Napping On a Flight and the Complications That Followed

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Papers..... papers......business papers

As it turns out, ignorance is not necessarily bliss. My friend and I had spent our entire 13 hour layover in Seoul partaking in the free tours offered by Incheon airport and drinking a fair amount of soju along the way. By the time we boarded our 5 and a half hour flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia, we were wiped. As soon as I hit my seat, I was out, and I didn’t wake up until we were just about back on the ground. All my other flights on Asiana had come with great service, but this time the flight attendants had failed me in one crucial area – customs and immigration documentation.

Because of my relatively modest travel budget, I spend the majority of my international flights in economy, which also means I spend most of those flights sleeping as much as possible. If I had given this some thought in advance, there were probably a variety of ways to avoid the situation that I found myself in upon landing in Cambodia, but given my previous experiences on international flights, I didn’t give it a second thought.

Once our flight had landed and we had disembarked, I came to the startling realization that I did not have any of the customs or immigration documents that everyone else in line possessed.

I have seen these documents handled in a variety of ways on international trips. On most US bound flights, I have been given these documents shortly after boarding. On several other international flights, I have been woken up from my slumber to receive the necessary documents. On others, the documents have been slipped into my seat pocket, or even placed under my arm, so I wouldn’t miss them. On another occasion, documents have even been given to my seatmate with instructions to give to me once I awoke. In this case though, from what I could gather, I had been fast asleep, and they had simply skipped me. Unfortunately, my friend and I had purchased our tickets separately, and they were naturally nowhere near each other.

I was only slightly worried when I realized I was lacking all the necessary documents, though, as spares are normally available in abundance within the airport. The first form, for a visa on arrival, was no problem and was distributed once we reached the front of the appropriate line. The more interesting aspect of the visa process was the price, as it was different for every person in front of and behind us in line. I assume this is based on the country of your passport, but there wasn’t anything posted to indicate that, nor was there any explanation from the gentleman who was dictating to us one by one how much the charge would be for our visas. I had seen some prices quoted online beforehand, but at the time I had no idea what, if any, the correlation was between the fee I paid and any numbers I had seen online.

Visas purchased, my friend and I moved to the next line, which seemed to be more of what I would think of as immigration. Here, arrival and departure cards would be inspected, and passports would be examined. As there were very few English speakers in line with us, it was quite a task to simply deduce this. I was able to at least find out that everyone had arrival and departure cards which had been distributed on the flight. I was of course missing these, and unfortunately no one seemed to have a spare. Not yet worried, I began to search the area for extra copies of these cards. They were nowhere to be found, and I do mean nowhere. There were really only one or two officials of any kind in the area, neither of which spoke English, and both of whom simply replied with “no” when I showed them my friend’s forms as an example of what I was seeking. I frantically searched the area for any sign of spare or blank documents, even in desk drawers of an unattended desk which was covered in used copies of the same forms. Needless to say I wouldn’t recommend rifling through desk drawers, but I was becoming a little alarmed. No one seemed to have any information for me or be of assistance of any kind, and it was the middle of the night in the Siem Reap airport.

The only thing keeping me calm was the warm blue glow of my American passport and the knowledge that tourism is the principal source of income for the region. Only kidding, I was of course, horrified. Having discussed strategy for a few minutes with my friend, I elected to go first in front of him in line in the hopes that the immigration official wouldn’t want my minor document mishap to hold up more of the line. I knew I was about to negotiate some interesting waters, and I wasn’t looking forward to it, but I had actually elected to simply play the dumb tourist and point to my passport saying that yes, this American passport was exactly what I needed to get through the checkpoint. A bulletproof plan.

When I got to the front of the line, the official was not at all amused and was fairly adamant that no, an American passport does not allow one to forgo filling out all necessary paperwork. My sweating had now intensified to the level it normally reaches on mile 4 of a 5 mile run. It was at this point, the official produced the blank arrival and departure cards for me to simply fill out.

Having cleared immigration, I was one customs form away from exiting the airport and vowing to never again sleep on an international flight. The area between immigration and customs at the Siem Reap airport was even more sparse than the space we had been in previously. There were of course no forms to be found or even desks for me to search. It was pretty much just a couple of guys with automatic weapons standing around in the doorway having people chuck their forms into a big box on the floor in front of them. My stress level immediately returned to “shitting my pants” on scale of 1 to 10, and as I attempted to explain myself, I realized these guys spoke no English whatsoever. My friend deposited his customs slip in the cardboard box, and I stood there attempting to communicate my problem to these guys. They looked at me with blank stares for a few seconds, and then, much to my relief, gave me the universal look for “f--- it,” and motioned me through sans paperwork.

This was a pretty stupid, but nonetheless harrowing, adventure of my own fault which I hope to never repeat. I didn’t think they’d let me off the plane without paperwork, but it turns out, that is not a safe assumption to make. I’d say never get off an international flight without the paperwork necessary to enter the country, but that’s not usually information that’s readily available, so my advice is – if you don’t get anything, ask.