Category Archives: Cambodia

MH370 – Another Reminder Why You Should Never Lose Sight of Your Passport

The tragic loss of a Malaysian Airlines plane between Kuala Lumpur and Bejing with over 200 souls on board is just another reminder why you should always take special care with your passport.

The plane that went missing included two passengers flying on passports that had been reported stolen in Phuket up to two years ago. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said more than 60,000 passports – both Thai and foreign – were reported missing or stolen in Thailand between January 2012 and June 2013. Both corruption and lax application of the law exist at most levels, both here and in neighbouring countries, what I find most concerning especially considering the sheer number of thefts is that Thailand does not check passports against Interpol’s Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) database – which has more than 40 million entries worldwide.

Countries in South East Asia have a pretty poor reputation when it comes to passport theft, especially Thailand which receives millions of tourists every year.  Considering how easy it is to get false identification in Backpacker areas like Khao San Road, and that police are willing to turn a blind eye to almost any crime for money – it makes sense that criminal organisations are going to use naive tourists as a source of cash as well as both real and fake travel documents.

What Could Your Passport Be Used For?

Recent examples of stolen travel documents include:

  • A war crimes suspect who tried to attend a conference in Congo, but was instead arrested
  • The killer of the Serbian prime minister crossed 27 borders on a missing passport before he was caught
  • Samantha Lewthwaite, the former wife of one of the suicide bombers in the 2005 attack on London’s transit system, escaped capture when she produced a fraudulently obtained South African passport.

Human Trafficking & Illegal Immigration

Stolen passports can either be used by someone who looks like the person to travel, or can be modified with new photos (depending on security levels on the passport and biometric information).

Many countries are simply too lazy to check Interpol’s database of stolen passports on the border, so the use of stolen documents to move people voluntarily or against their will internationally using stolen passports is common, especially from South East Asia to countries in the EU (which is essentially borderless once you get in, and pretty easy to get into if you come via, say…the Croatian border into Slovenia which I crossed 5 times without a single passport check).

Identify Theft & Crime

The last thing you want is a drug trafficker flying in and out of South East Asia using your personal details, getting caught and ending up with you being on some list of known criminals or drug traffickers.

Again this is quite common when it comes to stolen passports. I’ve read on Thaivisa.com about a guy who had two passports stolen in one year. Later while travelling he was pulled aside and interrogated in Bali, after an African man had been caught smuggling cocaine using his ID and blacklisted.

International Terrorism

Of course the issue that everyone is talking about – what happened to the recent disappearing plane.  As of yet, no one knows but the facts remain that we have a plane with 200 passengers that has literally vanished and two of the passengers were using false IDs and stolen passports.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the risks associated with your personal documents being used by international terrorist groups to kill or harm others in the name of a political or religious message. Not only will this prevent you from ever travelling freely again, but others might be harmed in the process.

In 2010, two Pakistanis and a Thai woman were arrested in Thailand on suspicion of making false passports for Al-Qaeda linked groups, as part of an international operation linked to the 2008 attacks in Mumbai and the Madrid train bombings in 2004.

The last thing you want is a criminal or terrorist organisation using your passport to travel, resulting in your name permanently being on a no fly or similar travel or immigration blacklist.

How Could You Lose Your Passport:

Motorbike & Car Rentals

More often than not you will be asked for some form of deposit when renting a motorbike in Asia.  Sometimes this will be a drivers licence (which is silly considering you need this to ride legally) other times it will be cash, but more often than not it will be a valid passport containing your entry stamp.

There is absolutely zero security with these passports, usually they are kept in a top draw of a desk, a folder, or a shoulder bag.  Rental agencies couldn’t care less as you are just one of thousands of potential customers, you aren’t likely to come back, and you don’t really have any choice.

While there are plenty of legitimate bike rental places that don’t extort money out of tourists for small scratches and repairs that cost a few hundred baht to fix, there are also loads that do. The worst thing you can do is tell them that you have an urgent flight or ferry to catch.

Stories are common of people with dual citizenship ditching a second passport to avoid the overpriced repair fees, or even reporting their passport as lost of stolen after doing a runner.   What do you think happens with these passports afterwards?  Bear in mind that these rental agencies often have law enforcement support in their repair scams as well.

In Phuket, Luigi Maraldi lost his passport this way, by giving his passport to a rental agency as collateral on a motorbike, which then managed to get “lost” somehow by the rental agency. The passport was later used to board flight MH370.

When Maraldi asked for his back at a bike shop hugging Phuket’s western coast, the owner told him she’d forked it over to an Italian who’d “said Mr. Maraldi was his husband.”

After all, all us Farang look the same

Kiwis – the NZ Embassy is quite clear regarding this.  Do not leave your passport with rental agencies, and if you get into trouble doing this, they will not step in to help.

