We were just getting into the groove of things in Vietnam when it was time to pack our bags and fly to Cambodia. SVV and I had volunteered to lead another Semester at Sea trip, and after our success in India scoring a stellar group, we were thrilled to find our little tribe of 20 was every bit as fun.
Getting from Ho Chi Minh to Cambodia is relatively easy and takes less than an hour. We flew Vietnam Airlines, over fields of extreme flooding posing as sprawling lakes, and arrived right on time at the small airport in Phnom Penh. Cambodia is one of those places that requires a visa that you buy on arrival (or can purchase in advance on the Internet), and we had been given very specific instructions as to how to pass through customs: Bring a crisp $20 bill in U.S. currency (no tears, no dings) and two passport photos to submit with your documents when you arrive at the airport in Cambodia.
Upon landing, I quickly filled out my paperwork and was the first of our crew to go through the process. There was a line of eight customs agents all in row, and I handed over my passport and papers to the first one. He rifled through the various forms before passing them to the next agent and told me to pay my $20 at the very end of the line. I moved onto the last agent, who eventually received my passport, flipped through the pages and immediately got a look of concern on his face before flipping through once again then handing my passport all the way back down the line once more. When it returned to the original passport-taker, I was summoned over. This didn’t seem good.
“YOU HAVE NO PAGES IN YOUR PASSPORT. WHY YOU COME TO CAMBODIA WITH NO PAGES IN YOUR PASSPORT?” he boomed at me.
“Uh…well, you see…I did have enough pages left for my Vietnamese and Cambodian visas and then Malaysia had the nerve to take up an entire page with just their one measly little stamp! Can you even believe that?!” I tried to make light of this hilarious scenario (in my mind), but he wasn’t finding the humor in the situation—the scowl on his face told me this much.
Before we left for the voyage, Semester at Sea told all participants to have a minimum of 10 empty pages in our passports. I had somewhere around that—maybe eight or nine—and would have liked to have had more added before we left, but many of us were hired so late in the game that it was a challenge just to apply for and obtain all of our visas in such a narrow window. Factor in the fact that I needed my passport in July to travel to Canada, and there simply was no extra time to send my passport off to the state department and hope it returned to me before the ship left. But this was hard to communicate to the customs officer, particularly with cultural and language barriers working against me.
“Why did you not check and make sure you had enough pages in your passport before coming to our country?” he demanded again.
“Uh…I did. I promise! But I’ve been to a dozen countries since I left my country, and well, I’m really sorry but there’s nothing that can be done now,” was my thinly veiled apology. “Can’t you just put the visa over one of my stamped pages? I promise I don’t need them all!”
He considered this for a moment as I had visions of being sent back on the first plane to Vietnam—what a great example I was setting for our student group—and I remembered what I had been told about Cambodia customs and how lax they were, particularly in comparison to the strict Vietnamese customs (it is said that the customs officers in Cambodia will even let you wear their hats for photos). This turned out to line up pretty accurately with what followed.
He furrowed his brow, motioned me closer then slid my customs form across the counter back to me.
“OK, here is what we do. You pick which page you don’t need and write a note on the back of the form that says ‘I authorize you to stamp over page X in my passport, and I promise never to return to Cambodia again without enough passport pages.” I scoffed, thinking he was pulling my leg, but it turns out the Cambodians aren’t very tongue-in-cheek; he was very much serious.
So I did as the man said and finally forked over my $20, he pasted the shiny new green visa into my passport over the Morocco stamps and I was free to cross over into the Kingdom of Cambodia.