Laos - "Mai Pen Rai" (Stay Cool...)

Colonel Khang of Lao immigration was rummaging about under his desk. I wondered if he was about to pick up the AK-47 that as I was being escorted in I’d seen leaning precariously against the wastepaper bin; but he resurfaced holding nothing more lethal than a pack of Marlboro.

Lao Customs, Nam Khong, Golden Triangle

The Thais have a saying… mai pen rai - roughly equivalent to "stay cool", "never mind", "what you can't change don't fret over"- that they come out with in all manner of circumstances, from breaking a fingernail, to emerging with a broken limb or two from a major car smash. In my current predicament, I had a few somewhat more 'Anglo-Saxon' expressions in mind...

We'd been sat there for the best part of four hours so far, for most of which time we'd been left to stew on our own. Dusk was approaching, with the last boat back to Chiang Khong in Thailand due to leave at 5pm. Vicious-looking mosquitoes were buzzing around the Colonel's office in the small office in Nam Khong, on the banks of the Mekong in the Golden Triangle. I reckoned the repellent applied liberally back in Thailand might last at best another hour before I would be eaten alive. Their sorties near my tasty white skin were getting ever more daring. An ancient fan was fighting a losing battle against the combined heat being produced by three bodies, at least two of which perspiring freely, not least because it was beginning to dawn on us that this guy meant trouble. Serious trouble. Ok, the thumbscrews hadn't been produced yet, but this was a country that hasn't exactly got the best of human rights records. Europeans have been known to disappear…

Somewhat incongruously Roma was playing Inter with an English commentary, on a TV mounted on the wall just above his head - Ibrahimovic was about to take a penalty. The Colonel was interrogating my Thai tourist guide in the Northern Lao dialect, of which she had a limited grasp. I was beginning to have considerable forebodings about the effectiveness of my negotiating tactics so far…

Before leaving for Lao, a shot taken from the ferry (Thai Customs white building on right)

Allegedly we had infringed immigration regulations, despite going through all the formalities on the Thai side of the border before getting the ferry. We had been given to understand by Thai Customs that the five minute boat trip across the Mekong did not entail a Lao entry visa as long as I stayed within the customs area on the Lao side of the river. However regardless of whether I needed to pay for the Lao visa, the Colonel was now claiming that we had already been spotted in an unauthorised area of Lao territory before making my way to Customs. This was rather difficult to accept, as we had climbed off the ‘ferry' onto a mud beach, and walked straight to ‘immigration'. True we had walked in via the exit door instead of the entrance, but that must have been a pretty common mistake by foreigners who didn't happen to read Lao. Only about ten feet separated them. Anyway - as I result I was told that I not only had to cough up 35 USD for the visa, but I would be subject to a fine, the size of which seemed to be increasing exponentially, in line with the worsening of his temper, as the hours passed. £200 so far; at least two months salary for the good Colonel, I reckoned.

Imbrahimovic stuck the penalty away nicely, and Roma were one down.

"Face" is important in Lao as in many Asian nations, and I had been attempting to strike a delicate balance between asserting myself too strongly, and paying the multi-medalled Colonel the respect appropriate to his rank and authority. Apparently I was not being overly successful. This may of course have had something to do with my having just told him that I wasn't paying him a bean, no matter how long he detained me. He switched his attention to my rather nervous guide, clearly a more vulnerable target. The third degree intensified, with the Colonel beginning his interrogation of young Cha Nok - his head angled towards me, but looking at her out of the corner of his eyes - by suddenly yelling at the terrified Thai. She nearly fell off her chair.

Eventually she calmed down enough to translate the gist of his argument. Cha Nok herself, according to the Colonel, was now in the country illegally (untrue, Thais do not need a visa to enter Laos). She would also be detained and fined 6,000 baht (roughly £100, a fortune to many Thais). Not only this, but she could be held responsible for anything that might happen to me. Did the stupid Englishman not realise that he could keep me there as long as he wished? Another European had been bitten by a cobra in his cell just the week before, and died before morning. Perhaps I needed heart medication, did she know? Perhaps I might lose my pills, and would die in my cell that night? Cha Nok anxiously asked me if this was the case, and I hastened to reassure her.

Into the second half now, and Roma equalised against the run of play. The surreal scenario seemed set to play on into the night, and images from Hollywood third-world horror flicks flashed through my mind. I was resigning myself to sharing a cell with some of the impressively-sized local insects, rodents, a snake or two, and a bucket. Bucket? Luxury!... (the Monty Python sketch bizarrely joined with scenes from "The Killing Fields"…..)

Laos is one of the few remaining communist states in Asia, and their human rights record is hardly spotless. Not that long in fact since a couple of French journalists were arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison, I recalled, having been discovered compiling a report on rebel groups belonging to the Hmong ethnic minority in the Xieng Khuang province. European journalists are not too popular then. (why, oh why, had I shown the Colonel my press card?...).

