20 June 2010

Cambodian Border Crossing

I have been reminded that it's been over two weeks since I last posted; if I were being paid I would not longer be plaid. Or paid. I owe you. To tell you everything that's happened in those two weeks would be personal and ludicrous, so I'll just share the following highlight. It's quite lengthy though (it was six pages in Word, but I heavily edited it). If you have the time to read it all the way through I think you'll enjoy it and won't regret the ten minutes you spent on it. By the way, Alex and Jake are our facilitators. Here we go:

Wednesday,  June 9, 2010

All 26 of us left Chiang Mai, Thailand at 2:05 pm in three 15 passenger vans. Luckily they were air conditioned, comfortable, and made for long hauls. I was with five other people including BYU International internships Coordinator Malcolm, who has been visiting the program for two weeks to make sure he’s doing a good job in Provo.  We really lucked out by having only 6 people in our van. One van decided suicide by Lord of the Rings trilogy extended versions watching was pliable, and 10 people followed suit in that vehicle. (They literally watched all three movies back to back.) I think the other van just didn’t realize they had ten people to our six, and we didn’t make much of a chatter to remind them.  So off we went!

Seventeen minutes into the trip (I’ll try not to make this too time log-ical) I heard the van driver say the only thing he ever said in English- though he said it often: “Toilet.” I knew it was going to be a long trip if we stopped at 7-11 ever twenty minutes for the restroom. Luckily we generally kept the stops to every two hours.  I was pleased to be spending the 13 hours with the people I was with; we discussed all sorts of things, ate more junk food than we had the entire previous month, watched one movie half way through until it stopped working, gave Malcolm frank opinions on how the program as a whole has been running, did lots of reading, and did little sleeping. About midnight we learned you could tilt the chairs back so we put three people on the front row, leaned the bench back, and then I got the second row to myself, legs bent to fit lengthwise and body buried under headrests. It was not very comfortable sleep. 13 hours is a long time to be on a bus. The Thai countryside was very pretty, although torrential rains through four hours of it and then darkness greatly hindered our view. Chaing Mai is in the Northwest whereas Cambodia borders Thailand on the Southeast. We got to see much of the country, but missed Bangkok by a few hundred kilometers.

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

Now, as long as I don’t drown the following story in pitiful details or excessive words, it will be worth your while to read. It’s a fascinating story of hostages, ransoms, the mafia, border crossings, overpriced food, bus terminals, and corruption- All involving me.

The most confusing aspect of this early day was the timing. I realize neither Jake nor Alex knew exactly when the border with Cambodia opened, or how long the drive would be, but they did time it quite terribly. We arrived at the border in the middle of the night, 3:35am to be exact. Since we couldn’t pass through until 7:00am, we had nothing to do but wait. We sat in the idle vans half-heartedly sleeping and full-heartedly annoyed and tired before we were aroused at 6:00am for breakfast. We had spent those last 2.5 hours in a police parking lot. I had to go to the bathroom, and the only option was the police station. They were friendly enough, though, and let us all in to brush our teeth and use the toilet. It was especially exciting since we had to pass the jail on our way to the bathroom and got to see all the prisoners locked up. My first jail experience-very exciting. We ate breakfast with the risen sun and watched the monks come out to receive their daily alms of rice. Our cook gave every one of them an egg and some rice and was blessed through chants and head tapping. We figured he was feeling especially generous this day since it wasn’t even 6:30am yet and already he’d gotten 26 farangs to offer him business.

After breakfast we ha d a group meeting to discuss the border. We were warned that the border is a very dangerous place, were told to put our valuables in our front pockets, and to wear our backpacks over our stomachs since if they were slung over our backs a thief could cut them off with one fell swoop of a knife. We were then given the border rules:

1.       Stay together as a group. Don’t go off on your own for any reason.

2.       Do exactly what Jake or Alex tell you.

3.       Only listen to Jake or Alex. If anyone else tries to help you or offers assistance, ignore them. Only do what Jake and Alex tell you.

Those three comforting rules were all that was offered and then we began our journey over the border.

