I was reminded of this peculiar, dodgy-sounding incident from 16 years ago while we waited in line to go through immigration at Bangkok Airport the other week – click here for the main piece on the February 2017 Thailand trip.
I recalled that the previous time Janie and I entered Thailand, in 2001, we didn’t formally go through immigration at all.
In truth, we jumped the border between Laos and Thailand.
My travel log is more or less silent on this incident, probably because I didn’t dare write it up while we were still in Thailand. I was too busy getting back to work and dining out on the story when first we returned.
Indeed, My Journal Cambodia Laos & Thailand February 2001 – concludes at the end of the 18 February 2001 page, when we were at the delightful but basic Tad Lo Lodge in Saravan Province:
Light lunch followed by relaxing pm at our bungalow & early supper in preparation for tomorrow’s daftly early start.
The only other reference to the incident in my log was in my notes for the Steppes East agent, Clare:
…warn about Noukeo…border crossing Laos/Thailand “joke”.
Reading those notes 16 years later, it reads a bit like a Trump tweet. The border crossing also has some Trumpian characteristics,as you’ll learn if you persevere with this story.
Noukeo was our guide in Southern Laos. The daftly early start was agreed as a pick up by Noukeo and the driver at 4:00 am. Our flight from Ubon in Eastern Thailand was scheduled for 8:25. We had a roughly two hour drive to the Chong Mek border, which opens at 6:00 and a roughly 90 minute drive from the border to the airport. Tight but do-able; pretty much the only way to get from Saravan to Samui in a day.
Tad Lo Lodge was very beautiful but a pretty rudimentary place. Even to go down to dinner traversing walkways across the falls we needed to use torches as the paths and walkways were not lit. So when Noukeo and the driver didn’t turn up at 4:00 and indeed we were still waiting at 4:10, Janie and I started debating vociferously what to do. I knew the lads were sleeping at the resort on the other side and suggested that I walk around the perimeter road to find/rouse them, while Janie stayed with our stuff. Janie wasn’t keen on the idea, but by 4:15 we were both feeling desperate, so off I went. I flagged the lads down on the road a few minutes later. They had clearly been enjoying themselves the night before and had overslept. Noukeo might even have still been half cut; perhaps the driver too.
So we set off 20-25 minutes later than intended, but Noukeo was confident that we could make up the time. The driver drove like a fury, which I thought put the whole project and our lives at risk on those bumpy roads; it is a wonder he didn’t hit something or at least get a puncture.
Still, we did get to the Vangtao-Chong Mek border crossing in one piece, just after 6:00. The place seemed deserted on the Laos side. “I told you we’d be in good time”, said Noukeo, “they haven’t even opened yet”.
“We have a 90 minute drive on the other side and a flight at 8:25”, I said, “we need to get a move on. Where are the Laotian border control people?”
“They sleep around here”, said Noukeo, “I’ll see if I can find them”.
So he did.
We handed our passports to Noukeo, the yawning Laotian border control people did their thing and stamped us out of Laos.
Then on to the perimeter fence, where all was once again seemingly deserted apart from our Thai driver and guide on the other side of the fence.
Noukeo jabbered with our Thai couriers. The Thai couriers jabbered back to Noukeo. They then formed a sort of human chain across the fence, firstly carrying our baggage over. Then, after I had given Noukeo and our Laotian driver their tips and Noukeo had given me back our passports, they helped me and Janie over the fence – here’s a link to a picture of that fence in those days.
“Where are the Thai border control people?” I asked our Thai driver and guide. “Who knows, let’s go”, shrugged the guide, “we’ll need to drive quick to get you to your flight.”
We’d jumped the border.
I realised that this was not a consequence-free event; someone was going to question the absence of entry documentation at some point; possibly several points. I thought the problem might be just a few minutes away at Ubon, but because the flights within Thailand were purely domestic, the airport people only seemed vaguely interested in our passports both at Ubon and at Bangkok where we changed for Koh Samui.
Indeed, it wasn’t until we got to Baan Taling Ngam that anyone raised the question of the absence of entry visa stamps in our passport. There I simply told the receptionist that we had entered by road at Chong Mek, had handed our passports to our guide and taken custody of them again once the formalities had (as far as we were concerned) been completed. The receptionist told me that we should expect some more detailed questioning at Bangkok border control on departure.
I suggested to Janie that the above explanation should be the sum total of what we tell any officials. No mention of fences, the fun and games with the baggage chain and us traversing the border or indeed anything of that kind.
We then relaxed for several days and temporarily forgot all about our passports.
We didn’t have a private pool at Baan Taling Ngam, but there were several small pools scattered around the property which hardly anyone fancied (apart from us), so to all intents and purposes we did have our own pool almost all the time.
But I digress.
At the end of the holiday, on 26 February 2001, we flew to Bangkok where, at that time, border control for exit after Samui took place. We didn’t have much time between our flight from Samui landing and our London-bound flight taking off.
The first official we encountered remonstrated with me that we had no entry stamps in our passport.
“We entered by road at Chong Mek. We handed our passports to our guide and he returned them to us after giving them to the officials for processing,” I said, slowly.
The first official called a second, slightly more senior official.
“No stamp. No stamp,” said the second official.
I spoke even more slowly and a little louder this time, because speaking slowly and especially speaking loudly helps people understand an unfamiliar second language much better:
“WE ENTERED BY ROAD AT CHONG MEK. WE HANDED OUR PASSPORTS TO OUR GUIDE AND HE RETURNED THEM TO US AFTER GIVING THEM TO THE OFFICIALS FOR PROCESSING,”
The second official shook his head in bewilderment and went off to find a more senior official.
Soon enough, Janie and I were shepherded into an office, in which sat a rather military looking official with strips on his lapels.
“Why have you not got entry stamp visas in your passports?” he asked.
“WE ENTERED BY ROAD AT CHONG MEK…” I started to say, slowly and loudly.
“Ach, Chong Mek. So many problems, Chong Mek,” said our senior official.
“OK”, he went on, “I have the authority to stamp you into Thailand as well as stamp you out of Thailand. So; welcome to Thailand, enjoy your stay…”
…he said, stamping us in, followed by, without a pause for breath…
“…thank you for visiting Thailand. Do visit us again soon. Goodbye,” while stamping us out and stewarding us towards our flight on the outbound side of border control.
There’s probably a lesson in this story for those who think that fences, walls and “control of our own borders” have much meaning in the real world, where hapless travellers and their even more hapless guides could seemingly do as they please, even at the official border posts, but that’s a debate for others, not us.
I should also say that we don’t recommend that you try emulating this activity when you are on holiday (or indeed for any other purpose). Jumping the border was not fun while we were actually doing it; even less fun and more dangerous now, I expect.
Still, Janie and I laughed about it a lot afterwards and dined out on the story for ages. It remains surprisingly fresh in my mind 16 years later, even though it has taken me that long to write it down.