updated February 6, 2009
If you'd like to share your own experiences, please e-mail them to me.
From Stung Treng to Kon Tum (December 2008):
We took a very comfortable share-minibus from Stung Treng to Ban Lung (35,000 R per seat if I remember correctly). Left 8 am – took 3 hrs including time to drop everyone off at their houses. Amazed how BL has grown in the 3 years since we were last there. To get from there to the border the choice was whole taxi at $50 or motodops. We chose the latter at $15 each. Took 2 hours on good remade road – mostly dirt but occasionally surfaced. Only the last 2 km to the border was still being upgraded. If we had been earlier in the day I am sure we could have shared the taxi to save cost.
At the border passed through tiny Cambodian immigration hut (more of a garden shed than a building!) then taken by the motodops the 1 km or so across no-man’s land to the Vietnam entry point. Had our visas checked (quite pointlessly) by 2 officers in a hut (presumably the old entry point and they were given a job for the sake of it) then walked to the monster new immigration building. More windows to present ourselves at then we were in. Very overcrowded minibus was waiting “for us” (bush telegraph?) and took us into Pleiku (2 hrs) for a rather overpriced 100,000 VND each. Drove us up in front of one of the nice little yellow buses which left immediately for Kon Tum (1½ hrs – 15,000 VND each).
Really a good smooth trip – all the way from Stung Treng to Kon Tum from 8 am to 5pm same day.
Pleiku - Banlung overland (March 2008):
Left Pleiku at 8am, arrived Banlung just before 2pm, so this trip is just under six hours door to door. Border crossing on the Vietnamese side is called Le Thanh. The crossing on the Cambodian side is called O Yadao. In the Vietnam to Cambodia direction, the Cambodian immigration officials insist that a visa for Cambodia is available upon arrival at O Yadao. I did not need to get a visa for Cambodia at their Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. In the Cambodia to Vietnam direction, as usual, a visa for Vietnam must be in your passport before heading for the border crossing.
At the bus station in Pleiku, two of the moto drivers who hang around out front speak English and are aware that this crossing is now open to foreigners. However, they want about 300,000 dong for a ride to Le Thanh from Pleiku. Alternatively, take a yellow local bus to Duc Co from the central market in Pleiku for about 15,000 dong and then a moto from Duc Co to Le Thanh. It is about 60 KM from Pleiku to Duc Co and then about 20 KM from Duc Co to Le Thanh. The road is paved and smooth all the way. On the Vietnamese side. There is a huge new immigration building under construction at Le Thanh but for now, the old shack is still in use. It is just behind the new building. Vietnamese moto drivers hang around in the market just in front of the border station for a ride to Duc Co or Pleiku respectively.
Once past the Vietnamese Immigration officials, walk about 100 meters to the Cambodian Immigration station, where you will need to wait until someone offers a ride to Banlung. The front seat in a share taxi all to yourself is 15 dollars one way, which is the luxury way to go. A ride on the back of a moto is 10 dollars, but be advised that the road on the Cambodian side is under reconstruction and is really dusty and bumpy all the way to Banlung. It is about 70 KM on this road so a ride in a share taxi really is the only way to go. In my case, one of the friendly Cambodian Immigration guys just happened to be going to Banlung in his car so he drove after stamping my passport. Four wheel drive trucks also do this run from time to time and a ride in the back would be cheaper but very miserable given the state of the road on the Cambodian side.
In Banlung, for the trip to Pleiku, there are a number of options. Firstly, simply visit the bus station / share taxi stand just in front of the main market to ask if anyone is going to O Yadao. A visa for Vietnam must be in your passport beforehand. Alternatively, stay at Nordic Guest House, just up the road from Yeak Laom Lake, where the management is up to date about how to get to O Yadao. Or contact Mr. Lim, a tour guide in Banlung who takes people to the border crossing after showing them the countryside around Banlung. Contact him via e- mail on email@example.com or call him from inside Cambodia on either 012-237-462 or 011-578-458. When calling from overseas, drop the first 0 and add 855, the country code for Cambodia.
For a bit of fun at the Cambodian Immigration Station, ask to speak with Sokun. He is an Immigration official who used to work as a tour guide in Cambodia. His English is excellent, and his sense of humor even better. He knows all about the O Yadao area, including the jungle woman. Enjoy your visit.
