The Gatekeepers Of Asia: Face To Face With The Border Guards Of The Far East

India border guards
estetika, Flickr

In the West, randomness is a crucial, torturous pillar of border security. Those who have been to Asia know that active sadism is supplanted by bureaucracy, vanity and venality. In my opinion these are highly preferable alternatives. Once you know how land borders adopt these principals, they can be easily navigated with a bit of tact, patience and occasionally a small financial stimulus. I find these vagaries far easier to deal with than the gleaming desks and suspicious minds that protect Western countries against threats ex umbra. At least the caprices of Asia’s gatekeepers are motivated by personal incompetence, not institutional torment.

To make things easier, I’ve noticed after a long period of driving my own car around Asia, with all of the bureaucracy that entails, that there are some core motivations that drive Asia’s customs officials. These motivations result in eerily similar individuals from border to border. And so it is one of the peculiarities of driving overland for long distances that you can have a near-identical experience crossing the borders of countries so disparate as Iran and Cambodia.

I haven’t been to everywhere in Asia, so I can’t say these truths are universal. But the following four types of border official have shown up at almost every land crossing I’ve been to so far so it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if these were pan-Asian characters.The Break-Taker
These guys just left and won’t be back for a couple of hours, sorry.

Entering Pakistan from Iran was a long process. We signed gigantic registers with entries dating back to ’80s and traipsed from building to building over barbed-wire fences. When were finally ready to go, having been in the borderlands for hours already, we had to wait for our security detail. We stood impatiently in the rapidly warming desert waiting to get under way. And waiting. And waiting some more. Where was this guy?

“He is having tea, of course,” someone informed us. “Would you like some?”

Time has no meaning when you’re dealing with authority, so we sat down for chai and were off promptly when we finished.

Pakistan Security
Adam Hodge, Gadling

Later, in India…
“And so I can go now?” I asked, having laboriously acquired half a dozen stamps and bits of paper with Hindi scrawled all over them.

“You will have to get your car inspected by the safety officer.”

“And where is he then?”

“Oh, I am sorry sir, but he is unavailable right now. He is having his lunch and should return in a couple hours. Perhaps you would like some tea?”

Even later, in Cambodia…
“You cannot go,” the customs agent told me. “You need to have your car’s documents stamped by the head of customs.”

“Is he having tea?”

“No, lunch actually.”

“And when did he leave for lunch?”

“Two hours ago, maybe. He should return soon.”

Cambodia Border
rdockum, Flickr

The Wal-Mart Greeter
Oblivious to his country’s immigration and customs protocols, he welcomes you like an old friend, often to your detriment.

Deep in leafy green forest in northern Malaysia there is a small border post with Thailand. I stopped at the Malaysian checkpoint and they stamped my car’s papers and practically pushed me out of the country. I inched my car down the lane into Thailand, expecting someone to stop me and ask for papers, passport, where I was headed… anything. Ah! A Thai guard at the end of the lane was watching me from the security lane and he beckoned me toward him. I drove up and rolled down my window. He smiled broadly at me and indicated I should just keep on driving.

I pulled away from the border and drove slowly down the road. I noted Thai people buying fruit from stalls and walking around with the evening groceries. I was in a bustling Thai market. No passport check, no vehicle registration, no searches. I parked and walked back to the customs building and proceeded to confuse everybody.

“Hey there, can you stamp my passport?” I asked the immigration desk.

“Where is your Thai entry stamp?”

“That’s what I’m after.”

“When did you enter?”

“Three minutes ago.”

“You are leaving?”

“No, I’m coming.”

“Why do you come from Thailand?” he asked, seeing how I had walked over from the Thai side.

“I’m not sure.”

“Where is your Malaysia stamp?”

“Hold on.”

Of course, I hadn’t been stamped out of Malaysia either. I trotted back across no-man’s-land to the Malaysian office where I had more or less the same conversation with the border guard, who couldn’t understand why I needed an exit stamp when I was clearly coming from Thailand.

Later, in Laos…
A few months after, I entered Laos by way of vehicle barge, sharing the boat with two gigantic cargo trucks for the 4-minute ride across the Mekong. As I drove up the ramp to the main road at Huay Xai, I stopped and asked a uniformed man where to get a visa, showing him my empty passport. He only grinned and nodded. So I drove on, and I was suddenly in a town. I sat down at a riverside bar and drank a Beerlao, enjoying my minor transgression. Eventually I found the immigration checkpoint 3 miles downstream from where the barge had dropped me off. The customs officials seemed slightly perturbed because no passenger boat had come across for an hour, so where had I come from? This required a fairly taxing explanation, which they eventually and begrudgingly accepted.