Borders. What a fascinating and tangible melting pot. I was astounded at all the people lined up for the border to open at seven, and the things they carried with them. Those going into Cambodia were primarily tourists (from all over- Africa, Europe, Asia) and several of them were bona fide backpackers with all their belongings over their shoulders. Going into Thailand was where all the excitement was, however. Hundreds of people- mostly merchants- were crossing over for a day of selling goods. I saw women with baskets of fruit and bread on their heads, men pulling handcarts with everything and anything you can imagine on them, piled mile high, people with crying children, and people in dress attire. It really was an amazing spectacle and something you would not get at the US/Canada border. I was the second one out of Thailand, after Jake.

There is a limbo/no man’s area between when Thailand lets you leave and before Cambodia lets you enter that we waited in. Everyone else took forever to exit Thailand because the line kept getting longer, and it was an hour before we got our group out of Thailand.

Our original plan was to have a bus drive up from Phenom Phen and meet us at the border, and we would leave by 8:30am. We contacted the bus driver and indeed he was there and waiting (the Cambodian border town is called Poi Pet. Remember that for details to come), but there was no way were going to be ready by 8:30am. After everyone got out of Thailand we gazed up at the magnificent Welcome to the Kingdom of Cambodia sign carved in a brilliant rock, and prepared to enter the kingdom. We had to fill out arrival and departure cards and get our Cambodian visas. I’m not sure why we needed visas for a 6 day stay, but we did. We found a friendly border employee who informed us that with the size of our group (26 people) it would be much more efficient if we all gave him our passports, and waited at an outdoor coffee shop across the street while he processed them. None of us were willing to surrender our passports until Jake gave us the OK. Jake is the only one who’d ever crossed this border before. Jake did give the OK, and we followed another man across the street to the café. I have learned that in Southeast Asia when you are told to wait for something, it generally will be for a long time. I pulled out my book, and other followed suit with books and playing cards. We were very tired, gross, dirty, in need of  shower, and still annoyed that we had arrived at 3:30am only to sit in the busses until 7:00am. At the café we met up with our bus driver who had his bus waiting just outside of town.

Let me take this time to introduce you to Ang. Ang is the BYU contact in Cambodia. Ang is the second counselor in the Cambodian district presidency, speaks fluent English and Khmer (Khmer and Cambodia are the same, in terms of nationality and language), and sets up most of the internships and host families for the Cambodian interns. There are ten BYU-UofU interns in Cambodia, doing the same thing we are doing in Thailand. Ang lives in Phenom Phen, and was therefore not at the border, but accessible by phone. Okay, back to this thrilling story.

After forty five minutes of waiting the friendly man returned with our passports and led us to one more final checkpoint before admittance to Cambodia was allowed. We gave a choral sigh of relief to have our passports back in our possession. Again there were long lines and it was 9:00am before we were finally all across and loading a bus. Our hired bus driver was with us, but not driving the bus. We figured were being transported to his vehicle. A few more Cambodian helpers got on the bus with us and we drove about five miles outside of Poi Pet to a bus terminal. It was really in the middle of nowhere. We could see nothing from any direction. Alex told us to just sit down and relax while he went and talked things over with Jake. I found a bench to lie down on and one where I could overhear bits and pieces of Alex and Jake’s conversation. I swear that was not my intent when I chose it, but it did prove to be exciting. Here’s what I heard out of their conversation:

“…Wait, our bus isn’t here?...”

“…How much does he want?..”

“…How’s your Khmer?...”

“…We don’t even have that money…”


“…What do you want to do?...”

“…Who are these guys?...”

“… Call Ang and have him figure out what the heck they are actually saying…”