Some pictures from the roads used on this trip are on:
Chau Doc bus station scam again (March 2008):
I just re-read your tale of the scam warning at the Chau Doc border. In late December ('07) we HAD THE EXACT SAME EXPERIENCE. We were staying at the Orchid Guest House in Kampot and had a great time for 2 nights. The manager arranged a taxi for my wife and I for $25.00 to the border. We had debated getting a taxi to Phnom Penh then taking the boat down and would have done this but since we had just driven down from P.P. we didn't feel like going back!
Ha Tien success (July 2007):
You can now cross at the newly opened international border between Kampot province (Cambodia) and Ha Tien (Viet Nam). It opened approx 3 month ago (maybe May 2007?) with another few borders crossings added north of the one in Moc Bai (to be confirmed by other travelers...). UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE: YOU WILL NEED TO HAVE ARRANGED VIETNAM VISA OR CAMBODIAN ONE PRIOR TO CROSSING AT HA TIEN.
For the Ha Tien crossing: we paid a taxi 15USD from Kampot town to the border (did not negotiate so you can probably get for maybe less). We passed Kep on our right and after approx an hour we turned right off the tarmac road onto 5-10 km of potholed and muddy track (avoid being driven there by mortorbike after a rainy day). Two eager motorbikes had been following the taxi for the last km and charged us 3USD each to take us and our bags from the Cambodian side to our hotel in Ha Tien approx 10km (again did not negotiate so...).
At the Cambodian side a nice smilling and English speaking border guy let us out of the country with no hassle. On the Vietnam side it's a 30-minute 3-step affair, first step was to pay the guy 3000 dong for a piece of paper. We did not have dong so we paid 0.5 USD each. Two hotel touts were waiting for us on the Vietnam side, we ignored them and off we went with our Cambodia drivers. Et voila - we were in Ha Tien ...
Tinh Bien (May 2007):
We attempted the perhaps less travelled border crossing from Phnom Den to Tinh Bien in Vietnam. Both the Cambodia and Vietnam Lonely Planet guides tell you not to attempt this and apparently the border has opened and closed intermittedly for foreigners (problems are on the Cambodian not the Vietnamese side), but we had no trouble.
From Kampot we organised a taxi through Monkey tours the night before which cost US$30 for a private air-conditioned car or US$22 for a private non-air-conditioned car. The road was pretty dusty and being April it was bloody hot so we were glad we took the air-con option. This was the only taxi we arranged in Cambodia where they asked us to pay when we booked, which we refused. Apparently tourists arrange these taxis and then pull out, so all they wanted was a commitment from us, which we gave them verbally. (As a general comment, we found taxis a little more expensive than we expected because of Khmer New Year, but they were still extremely cheap, even by South East Asian standards).
The taxi picked us up and took about 2 hours to get to the border. We had no idea where he was going and there were no signs in English after Kampong Trach, but we got there. At the border there is a row of small buildings along the side of the road leading up to the gate and someone in a uniform guided us to the right building whilst we were wandering with confused looks on our faces. We filled out our departure card and had to produce a second copy of our Cambodian e-visas (the first was when we entered the country). My husband only had a black and white copy which was a bit of a problem for the official but we showed him other ID and stamped our passports.
We then walked a little further along the road to the Vietnamese side and completed arrival cards outside a building with an x-ray machine. Someone took our passports (we arranged our Vietnam visas in Sihanoukville for US$35 each which took only 5 minutes!!) and then returned with them. You cannot purchase Vietnam visas on arrival to the border. We were then pointed towards a "health service" building next door where the guy gave us a pointless slip of paper and told us to pay about 1000 riel each (can't remember exactly). Our bags were never checked.
After entering Vietnam we were approached by moto drivers offering to take us to Chau Doc. We said no we want a car because we had big bags, they said there are no cars, they were right. We paid $15 for two motos (the driver of each moto had our bag between his legs) to Chau Doc which took about 30-40 minutes. The bargaining started at US$26 ($13 each moto).
