I was sitting still in Si Phan Don for so long partly because it was so lovely, and partly because I didn’t have any urge to move on for a while. In fact the thought of travelling further was very off-putting for a few days there, but I knew that the urge would return if I simply waited long enough. Well it came back with a vengeance on Tuesday, which is the first day for a nearly week that I’ve felt lively and active. Suddenly the idea of lazing in a hammock staring at the water held no further attraction; not that I regretted all the downtime I’d spent there so far! One of the greatest benefits of this kind of travel to me is that you can sit still for days if you want to. It may be many years before I return to that idyllic part of Laos – and when I do it will no doubt be quite different – so I wanted to leave there because I’d had my fill, not because I had to be somewhere else. It turns out one week was the perfect length of time 🙂
After exactly fifty days in Laos I was keen to get over the border to Cambodia and see a new land. But I have plenty of time still and don’t want to rush it, so my first goal was always going to be Stung Treng just an hour over the border. It’s where transport to the remote north-east departs from and is a decent-sized town, so surely it was worth at least one night. Besides I didn’t want to spend a whole day in a bus which is what the vast majority of other travellers were planning to do. Being on Don Det in Si Phan Don exposed me to many more budget travellers than I’ve seen in the one small place so far, and it came home to me how different my mode of roaming is on this trip compared to most people. For example of the forty or so people on my bus over the border (who were all westerners), exactly one person got off at the first stop: me. All the rest were carrying onwards to Kratie or Kompong Cham, but mostly to Phnom Penh. Another bus had gone ahead of us aiming directly for Siem Riep – more than twelve hours away. Even in this age of mass travel, it’s remarkably easy to avoid the hordes if you’re prepared to take just a few more steps along the beaten track than the rest.
And anyway I had an inkling that crossing the border would take a while, so the idea of suffering a long bus journey afterwards seemed nuts to me. And I was right: the border is less than 25 kms from Don Det, yet it took us almost four hours to hit the road again on the Cambodian side… things started simply enough at 8am with a short boat journey from the island to Ban Nakasang on the mainland, where a bus was already waiting. And waiting. And waiting… for no obvious reason it was nearly an hour before we set off for the border, arriving there a little before 10am. Exiting Laos was straightforward, and to my surprise I was not charged for overstaying an extra day. I don’t think they noticed: the Customs guys were too busy extracting a US$1 “fee” from everyone on the bus. We all knew it was a self-imposed bribe but few grumbled and noone refused that I could see, we just wanted to get the process over with. We then had to grab our bags and walk a hundred metres across a paved no-man’s land to the Cambodia side, where the circus really began.
First up was a Quarantine desk where we filled in a short form, had our temperatures taken with an infrared ear thermometer, and were explained in atrocious english what we should do if we showed symptoms of H1N1 flu (is that still a problem?). And we were clipped another US$1 for the privilege of listening. Then to the Visa Office where visas on arrival are obtained. We all knew that it should cost US$20 each, but here it was US$23. I am convinced the extra $3 was because there were three guys in the booth, honestly. Another US$2 if you’d forgotten your passport photo (I got a dozen made up in Sydney so I’d never be caught by that one!). Then to the third and final booth where your visa was stamped and you were officially allowed into Cambodia. After coughing up another US$2 there, that is. By this stage there were loud and mutinous rumblings from some people – almost all of them Europeans, if you’re interested to know. A German guy simply refused to pay the last bribe, saying he was a cop and he knew what was going on. He was waved through; he’s actually a bus driver.
Once through, we waited. Again. For nearly two hours we sat in the stifling heat, waiting until the bus had filled up enough with new passengers for the bus jockeys to decide they could move on. For two unlucky sods there was a final hassle. They were cycling from China to Thailand, but had decided to take the bus for this stretch because it was supposed to be unscenic (which is true). They had bought their tickets on Don Det, confirming first that their bikes would be allowed on the bus all the way. Just as the Cambodian bus was about to depart – in other words almost two hours after they’d first shown their tickets – they were forced to pay again if they wanted their bikes to be loaded. They knew they were being screwed and eventually paid up, but one of them sat next to me for my short trip and he was openly calling it extortion. Which it was, of course. Or you could put it another way: “welcome to Cambodia”.