Whenever we cross into another country, there is an immigration check, also sometimes referred as a border checkpoint, wherein you have to deal with the Immigration or the border officer, showing them your passport, visa, and answering their questions and sometimes scanning of your luggage.
In my globetrotting journey of 47 countries so far, here I am sharing some of my own experiences, which I came across while crossing the international border.
- ZHANGMUZHEN (TIBET)
- COLOMBO (SRI LANKA)
- JAKARTA (INDONESIA)
- HONG KONG
- LONDON (UNITED KINGDOM)
- CHENNAI (INDIA)
- POIPET (CAMBODIA)
- DONGPHOSY (LAOS)
- NONG KHAI (THAILAND)
- SCHONA (GERMANY)
- MOC BAI (VIETNAM)
- SANT JULIA DE LORIA (ANDORRA)
- MADRID (SPAIN)
- AINAZI (LATVIA)
I had visited Kailash & Manas Sarovar (lake) in Tibet (China). I crossed the border from the Nepal side, which is Kodari. The Tibet side border town is Zhangmuzhen. This was very tricky. The Chinese worked on their whims; anything can happen anytime for Indian Passports. The travellers would be turned away without any reason; this would sometimes happen for the whole group, sometimes continue a couple of days or even more. Koshi river passes between the border, and there is a bridge built by the Chinese, it’s called a friendship bridge.
Now, we had clear instructions that while crossing the bridge, on foot, do not click any pictures, do not even take out your camera. If you do so, the Chinese will take your camera and throw it away in the river and no questions asked. The height of this bridge was more than 200 meters. While walking on this bridge I saw a lot of Chinese soldiers, sitting on the bridge in plain clothes, all in the early ’20s.
They were continuously watching us all, in fact, everybody who walks that bridge. They monitored our movements, our body language. They would never look at you directly, their head is always pointing downwards, but their eyes are looking up, reading you. I mean you will feel that they are looking at your shoes or something on the ground, but they are watching all your moves, waiting for you to make just one mistake.
So we walked gradually and crossed the bridge. I deliberately did not keep my hands in my pockets and were open; I also made sure not to close my palm, and leave it open. Also not to put my hands at my belly. The Macho style you know. Just so that they can see my hands clearly, I made things easy for them because this trip was essential for me, as a Hindu and as a Globe Trotter.
Indian passport getting inside Tibet is a tough thing. In the next 5 minutes, we were at the Immigration line, after crossing the bridge. All our luggage’s were checked thoroughly, they usually lookout for photographs of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama or anything related to him, if found you are sent straight back to Nepal.
I am sure the Chinese are not going to like this blog for using the word ‘His Holiness’. Sorry, I can’t help it. It’s respect. Secondly, if they find a Bible or Quran and other religious books (Not Hindu), they will be profiled very strongly. I mean a thorough check is done, sometimes leading to a private interview by the Chinese officials which could last for an hour.
They don’t want any missionaries or preachers coming to this Tibet (Xizang) Autonomous Region of China and spreading another religion. After clearing Immigration, we had to accommodate a Tibetan travel agent in our car. Basically, a spy who keeps an eye on us, appointed by the Chinese government. Yes, this happens with everyone whoever visits Tibet. I mean all foreign national.
This is similar to North Korea; you cannot just go in solo, you have to take a tour package from the agent at the airport itself, and I mean the moment you land in Pyongyang. That means your routes are fixed, and the govt. Knows exactly where you are at any given point of time. Because their man is with you all the time. So this was my experience in Tibet in the year 2012.
COLOMBO (SRI LANKA)
I visited Sri Lanka in 2010, just 10 months after the collapse of LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). When I was at the immigration desk, the officer asked me why are you here, I said “Holiday Sir” he then laughed at me and started talking to the other immigration officer sitting in the adjacent cabin.
Pointing his eyebrows towards me and again laughing and said something in the Sinhala Language, the sentence he used had a word ‘Holiday’ in it. Soon I realised they are making fun of me, in their Native language. Because that was the year when most of the tourist avoided going to Sri Lanka because of this war with LTTE. After they finished giggling, they issued me a one month visa.
