Coming from: Nong Nok Khiene, Champasak District, Socialist Republic of Laos
Going to: Trapeang Kreal, Stung Treng District, Kingdom of Cambodia
Documents required: Passport, photo and 35 USD (for Cambodian visa on arrival)
Waiting time: 5 min (Laos), 10 min (Cambodia)
Distance from Bern: 22.627 km
Where the Mekong flows from Laos into Cambodia, the river becomes very wide. Hundreds of river islands float in the stream. Live passes slowly on them: The heat is sweltering, and locals and visitors alike avoid unnecessary movement in the overwhelming humidity. There is little to do anyway. The area is beautiful, but in a peaceful and modest way, with no spectacular sights. Sure, there are some waterfalls and even dolphins can be spotted, so tourists rattle on tatty rental bikes across the islands. And for border tourists such as me, it is even possible to sit on a riverside terrace and watch across the river to Cambodia. Apparently, one can even bribe the local fishermen to take you there. Generally, however, calm prevails.
A beer with border view: Cambodia is on the other side of Mekong river.
It is a tranquillity rarely found at international borders: There are no border markets, no brothels, no truck stops, no nervous and self-important policemen. But there are tourists. Backpackers, to be precise, and lots of them. Don Det Island is their place to be in Southern Laos, and its slogan “Been there, Don Det” tells a lot about its attraction. Don Det is a strip of riverside shacks with pubs and fast food restaurants; cannabis is cheap and easy to come by. After my trip through China, where I had rarely spotted tourists, and my attempts to get off the beaten track in Vietnam, it was a change. A welcome one, actually, I enjoyed the good burgers as much as drinking Beerlao and watching the Mekong flow by. And, to be honest, the company of some fellow Westerners.
So I decided to go full tourist, also regarding my border crossing into Cambodia. Sure, taking a luxury tourist bus, which would ship me comfortably and directly into Cambodia’s capital, was totally against my principles to truly enter those countries through the backdoors and to stay in the border towns, as opposed to indulge in the sights and comfort of the tourist spots. But this was tourist territory anyway, and when in Rome, do as the Romans do. There was no public transport to and from the border, and honestly I simply wanted to have a peaceful day in an air-conditioned bus with a bit more legroom than usual. So I bought a “VIP” tourist bus ticket directly to Phnom Penh for the next day: Leaving at 8 am, arriving ten hours later.
I was in a Buddhist country, so it was probably Karma that things did not turn out the way I had hoped. Instead, they were in line with the actual and more adventurous sense of my trip. The journey to Phnom Penh turned out to be the roughest cross-border experience of this trip, even keeping in mind that the one from Kyrgyzstan to China was no piece of cake. The reason for that were all the scams. I observe a lot locals getting scammed at borders; bribery is very common all over the world. Mostly, foreigners are left in peace: They do not know about local customs, and officials rarely dare to ask for explicitly bribes. But this was a tourist border crossing. And this apparently made tourists the prime target of the scammers. I was not unhappy about that, the prospect promised some border action at least. So I thought to know what to expect, and did not prepare (such as reading online reviews) for it: I liked to be surprised and felt experienced enough not to fall for the major traps.
Happily I then stepped into the first trap I came across. I simply hadn’t questioned the tourist bus concept enough: These shiny, air-conditioned “VIP buses” all over Laos had left an impression on me, observing them from the dusty back of a local pick-up.
No pagoda: Lao border checkpoint
Getting out of Laos was simple enough: The guards asked for a 2 USD fee, which I simply rejected without any consequences. Once through, we were expected by a lad presumably belonging to the bus company. He collected our passports and a fee of 38 USD per person for: a) Cambodian visa on arrival, b) health check, and c) stamp fee. The visa cost 30 USD, which meant 8 USD were for bribery. I supposed there was no way to get around that and did not insist, handing over my money and passports (I can’t believe it, in hindsight!). The German girls behind me were more sceptical, in other words: They had checked the scam warnings online. And that had been the first one. Surprisingly, I got my passport and my money back immediately, with a warning that I would probably run into troubles and the bus would not wait.
A welcoming border pagoda with greedy officials: Entering Cambodia.