Alex then got on the phone with Ang, and Ang told him these were crooks who had taken us here, and that we should just disregard them and walk outside to the street. He told us a bus headed towards town would probably drive by soon and we should just flag it down and hop on. So we attempted to do just that. Alex and Jake told us to gather all our stuff and we walked through heavy mud to the street, where we looked on like dogs abandoned on the side of the road by their owners who care for them no longer. Our hired bus driver was with us (wondering what the heck was going on) as were the four original guys from the border. Their ringleader was a tall, slimy man of about 26 years. He had a mole on his chin with long, stringy hairs sticking out of it. (The SE Asians think it is bad luck to cut hairs off their moles, so they grow them long. It’s hideous.) He was very friendly, but not in a Karen Conley way. It was friendly like in a ‘here, let me tie this flaxen cord around your neck- it won’t hurt!’ type of way. His smile reminded me of a crocodile and his way of speaking was soft and evil. I do not have fond memories of that man. These four men followed close behind us outside, wondering why we were challenging their authority and what exactly our plan was. While we were waiting Alex told us what was happening and even used the word “hostage” to describe our state. Apparently these men had led us to this bus terminal and wouldn’t let us leave until we paid them a ransom. That’s when we realized we were not exactly going with the plan anymore.  But, there was still a jovial, excited attitude among  us. We made jokes about surrounding these four men and seeing what they would do, and said things like “They don’t have guns. We could totally overpower them!... Maybe we should just walk; how far is the closest town?” Everyone was too excited to have been considered ‘hostages’ to really understand what was going on. After twenty minutes of waiting and nothing happening, the men said some things to Alex and he called Ang to translate. That was one translation we didn’t really want to hear.

I’m still not sure exactly what the men said to Ang, but when Alex hung up the phone his countenance changed and he said, “Ang says we need to do exactly what these men tell us or ‘things will be bad for all of us.’ From now on, cooperate with them.” Everyone’s attitude changed then, and the jokes stopped. Here’s what had happened. The man who processed our visas at the Cambodian border was part of “The Association”- a word for mafia. When he saw 26 Americans trying to get to Phenom Phen he contacted his friend (the thin crocodile-smile man) and tipped him off. That man then took us to his bus terminal and was forcing us to take his bus down to Phenom Phen, with a very high ticket price. He was demanding money in US cash, and literally we were trapped at this forsaken bus terminal at his mercy. Alex and Jake, foreseeing such a problem, purposefully didn’t bring any cash with them, also since our hired bus was already partially paid for (our hired bus driver was being held hostage with us, by the way). As soon as the mafia believed Alex that he didn’t have the money, he said he would take us back to Poi Pet, a border town in shambles except for a nice bank with an ATM dispensing USD, and wait while he withdrew the cash. Ang warned Alex that they would try and separate Alex and Jake- our obvious leaders- from the rest of us helpless peons and then charge them more money to meet back up with us again. Ang told us to make sure the entire group stayed together and to avoid that from happening. When we got on the bus back to Poi Pet Alex sat on the front row, Jake on the last row, and all of us in between. That was a somber 5 mile bus ride. Many BYU students were pretty scared. Instead of making jokes about ‘taking these guys on’ one student suggested a group prayer and the girl behind me started humming hymns. I figured it was only a matter of time before someone started crying (which they didn’t- we’re a tough group). No-one really knew what was going to happen. We were in the middle of a story without a real possibility of “happily ever after.”

At the bank we all got off in prescribed fashion, and Alex and Brynna went in to withdraw large sums of cash. Across the street from us was the Cambodian Tourist police, and on the second floor of the bank three men looked down at us- laughing. Honestly they were. They’d seen this routine time and time again and were pleased to be a part of it. One BYU student got really made at the men laughing and went up to the crocodile smile man and asked, “Why are they laughing at us? Huh? WHY?” He was really mad. We were all really mad. It’s not a good way to end a 13 hour bus trip. After withdrawing the cash (I think it was $1,000) we got back on the bus in order, and wondered where they would take us next. Our hired driver, by the way, was released at the bank, presumably with some words not to pick us up but to just carry on.

We learned later that Poi Pet is run by a very corrupt mayor and that everyone works for “The Association”, including the tourist police. When we got back to the bus terminal and paid the man off we were told the bus would leave at 1:30pm (it was now 11:30am). Oh, if only we could have gone with our original bus driver! But no, we had to wait two more hours in the bus terminal. It was miserable. Actually, as far as being held hostage in the middle of nowhere goes, it was semi-decent. There were clean squatter toilets, overpriced food, benches, a roof, and the occasional ceiling fan. I was getting hungry by 12:00pm but of course I did not want to support this corrupt monopoly. I had some bread in my bag that I’d been saving the whole trip for an occasion like this. When I pulled it out it was moldy. Yes, black spots in three different places on the top piece. I figured I was already been held captive by the mob and I was pretty hungry, so why not? I picked the mold off and ate it anyway. Then I ate a granola bar I’d brought all the way from America. An hour later I gave in and had some fried rice. I had fried rice for breakfast and fried rice for lunch, only my lunch cost 4x as much and didn’t include water.  Stupid Association.