On the way we tried to tell them we wanted to go to the Victoria Hotel. For some reason this sounded like Ho Chi Minh City, so they took us to a tour operator where they would get a kick-back. So we said no we are staying at Victoria Hotel. They only heard the "hotel" part and took us to some guest house where they would also get a kick-back. They finally understood us and then said that Victoria Hotel cost more because it is 2 km further. It was another 500m but we paid them an extra dollar because we felt pathetic quibbling when we were staying at the most expensive hotel in town.
Saigon to Phnom Penh (November 2006):
We arranged the bus through our hotel (the Spring Hotel). It cost us $20 per person, including transportation from the hotel to the bus. (We probably could have gotten a lower price if we didn't book it through the hotel, but we didn't know where to go to do so.) We were offered our choice of 8am, 9am, or 11am departures. The bus was operated by Sapaco Tourist, and was a very nice, new, comfortable, full-size bus, with AC, a bathroom, a TV, and a DVD player. The journey took about 7 hours, including about 1 hour at the Moc Bai border crossing, a lunch stop just past the border, and a short wait for the ferry. At the border, our bus attendant collected the passports from everyone on the bus. We then went inside and stood around until our names were called by the border officials. The road was in good condition. When we got off the bus in Phnom Penh, we were mobbed by tuk tuk drivers who were fighting each other to try to get our business, and who refused to let go of our suitcases. After I arbitrarily selected one of tuk tuks and made it clear that we would be taking that one, the other drivers backed off.
Kampot to Saigon via Phnom Den/Tinh Bien Border Crossing (November 2006):
I can confirm that after the mission my partner and I had today, that it is definitely possible to do this border crossing. Details for our trip today are as follows:
We left Kampot via share taxi at 10:30am. We arranged the taxi through Monkey Tours who really tried to help us find other passengers to share the taxi to make it cheaper for us. We also visited some of the Kampot guest houses to find some fellow travelers but they were all going to Phnom Penh or to Thailand, so we ended up paying $20 for the taxi ($10 each).
The ride was about 2 hours and took us to the border at Phnom Den. Here we said goodbye to our driver and walked to the first check point. The Cambodian immigration official was very friendly, we filled in our departures form stapled in our passport, the official stamped our passports with a smile and we walked about another 20 metres to the Vietnam check-point. Here, we completed an arrivals card (we arranged our Vietnam visa in Sihanoukville, which was cheap and took just ten minutes!) and were then led by an official to another waiting area. Some other travelers were there who said they had been waiting about ten minutes for their luggage to be x-rayed, so we prepared ourselves to do the same, but waited about just five minutes before being led again by another official to an air-conditioned room with a sign “health service”. Here, an official stamped our visas and we had to pay 2000 Dong each which we got an official receipt for (I paid in US$1 and was given change).
From here, we were clear and just walked out the checkpoint into Vietnam. Too easy! The whole process took just 20 minutes from leaving our taxi to entering Vietnam. Once clearing immigration, some xe om (moto) drivers approached us and we told them we wanted a ride to Chao Doc. We bartered hard - their first offer was $10, we got them down to $5 each, and that was because we had big backpacks (supposedly!) so it might be possible to get this even cheaper if you have just a little luggage.
It took about half an hour to do the 35km journey and this is where things got a bit more difficult.
The moto driver dropped us off at a place that’s sign clearly indicated it had mini vans to Saigon. However, when we asked about the price, they wanted $15 per person, and wouldn’t leave for another two hours. This rang alarm bells. Firstly, because that sounded like a horrendously large amount of money, and secondly, because it was clearly not a bus station. We made many, many attempts to communicate with the staff at this place and our moto drivers - we had a phrase book and maps from our guide book, but these people refused to try and understand what we wanted. When we asked to be taken to the bus station we’d get either blank stares, laughter, or be told using numbers written on pieces of paper that it was 70km or 260km away. We knew this was just not right, as I quickly figured out our address on the map in our book and could see from reading it that the station was no more than 1km or so away. So after 45 minutes, we just got our bags and started walking. Then, funnily enough, the same moto drivers came after us and could suddenly speak English, and told us they would take us to the Chau Doc bus station for $1 each. By this stage it was 3pm and we had a 6 hour journey ahead, so we went with them, although they had proven themselves to be unscrupulous and obviously after some sort of commission from that particular mini van company. $1 was probably also too much to pay, but we were hot and slightly flustered by this stage!
