Thanks to Andy for reviewing the translation
Last days in Laos
I spent the last days in Laos on Don Det, an island in the Mekong. The river is very wide here and has numerous small islands and islets. Don Det is one of the larger ones, you need maybe an hour to go all around by bicycle. Before I cycle to the border, I make a visit to the mighty Mekong Falls.
Problems at the border
I reach the small border crossing at midday, on the Lao side of the border the guards sit in a metal container, the window so deep that I must go on my knees to see the border guards. Ten minutes of discussion about a $2 unofficial “stamp fee”, which I do not pay at the end. I push my bike through the gate, for cars this border is still closed and all passengers have to leave their cars, walk across the border and have to take another form of transportation.
A new modern border terminal waits for its inauguration, in the future cars will be allowed to cross the border, but until now everything is empty and looks a little spooky.
Behind that terminal on the Cambodian side there is a health check, fever measuring for a “1 Dollar health fee”. I refuse to pay and the women do not ask further. In a small wooden hut one can apply for “visa on arrival”. Fill out a form, show a passport photo and pay $20, these are the official requirements. A handwritten note says “Visa 1000 baht or 30,000 KIP” which is about 30 dollars. I tell the border guard I will pay in dollars and hold out a $20 note. Two glassy, bloodshot eyes look at me angrily, he smells of alcohol. “$20 visa, $5 stamp fee”, he says. I notice, here it will be not as easy as on the Lao side, I am alone with this drunken border official and he is stubborn. So am I. Luckily here in Asia discussions are not loud, the voice is sometimes raised a little, but no one would scream or show his anger. Otherwise you would lose face, reputation, and dignity. I repeat, quiet but determined, that I´m going to pay only $20, and that I had never heard of a stamp fee. And the border official repeats stubborn “Visa $20, stamp fee $5! ” So it goes maybe 20 minutes, then he gives up, takes my 20 dollar bill and puts the visa sticker in the passport.
I go to the next wooden hut where about 10 people on 5 square meters “work” and stamp the passports. They have noticed that I have not paid any stamp fee and simply ignore me. A bus full of tourists come, the tour guide has a big batch of passports in his hand and will be treated preferentially. Finally, he paid a stamp fee for making the process flow, I ‘m sure.
After a waiting for half an hour and holding out my passport I finally get it stamped and can continue.
It’s not about the 5 dollars I can save, and I can understand if a border official or police officer invents an extra fee to raise his often small salary, but at this border the whole thing is a big business. Over 3 million tourists come to Cambodia each year, half of them over the 6 land border crossings. Many don´t need a visa because they are from neighboring countries, but there are still a lot of other people who cross this border, and if every one of them pays only one or two extra dollars, it makes a pretty big sum.
Invitation at a family
I cycle to Strung Treng and then to Siem Reap. The road has just been tarred and there is hardly any traffic. There are only few villages; most people in Cambodia live near the Mekong or at the large Tonle Sap Lake. Sometimes I see small huts on the roadside, newly built from a few boards, but not a shop or restaurant, no garden or farm land near and I wonder what people live on and why they build their huts right on this road.
A young man on a motorcycle speaks to me in English and asks where I plan to stay for the night. I say that I want to camp, there are not many places to stay. He invites me to his village to visit his family. The people are very warm, food is served directly and the most important questions are answered.
The mother speaks openly about life here, about the hard work on the farm, about the problems of the people. There is no running water, people collect rain water or pump it from one of the wells which have been built by aid workers in the village. Also, there is no electricity, at least not from the line. The power supply runs on car batteries of which every family has at least one. Some people own a diesel-powered generator and when it gets dark in the evening, it simultaneously gets loud when the generators start.
I ask the family about the huts by the roadside, why people live there, what they eat. I´m told they are refugees, displaced persons. Victims of the so-called “land grabbing”. People who had to leave their homes and fields because the government has sold or leased their land, usually to foreign companies for building a palm oil or sugar cane plantation. People who were forced by the police to leave their homes and had to watch as their huts and fields were destroyed by bulldozers. Land grabbing is not only an issue in Cambodia , but here it has become increasingly common in recent years. About 2.6 million hectares of land were sold or leased by the government to foreign companies.
When the Khmer Rouge were in power in the ‘70’s, private property was abolished, land titles were destroyed and so today it is easy for the government to sell that huge areas of land. People are promised a compensation or given another piece of land, but in reality the compensation is ridiculously low or not paid at all, and the new settlement areas are too small, have no access to water, electricity or roads .
This leaves many people no choice but build a new hut somewhere, with an uncertain future.
The government tried in recent years, among with German “help“, to issue land titles, although the sell-out continues. Also responsible for the big land grabbing are EU trade agreements that guarantee products from Cambodia a duty-free import and minimum prices. This has led to a “sugar boom” in Cambodia. Production has increased in recent years more than a hundred times. In areas that were formerly cultivated by farmers for their own food needs, big companies now produce sugar for export.
I stay one more day with the family and learn not only about the bad things that happen in Cambodia, but especially about the good ones. The people are warm, and exhibit an ease that is usually found only in children. There is a lot of laughter and smiling.
Once again, I spend a night in a temple, the monks offering me a friendly welcome and letting me stay. After a few days of riding I arrive in Siem Reap, Gateway to the old temples of the Angkor Kingdom.