While we were waiting all the girls pulled out their journals and started chronicling the experience while the men went off and vented. We saw some other Westerners in the terminal and one of the UofU students went to go warn them of what was going to happen- an interlocution that would prove to be costly. (I feel like John Grisham here.)  1:30pm came and went and there was no bus. Actually there was, but we were not invited on. Many others at the terminal got on, but not us. That’s when I saw Jake- a mild mannered new father of one- get the maddest. He said, “If another bus doesn’t show up by 2:00pm I’m demanding our money back and we’re walking!” Two o’clock came and went as swiftly as a goldfish’s memory, and no bus. Luckily Jake had been assuaged by then. One girl in our group saw some Westerners exchanging their money and she yelled at them not too. That get her a firm scolding from Alex, who told her the reason we weren’t invited on the 1:30pm bus was because they didn’t like our pesky behavior (such as warning the other Westerners) and that she should just mind her own business and not talk to anyone if we wanted to leave the terminal by nightfall. That put her in a bad mood for the rest of the day, naturally. We were all in foul moods. But we sure did know that bus terminal well!

Finally at 2:19pm another bus pulled up, partially filled, and we were told to get on. We didn’t know where it was taking us but we were dang sick of the terminal and the man with the crocodile smile knew we needed to go to Phenom Phen so we had no choice but to trust him since he was the only one who spoke English. It’s very ironic trusting a man who is holding you captive, and not with his eloquent speech. The bus turned out to be not too bad. I would describe it as a coach bus built in 1980. It showed wear and tear but it had air conditioning and for most of the trip was only one to a seat. A woman with a baby came onto the bus, and my first thought was one which I needed to repent of later: “Why would you ever want to raise a child in this terrible country?” I know, it was bad, but these things creep into your mind when you’re sleepless and helpless. These men were mafia, terrible, and exacted a lot of money out of us.

When my sister Emily was on her mission in Bulgaria I remember her telling stories about the mafia, and I had a very different idea of what it was in my 15 year-old-brain.  Now that I have lived through my first foreign mafia experience I have a much better idea of what they do, who they are, and how they operate. They don’t just launder money and kill people, and they aren’t always large men in Italian suits, with canes and big rings. On the bus ride down to Phenom Phen Malcolm pulled out his Blackberry and wrote an email to the US Embassy in Cambodia to file a grievance. Rightfully so, too. We were definitely not the first group of Americans and won’t be the last group to fall prey to this scam. I don’t know if the embassy will do anything, but at least they are now aware. Crossing borders by foot and crossing borders by plane are entirely different. I prefer the airplane method.

The 7 hour and 45 minute bus ride to Phenom Phen was much longer than our hired bus driver would have taken, but it was perhaps more exciting. Our bus driver was crazy. Actually I think all Cambodian bus drivers are crazy, but especially this guy. He would drive directly down the middle of the road at one constant speed, as if on an electric bus hooked to a wire. If an oncoming car approached he would honk his horn and veer ever so slightly to the right (the Cambodians drive on the right, but since many of their cars come from Thailand lots of the steering wheels are also on the right). If passing another car became necessary, he would just veer ever so slightly to the left before regaining position in the middle of the road. The motorcycles know to steer clear of any larger vehicles, and often the driver would pass a car while a motorcycle pulled into the far left lane to avoid being demolished by our unflinching bus. Our driver honked incessantly. He honked when we approached a car. He honked when we passed a car. He honked when he saw a motorcycle. He honked when he felt someone was going too slowly. He honked when he saw “No honking” signs. He honked when we passed a person. He honked when we passed a house. He really did honk for anything. He had the stuttering honk down pat. The way he kept one hand on the horn and one on the wheel was like a judge with one hand on a gavel and the other on a Bible. Rarely did the hold the horn down, but instead chose the incessant stuttering approach.