I went to the Colombo, stayed for two days and while returning to the airport on the 3rd day, I saw some serious stuff. The bus that was supposed to bring me to the airport ends the journey 2 Kms before the airport. No buses or vehicles were allowed to go beyond this point. They had an Airport bus with military personnel with their guns, which takes you to the airport. So we all boarded that bus for the airport.
The bus was stopped two times in between, all the passengers had to come down, show their ID and then walk 50 meters, and then again board the same bus. Luckily the officer saw me and somehow realised that I am a tourist, he said, “You can stay inside sir”. Finally, we reached the airport, now before entering the airport we had to scan the luggage outside itself, that was No.1 point. Then before check-in, again the scanning, then after check-in and receiving the boarding pass, again scanning, and finally the 4th time on the aerobridge just 10 meters before entering into the aircraft.
This is the funniest story in all my globetrotting experience. I landed at Jakarta airport morning at 10 am. And before you go to the immigration desk, there is an office where everybody has to buy their visa, ready to be processed at the immigration counter which was more than half a kilometre away. You were allowed to pay in 4 to 5 different currencies like US Dollar, Euro, Pound and Australian dollar and all. I was carrying two bills (Notes) of 500 Euros with me; this was the budget for my entire South East Asian trip.
I filled the form and gave them one note of 500 euros. To which both officers, Female (Junior) and the male (Senior) laughed at me and said, “Such big note sir, how will we change it”. They asked me “Do you have change?”. So I showed them another bill of 500. They busted into another round of laughter. The fun part is yet to come.
So for the next 10 minutes, they are making few calls here and there and thinking what to do. Finally, I approached them with a solution, “Sir, is there an ATM, I can withdraw Indonesian Currency (Rupiah) to pay the visa fee, they said, the ATM is located at the other side of the Immigration counter, which you cannot cross if you don’t have a Visa.
After a few calls made by them, they said, alright let’s go, so we went to the immigration counters. They told me to wait here, they then approached a senior immigration officer sitting inside a separate cabin, and explained him the situation. That senior official called me, as I was standing just a few meters away, he asked me “what is your name”, then he demands my passport, looks at it and keeps my passport in his pocket and says, ok you go with my staff at ATM, get the money and come back.
Now comes the funny part. When I am the ATM querying my bank balance, which as per Indian currency it was around Rs. 20,600. Now the balance figure on that ATM appeared in millions that is my balance showed me 41,20,000, that is 41 lacs.
I blasted laughing and looked at both the officers standing behind me, and I asked them “what is this?”, they said it is in Rupiah, the Indonesian currency. I then asked them “Ok tell me how much to withdraw for the visa,” they said 3.5 lacs, sir, I withdrew five lacs.
In less than 5 minutes we were done, and We then went back to that senior immigration officer, he again called me, looked at me, still asked me my name, and then took out my passport from his pocket and looked at the picture and returned it to me.
We then again walked for that 700 meters, all the way to that visa office. They then printed my visa sticker, I again walked back to the immigration counter and hence was cleared by the officials to enter Indonesia. Coming out of the airport, I went to buy a water bottle (1 Litre), the girl at the counter says “Rs. 1500 please”.
I hate mathematics and hate calculating such things, I took a full 30 seconds to figure it out that it’s just Rs. 15 of Indian currency she is asking to pay for. Till date, I remember this Episode and always laugh at myself.
The Immigration officer initially asked me all those usual questions, like why you here, for how many days, when you’ll leave and show me the ticket. But the interesting question he asked me was “Why did you go to Malaysia”, “Why did you got to Singapore”, and “Why did you go to Brunei”, to which I simply replied Holiday, Holiday and holiday. He then asked me for my business card, he then did a full entry of all the details printed on my card in his computer, and finally allows me in Hong Kong.