So we eventually got to the actual bus station where there were many companies and many buses with regular services leaving for Saigon . We paid 85 000 Dong each for an air-conditioned small bus that was leaving in ten minutes ( 3:30pm ).
We thought we were on our way, but after about 45 minutes (we were the only people on the bus), we stopped at another station-type place, were told to get out, and then the bus took-off. We freaked out a bit as all our luggage was still on the mini bus, but we found someone who spoke a little English and she reassured us the bus would be back with our luggage in 5 minutes. It did come back in about ten minutes, with some more passengers, and this time when we got back on we were given bottles of water and wet wipes (nice!) and really were on our way.
The next two hours of the journey was over terrible roads, but coming from Cambodia, we thought not too much of it. We stopped for half an hour for dinner at about 7pm at a roadside place that has some nice cheap food and then the road after that was smooth bitumen. We got to Saigon at about 9:30pm . It was easy to get a moto to the district we wanted, and decided we needed to share this info about this border crossing, as all our research into this crossing had been fruitless- no info at this stage shared by others that we could find.
My recommendations to anyone doing this crossing: leave Kampot early so you don’t arrive in HCM so late, be very clear at the start when talking to the moto drivers, telling them you want the PUBLIC bus station, take some snacks to eat along the way, be prepared for terribly loud Asian pop music to blare from the bus speakers the whole trip, have some small US dollars on-hand for the motos and to buy snacks and water with, and be patient, as nobody we dealt with until Saigon had any English (we had a Vietnamese phrase book which helped us a lot!)
Hopefully this info helps others who want to avoid going back up to Phnom Penh to cross into Vietnam when already so close to the border in the Kampot/Kep/Sihanoukville region.
Phnom Penh to Saigon and back by bus via Moc Bai (May 2006):
I did this journey by bus in March, 2006. I travelled by Mekong Express Bus, having purchased the ticket at their office on Sisowath Quay. Any of the riverside moto drivers will know where this is. Cost $12, and they sent a van to my hotel to take me to the bus station at the O Russei Market in good time to catch the bus. Scheduled runs are at 6:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. Bus is large and comfortable and air conditioned.
Total trip took 6 hours, including the hour border formalities. We got off the bus at the border, Vietnamese insisted on running our luggage through the x-ray even though there was no one there to monitor, but oh well! Of course you must have your Vietnamese visa in hand. It is about one hour to the border and we were in HCMC by 1 p.m. Same bus for the entire trip, complete with host to chat and give a talk on Cambodian culture. Great! Bus lets you off on Pha Nga Lu Street, lots of travel agents and hotels nearby.
Easy as pie, I enjoyed it immensely.
When I arrived in HCMC on the return journey, having taken an early flight from Hanoi, I was just in time to catch the 11:00 a.m. bus back to Phnom Penh; it left Pha Nga Lu Street bus stop smartly on time and we were in Phnom Penh by about 5:00 p.m. Cost $13. Border formalities again were easy, strictly supervised by the host on the bus and the border guards, no hassles. Cambodian visas are available at the border, quick and easy.
The road is paved the entire way, except for a couple of short, rough dusty patches where new bridges are under construction in Cambodia, and of course the Neak Luong ferry crossing. Luckily we did not have to wait at all to cross, although sometimes this happens. We stayed on the bus for the ferry ride, unless you want to get off to purchase snacks from the kids; or you can do this from your window! Easy ride, recommended.
I was traveling Phnom Penh to Hanoi and back, and doing the PP - HCMC leg by bus each way saved me a bundle. Same day flights to Hanoi from HCMC seemed to be readily available on Pacific Air.
Saigon to Phnom Penh via Chau Doc and a Sinh Cafe tour (December 2005):
I travelled from Sai Gon to Phnom Penh in November 2005. I bought a tour a the Sinh Cafe in Sai Gon. I didn’t quite get what I asked for, but the tour still gave extremely high value for money. First it was 110 kms by bus, then some boat travelling on the Mekong, including visiting some manufactory and having lunch (included) and finally 140 kms of bus travelling to Chau Doc. There we got our hotel rooms; I had a single room with A/C, private bath/toilet and balcony. The next morning we were taken in rudderboats to some fish farm and then by boat to the border. On that boat we got our visas. We had to walk from the Vietnamese border post to the Cambodian one and then we went by a fast boat for a couple of hours in Cambodia. The last one and a half hour to Phnom Penh we spent on a bus and arrived at 6 p.m. Total cost (including lunch the first day and the hotel but excluding dinner and visa) USD 30.-!