Barge Crossing the Mekong from Thailand to Laos
Annika Lidne, Flickr

The Smuggler’s Dream
His only job is to check you’re not carrying anything illicit, but he’s either too trusting, confused, or it’s too hot outside today.

I don’t officially advocate smuggling or anything. But boy, if it isn’t tempting when it’s so easy.

Entering notoriously strict Iran from Turkey, I had done the paperwork dance, and it was time for customs to inspect my car. I nervously led a gruff-looking man dressed in fatigues to where I had parked. He barked at me to open the trunk, which I did in haste. He glanced over the heap of gear from afar, his eyes lingering on the possibly suspicious-looking photography and electronic equipment, camping gear, backpacks, and food.

“What is that?” he asked, nodding at the pile. “Clothes?”

“Well, yes, among other…”

“OK!” he interrupted, signing the form. “You’re good.”

Later, in India…
As I entered India, a small moustachioed official eyed my car suspiciously.

“You are from England?” he asked.

“No, the car is. I’m from Canada.”

“So you have some objectionable things then? Things from Pakistan?”

“Like what?”

“Drugs, other things…” he trailed off, his hand moving in circles to fill in the blanks.

“Uh, no, but…” I began, because I certainly did have things from Pakistan. But I was interrupted, as in Iran.

“OK!” he exclaimed, “You’re good!”

India-Pakistan Border
Adam Hodge, Gadling

Even later, in Thailand
In Cambodia I had picked up some fellow travelers and the trunk was packed with bags. The Thai customs officer looked through the window when we rolled up.

“What’s in there?” he asked pointing at the back.

I figured I’d keep it simple this time: “Just stuff.”

“OK!”

The Jailer
Lonely, bored, vain or incompetent, he finds a way for you to hang around much longer than you want.

After my inadvertent entry to Thailand and the subsequent confusion about visas, I still needed to register my vehicle to drive in Thailand. In a fan-cooled room in the Thai customs house I found a fat uniformed man melting into his chair, as if squashed by gravity and the weight of his immense responsibilities. He barked orders at two demure women as he fanned himself with my car’s customs documents. He seemed in no hurry to let me go, raising objections to every one of my attempts to move things along. After stonewalling my paperwork for a while, I realized the problem: he actually had no idea what he was doing, as he never did any of the work himself. With this established, it was a simple task to organize things with the two friendly ladies, who filled everything out and then deferred dutifully to the great squinting Hutt for his precious signature.

Later, again in Thailand…
When I left Thailand from the north, I realized the ghosts of customs past had followed me up the entire length of the country. The big man in the south had neglected to give me some obscure piece of paper that would allow my car to leave Thailand.

Thailand Border with Mekong
Adam Hodge, Gadling

I insisted to the guard on duty that I had no idea what he was talking about.

“You need to get the papers where you entered the country,” he told me.

My words came to me slowly. “But… that’s 1,300 miles away…”

“Not my problem,” was his response

“So wait, wait. You will let me drive back to where I came from without any permits, but you won’t let me leave?”

About halfway through my sentence he had turned and slithered back into his freezing lair. I leaned my head into the small window and another official batted me away like a stray dog.

“What the hell am I supposed to do, then?” I called after him, a question he dutifully ignored.

So I did what a dog would do. I stood there staring forlornly into the distance for 10 minutes, whimpering softly, until he came back. He had a document in hand, and he was smiling at me.

“Just fill these out and you’re good to go,” he grinned magnanimously.

He was now my best friend. I was on my way.

Laos Border Guards
Jeremiah Roth, Flickr

Bonus Guard: The Sleeper
The sleepers will do whatever it takes to get you gone so they can get back to their dreams.

I still had to get my car’s customs documents stamped first before I could leave Thailand. I didn’t expect this to go any better. I climbed the steps to the customs office and poked my head through the slightly open door. A young guy in uniform was out cold at his desk, his belly rising and falling in a peaceful rhythm. I cleared my throat and he awoke with a full body spasm. He looked mildly ashamed when he saw me, his wide eyes betraying the guilt of a lurid dream. I whipped out my form.

“You need to sign here, here, and stamp here and here.”

He shrugged and started stamping, offering me a self-satisfied grin when finished, as if there were no easier task in the world.

Better Know A Holiday: Songkran

AKA: Thai New Year, Water Festival, Pi Mai (Laos), Chaul Chnam Thmey (Cambodia), Thingyan (Myanmar), Water-Splashing Festival (Chinese Dai minority)

When? April 13 to 15 officially, though celebrations may last longer

Public holiday in: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar

Who died? Nobody.

Reason for celebration, then? The sun has begun its northward journey into the constellation of Aries. Otherwise known as the solar new year.

Origins: Songkran was originally a pious event. Thai Buddhists would go to temple early in the morning and offer alms to the monks. Then they would sprinkle lustral water on Buddha statues. Young people would collect that water, which was now blessed, and symbolically wash the hands of their elders. The water was intended to wash away bad omens. This still happens today, but the spiritual aspect has largely given way to a party atmosphere, much to the chagrin of certain Thais (see below).

How is it celebrated now? A massive, nation-wide water fight that lasts several days, generally with lots of drinking involved. Everyone in the street is fair game for a soaking.

Other ways to celebrate: Releasing fish back into streams, freeing caged birds, bringing sand to temples to symbolically replace dirt that has been removed throughout the year.

Craziest venue: The northern city of Chiang Mai, where the celebration continues long after the holiday is officially over, is considered to be the best place to carouse.

Watch out for: Elephants and pick-up trucks. Both have a very large carrying capacity and high-pressure discharge.Associated commercialism: Songkran today means big bucks for the tourism industry. The government actively promotes the festival on its party merits, much to the consternation of traditional Thais who think the celebrations have gotten out of hand. What was originally a respectful celebration of family and elders has turned into an excuse to get drunk with friends rather than spend time with family. The hand-wringers will have a difficult time convincing the tourist board to change its tune, though: tourists will spend over $1 billion this year during the Songkran festivities.

Associated food: Khanon tom – sticky rice and mung bean balls; khanon krok – miniature coconut rice pancakes; and of course, the ubiquitous pad thai

Best side effect of the holiday: With the mercury bumping up against 100 degrees in much of Thailand at this time of year, a dousing can be a welcome relief.

New rules this year: During Songkran festivities last year, over 300 people died, and there were over 3,000 road accidents. Drunk driving is a major problem. Police have stepped in to curb the chaos this year. Traditionally, pick-ups roamed the streets with massive barrels of water and a team of bucketeers and gunmen in the back, dousing anyone they came across. No longer. They have been banned, along with overloading vehicles, drinking in certain areas and putting ice in the throwing water. The Bangkok Post has published a helpful “10 Commandments of Songkran” for those who need a media edict from within Songkran jurisdiction.

Likelihood of these rules being followed: Slim.

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Check out more holidays around the world here

[Photo Credit: Flick user Wyndham]

Travel Tool: Interactive World Heritage Site Map

When it comes to planning my next trip, a pretty photo only inspires me half as much as a good map. I’m particularly partial to UNESCO‘s interactive World Heritage List map, which I spend more time clicking on than I’d care to admit. The map identifies the List’s 962 properties across the globe and provides information about each, including an array of photos for those who need the photographic impetus.

More than anything else, it’s a useful tool to find astonishing places beyond the Angkor Wats, Serengetis and Venices of the world. Did I know there were 100-meter-tall stone towers in northwestern Russia. Or that there’s a place called the Inaccessible Islands in the South Atlantic? I do now, and I want to go.

The map is also a great way to find less touristed sights in popular countries. The Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex in Thailand gets short shrift from most visitors, for instance, but is a completely unique environment in Southeast Asia.

Don’t know where to start? The red points are World Heritage Sites in danger of being destroyed or permanently altered by man or nature, so they may not be around forever.

[Photo Credit: UNESCO/Google]

Photo Of The Day: Sketching In Angkor Wat

As the largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat is truly massive, taking hours to get just a cursory view of the temple complex. While it is Cambodia’s prime attraction, there are still plenty of corners in which to find your own personal space, which is exactly what this sketch artist is doing inside Banteay Kdei. Known as the “Citadel of Chambers,” monks still lived inside up until the 1960s. Captured by Lauren Irons, “The Traveling Teacher,” and submitted to the Gadling Flickr Pool, this picture shows one man’s ability to do what many of us yearn for: find our own moments of peace within spectacular locations.

You too can have the chance at your travel photos being featured as our “Photo of the Day” by submitting it to our Gadling Flickr Pool or via Instagram by mentioning us @gadlingtravel and using tagging your photo with #gadling.

[Photo credit: Flickr user thetravelingteacher]

5 Countries That Are Great Alternatives To Their Crowded Neighbors

It’s the great hypocrisy in the mind of every traveler that they want to tour a place free from other tourists. Grumbling that a place is overcrowded isn’t without grounds, though. Who hasn’t wanted to pull a Dr. Manhattan on the tour groups that take group photos with every single person’s camera? And boy, what we wouldn’t give to disappear the backpackers pretending to make out with statues of the Buddha.

We can overlook these indignities as necessary evils most of the time. In reality, tourists are going to be present at the big attractions everywhere, and the penalty of avoiding tourists would basically be staying at home permanently.

That being said, for those who just can’t take it anymore, we’ve compiled a list of some less infested options. These five countries offer up similar attractions to their neighbors, but see far fewer visitors to the nooks and crannies, which will make any tourist-weary tourist breathe a little easier.

