India at borders clenching my rupees and not giving in, I stood there for a little longer. “Child, no free?”

“No!” He made a waving motion, palm down, and I picked up my 5-year-old.

“Free at Poipet,” I said. The other border.

That seemed to do it. Two fives appeared in the window, along with a new application for my son’s visa. The same one. I filled it out, copying over the answers from the original like I was doing someone else’s homework for them.

I pushed both forms back, and put the blue pen down, flat.

“No picture?” he said.

Of course I had pictures. I have a passport bag stocked with a good supply for just this kind of occasion, or special permits you need for Sikkim. Laos has a different requirement for size, and I also keep the right square size and background color for the Overseas Citizen of India forms that I’ve got in triplicate, in my bags, in case one day we move to Kolkata. Pictures are great to have in a stash, as they take half a day to procure if you don’t. I wasn’t going to waste one here. “No picture.”

“Two dollar, no picture.”

The others in the group seemed very far now. But not out of reach.

It was going to be OK, in the end. There were no lines. There was no rush. No problem. I just started making my way towards the next spot, and then, finally, through the gates. On the other side, I joined the French couple, the handful of Vietnamese tourists on their way to Phonm Penh, the city’s returning citizens, and, of course, my family. On the Cambodia side. Our new home, for now.

Dipika Kohli writes Kismuth (


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