Phnom Penh to Saigon by bus (October 2004):
We took the bus from the Central Market (can't remember the name, but it's the main bus service in that area with buses that go to loads of different places). It left 10 mins late at 6:40am and was about 1/3 full. It was a decent 50-60 seater with a/c. It took us 1 1/2 hours along a very bumpy and potholed road to the ferry crossing of the Mekong, arriving about 8:15 am. We waited for about 20 minutes before crossing. The road to after the ferry to the border was good quality and fairly fast (I'd say we averaged about 50 mph). We got to the border just after 10am. It took us 1 1/2 hours to get through the border, but it was pretty relaxed. They stop at a little restaurant/cafe on the border. No touts. No hassle. Most of the passengers were Cambodian or Vietnamese so no b.s. The border was painless and we were on the road again by 11:30. The road from the border to HCMC is very good - almost freeway-quality at times - 4 lanes and fast. Averaged about 60-65mph here and pulled into central HCMC (right on the Pha Nga Lu street) at 12:50, about 50 mins later than scheduled. Again, no touts or hassle when we got off the bus, just a simple taxi ride to our hotel. A great experience and I'd recommend anyone to do it. It was only $9.
Saigon to Phnom Penh advice - tourist bus or taxi (July 2004):
All the backpackers’ cafes around Pham Ngu Lao can arrange bus trips to PP. Unfortunately there has been a price war in the last year or two, which means that prices are incredibly cheap – down to 5 USD – but that the service gets worse and worse. To make ends meet the “tour guides” (they don’t actually do any guiding) have to stop as many times as possible to get commission from shops/cafes etc. The last time I did this trip, we stopped about 5 miles short of the border for half an hour, despite the protests of everyone on board. After the border there is a restaurant, where we were dumped for TWO HOURS waiting for our bus driver. In the end I found that he was parked there asleep, and went and shouted at him. He claimed that we were waiting for two more passengers, which was blatantly untrue. In the end we persuaded him to leave, but an hour or so down the road the bus broke down, and we lost another hour or so.
We had to dismount at the Neak Luong ferry and pay for our own crossing, then board a third bus, which dragged very slowly into PP. In total the trip took nearly 12 hours – ridiculous for 200 km on reasonable roads.
Subsequent to this I have travelled by taxi. Guesthouses can arrange one to the border for 220,000 VN dong – about 14.50 USD. The border was open and busy when I arrived at 7.30 am. From there, I ignored all the touts, walked across the border, completed customs and immigration, and walked to the taxi stand. I was immediately offered a taxi to PP for 10 USD. My reaction was to recoil, and ask what’s the catch? The only catch was that there were already two Japanese guys in the car who were already paying 10 dollars each.
At the ferry we were stuck for an hour as it was the first day of a holiday and there was a lot of traffic. All the same I was in my hotel in PP 5 hours after leaving my front door in Saigon. I don’t think you could do it much quicker by flying. Without the 2 Japanese guys it would have been a total of 45USD – I think that’s pretty good shared between 3 or four.
Phnom Penh to Saigon by taxi (February 2004):
After seeing the minibus from the guesthouse depart the previous morning totally packed we decided that Camry would again be the way forward, so got up and were at Central Market by 10am to charter two taxis to Bavet. However the taxi drivers didn't understand a word of English and were determined to take us back to Siem Reap! In a last ditch attempt I tried "Nous voulons aller a la frontiere avec Viet Nam" and it worked. The touts tried for US$80 PER CAR!!! We laughed and walked off and after about 20 minutes of negotiation got it down to US$60 for both. This still seemed pretty steep to us, but we wanted to leave Phnom Penh that day and so accepted. We got the cars to take us back to our guesthouse to pick up our stuff and our companions and I decided to get one of the English speaking staff to confirm with the drivers what we had agreed. It was lucky I did as the bastard touts had told the drivers US$40 each, not US$30! With that ironed out we set off and made good time on decent roads as far as the Neak Luong ferry, albeit with a minor detour as our guy decided to get lost in some random town.
