Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Airport Shakedown in Laos



Usually I'm first in the departure lounge at the airport, being neurotic about not missing flights, but after checking in my bags, instead of going to the waiting area, I decided to sit outside in the sunshine and wait until the last moment to board my flight to Hanoi. There was little of interest in the tiny airport except a few shops, some offices and a small bank. Upon seeing that it was almost time to board, I went to pass through immigration. I was the only one in the line-up as everyone was now boarding. The immigration officer thumbed through my passport then looked up at me.

'Where's your entry stamp?'

'Whatever is there is what I received when I got here,' I said.

'From where?' He flipped through my passport again.

'I flew in to Vientiane. There should be something there,' I replied. 'My passport was stamped.'

He searched my passport again, looking at all the stamps, then called behind him. A thin, middle-aged man with a humped back appeared and started to ask me the same questions. I gave him the same answers.

'What's wrong?' I asked.

'You don't have the proper stamp in your passport.'

'Well, that's the stamp I got at the border,' I said.

'Come with me,' he said.

I followed him through the airport to a small room and we sat down on the two couches, facing each other. A desk was in the corner. Within minutes, a chubby fellow wearing an immigration uniform that was two sizes too small came in and sat down at the desk to observe our conversation.

'You have to pay a fine,' the hump said.

'What do you mean?'

'You have to pay a fine because you don't have the correct stamp in your passport.'

'Yeah, but that's not my fault.'

'It doesn't matter. You don't have the correct stamp. You either pay a fine, or go back to Vientiane to the airport where you came in and get the proper stamp.'

'Are you kidding me? Go all the way back to Vientiane? It's not my fault I don't have the correct stamp.'

We sat there staring at each other for a minute.

'How much do you want?' I asked.

He mentioned the sum of $200 American and I gagged and said there was no way I was paying that.

'I don't have that on me.'

I was getting pissed because I knew he was railroading me for the cash and it wasn't about any stamp at all, but his power to just gouge me for some quick cash.

'I'm not going to pay $200.'

He got up and handed my passport to the chubby fellow in the corner.

'My bags are already on board. You'll have to tell the airlines to get them.'

He looked at me with a blank stare, and was so totally unmoved by that statement that I got worried.

'You must pay the fine, or go and get the proper stamp, which means you must return to Vientiane and get your passport stamped again.'

There was no way I was going to travel back down to Vientiane, nor did I want to pay $200. How the fuck was I going to get out of this? I couldn't think of a way. Maybe if I cried? I started to sniff a little and I thought it was pretty pathetic myself, but when the chubby guy behind the desk put my open passport up to his face to stifle his laughter, his shoulders shaking, I stood up and snatched it out of his hand.

'That's mine.'

I sat down again but my original tormenter stood up, looked at me, then opened the door and pointed towards the ATM down the hall. I was beginning to see there was no way out of this except to pay the bastard. I followed him down the hall and we stood over the ATM and stared at it for a few seconds. OUT OF ORDER. Out of order? I couldn't believe my luck. The machine was out of order! And further adding to my sudden good fortune, the bank was now closed.

'Well, I guess that solves that problem,' I said, shrugging my shoulders. 'I can't get any money.'

He was not to be deterred. We went back to the little office where chubby was still waiting and we sat down once more. I was starting to worry about my flight which was due to leave.

'Please show me what's in your handbag there,' he said, referring to my moneybelt.
I took it off from around my waist, unzipped it, and let him see the money. I had Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese, American, and Taiwanese money and he picked through the various bills like a kid at a candy store, examining it before deciding which bills he wanted. He took the American $50 out, and then took the Vietnamese money which was worth another $20. When he held the Taiwanese money up, I told him it was worthless crap. Luckily, he didn't know its value. Finally, satisfied with his haul, he glanced at the other fellow still at the desk, who shrugged and got up and opened the door for me.

As I went back to the boarding area I walked past the others at immigration. They looked at me sheepishly. They knew what was going on. I shook my head and was just glad to have made it past those cowboys for the sum of $70.

Yes, if you're a traveller, watch out for the cheat, especially dude with the hump back and his chubby sidekick at the airport in Luang Prabang.

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“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller