After our relaxing stay in the 4000 Islands of Laos we decided to venture into Cambodia through the land border, we’d heard this could be a bit risky.
When passing through Pakse last week, we bought ‘open’ bus tickets to Phnom Penh (as is much cheaper than buying in the 4000 Islands) and were told a direct bus would pick us up at 10:30am on the morning we chose to take us straight to Phnom Penh.
We left Don Det at 9.30am on a small boat and arrived in Nakasong 10 minutes later,
we then walked 200 metres to the bus station. An unmarked minivan arrived at 11:30am (one hour later than expected) Neil and I jumped in along with one other traveller, Rob, we decided to stick together as we’d all heard horror stories.
The rickety old van took 30 minutes to get us to the Stung Treng border. A local met us at the van and told us to come with him, hesitantly we followed. He gave us the departure and visa forms and watched us fill them out.
He started to get impatient and took my departure form before I’d finished, I hadn’t even signed it. He then demanded our passports, Neil got a little worked up here and asked why he couldn’t just go to the desk (which was right next to us) himself, the local never gave a good reason, but he persisted. He irritably said things like “hurry up, the bus is waiting for you on the other side, you are the last ones to arrive, everyone is waiting for you.” We gave in and followed him, keeping a close eye on the passports.
Now he demanded money. The visas cost $35US each, but he said we had to pay $40US. He said the extra $5US was for:
- $2US for an exit stamp
- $2US for the entry stamp
- $1US for a health check
- Note: NO ATMs around here
We’d heard about all this and knew they were scams. This doesn’t happen in the airport and other travellers we had met said other Laos land borders don’t require this fee.
We had read that many other travellers dispute these ‘fees’ and can take hours doing so. We figured we could do the same until we were blue in the face only to save a few dollars or we could give in and cross the border, we chose the later. Once the local guy had our passports and money he got the exit stamp and told us to meet him on the other side where he would have the rest done, this is when he quickly walked off (almost at a run) and literally disappeared!
Neil, Rob and I looked at each other like, “shit”. We had no idea if we were going to see our passports again! We had no choice, but to do what he said.
We walked into no-mans land from the Laos border to the Cambodian border and were asked for our passports by a police officer. We had to explain they had been taken. At first the officer looked confused, we all started speaking at once and I don’t think he could be bothered with the fuss. Eventually he looked around, shrugged, and let us though.
The ‘health’ check
We had never heard of a border having a health check and what a load of shit it was! Once we reached the building on the other side we were ushered to a health check booth.
We walked up to a counter and a man said he had to take our temperature. He held an infrared reader up to our hands, didn’t look at what came up, gave us a card saying we’d passed and waved us on. I could have been carrying any disease, but all that mattered was my ‘temperature’.
We had to wait another nervous five minutes before we saw the local with our passports again, he gave them back with the approved visas and told us to go and wait by a different minivan, at least we had made it to Cambodia! However, this is when our series of unfortunate events really began.
Minibus two and restaurant scam
We had to wait outside a local restaurant for an hour, in the scorching heat. So much for “hurry up, the bus is waiting for you on the other side!” This is a well known scam in Southeast Asia transport – they drop you by a restaurant and wait until you buy something. Eventually another guy crossed the border and the four of us got into the next minivan (if you can even call it that).
This van was older than the first and literally falling apart. The boot door almost fell off when we opened it and there was a big crack on the front windshield. A bunch of locals had to push start it and when we got in we were hit with an indescribable stench. We soon realised there were no registration stickers, no key – it had been hot wired, oh and our driver only had one eye! But hey, at least it wasn’t full. There was no safety concern, if we were involved in a crash, I’m sure the outcome wouldn’t be pretty. We were driven for an hour, then dropped at another bus stop/restaurant where we waited for our Phnom Penh ride.
We only had to wait about 15 minutes until another minivan pulled up with two seats left in it. This one didn’t look too bad from the outside. We squished in, our long legs pushed together and our shirts drenched in sweat. This minivan took us 50 minutes to the next bus stop, we had to change again.
Holy moly! The next bus was actually a bus, a mini one at that, but it was a bit bigger and we had more room as it wasn’t full, to start with. After 20 minutes of driving around town looking for people to pick up, it was overflowing with bags and at least two people to a seat. We both got cramp on several occasions.
Minibus five – the final, and worst!
After spending four hours in that beast, we were told to change, again! Thankfully it was the last bus change, but it turned out to be the worst part of our trip. It was another freaking dodgy minivan.
The driver got out, opened the boot, looked at us and pointed.
There were already 20 people crammed into the 16 seater and we were told to climb through the boot to the back seat. After such a long journey already I figured we couldn’t be too far away and just did it. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
Dripping with sweat, our legs were pushed against our chests and a speaker blasting out traditional Cambodian music was right beside our heads. At this point Neil looked at me and asked if I was okay, I couldn’t speak without tears coming out so I just shrugged. I was exhausted and frightened as nobody around us could speak English other than to say, “you move,” and “Phnom Penh?” Neil put his arm around me for comfort, that’s when we got yelled at for being too close. Sigh. I put my head phones in and cranked The Pretty Reckless, good rock always cheers me up. Neil got into the groove of the local beats – he figured if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em! What choice did we have anyway?
Another five hours we finally arrived in Phnom Penh! I climbed out of the boot and almost fell over as my knees buckled with my weight and my ankles rolled. It was dark and we were in an empty parking lot. Two seconds later five dodgy looking tuk-tuk drivers appeared out of nowhere, speaking at me all at once. We were obviously in a very shady, dangerous looking part of town – I looked at Neil and he took the lead. We had read that Phnom Penh was full of dangerous areas and as a tourist you shouldn’t be out after dark – but here we were. Thankfully, we arrived safely at out hostel 15 minutes later, or should I say 13 hours later?
Tips for anyone following in our footsteps:
- Take a friend (even as a solo traveller, try find a group going this way)
- Take exact change (don’t carry big notes, they wont give change and there are no ATMs)
- Take a photo of your ticket (they will take them off you and give you nothing in return – convincing drivers that you have a ticket may be tricky)
- Have a copy of your passport (in case someone does in fact run off with it – we have heard this has happened before and your embassy will accept a copy)
- Bring food and water (don’t succumb to the over priced food stop scams)
- Do some research and book with a REPUTABLE company – unlike us!
- Stay calm, arguing with officials over a few dollars wont get you anywhere fast.
- Be ready for a long, hot day 🙂
If anyone else has travelled this border, please let us know how you found it below!