But there was no bus waiting, because – as I soon found out – the major scam was not the bribery at the border or that dubious lad, but the whole bus deal! Getting into Cambodia without overpaying excessively proved to be quite easy: I walked past the health check desk, got my visa on arrival and then my passport stamps, the latter without even being asked to pay. The visa cost 35 USD, with a 5 USD “support our local corruption” fee on top of the official 30 USD, but that one was impossible to avoid. The couple in front of me tried to, and their claim to have only 60 USD left – the official fee for two persons – was answered with the decision not to issue the visa. So, in the end, they relented.
It was 10.30 am when I got to the row of makeshift restaurants on the Cambodian side, which also functioned as agencies for the various tourist bus companies. 450 km still separated my group from Phnom Penh, so we hoped to arrive there in the early evening hours. But here the major scam began: Five hours later, we had barely made 60 km into Cambodian territory! It took the bus company a full hour after we had crossed the border to send a bus. And it was no comfortable “VIP bus”, as promised and sold, but again a tightly packed van. Which then made it only to Stung Treng, the first Cambodian town, a mere 60 km from the border.
In Stung Treng, things turned even worse. We arrived at the bus station, and there was a “VIP van” for Phnom Penh waiting, to depart in ten minutes. Our company touts however shooed us nervously back into our van and brought us to a yard outside town, where we were supposed to have a lunch break. Most of the group did not feel like eating, but the bus operators were patient: They just did not organize onward transportation, and let us wait to get hungry. They even charged for the use of the toilet!
Here we waited for three hours for no reason but the greed of the bus operators: Bus yard at Stung Treng’s outskirts.
After two hours, we finally lost patience and pushed them to either provide onward transportation or give the money back immediately. That partially did the trick. At least, one further hour later, another minibus turned up. It was a normal local bus and as it turned out, the driver had been called by our bus company just an hour ago – they obviously hadn’t even tried to provide us a quick link to Phnom Penh. We didn’t fill up the bus, so we waited for another half hour in the town centre, until we finally departed. And that was not all: After three hours, we had to change again, squeeze into an even more packed minibus, wait for more passengers, then there was a dinner break, but thanks to the courageously speeding young driver we reached Phnom Penh at 10.15 pm.
When expecting and paying an air-conditioned, modern and comfortable bus, this can be a disappointment (and it was not the worst bus of the day). I should have continued travelling on local pick-ups.
Unpleasant as it had been, the day was quite an experience. So far, I had avoided using tourist buses and staying at backpacker hotspots, mainly because I wanted to avoid the backpacker parallel society in these countries. However, those who travelled with me turned out to be a pleasant company, especially the Austrian student which came to sit next to me in the minibus to Stung Treng. He was from Feldkirch, which is right across the border from the place where I grow up, and we spent the hour in the minibus exchanging smuggling experiences from our own borderlands. The real hassle were the locals in charge of the “tourist bus”, which treated us like a piece of cargo and did not deliver a good first impression of Cambodia’s population. So I had ended up paying a “VIP price” for a service which was even worse than with local transport, and I will certainly not do that again.
Transport: No public transport goes to and from the border itself, just to the last respective settlements, with no timetables. Several tourist busses “cross” the border daily, which involves changing the bus at the border and at several other places. In hindsight, the best option would probably be to book a tourist bus ticket to Stung Treng in Cambodia and to continue by general public transport from there, to avoid further being at the mercy of the tourist bus scammers. In the other direction, getting as far as Nakasang (ferry to Don Det) or Hatxaikhoun (ferry to Don Khong) by tourist bus might be the best option, as there are reports on scams on the way onward to Pakse as well. Lao inland tourist buses seem to be OK.
Accommodation: There is no accommodation directly at the border. In Cambodia, Stung Treng is the nearest place with some hotels. In Laos, there are many hotels, hostels and guesthouses on the Mekong river islands of Don Det, Don Khon and Don Khong – this area is really well equipped.
Food: No options on the Lao side, but on the Cambodian side, there are several simple snack stalls.
Money change: The food kiosks on the Cambodian side change money, but there are no ATMs at the border. If you have dollars, changing is not necessary: The US currency is not only generally accepted in Cambodia, but most price lists are even in US Dollars. The Cambodian Riel seemed to me quite marginalized.
Links: There are numerous accounts online on scams at this border, such as here, here, or here – or just google for it, there are plenty of results.