LONDON (UNITED KINGDOM)
I landed at the Heathrow airport on the 21st Dec 2012, the so-called doom’s day, with just a pitthoo (Small Shoulder Bag). I had come to enjoy Christmas. The immigration officer asked me where are you going to stay; I replied “Hostel”, she asked me why? I said, “In hostels, you get an opportunity to meet travellers from all over the world, new friends, new thoughts, and new learnings”. She asks me why did you take transit flight coming via Frankfurt, instead of taking a direct flight from Mumbai to London.
To which I replied “Ma’am, I am a globe trotter and have started this journey from the United Kingdom which is my 22nd country, I will, after 5 days stay in London, will head to Ireland and 8 more countries before I reach the last country, that is San Marino, and then leaving for Rome to catch a flight back to Mumbai.
That is the reason I had to choose a Schengen territory airline career, which could be either Lufthansa or Swiss. Because no airline carrier flies from the destination country to another 3rd country, like for example, Air India would never fly from Dubai to London. They always fly from their home country or return to the home country. That is the reason; if you take Emirates to fly to Europe or America, you have to go to the home country first that is Dubai Airport, UAE.
She then smiles at me and accepts me, and returns me my passport. But that very moment my passport is taken away back from me, by a senior official standing just behind this immigration officer who just cleared me 2 seconds back. She tells me, please come with me. She asks me “what you said you do for a living”, I replied, “Ma’am, I am an IT person, providing IT services in Mumbai”.
She says, please wait here, I’ll check your profile and get back to you, I waited in the lobby that had almost all types of camera, I mean at least 8 I remember. After waiting for 5 minutes, she comes back and hands over the passport to me and says “Welcome to London” and smiles at me. I said thank you, Ma’am, have a beautiful day young lady, and she smiled at me again.
It was 2009 January, just a month after the 26/11 deadly terrorist attack in Mumbai, I was travelling to Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). I got a cheap fare from Mumbai – Chennai – Kuala Lumpur. While clearing my Immigration process at the Chennai airport, the lady officer had some doubt on me, I don’t know what, and she sent me to a senior officer.
Now this officer asked me a couple of questions like what is your name, what do you do and all, finally asks me, ‘If you are from Mumbai, why are exiting the country from Chennai?”. I replied sarcastically by repeating the same question “Why am I exiting from Chennai” he says “Yes, Why!”, my final reply looking into his eyes was “Sir, I got a transit flight, so that’s why I am exiting from Chennai” he paused for a second and said, “Go”.
In 2010 I took a local train from Bangkok to the Cambodian border, Poipet. There are two stories I would like to share here. The first story is about the Border police from Thailand which boarded the train 20 minutes before the arrival of the last station at the border (Poipet). In the bogie, we were just six people, all foreigners including me.
The officer approached everybody talking to them, finally coming to me and asking “Which Passport” I replied “Indian Passport Sir”, he asked me “Passport Please” He sees my passport and looks at my Pitthoo Bag (Shoulder Bag) and says “Where are you going?”. I replied “Sir, I am going to the border, crossing into Cambodia” His next reply stunned me “Since when did Indian’s started Backpacking”, to which sarcastically I laughed, he then smiles at me and returns me my passport.
The second story is about the Cambodian immigration officer located at the Poipet Border Post. The official fee for the 1 month Cambodian Visa is $25, now this officer asked me to pay 30 (5 for his pocket), initially, I did not know what to reply. But then I waited for a few seconds, before the American guy politely responded, “Sir, we will pay only $25”.
This American traveller had shared my tuk-tuk (Auto Rickshaw) from the railway station to the border. Finally, the immigration officer had to accept the visa fee of $25 and issue the visa. He made a mistake in writing my surname on the Visa (Yes it was handwritten), to which I requested a correction. He then used a whitener and corrected the spelling with a smile. I saved my 5 dollars.
There is one more thing I would like to add here is, the tuk-tuk driver (Auto Rickshaw Driver) took us to at least 2 Visa agents, but we insisted him to take us to the border directly. These visa agents charge you 40 to 50 USD, to fill out your visa application forms and process the visa for you, which is not required. I mean all we had to do is go to the border, fill our form, pay the fee and you are in. That’s all.