Hotel & Guesthouses

You are required to submit your passport details and immigration information when checking into any hotel or guesthouse in Thailand.  Some might take your passport as a bond to prevent damage or “for safe keeping”.  I’ve seen guesthouses where passports are literally sitting in a basket on the front desk where anyone can take them.

Of course there are other reports of break ins to hotel rooms where passports and other items are stolen to order.  So always make sure you have your passport safely and securely stored when it is not on you.

Other Travellers

One of the biggest causes of theft to travellers is other travellers. There are plenty of backpackers travelling on ultra low budgets with absolutely zero respect for others. Security at guesthouses and dormitories is often low, and people are often under the influence of booze and other substances. Its not hard for someone to go into your bag and steal your travel documents, especially if they can sell them down the road to a willing buyer.

Roadside Theft

I’ve even seen someone lose their passport on Koh Phangan after leaving their backpack unattended on the side of the road for two minutes while they went back into a guesthouse to drop the keys off. Two ladyboys on a scooter sped past and stole the pack containing the travellers passports.

Visa Services & Agencies

Up until recently I would have recommended using Visa agencies to speed up the acquisition of getting visas from Thailand and surrounding countries.  Now that I’ve lived here longer and heard all the horror stories I’d advise against it, unless you personally know the owners of the agency, their couriers and everyone else involved in the process.

Remember agencies that take your passport out of the country for a visa stamp are illegal.  I’ve got a friend who lived on one of the Islands who used an agent to do their visa runs, one time the courier got busted running drugs on a ferry to the mainland with 20 passports in their possession.  Long story short, none of those passports ever returned to their owners and he ended up overstaying illegally for two years until he got his passport sorted out and enough cash to pay the fines on the borders.  He’s lived here for two decades, and now knows better!

Immigration & Embassies

You’d think it would be safe to give your passport to a government agency, think again.  I’ve been into various immigration departments to get extensions to my Thai visa, and while the main complex in Bangkok has always done things correctly and above board – others are slightly more lax in their approach to passport security.

While getting a re entry permit I saw just how relaxed they were, as passports that had been processed were left in a plastic basket for foreigners (or Thais) to pick up, no ID required.

I’ve heard similar horror stories in Laos at certain relaxed embassies where if you don’t pick up your passport straight it can be picked up by locals who claim to be your “agent”.

Remember Thai embassies have a pretty poor reputation with this sort of stuff, recently staff have been involved in Visa theft in the Savanakhet, Kuala Lumpur & Hague embassies – one of my mates even got caught up on this after the visa he arranged through an agent turned out to be illegitimate – he ended up dealing with legal issues for 6 months while on bail for visa fraud.  Of course no Thais were found at fault.

Thai Law

Thai law technically requires all foreigners to carry their passport at all times, where ever they are. This means when you are at the beach, night club, anywhere.  How many passports have gone missing while swimming or drunk in some bar.

Personally I never take my passport with me unless it is absolutely required or I’m out of town.  I take photo ID with me as well as a laminated copy of my passport and a copy of my latest visa and entry stamp – my passport stays locked up at home.

So far I’ve never had any problems… yet.

Stupidity

There are even reports of broke tourists selling or renting their passports for $1-2000 USD.  I’ve never heard or seen this first hand, and the reporting on it seems a bit dubious, but one thing I’ve learned while travelling is never to underestimate the stupidity of backpackers while travelling.  Apparently this happens reasonably often in the Khao San Road area, where the tourists will report their passport stolen, claim the costs on travel insurance and travel on documents provided by their embassy.  It all seems a little fish to me however, as generally speaking you need to travel back to your home country when on emergency travel documents – maybe they just use it for a one way ticket home!

How To Keep Your Passport Safe When Travelling

  • Always know where your passport is, keep it safely on you while travelling or under lock and key when not
  • Invest in a Travel safe, as many hostels or guesthouses do not have secure storage
  • Do not give your passport out as a deposit on vehicle rentals
  • Do not use agencies or third parties for Visas
  • Use common sense when getting visas from foreign embassies and pick your passport up as soon as its ready
  • Report your passport stolen to the police if it goes missing and contact your embassy straight away.

Siam Reap & Ankor Wat, Cambodia

Previously posted on Living Alpha – Check them out for more interesting travel stories.

Our next trip was to Siam Reap, Cambodia – the home of the famous temples of Ankor Wat.

SR1

Our Journey started at the bus stop on the Capital Phnom Penh, where we boarded what we thought was our $12 VIP bus, but turned out to be our $12 Hotel Bus. BONUS! we thought, a bed to ourselves (I was travelling with my girlfriend and her father)… This lasted about 10 minutes until we found out that the large “single” beds on the bus were in fact double beds. So my girlfriends father was stuck with spending the next 12 hours in a single bed with an unwashed Australian backpacker on Cambodia’s less than ideal, bumpy dirt roads.

