Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Travels in Laos and Cambodia: Border Crossings, Minibuses, and the Beach

Leaving the 4,000 islands, we began travelling overland back to nearby Cambodia – final destination, the nation’s southern white sand beaches!  Not a trip to be tackled in one day, we had a three day journey south via ferry, minibus, tuk tuk, and our own two feet.

Day 1: Border Crossing Adventures

First on our travel agenda was crossing the border back to Cambodia.  From the “dock” at our hotel, we boarded an extremely full ferry back to the mainland.  Luckily, this ferry had no concerns about our all-inclusive “ticket.”  The ferry narrowly avoided capsizing several times and we were glad to arrive back on the mainland along with our dry belongings.

Since the ferry dock was full, we unloaded on the adjacent “beach” and straggled up to the town’s main dirt road along with our bags.  Unsure where we were supposed to pick up the promised bus that would take us over the border, we wandered through town, yellow ticket in hand, along with the rest of the ferry passengers.  We stopped at one likely location, but there was no sign of a bus departing anytime in the near future, so we followed a few other travellers further along the path, where we discovered the “bus station.”  By bus station, we mean a dirt parking lot with some beat-up minivans and various backpackers/dirty hippies trying to find the shadiest spot to wait.  Giorgio stood in line, where he miraculously exchanged the yellow ticket for two new pieces of paper, which also promised to take us to Kratie.

Out of the blue, someone shouted out that everyone going to Siem Reap should board two of the minivans.  One of the workers came up to us, looked at our ticket to Kratie, and insisted that we board one of the dilapidated vehicles as well.  However, since we were the last ones to get this memo, all the vans were already packed to the gills, with people crammed into the seats/aisles and luggage piled precariously on the roof.  Giorgio flat out refused to get into either car, convincing the workers to drive another van to the border with us and a few others.  Lucky us, we had a whole row to ourselves in the half-full minivan.

Our first-class trip was cut short by the border itself, where the driver unceremoniously dumped us and all our bags and subsequently disappeared, vaguely motioning that our next bus would be on the other side.  Giorgio compensated the customs officers for the complex and strenuous task of providing us with exit stamps and we were once again on our way.  (What happens if you refuse to pay the requested but not required $2 per stamp?  We aren’t quite sure, but didn’t think we needed to argue about it in the heat.)    

We tramped across the no man’s land separating Laos from Cambodia in the searing heat.  On the other side, we compensated a Cambodian official for taking our temperature – we wouldn’t want anyone miss out on compensation for being assigned to such a remote border post (and of course we want to avoid spreading Ebola).  After completing our visa and arrivals paperwork at various shacks staffed with various officials, we set off to find the promised bus. 

After showing our tickets and hopefully asking “Kratie?” several times, we were sent to wait in the shade, where the number of restaurants set up indicated this was a common occurrence.  We would need to hurry up and wait for our onward transportation. 

Suddenly, someone shouted out Kratie!  Giorgio made a mad dash, manfully carrying all the bags, while Steph raced to the bathroom ("bathroom" is a bit of an exaggeration for a shack where you pay someone 50 cents to pee in a hole in the ground, but whatever).  Returning from the bathroom, Steph found Gio once again arguing about number of places in the minivan.  This time he was less persuasive, however, and we were herded into the already-full vehicle.  Just as we were becoming accustomed to the cramped conditions, the driver announced that four people should fit in each row, not three, and a French couple was shoved in.

As our driver began to careen down the highway at high speeds, horn blaring to move wayward cows, scooters, cars, and larger buses, we consoled ourselves that at least the drive would only be an hour.  As we had boarded the minivan, we’d been informed that we would need to take not one, but two buses to Kratie.  We would have to transfer in the previously unmentioned town of Stung Treng.  Just as Steph was thinking that she couldn’t grip the ceiling for support any longer as the vehicle swerved this way and that, we arrived in Stung Treng, scrambling out as quickly as possible.  Our driver then screeched off, leaving us and the rest of the passengers at a café alongside the road, where we wondered where on Earth the next bus was.

