We knew the crossing overland from Cambodia to Laos wasn’t going to be easy or quick, but it managed to be harder and slower than we could have ever imagined.
Our journey to Laos was already a day old. We had arrived back in Phnom Penh 2 days before, hoping to book transport directly to Si Phan Don (4000 Islands) in Laos. While this was possible, it sounded like it would take an eternity. Even the travel agent wasn’t eager to sell it to us, which is exceedingly rare in SE Asia. Instead we took her advice and took a bus to Kratie, which should be around halfway to Laos.
We didnt get to see much of Kratie as the bus took 8 1/2 hours instead of the advertised 6. Which was annoying. So we did nothing except eat, sleep and book a bus to Si Phan Don which left at 7am and apparantly arrived at 1pm. Now we arn’t idiots – we know the arrival times quoted are a work of fiction, so we thought it would probably be an hour or 2 longer.
The first bus arrived ‘on time’ (meaning half an hour late) and drove all of 2km before stopping for a meal break. Presumably the rest of the passengers on the bus (all Cambodian) had been on it for quite some time. Another half hour and we were finally off. For a few hours all went smoothly, not literally as we in the back of a minibus so it was anything but smooth. But figuratively.
Katy made a friend with a five year old girl, who decided she wanted to sit with her rather than her mum. Or maybe her mum just told her to go and sit with the white girl and give her some peace. Either way she was very cute.
At 11 we were dropped off (just us) at the nearest town the border, Stung Treng. Not sure where everyone else was continuing to but we were told a bus would be along to pick us up for the rest of the way at 12. Fine with this, we got some lunch and waited.
12pm came and no sign of a bus. Not that we were expecting it on time of course. But by 1pm we did start getting worried. No problem, we had a local SIM, we could just phone the restaurant we booked it with and ask them to check with the transport company what was going on. We looked at our receipt and to our horror, it had no number. Usually they all are personalised, but this was just a generic invoice. Bollocks.
Luckily I just about had a data signal so we were able to get online. The place we booked from had no number listed so after finding the number of somewhere down the road, phoning and praying they would a) understand us and b) be willing to walk down the road to a competing restaurant to help us out.
Amazingly nothing was lost in translation and we received a call from a lady working at the correct restaurant. The bus had apparently broken down but it would be coming, they just didn’t know when. Now this isn’t great news, but it was good news considering the other option was that we had just been forgotten about and would be forced to spend a night in Stung Treng.
Around 2 hours later, with the restaurant owners ignoring us because we had stopped buying things which left us with some wandering cows for company, a minibus full of backpackers finally turned up. As the driver had a leisurely lunch break, we chatted to them and found out they had come all the way from Siem Reap and had been on the road since 7am. All of a sudden we felt like the lucky ones.
We were shifted to a bigger bus since the only way me and Katy were fitting on the small one was on the roof, and finally began moving towards the border. This was only around 30km away and took less than an hour, which was the most frustrating thing about where we had been left.
The border was a standard procedure, small area to fill in Visa and arrival forms for Laos, and lots of touts offering to take our passports and get the Visa for us (which we declined, because there was literally no point). We were stamped out of Cambodia, and forced to pay a $2 stamping out fee which annoyed us. We protested a bit but as no-one else in the group apart from one guy did, our protest didn’t carry a lot of weight.
We then reached the Laos immigration section. Despite having a brand new, huge, likely air conditioned building 100 metres down the road, the immigration building is inexplicably a series of dilapidated wooden huts, outside, with no shelter from the sun. I enquired about toilets, pointing hopefully towards the new building, but was instead directed to a filthy outhouse that was so bad it was better to use the bushes.
After submitting our forms, passport photos, fee ($35 each I believe, for UK Citizens) plus an “overtime fee” of $1 each. We got our passports back complete with Visas in less than 10 minutes, then got stamped into Laos, which outrageously attracted another fee of $2 each. To be fair these fees were not a surprise, as I had read about them online, just I had hoped everyone might have protested a bit more.
We then had an hour long wait. Why? Well partly just for everyone to get through but also for the people who had taken the option of giving their passports to a tout. Because the tout had to wait for all the visas to be done, then walk back 200 metres, then all the people still had to be stamped out of Cambodia and into Laos. So they delayed everyone, they didn’t appear to save any money whatsoever (they paid the same as us including fees) and the only benefit was they got to sit at a stone table for an hour.
Eventually we were all put into another bus and driven down to the port to get a boat across to Don Dhet (The largest of the 4000 islands). On the bus we were helpfully informed that as it was now past 5pm, the boat that was apparently included in our ‘all inclusive’ ticket was not running and we would have to pay to charter another boat. Now I can believe this was true, as it was getting dark. However as we all pointed out many times to our guide, it was their fault that we were so late. Our complaints fell on deaf ears.
There was a lot of resentment as we handed over $5 per person for the boat, but sadly there wasn’t a lot we could do. Our guide seemed to act as the official boat salesman, issuing each of us a receipt, so without a doubt he was pocketing a large percentage of that $5.
Finally we were loaded onto small wooden boats, in the dark, with no lights, and nervously began the short journey to Don Dhet. We had made it. Finally. It was 7.30pm.
I’d love to suggest a way that others could avoid this scam, but it’s difficult. You never know which buses you’re going to get shifted around onto. You could try it independently but this border is in the middle of nowhere, and I certainly didn’t see any onward transport apart from that belonging to groups like ours.
It was a bad day but it could have been worse. Not sure how but I’m sure it could. We got there at least. We finally made it from Cambodia to Laos.