Montenegro (Crowded Neighbor: Croatia)

Croatia’s attractive coastline is a magnet for tourists. The attendant income from droves of foreigners was one of the reasons Serbs attempted to include it in their “Greater Serbia.” The subsequent Croatian War of Independence ended in 1995, and the current crowds milling about Dubrovnik are the spoils of victory. Little Montenegro, which declared independence from Serbia only in 2006, shares the same coastline and a lot of history with its more famous neighbor. The country currently sees far fewer tourists (1.2 million vs. 9.9 million) visiting its excellent beaches, like the superb spits of sand at Sveti Stefan and Petrovac. Nor do many tourists hike and cycle around Montenegro’s untouched forests at Biogradska Gora and Skadar Lake National Parks. Montenegro’s comparative anonymity provides an experience that can’t be matched in Croatia.

Cambodia (Crowded Neighbor: Thailand)

Cambodia’s main attraction, Angkor Wat, certainly doesn’t dwell in obscurity. This single attraction saw over a million visitors last year, which accounts for more than a third of all visitors to the country. Some of Thailand‘s other neighbors, like Laos and Myanmar, can barely achieve those numbers on a national level. However, when it comes to pretenders to Thailand’s tourism throne, Cambodia is the only one in the region that can offer attractions that go tit for tat with Thailand’s best. Beaches? The empty white sands of Koh Rong and Ream National Park beckon, as does the party-centric seaside town of Sihanoukville. Ruins? Cambodia rolls deep; Angkor Wat is backed up by Koh Ker, the former capital of the Khmer Empire now overgrown in the jungle, and Sambor Prei Kuk, a pre-Angkorian temple complex. Interesting capital? Phnom Penh, the “Pearl of Asia,” boasts French colonial architecture and a park-strewn riverfront. Food? A taste of amok trey or lok lak will make you forget all about pad thai.

Estonia (Crowded Neighbor: Sweden)

Sweden is a huge Scandinavian tourism juggernaut. Estonia? Just a scrappy little Baltic state. What’s the appeal then? A lot, actually. Estonia, like Sweden, is a nature-lover’s paradise. Soomaa National Park, the “land of bogs,” is one of the best canoeing destinations in Europe and is home to wolves, bears, elk and other wildlife. Estonia’s crumpled Baltic coastline contains a mind-boggling number of shallow soft-sand beaches, especially in the summer capital of Pärnu. Estonia’s past is also worth a look. While its Soviet experience is visible in some of the less adventurous architecture, the medieval castles are well preserved and atmospheric. Tallinn, the capital, is flooded with tourists, but island life on Saaremaa is quiet and isolated. Saaremaa boasts a 13th-century castle fortress and other curios like the 100-year-old Angla windmills and a Gothic church bearing symbols of the occult.

Mozambique (Crowded Neighbor: South Africa)

South Africa is head and shoulders above its Sub-Saharan neighbors when it comes to tourist numbers. Its famous game reserves, coastline and unique heritage attract almost 10 million visitors a year. Mozambique can’t match the tourist infrastructure that its neighbor to the south has meticulously erected, but it can offer other competitive attractions. Before its large mammal population was decimated by the civil war, Gorongosa Park was considered to be Africa’s Eden. Efforts to revive the park are underway, and all of Africa’s Big 5, save the rhino, can be seen here. Maputo, the capital, is small and friendly and features Portuguese colonial architecture and an extremely laid-back vibe. Mozambique’s true attraction, though, is its coast, where surfers (of the kite and wind variety) enjoy the unspoiled beaches at Vilanculos and divers explore pristine coral without the crowds at Pemba and Tofo Beach.

Iran (Crowded Neighbor: Turkey)

Turkey sees some 27 million tourists a year and Iran, well … not nearly as many. Official mouthpieces assert some 3 million tourists visited Iran in 2011, though less than 1 percent of those were traveling for nonreligious reasons. Those few tourists had historical sites like Persepolis and Imam Square all to themselves. They experienced Iran’s outstanding natural attractions – lush forests and beaches on the Caspian Sea in the north and deadly deserts and sunny Persian Gulf coastlines in the south – without the crowds that bog down these landscapes in Turkey. Those travelers were also some of the only foreign tourists in Tehran, enjoying its multitude of parks and museums, and were alone again in Yazd, a city of compacted sand reminiscent of Tatooine. Then they joined Iranians on the empty slopes of Dizin, one of the best value-for-money ski resorts in the world, and one of the few spots where Iranians are able to pull back the veil and let loose.

[Photo Credits: Kumukulanui, ecl1ght, (flicts), VilleHoo, F H Mira, Adam Hodge]