SR10

After a fairly rough sleep we made it to our destination, Siam Reap where as usual Tuk Tuk drivers were waiting to take everyone to hotels, guest houses or on a dawn tour of the temples. Of course I had a friend who I wanted to meet for the local insights into the area, so we took a Tuk Tuk to where I thought that he worked. A few hostels later and I finally found someone who knew him, and of course he’d quit before christmas and heading back to NZ, but was now living in an apartment in the city, and of course wasn’t answering his phone.

So we took the nearest guesthouse that wasn’t cockroach infested that we could find, argued with the rip off Tuk Tuk driver (wanting to charge extortionate rates for a tour) and reception staff, and then ventured off to our rooms to wash and attempt sleep.

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Starting to get hungry an hour or two later we went into the main town and found an amazing cafe Sister Srei, which was run by an Australian woman and made quite possibly the best Western style food I’ve tried in South East Asia. If you are there, make sure you try their BLT sandwich, its amazing!

We then went looking for a Tuk Tuk, of which all tended to charge the same price ($12-15 USD for the day) to take us on a “short” tour around the temples. There are around 5 main temple areas to visit, of which the most well known is Ankor Wat. Words simply do not do these temples justice, which are carved out of heavy stone, in the Jungle.

SR5

We explored the temples, with massive stupas, different levels and even ones where trees had literally taken over and grown through the stone walls, but due to the complete lack of sleep, and children begging everywhere we were starting to feel tired.

We decided to make one final stop on the summit of a hill overlooking the temple sites, but didn’t last until sunset like most tourists do. Grabbed loads of pictures and made our way back to the Guest house for a well deserved sleep.

SR9

A few hours later we caught up with our Kiwi mate Paul, who we were supposed to meet in the morning (It turns out he was busy watching Lord of the Rings). He showed us around Siam Reap’s “Pub Street” and how to avoid the local touts and scammers (most of which are trying to sell marijuana, or involve a “milk scam”) and the various pubs and night clubs (including a rooftop skate park). We took advantage of the cheap (75 US Cents) beer and Mexican food available.

SR3

One day probably wasn’t enough for the town, but due to flights we had to make our way back to Bangkok, which we did by Bus. The border crossing was terrible, and the entire journey back was somewhere between 3-4 hours late due to my Girlfriends fathers Maltese passport requiring a Visa upon entry into Thailand (even though it was EU) and the minivans turning up late. If you have the money we definitely recommend flying. All up though it was an amazing three days in Cambodia and I’ll definitely be back.

Phnom Penh, S21 & The Killing Fields

Previously posted on Living Alpha – visit them for more interesting travel stories. 

We flew to Cambodia via Bangkok with Air Asia for a Visa Run. Flights were cheap at 3500 Baht, and the cost of a Visa was approximately $20 USD per person.

We were advised to go by plane to Phnom Penh rather than risk getting ripped off on the Thai/Cambodian border which is known for being one of the most corrupt in South East Asia.

Upon arrival we cleared customs and immigration quickly and changed some Thai Baht for USD (the de facto currency along with the Cambodia Real) and picked up SIM cards with data for $3 each.

Next up was a taxi into the city, which of course being Cambodia was nowhere to be seen. After a wait we were told our taxis would be $12 into the city, where we were taken to various hotels in the City.

Phnom Pen1

Cambodia really shows its French colonial heritage in the capital. Even considering that the city was all but wiped out in 3 years, its returned to much of its pre Khmer Rouge cosmopolitanism in the CBD, with wide scale investment from around the world (I spotted an ANZ bank on Russian Boulevard).

NZ Clocks Cambodia

Our Hotels cost $30 for a clean room with double bed, hot water and ensuite, which was walking distance to the riverside area. Our dinners in the city were cheap and tasty, with a decent selection of beer and some of the best beef I’ve had in South East Asia (try finding beef in Thailand!).

After dinner we went to #11Happy Hostel for some beers and met up with the owner Jasper who was able to arrange an English speaking Tuk Tuk driver for the day at $15 who would be our guide for the S21 Museum and the Killing Fields.

The Museum reminded me a lot of previous visits to places such as the Tunnels in Sarajevo and Dachau in Germany. We paid approximately $6 USD for a tour guide who unfortunately didn’t speak clear english, but it still seemed worth it after the horrors that she must have experienced in her youth. The museum is full of photos of the regime and exhibits that were used for torture and holding Cambodians against their will.

Killing Fields

After this we loaded back into the Tuk Tuk and ventured to the outskirts of the capital for the Killing Fields. These were not what I expected, but were still a deeply moving experience. Most of the fields are a park (and former Chinese cemetery) where the bones have been moved into the memorial in the centre. That said you still see fragments of bones, teeth and clothing in certain areas after heavy rain. The stories on the virtual tour guide were interesting and very moving, especially when you see landline victims on the outskirts of the memorial begging.

We returned to the #11Happy Hostel for some much needed refreshments, and ventured down to the waterfront for dinner. As per the night before we were not disappointed, with some amazing food available at great prices before boarding our bus for the next step of our journey… Siem Reap, Cambodia.