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: Showa Day

Formerly: The Emperor’s Birthday, Greenery Day

When? April 29

Public holiday in: Japan

Part of: Japan’s Golden Week, a series of four public holidays in the span of a week that sees offices closed, trains and planes packed and a mass exodus from the major cities like Tokyo.

Who died? Former Japanese Emperor Hirohito, posthumously referred to as Emperor Showa.

They changed his name? Showa refers to the era of Hirohito’s reign. After death, Japanese emperors were referred to by the name of the era during which they ruled. The Showa Emperor’s reign lasted from 1926 to 1989, the longest era in Japanese history. Showa can be translated as “enlightened peace.”

… wasn’t he the ruler during WWII? Hirohito chose the name “showa” for his era after returning from the post-WWI battlefields in France and witnessing the devastation there. His anti-war sentiment seems to have been legitimate, but he ended up reigning over a period of unprecedented military brutality. However, he also reigned over a period of unprecedented economic growth in the years after the war.

How is the holiday celebrated now? Officially it’s a time to reflect on the era of Hirohito’s reign, Japan’s turbulent past and subsequent recovery, and where the country is headed. In reality, as the start of Golden Week, it’s when most Japanese take off for a vacation.

Other ways to celebrate: Public lectures talking about Japan’s participation in the war, to pass on the memories to future generations.Why was it Greenery Day before? Until 1989, the April 29 holiday was still referred to as the Emperor’s Birthday. But when Hirohito died, the Emperor’s Birthday was necessarily moved to December, when his son and successor Akihito was born. Hirohito loved nature, so April 29 became Greenery Day, which allowed people to acknowledge Hirohito without expressly using his name. This actually isn’t the first time this has happened in Japan. The Meiji Emperor’s birthday was celebrated on November 3 until his death in 1912, and after November 3 became Culture Day.

What happened to Greenery Day then? In 2005, Japan passed a bill that turned April 29 into Showa Day. Greenery Day was moved to May 4.

This pissed off: China, South Korea, North Korea

Why? They see the holiday as honoring Hirohito, who reigned during an era of Japanese war crimes and occupation of their countries. Japan argues it that the holiday is a time to reflect on those turbulent times, not celebrate them.

What else is going on during Golden Week? Besides Greenery Day, there is also Constitution Memorial Day on May 3, which is meant to have people reflect on the Japanese government. May 5 is Children’s Day, a day to celebrate the happiness of being a kid. Traditionally, families fly carp-shaped flags to bring good luck to their boys. Girls don’t get any flags, fish-shaped or otherwise.

These aren’t really “party time” holidays, are they? Last time, we covered Songkran, Southeast Asia’s annual drunken water fight. This time, we have a series of holidays that encourage reflection on, chronologically, a nation’s past and future, man’s place in nature, the meaning of democracy, and the innocence of children. They are decidedly not party time holidays, but that’s hardly a bad thing. You can have a party anytime. But when’s the last time you thought about the importance of effective governance and the dictates of post-war economic recovery? That’s what I thought.

Check out more holidays around the world here

[Photo Credit: Flick user Summon Baka]

Balochistan, The Unluckiest Corner Of The World

The earthquake that shook Iran and Pakistan last week has already been overshadowed by fatal tremors in Sichuan, China, a few days ago. Perhaps not surprising given that both places are in seismically active areas, but both of these disasters are repeats of far more deadly earthquakes that occurred in the last decade. In 2008, the Great Sichuan Earthquake killed almost 70,000 people, while a 2003 earthquake in the Balochistan area in Iran killed over 26,000.

That the death toll of such strong earthquakes this year is much lower (188 so far in China and 36 in Balochistan) is partly due to luck and partly due to building changes made in the wake of the last disasters. Iran was lucky that this year’s earthquake struck a less inhabited area, while China was lucky that the magnitude of the earthquake, though great, was still far less than in 2008 (6.6 vs. 7.9 is a huge difference on the logarithmic quake-measuring scale). In Iran, it’s certain that upgrades to buildings would have helped in this year’s disaster. Part of the reason the earthquake in 2003 was so devastating was due to mud brick buildings that didn’t comply with 1989 earthquake building codes. Two years ago when I visited Bam, the city devastated in 2003, almost all of the buildings were girded with steel support beams. It remains to be seen whether Chinese building integrity, which was lacking in 2008′s earthquake, will be to thank for the lower death toll this time around, but it seems likely.
The Iranian earthquake last week was actually almost directly on the border of Iran and Pakistan, in a murky and little-visited area known as Balochistan. Where Iranians and Chinese have enjoyed an immediate and effective response to the crises of the past week, the Pakistanis have not been so lucky. China has literally had to turn away volunteers from Sichuan. And Iran, which in case you’re not paying attention was just hit with its own 7.8 M earthquake, has offered earthquake aid to China. Meanwhile, Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province is suffering something of a humanitarian crisis.

Few people ever travel to Balochistan. It’s bleak and desolate and basically on the way to nowhere. Even the hippies, self-medicating their way to India along the hippie trail in the ’60s and ’70s, would divert through Afghanistan rather than going through the dusty deserts of Balochistan.

I traveled there in 2011, on my way overland to Southeast Asia. We (a convoy of travelers) were assigned armed guards along the way, who took regular naps as we trundled across the desert. The Baloch people, with their sun-beaten faces and piercing stares, often seemed sinister, but it turned out curiosity was simply mistaken for menace. Few Baloch see any Westerners except on TV, though the elder of them will remember a time pre-Partition when British were still garrisoned in Quetta, Balochistan’s capital.

I’m not naive. Balochistan is a dangerous place. Kidnappings perpetrated by al-Qaeda radicals are not uncommon (though they rarely target foreigners). Sectarian violence is a big problem. And there’s always the chance one might get in the crossfire between the Pakistan military and the stout and very armed advocates of an independent Balochistan.

But the regular Baloch, like everyone else on the planet, is just on his hustle, trying to eke out a living for himself and his family. He is abiding by ancient customs of hospitality in his native land. He is offering tea to the strange foreigner who wandered into his shop dressed in a moose toque and suede shoes in the middle of the desert. He is napping in the passenger seat of some foreigner’s car so they can safely transit his homeland. He is yelling at an idiot foreigner to turn off the bloody radio during the call to prayer, but then smiling to show he wasn’t being hostile or anything. And he is helping said sartorially inept foreigner navigate the hectic markets of Quetta to buy local dress that won’t make him stand out so damn much. So spare a thought for the Baloch and their homeland of Balochistan, a small, unlucky corner of the globe where you will probably never go.

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[Photo credit: Jae Pyl, Adam Hodge]

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]

Photo Of The Day: Colonial Architecture In Burma

When we think of Southeast Asian architecture we often think of old temples and ancient statues, but the influence of colonial times on this area of the world has had just as much of an influence on the local infrastructure and design.

Flickr member R A L F captured this beautiful building facade in Yangon, Burma (Myanmar). The city, also known as Rangoon, has the largest number of colonial buildings in the region.

Have your own travel photos featured on “Photo Of The Day” by submitting your photos to the Gadling Flickr pool or via Instagram by tagging your photos with #gadling and mentioning us @gadlingtravel.

[Photo Credit: R A L F]