After the ferry it became clear exactly why the ride was so expensive. The roads were barely passable, with a good foot of thick mud everywhere. There were teams of locals out by the "roads" digging cars out of the mud and pushing them. We felt like idiots sitting inside the air-conditioned taxi while this went on so we got out and joined in, getting totally plastered in mud in the meantime. Literally. It started to look like making the border by five pm was unlikely. We had bargained on this journey of about 100kms taking three hours at most but my advice would be to set our as early as possible. As we neared the border there was a huge line of traffic, some of it stuck, some of it sliding, and our driver managed to drive through the mud right past it, albeit at about 2mph! We then passed the minibus from the guesthouse that had left some three hours before us. Man did they look pissed off and uncomfy!
We eventually arrived at the border and paid the driver at about ten to five pm. God knows what he was planning on doing but he certainly wouldn't make it back to Phnom Penh that day. The border was a massive contrast to Poipet, we weren't hassled at all and there was a water buffalo wandering about the 50m patch of no-man's land separating the two posts!
The border guards were pretty friendly with us on the Cambodian side and enjoyed watching us try to wash the thick mud off our legs in a puddle! We wandered across and completed Vietnamese formalities but it took a good hour and we were busting for the toilet. One of the girls asked if there was one in the building and the stern looking guard pointed to the street outside. She decided to hold on! As it turns out we were asked at both borders if we were on the minibus from Phnom Penh and presumably the border guards are paid a little extra to stay open until this bus arrives. In Vietnam the paved highway was a beautiful sight and we easily chartered a minibus for US$30 to Saigon between the five of us. Again it could have been cheaper but was not a lot each.
The ride to Saigon was a huge contrast to the previous seven hours and evidently the Vietnamese government has done a lot to make a good impression on foreign arrivals. We got to our guesthouse in Saigon (TNK, highly recommended, but watch out for the mad granny) around 7pm, a 180km journey taking 9 hours!!!
Crossing at Moc Bai/Bavet (December 2002):
Everyone that travels to PP goes via bus. Having seen these giant, overstuffed, rumbling caskets overtaking traffic in any method imaginable on the ruthless roads, I thought it didn't look like a good time. Besides, the journey could take 12 hours, and leaves at 5 in the morning, which I surely wasn't prepared to do. So I haggled the first cabbie I saw and figured I could make the trip to the border in 1.5 hours, for $15, and at that rate I could afford to sleep in.
So, in a cab, 1PM, tearing northwest to the border at Moc Bai. I'm feeling so much smarter than every other traveler at this point: This is cheap, roomy, safer, and fast. 3:30, I'm droppped at Moc Bai. I am the only traveler there. The buses came through hours ago, having left at dawn. I am immediately hailed by the scam artists & touts I was warned of; all wanting to take $20 to look at my passport, and to drive me somewhere. Head down, I walk with determination. A few move up beside me and ask "Hey friend! Hey foreigner! New York! Taxi?! Passport?! 20 dollar?!" I kept them at bay by speaking in tongues. They eventually got frustrated and left me alone. So I got to the building, literally shacks in mud and dirt, and get a stamp. That was easy, now I am on my way. No, I need to go to the next desk so some one can look at the stamp they just gave me. OK, I am done, I go outside, but another man looks at my passport. OK, I am done, so I go to the border at Cambodia, and another man checks my passport. Now that I am done and through, I ask where a taxi is and he says 100 meters. There was actually a bit of decent concrete here, and being that it was easily 100 degrees, I put down my skateboard and started rolling. I got the expected wows and chuckles from the locals, as well as tons of shouts to stop, wanting my money, no doubt. Being through the border, having kept all my money, and having certainly put the score in my favor I flash them a grin and keep moving.
But I took one look back when someone yelled "police". I saw a man in uniform. I turn back and approach him and he asks where I am going. Cambodia. "Stamps?" I say yes, show him. He is pissed. Points me to a little wood stand by the side of the road. It says "Exit" but I am entering... "really?" YES!!! As I approach, I see another booth, marked "enter". Doh. So they laugh. They laugh at whitey with his nifty little toy, who is drenched in sweat, got yelled at by the cop, and has obviously no idea what the hell is going on. One point for the locals. You win some, you lose some.