We waited outside the small café, watching cows aimlessly wander up and down the dusty dirt road, creating obstacles for the scooters and tuk tuks to dodge.  Various snacks were purchased and games of Uno played, but still no onward bus to Kratie.  Our prior driver returned, but busied himself chatting with friends.  Amongst the hordes of backpackers waiting, there was a German couple sitting next to us.  They informed us that they had also been deposited in this café three hours ago and still had no idea when/if their second bus would depart.  Just as we were considering finding a taxi to take us the final two-hour stretch of the trip, the same rude and reckless driver from the prior minibus announced that he would now drive us to Kratie.  Why did we have to wait two hours for this announcement when he had just been hanging out with us at the roadside café almost the entire time?  It is not obvious.

After various pick-ups and drop-offs of locals along the way, and a lot more blasting of the horn, the driver dropped us off at an unknown location in Kratie, where, for various reasons, we had not booked a hotel room in advance.  This uncharacteristic lack of planning provided us with the “real” backpacker experience of choosing where to spend the night upon arrival.  There was a helpful local stationed in the parking lot who had envisioned just such a scenario.  He eagerly asked if he could show us rooms at “his” hotel – starting at only $6!  We followed him into the adjacent building, which mysteriously seemed more like a decaying European palace than a hotel in the middle of the jungle, to check out the rooms.  It turns out that the aircon rooms are a bit more than $6, but at only $15 and with no obvious flaws, we handed over our cash in exchange for the evening’s room, eager to shower and have dinner after the long day of travels. 

Day 2: Thankful for an Express Minibus

The prior evening, we had arranged our transportation onward to the capital.  Upon inquiring at the front desk, the hotel suggested that the fastest means of transport would be an “express minibus” leaving at 6 am.  Giorgio astutely began a line of inquiry as to how many people there would be on this four-hour journey and we soon discovered that for the additional sum of $4, we could purchase three seats instead of two.  Our new friend at the front desk promised that we would be in row 3, departing bright and early the following morning with a seat of our own.

Promptly at 6, our express minibus pulled up outside the hotel and we loaded into the vehicle.  We had not been scammed by the hotel and indeed had three seats in row 3 to ourselves.  Although we were not crammed in like sardines for the subsequent four hours, our driver still sped through the countryside and we watched the rice paddies pass by at a surprisingly rapid clip.  Our trip even included a civilized stop for breakfast and a bathroom break, rather than pausing briefly alongside the road for passengers to hop off and relieve themselves.

The green rice paddies and fruit trees eventually became shops and gas stations alongside an actual highway as we entered the frenetically busy city of Phnom Penh.  The driver deposited us in the central marketplace where we were immediately surrounded by tuk tuk drivers offering their services in broken English – “lady, you like tuk tuk?”  In no time, we were ensconced in our hotel lobby sipping fresh passion fruit juice, with plenty of time in the day left to relax and begin exploring the city.

We visited the Cambodian Royal Palace, marveling at the elaborate Silver Pagoda, and had drinks overlooking the Mekong and Phnom Penh's chaotic traffic at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club (a Phnom Penh institution).  To cap off the day, we had a “Thanksgiving dinner” at a local Italian restaurant.  Dinner included plenty of prosciutto and red wine, also key components of our traditional NYC Thanksgiving feast, so we felt like we were at home.

Day 3: Vamos a la Playa!

By our third day of travels, we were clearly minibus experts.  Plus, Phnom Penh offered a few more transportation options that we actually had time to research in advance.  In the morning, a Giant Ibis minivan picked us up, we loaded into our assigned seats, and four hours later, we were at the beach!  It was the easiest trip yet. 

For the past three days, we’ve been enjoying the squeaky white sand beaches of Sihanoukville.

For the most part, there is not much to report from our days at the beach.  At the last minute we decided to switch hotels from a more rustic hotel in an almost-deserted island off the coast to a more amenity-filled option on the mainland.  Following the myriad of travel adventures, it was nice to simply relax at the beach.  Plus, from our balcony we were treated to what Gio has determined may be the best sunsets thus far.


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