4.35 pm. I finally lost what was left of my cool, demanded to be allowed to call my Embassy, and then stupidly found myself in mid-tirade in French, explaining what an excellent article this would make about his little empire in a lost corner of Lao, ripping off unfortunate foreigners to supplement his income. I was lucky - to the younger Lao generation the era of French colonialism is long gone, and few bother to learn the language. He tersely explained as much, via my guide, and then stomped out of the office. Armed guards came and stood at the door (in case I had any designs on the AK-47, perhaps).

With a calm that I certainly didn't feel, I was trying to reassure young Nok when five minutes later the Colonel stormed back in, threw my passport at me, and ordered us to go get the boat back across the river. However, he said with a leer - he would not be issuing a Lao exit visa, so we wouldn't be allowed into Thailand, and would soon be back in his office charged with even more serious transgressions subject to bigger fines. I didn't give a monkey's. The sooner I got back to relative civilisation, the better. I would take my chances in Thailand.

Back at Thai immigration, Chang Khong

The sense of relief at finding ourselves back on Thai soil didn't last long. Walking up to immigration, a customs officer was watching our approach. I handed over my passport, at which he barely glanced. "You go back now Lao. No visa. Go back now, last boat". Clearly his pal on the other side of the water had made a call. I won't speculate as to the nature of any arrangement involved.

I refused. I'd had enough. Face be damned, this was a farce, and I didn't care who knew about it. I told him that there was no way on this earth that I was getting back on that boat and voluntarily returning to Lao and the good Colonel, short of his handcuffing me and manhandling me on board. The scene was attracting a small crowd of curious Thais and tourists. At last he was beginning to look a little worried, and went to consult his boss.

I usually never prepare anything in advance regardless of the potential consequences, but as luck would have it, I had actually pre-registered the British Bangkok Embassy's phone number in my Thai mobile's address book. I rang them immediately as soon as the official had disappeared from sight. The Thai lady operator put me through to the duty officer and I had had just enough time to explain my predicament before the junior Customs officer returned. "Who you talk to?" "British Embassy", I replied. He was not amused. "Why call Embassy? No problem Embassy! No call!" Too late, "sorry" I said, "already done". He left again, distinctly angry. Had I just made the problem worse, I wondered?

Fifteen minutes passed. A higher rank official appeared, complete with sympathetic smile. I wasn't reassured. Smiles can mean anything in Thailand, from "I'm really sorry for all this" to "you are a major pain in the @rse and you're about to find out what we do with obstreperous falangs who still think they run the world". But our luck seemed to have changed; it was - superficially at least - the former. We were directed into his office out of the steaming heat, invited to sit in a couple of comfortable chairs, and given the choice of ice-cold beer or water. The Thai major explained that we had no doubt made a simple mistake over in Laos, and that it was all a misunderstanding. To save face all round, I quickly agreed, and apologised profusely for our foolishness. He explained that there was a simple solution; they would cancel the original Thai exit visa on my passport. I would then be able to stay in Thailand. I of course thanked him for his help.

Guy's interpreter at the Bangkok Embassy had apparently phoned the Thai major immediately after my panicked call. Just as we were leaving the Major's office, with much wai-ing and smiling, the Embassy official called me again to check that all was sorted. She explained that she needed to speak to the Major once more, to thank him for his kind cooperation - this was the Thai way of doing things. I wasn't complaining. We were free, and the Colonel on the Lao side of the Mekong would soon be fuming that he had let us - and the equivalent of a few months' salary - slip through his fingers.

I won't be returning to Nam Khong in a hurry!

The sense of relief on Cha Nok's face, back in Thailand (the red roof of the Lao Customs house across the Mekong, just behind her...

Rooms for the night in the Riverside, somewhat more luxurious than the alternative accommodation on offer in the distance across the river Mekong ...


Urban Crazy Man said...

wow! Sounds like you had quite a trip to Laos!!

I was there recently too and you can check out my travelogue here:

I especially liked your comments thus:

'Laos is one of the few remaining communist states in Asia, and their human rights record is hardly spotless. Not that long in fact since a couple of French journalists were arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison, I recalled, having been discovered compiling a report on rebel groups belonging to the Hmong ethnic minority in the Xieng Khuang province. European journalists are not too popular then. (why, oh why, had I shown the Colonel my press card?'

Are you a journalist too? On the subject of prisons, I just this week tried to get an interview with Viktor Bout who's rotting in a Thai jail. Not much luck though so far. Will try again next week. They call him the 'Lord of War' after the movie with Nick Cage - you can read another blog entry about him here:


Drop me a line when you get a chance.


Bangkok Blogger said...

Good for you - sticking up for yourself. They think the stupid farang will just cave in and handover a few months salary even if they have done nothing wrong.

Intimidation, blackmail and deceit - their way of life...

The FrogBlogger said...

BB, it was touch and go though, I can't really advise people to do the same thing, especially fresh-faced tourists with a tendency to get bolshy about their Western idea of rights. It doesn't go down too well in remote jungle outposts of Laos.