Travelling so often, I started to become accustom to crossing immigration without really thinking about the process I was going through. Since I have a Hong Kong ID card, leaving and returning to Hong Kong through the airport is the most convenient, hassle-free, enjoyable ways to pass immigration. I stick my card in a machine, a gate opens, I have my thumb print scanned, the next gate opens and I am on my way. I never have to talk to anyone and it only takes seconds.
In all of the other airports I have been through, although not a convenient as Hong Kong, it has been pretty simple; follow the signs, present my passport to an officer, they stamp it and I follow more signs to where I need to be. Very rarely do they ask me questions, probably because I hold an American passport. There is no thought involved when crossing borders in an airport, everything is set up for different nationalities to pass with minimal confusion.
Recently on a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, crossing the border on foot from Cambodia into Thailand is an experience I will never forget. The heavy rain had just stopped and the bus dropped us off near the Cambodian immigration office. We had to navigate our way into the office around muddy pools of rain water, through shops and around crowds of people just standing around. Once we entered the building, we were the only people inside, except for the immigration officer. The officer didn’t even look at us, just stamped us out of Cambodia.
Although we were stamped out of Cambodia, we were not physically out of the country. We left the office and we were free to go wherever we felt like, no one was checking us, there were no signs, barriers or officers pointing us to Thailand. I was looking around and I realized I was lost. I knew the direction I needed to go to get to Thailand, but I didn’t see a path how to get there. We were at the end of abandoned railroad tracks with a fence between us and Thailand.
Ming Hay and I stopped walking and began looking around. Then, he pointed and said, “That’s the way!” When I saw he was pointing to a hole in the fence I started laughing, but when I realized that was the only path I saw I was in shock. Fearing I would be shot if I climbed through a hole in a border fence, I hesitated, not believing this was okay. After watching two local women pass through nonchalantly, I figured I had to give it a try.
No one noticed us or even cared about two foreigners passing through the opening in the fence. Once through, we were in a “no man’s land” between two countries for around ½ kilometer of casinos. When we reached the Thai immigration building everything changed. Things looked official, there were officers everywhere and signs and barriers pointing us in the direction we had to go.
Crossing a border on foot was such a cool experience. Ever since that crossing I keep my eyes open and my mind turned on even when crossing airport borders. I find that I learn a lot about each country just by observing the border crossing.