I had spent 4 days chilling in Dondet, one of the 4000 Islands in the south of Laos. As the pictures from the previous posts showed (4000 Islands, cycling, kayaking), it was a scenic location. It was also one of the laziest, most laid back places I’d been to since Pai, Thailand. But like all the amazing places I had visited, the time had come for me to move on and go in search of the next idyllic location. Unfortunately this meant saying good bye to the Israelis – Nati, Roy, Leon, Maya – delightful people whose company and generosity I most enjoyed for a week.
My departure also saw me say good bye to Camille (and Céline though I would see her again in a week) whom I had travelled with for over a month. Whether proudly or otherwise Camille now holds the title for the person I’ve travelled the longest with consecutively; on behalf of all of my friends from home, I ask, how the hell did you put up with me? If you’ve been following the blog you may recall some of the highlights of my travel with Camille: trekking in Chiang Mai, the slowboat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, chilling in Utopia in Luang Prabang, celebrating my birthday whilst tubing in Vang Vieng, ‘kayaking’ in Vang Vieng, watching Céline crash and burn on the Loop, fixing Céline afterwards, kayaking around Don Det and completely unwinding in the 4000 islands. Merci et bon voyage mon ami.
As the title suggests, the next stop was Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I bought a ticket which would get me the boat ride to the mainland, a bus to the border, a bus from the border to a bus station and finally a bus to Phnom Penh. Expected arrival time was 7pm, but of course this was Laos and Cambodia so I was expecting to add atlas 2-3 hours onto that.
The next section is only useful to read if you have any intention of crossing the Laos-Cambodia border yourself.
I settled the tab at Mr B’s Sunset Bungalows (a no thrills, cheap and easy location to stay in Dondet with a great view of the Mekong; rooms were 60k KIP – £5 – per night). After having breakfast – just about – at one of the worst restaurants I have ever had the displeasure of eating in (the one to the left of the main beach and boat stop in Don Det), I hopped onboard the boat that would take me back to the main land. The boat ride was easy going and was my final good bye to the 4000 Islands.
On the mainland I walked to the bus station. A warning for anyone taking the same route, there’ll be a guy selling a fast-track Cambodian Visa service for $40. DO NOT BUY THE SERVICE.
A Cambodian visa costs $30, at the Laos-Cambodian land border in the south, the visa is a non-negotiable $35, let’s call the extra $5 ‘straight into my pocket tax’. The fast track service the man offers has you paying $5 more for waiting an extra 2.5 hours in the blistering heat at the border.
I decided to do the border crossing for myself with a small minority. How hard could it be? It turns out, not hard at all.
At the border I had to pay the Laotians a $2 exit tax, let’s call it another ‘straight into my pocket tax’ which everyone pays. I then crossed the border by foot, ignored the optional Malaria test that costs $2 which they were adamant you need (you don’t, as I said it’s optional). I headed straight to the visa office behind the passport control building, filled out a form, paid the men and got my passport back within 10 minutes. I headed back to the passport control, they stamped the visa and the passport. Everything was done.
It was a short walk before I found the VIP busses. Regardless of where you’re going in Cambodia everyone hops onto the same bus at the border which will drive you for 1 hour to the ‘bus station’. The ‘bus station’ was simply a little shop with a makeshift carpark. The shop could barely pass for a restaurant. There I waited. 2.5 hours later everyone who had paid for the fast track began to arrive. They looked sweaty and exhausted having spent some time baking in the sun then being rammed onto a tiny minivan. They had already missed the first Siem Riep bus so had to wait for the next one.
After 30 minutes the bus for Phnom Penh had arrived.
Depending on your luck you’ll either be squeezed into a van or you’ll spaciously spread out in a van. I was lucky to have had ample room. Then we drove for hours on end providing ample opportunity for me to work on the blog posts for The Loop (see Days I, II, III, IV).
We kept driving until 9pm when we stopped for dinner. The restaurant was typical of those in asian countries, you had a choice of rice or noodles with vegetables, chicken, beef or pork. The waitress there didn’t write anything down when taking the orders. As expected she began to confuse the orders and food came out that nobody had ordered – I was particularly miffed when my Egg Pad Tai came out looking, acting and tasting like an omelette.
The fun didn’t stop with the orders. As you’ve expected we didn’t get anything resembling a bill. She came round dealing with 3-4 people at a time asking us what we had to eat, saying the price, then taking money. She didn’t give any change straight away and was taking money in both Dollars and Riel (typical in Cambodia as they operate a dual currency, the official Riel and unofficial USD). I was fortunate to have the exact amount. Most other people were waiting on change. When they approached her for it, she tried to double charge them for their meal until they explained they were waiting for change and how much. They had to jog her memory as to how much they gave her and in what types of notes before she remembered. 10 minutes of kaffufling later we were all back on the bus.
At 1030pm we arrived at a random location in Phnom Penh where we were greeted with the usual frustrating Tuk Tuk drivers attempting to befriend you by aggressively shouting at you with the words “my friend” at the end of each sentence.We had somebody try and charge us $5 / person. To put that into context, to hire a Tuk Tuk for 4 people for the day in Phnom Penh costs $18. After a heated argument we walked off into the middle of the night. None of us particularly pleased to be walking around in the middle of the night, without a clue where we were and in which direction we were headed. The Tuk Tuk driver came racing after us with another unreasonable offer. We politely told him where to stick it. He counter offered before we were too tired to continue arguing for a reasonable price. We settled for $2 / person. He dropped us all at a hostel, just about making it before his petrol ran out leaving him stranded outside our hostel.
I checked in, had a quick shower, then stepped out. It was about 12am and Lisa was waiting for me a couple of streets away at a bar. Lisa as you may remember was the final addition to our private bus from Thakek to the 4000 Islands.
We had a quick beer and congratulated an old Cambodian lady who had just mopped the floor with an Irish guy on the pool table. We went to the club next door. I walked in and quickly worked out it was a Cambodian gay club. I assumed Lisa and her friend Kirsty knew that. Lisa bought us a round of drinks then we made our way to the dance floor. Behind me, stood at one of the tall tables, were two old men in their late 60s with a young man who was at best in his early 20s. The two old men were both fondling and groping this young man who was dressed in tight designer clothing that didn’t resemble cheap counterfeits. I pointed this out to Lisa and Kirsty. They looked shocked. Of course this happens a lot across Thailand, Laos and Cambodia but was none-the-less disconcerting to watch. I asked Lisa and Kirsty if they realised we were in gay bar, but they simply responded with a confused expression.
30 minutes later while we were in the midst of raving to the beats that the female DJ was expertly mixing, Kirsty turned to me and said, “Oh right, I see it now”. The music was good and the atmosphere pleasant so we kept raving until the early hours, thoroughly impressed with the performance of the DJ.
As we rolled out of the club at 4am, we were hungry. But of course this was Asia where ingenuity was in abundance. We walked over to a converted Tuk Tuk. The back had been converted into a wood fired stone pizza oven. The pizza cost $2 and was exceptional. With such a great oven, the pizzas, as expected, were amazing.
With a long days travel and a night of raving, I hopped onto a Tuk Tuk, got back to the hotel and despite the heat, was asleep within seconds.