The bus stops on this trip were also interesting. The first one was in Battambang, and a woman came on the bus to sell us homemade waffles for four for a dollar. Pretty cheap. There were also baguettes for sale at the same price. The rest stops were dirty and inconvenient, to say the least. By 9:00pm I had eaten another granola bar but hunger still struck. Those bars give me one hour of relief before I get hungry again, with a maximum of two bars in two hours. After that I need real food. Our rest stop at 9:00pm was really dark, really buggy, and the available food was salty, cooked cockroaches or shredded pork filled baguettes. I opted for the baguette. The shredded pork here is dried and takes on a hair-like texture. It’s nothing like the BBQ pulled pork sandwich you are probably imagining. The pork filled bread was actually pretty good and held me over until we got the hotel. As we pulled into Phenom Phen I was not impressed. There were piles of trash lining the streets, people sleeping on the streets in hammocks, and I saw a mouse running across the street. Of course, please bear in mind that I was not in a very good mood due to the previous two days’ activities so it would have been difficult to have a positive outlook on Phenom Phen. I will say, however, that the drive from Poi Pet to Phenom Pen was beautiful. Well, perhaps intriguing would be a better adjective.

On the drive down I saw thousands of acres of fields and very outdated farm tools. They were using water buffaloes and plows to mix up the mud and then planting and harvesting the rice by hand. It was like we were back in the 18th century again. There was a marked difference between Thailand and Cambodia. Cambodia is in a much worse state than Thailand and it shows.

What other BYU program can you be taken hostage on? This NEVER in a million years would have happened on my London Study Abroad. I found it very funny that Malcolm- the International Development Internships Coordinator who was visiting our program to see how it was going-was along for the ordeal. So Malcolm, how would you say this program is going compared to the other ones?


Tina said...

Oh my gosh, David. Wow. I'm glad you've alive, but how the heck are you going to get back to Thailand without running into the same problem? I think it's frightening to be in a foreign country, and feel like you have no recourse but to pay off some corrupt guy. Good luck, and thank you for writing all this down!

Jenny said...

wwwwwwwwwwooooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwww!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I just read this entire thing out loud to Emily and Wex and they hung onto every word. Wex wants to know why the Association doesn't just break into that ATM and steal all the cash. Emily wants to know why she didn't see you on the news. And I miss you.

Dane said...

Dude, Dave... it's been too long. This was way intense! I was waiting for you to bust out some crazy ninja moves on those dudes! Way to go though.

Megan said...

That is crazy. Seriously, there is nothing else I can say about it.

Anonymous said...


Considered yourself blessed for having experience what most people in the Less Developed Countries (LDC) face every day of their lives-- the fear of physical harm and the insecurity of safety. Now you can somewhat understand or relate to them. (I am glad that you were safe in the end, though.)

This wouldn't happen in "a million years" in your London Study Abroad program because the U.K. is a More Developed Country (MDC) and have systems of safety measures. Also, please take into consideration that the enforcement mechanism for security doesn't exist in Cambodia since post-Genocide. When you compared Thailand to Cambodia-- the comparison is not an apple to apple comparison, but more like an apple to an orange.

Thailand was not heavily impacted by the Viet Nam War as was Cambodia, which was heavily bombed and had an internal communist conflict. If you were to compare Cambodia's development, it should be compared to another post-Genocide country, not Thailand. There's an historical rivalry between the two nations since the fall of the Khmer Empire.

Did you know that Angkor Watt is the largest religious monument in the world? Of course, having been there-- you can understand why. It was built as a Hindu temple then converted to a Buddhist temple. Also, it was a reflection of cosmology and was used as an 'observatory.' The Khmers are very intelligent given the fact that the longest Asian Empire was the Khmer Empire.

Too bad/sad that American education system (in world history) don't focus on ancient Khmer history because culturally and linguistically, the Khmer Empire had a lasting effect on South East Asia until the colonization/invasion of the French.
One may argue that due and since the French colonization and their ideological influence, the Khmer's power status and territory in the region have declined drastically. The genocide or civil war period have further dragged the Khmers backward in time. Furthermore, with the Chinese encroachment in Cambodia, what will happened to the culture of the Khmer and the language (which has the world's longest alphabet)? Who will educate the Khmer children in the rural areas?"

Thanks be to the teachers who risk their lives to teach "poor" children. I always believe in the empowerment of education.

Your Friend,
An Independent Mormon Angkor

PS: Corruptions exist in every country.