I took a reserved train from Bangkok to Dongphosy, the border town for entering Laos. Upon reaching Dongphosy, I completed my exit procedure at the immigration office located right on the railway platform. I was then asked to board a local train which will take me to the other side of the Mekong river, which is Laos.
In this local train we also had a Laos’s immigration officer travelling with us, he talked with us very freely, joked, smiled and was a happy go lucky guy with a tie on a white shirt. The moment the train departed the station, he removed his tie and kept in his pocket. The train had no glass, grill or any doors at the gates and windows. People clicked pictures, and everybody was excited on this train.
In less than 5 minutes we were in Laos side railway station, which was empty, not a single person to be found anywhere, and it was an open station, having no barricades, no boundaries and nothing. At the platform, the officer gave us all a small form to fill up. We were some 16 foreigners; all had to pay 20 USD.
After 10 minutes, they started calling the names one by one, returning the passport with the visa sticker in it and the return change. Some got 2 dollars in return some got 5, some got 1, and I got 3. I never understood this process. Maybe they were charging visa fee country wise, who knows. In the end, we took a shared tuk-tuk (Auto Rickshaw) and reached Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, which was just 30 minutes away from this train station we just arrived.
After three days I had to return to Bangkok taking the same route. I reached this railway station again and did my immigration process. In all this, the immigration officer smiles at me again and again. I knew something is wrong. He finally hands over my passport to me and says, “If you want you can have a photograph with me” I said why not sir.
He then says “Only 2 Dollars” To which I replied very politely “No Sir, thank you” with a smile. And guess what, he did this with everyone, I mean with every passenger that arrived at this railway station to catch this International Toy Train.
Surprisingly some Europeans did gave him the money and took pictures. The exciting part here was, even after you have officially departed the country (after the officer stamps on your passport) you are allowed to roam free before the train arrives. I mean I was walking all around in and out of the station clicking pictures, went to the roadside, 100 meters away to buy some fruits, and nobody bothered. Finally, we all board the train and left for Nong Khai (Thailand) crossing the Mekong river again.
NONG KHAI (THAILAND)
Upon returning from Cambodia in that local train, to Nong Khai, Thailand. I thought I would get a visa on arrival as usual. But my jaw falls off, when the immigration officer told me, I cannot issue a visa. After a pause of a few seconds, the officer told me to wait, and he called another senior officer. He asked me few questions and said, this immigration post on the railway station does have the facility to issue tourist visa, so you will have to go to the bigger post and get your visa done and then come back here.
“I said how”. He took me out of the railway station and spoke to the tuk-tuk lady (Auto Rickshaw) and asked her to take me the bigger post which can issue a visa for me. It was a 15 minutes ride. I arrived at the international border post for vehicles & passengers. This road takes you to Laos, crossing the Mekong River.
I entered the office and explained to the senior officer that I was sent to you by the immigration officer from the Railway border check Post, he immediately issued a visa for me in less than 15 minutes. Finally while leaving the office, I touched the photography of King 5 and King 9 and bowed my head in the respect. And said thank you, Sir, thank you Thailand.
This officer was stunned to see my gesture; he shook my hand with a smile and walked with me to my tuk-tuk. Waving me ‘Safe Journey’. I reached back to the railway station, cleared my immigration process and boarded the train. The funny thing here was, that I was inside Thailand for a good 15 minutes without a Visa. I simply laughed at myself.
Germany is my favourite country and will always remain at the No. 1 position no matter what. They are the best; they are the perfectionist and very organised. Here is one example. In Europe, you get a Schengen visa, to travel to multiple countries and in most cases, you get one visa for visiting all 26 countries inside the Schengen territory, including Germany.
I took a train from Prague (Czech Republic) to Berlin (Germany). I usually carry a handheld GPS and also keep a watch on where am I. In this train journey, while crossing the international border between the Czech Republic and Germany, somewhere near Schona (German Border).
