When we were first planning our trip from Siem Reap to 4,000 Islands in Laos, we didn’t think it would take us very long. I mean, looking at the map the distance didn’t seem that far. We just had to go north east a bit and we’d be at the border in no time. We estimated about 4, maybe 6 hours tops to travel up to the border, go through immigration and onwards. But boy were we wrong. As you can see from the picture above, we didn’t travel upwards, no no. In fact, we travelled almost all the way back down to Phnom Pehn before heading north. The “short journey” we originally envisioned to take us to Laos turned into a 13-hour travel day.
Departing Siem Reap
Our day started even before the sun came up. We were picked up from our guesthouse at 5am and headed to the bus station just on the outskirts of town. When we arrived at the bus station, we expected to board one of the larger 40+ seater buses. But instead we crammed into a 20-passenger mini-bus with backpacks filling the aisles. Safety concern? Not in this town! It was uncomfortable, but we figured we only had to endure this for a couple of hours before we’d change buses.
As we were bouncing down the road, swerving around potholes and dodging stray dogs, we suddenly heard this loud boom, awaking many of the passengers who had gone back to sleep. Yes folks, you guessed it, we had a flat tire. Not more than one hour into our trip and we were already experiencing some troubles.
Our driver pulled over beside what looked like a little roadside drink stand and had us all get out of the bus. Turns out this drink stand also doubled as a bus and motorbike repair shop. We all stood around and watched as this man, most likely in his 60’s, pulled the punctured back tired off and refitted a brand new one in about 30 minutes. You’d easily have to wait at least that amount of time for CAA or AAA just to show up back in North America. This guy was good, clearly he’s had his fair share of tire repairs.
Wait, We’re Heading South?
Back on the bus, impressed passengers inside, we were once again heading to our destination. Or so we thought. It took about another 20 minutes or so of driving to notice most of the road signs were giving directions to Phnom Pehn… down to Phnom Pehn. We couldn’t figure it out, and quickly started to ask around to make sure we weren’t on the wrong bus. Turns out that because the roads in Cambodia aren’t the best, and they get even worse in the north, we had to travel all the way back down towards Phnom Pehn before turning around and heading north on another road.
At about 10:30am, somewhere between Siem Reap and Kompong Cham, we pulled over again. This time we changed over to a larger 40+ seater “VIP” bus that seemed to be waiting for us. The bus had the seats up top and luggage storage on the bottom, carrying locals and tourists alike. It was what we had originally anticipated and were happy to have the room to stretch out a bit, without backpacks jammed into our feet. After a quick pee break, and a rush to purchase some snacks (we had no opportunities for breakfast), we were on the road once again.
Getting to the Border
The next part of the trip was fairly typical. We drove along a two lane paved road, passing rice fields and wooden homes built up on stilts. A lot of the surrounding areas were flooded and many of the locals had to wade their way to their homes.
Around 1:30pm we stopped in Kratie where some of the passengers got off. We then continued driving for only another 15 minute before stopping for a lunch break. We all piled out of the bus, most of us so hungry we were practically gnawing on the bus seats. The food was set up cafeteria style, though it was anyone’s guess as to what was being offered. Someone in front of us seemed to have spotted vegetable curry and we all opted for that until it ran out.
30 minutes later, and somewhat satiated, we all piled onto the bus yet again. Within about 10 minutes of driving, the girl sitting in front of us starting rummaging through her day bag in a very determined way. Then we heard what no one ever wants to hear, “I can’t find my wallet.” With all the contents spread out over her seat, it was clear that her wallet was not in her bag. You could see the colour drain out of her face. Everyone sitting around her could feel her pain. She said she remembered putting it back in her bag after paying for her food, so she figured it must have fallen out when she went to the washroom. We’re pretty sure it had some help “falling” out of her bag. All her credit cards and the last $400 of her travel money were all in her wallet. Many of us around her handed over some money, just to make sure she’d be covered for the next few days while she sorted things out.
Just before we reached the boarder, we picked up a guy who would be helping to process our visas at the border. He handed out the immigration cards for us to fill out and informed each of us how much the visa would cost. As Canadian citizens, we were the lucky guys who got to pay the most for our visas, $43 each. Most of the other passengers were paying around $32-$35. We were shocked at the price difference for us, but apparently it has something to do with Canada not providing much financial aide to Laos… We’re not entirely sure.
The guy also informed us that we would have to pay an additional fee of $4. We were aware of this practice when traveling between Vietnam and Cambodia, and at the time were told it was a “stamping fee”. You see, those workers need to be paid every time they grab that stamp, lift it up, and drop it onto our visas. Essentially, it’s a cash grab. But in this particular situation the guy actually had a story made up for us. He told us that at the border they were building hotels and a casino and needed us to help pay for water to be brought to the area. Our $4 would help this process and bring jobs to the locals. I thought he might as well get the $4 for creativity.
Before leaving Siem Reap, I had read up about the possibility of being charged extra. Many people had written that most of these guys charge it because they’re doing the paperwork process for you, and at the end of the day each of the guys take a cut of the money. We thought about doing the process ourselves (it’s actually possible to get off the bus and do all the paperwork yourself without having to pay extra) but we had read about a girl who had done this and was left at the border by her bus. The man on the bus had said, “you no pay no fee, you no get on the bus”.
We brought up the option of doing the process ourselves, to which our guy replied quite agitatedly, “sure you can do yourself”. Though when I tried to joke about the possibility of being left at the border, he didn’t crack a smile but instead tried to look busy while typing on his Blackberry(?!). I see where all that water money goes to…
We arrived at the border at 5:30pm. We decided to just pay the money and let someone else deal with it. We never once got off the bus, didn’t have to go through a security check, or answer any questions. 30 minutes later we left and were driving through the border. Goodbye Cambodia!
After driving for twenty minutes we stopped, this time to switch vehicles for those who were going to the 4,000 Islands. We climbed into the back of a converted pickup truck with two benches of seats on either side, our backpacks piled on the roof. We drove for maybe only another 10 minutes before reaching the pier.
We then had to pay for our boat ride over. We were each charged $3 for a one-way boat ride. I thought it sounded a bit steep, especially after reading online that it should only cost somewhere between $1-$2. But once again, what can you do? It’s dark, everyone has to get across and there’s only one guy who appears to be operating his boat.
We squeezed into a small riverboat that was barely wide enough to fit two people across. We were sitting so low into the water that any bit of wave would come right up over the boat edge. We glided across the water, with only the light from the moon guiding us, trying not to think about what would happen if the boat tipped over.
Only about 7 minutes later, our boat pulled up onto the shores of Don Det. 13 hours and four different transport vehicles later, we were happy that this epic of a journey was finally finished. Now all we had to do was find some accommodation for the night.
What you need to know: It’s best to purchase your bus tickets through your guesthouse (or shop around the various guesthouses) as it will include pickup from where you’re staying. We paid $21 USD each for our tickets and that included everything except for the boat ride to Don Det. Purchase some snacks and fruit the night before, because almost everything will be closed at 5am when you’re getting picked up, and it’ll be a while until you stop for something substantial. Charge your mp3 player, pack a good book, and bring along your patience!