German border police approached me in the train compartment, asking for my passport, he has a black device shaped like a cricket bat (But a smaller size, one used by kids) it was just 1 ft. Long. It has a small keypad, and a small screen, he entered my visa number in it, and there he could see my name and the passport no. He returned my passport and left. All done in less than 40 seconds. I was so impressed with their perfectionism. I love Germany!
MOC BAI (VIETNAM)
I took a bus from Phnom Penh (Cambodia) to Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam). At the border crossing town Moc Bai (Vietnam side), we all had to get down from the bus and were divided into two different groups. One group for Vietnamese and other for foreign nationals, that was just a Hungarian lady and me.
The Vietnamese were processed first, and then came our turn. The immigration officer was standing right at the bus entrance, he saw both our passports one by one, and looked into our faces and again checked the photo in the passport. He did this at least four times I remember. I don’t know what doubt he had, but he did this to both of us. We were then allowed to board the bus, and we entered Vietnam. The moment we crossed the border, I saw the red communist flag all over. I mean every tree or a building that was rising high enough, had this flag. Everywhere red, red, and only red.
SANT JULIA DE LORIA (ANDORRA)
Andorra is an independent principality, situated between France and Spain. When I entered this country by road, they did not check my passport or anything, but I saw an immigration check post. I approached them, asking “Sir, can you please stamp on my passport?”, And they did it happily. The stamp had no dates or anything like arrival or departure. It was just a stamp. I smiled at the officer and thanked him, and guess what he replied saying “Welcome”. Hahaha.
I took a train from Lisbon (Portugal) in the night and reached Madrid (Spain) next day early morning. The first thing I saw when I got down of the train was, the train was allotted a platform which was isolated, and I mean the corner one. I kept wondering the reason why would they do this, and soon I realised when I was walking on the platform towards the train engine.
I saw border officers checking/profiling the passengers. They saw me without any luggage, having just a small shoulder bag, also noticing that I am Asian, they stopped me and asked for my passport. My hand reached out to my pocket and got 2 passports, they started looking at me suspiciously. I immediately told them, “Sir, I have two passports, Old and New, and I always carry my old passport”.
It helps the immigration officer understand my travel history & record like how much I have travelled, when and for what duration. Soon they demanded me to check my bag, so I immediately started removing all the stuff from my bag, putting it on the ground one by one. In just 5 seconds they asked me to stop and said it’s ok.
Basically, they look out for how fast you respond, if you take few more seconds, it means you are thinking, which according to them is suspicious, they would then look at your eyes, and the eyes movement, it’s a different topic altogether. Coming back to the point here, they then asked me why no luggage, and I straight away told them “To stay low profile, to keep away the bad guys, simple” they gave me a sarcastic smile, and they let me go. While going, I asked them “Sir, this is my hostel address, so which exit I should take, right one or left one” they politely replied me, and I said, “Thank you, have a nice day sir.”
I took a bus from Vilnius (Lithuania) for Riga (Latvia). At the border town of Ainaži (Latvia Side) our bus was stopped, and two officers boarded the bus (men and women), the man had a sniffer dog. And all of a sudden I busted out laughing, such an idiot I was, but after 3 seconds I realised this is not good, and I started looking outside the window.
The officers then approached everyone in the bus; technically we were just eight people. They asked for the passport, how much money you have and got the dog near everyone to check if someone has any banned or illegal stuff in their luggage. When the dog was near me, I was still holding my laugh. That beautiful lady officer before getting off the bus looked at me and laughed. I don’t know why she did that. Maybe I looked more of a joker to her.
I took a train from Milan to Interlaken, the Swiss border police approached me in my compartment asking for my passport and my luggage, I pointed him to my small shoulder bag, while handing over him my passport. He opens the visa page and the next thing he did, really made me laugh like anything.
He removed the Magnifying glass, similar to the one used by the workers in the diamond industry, and started looking at the features of my visa sticker, through this magnifying glass. He is holding that glass very close to his eyes with the passport, on the other hand, looking at the visa. After a few seconds, he returns my passport and goes away.