It was another debacle, but I got through, and at everyone's request, got back on the board and headed to the taxis I saw down the road. I am told that if you go through a tout, you pay more for the cab, and as I am the only person here, this should be a buyer's market. I pull up to the farthest cab and turn around to see the cabbies & touts all running my direction shouting and holding up their hands. The first one to me writes $25 on his hand. I look up as a dozen others shout the same. One grabs my board, and tries to drag me to his car. I shout NO as loud as I can, and they back off for a sec. "Twenty?!" I shout to the crowd. More yelling yes yes twenty, another board grab and a loud NO. "Fifteen?!" More shouting. "Ten?!" Laughter. I hit the low threshold. OK, 15? One dives at me, yelling 15, and I get into his car. Whew.
We hit the road. The road? It was what the arial photos of the Afghani airstrips looked like a few months ago: cement with giant holes everywhere. Often it was smoother when the cabbie took off into the mud or dirt on the side of the road. We are thundering down the road, dodging holes, bouncing off ruts, and as we pass small towns, we are dodging oxen, pigs, children, motos.
I always wondered what the wild west looked like in real life. I think this was damn close. The little huts were dirty boards strung together. Many were only palm fronds weaved to make walls. People are really living like this! Some were stilted huts over water, others were lean-tos behind a moat of filth and garbage. Incredibly beautiful, I absolutely loved it.
We take a stop for some petrol. I lock the doors and wait. Having not eaten or drank all day, I think better and hop out for a coke. As I return, the cabbie wants to take my bags out & put them in the trunk, signaling that I could sleep for the trip. Right. I close them back in the back seat, and he starts babbling about petrol. He writes 20 in the dirt on the hood with his finger. I laugh! I shake my head. He runs on about the gas being 15 dollars. I write 15 on the hood, punctuate it with a firm rap on each number, get in the car, shut the door, & lock it. End of conversation.
If I had let my bags into the trunk, he would have held them until I gave the $5. Scambodia.
It's 5:00, and dusk is approaching. This is the reason the trip is recommended early in the day: there are no lights out here. Moving at breakneck speeds through rutted and cratered cement and earth, in a car with a man who speaks no English save the numbers between 15-20 and yes/no, Khmer music pumping, mud splattering, car flying off ruts, is not for the faint of heart. As if the actual forward motion weren't intense enough, who knows when a child, ox, pig or chicken will crop up wanting to play chicken. This is trip is ruthless, but for some reason, my pulse never quickened. The need for speed, however, was real: this will only get worse once the sun fully sets.
6:00: 65 MPH has never felt so fast. It's pitch black. Once in a while, we pass through a settlement, and I see that in these straw huts, the only light is often the blue glow of a TV. How they get electricity, let alone a signal out here is beyond comprehension. Then, we stop. The cabbie gets out, says "one" and closes the door. There is no love lost between us, after I wouldn't allow myself to get swindled, so I don't ask questions. I figure he is waiting for another rider. I refuse to pay him any more, so I will wait it out. Really, I will. That bastard, I'm pouring sweat. Only one of the power windows is down. I am hungry. All I can see from the back seat is a few fluorescent lights. It is some kind of settlement, but I can't tell a damn thing about it. No idea where I am. I've got nerves of steel, I can wait this out. Really.
OK, I will get out and find a hotel! There has to be one nearby. So I pull out the language guide and ask the children where a hotel is. One is near. OK, I'll give that bastard cabbie 10 more minutes. Using the guide, I inquire what this place is called. Most of the kids have no idea where they are on the map, but one does. I then look up the town in the book – we're getting somewhere!
"Neak Luong is the point at which travelers speeding between Phnom Penh & the Vietnamese border have to slow to a stop to cross the mighty Mekong River." We were waiting for a god-damned car ferry. I'm angry and elated. I won't ditch the cabbie after all.
7:00, the ferry arrives and we cross the river. 2 more people hop into the cab. Back at 60 MPH, lightning is flickering in the hot sky as the Khmer music pulses on. More dim lights at settlements and the occasional fire. Swerving left & right. I pull out my notebook to jot something down and the kid sitting next to me turns on the dome light, asks if this is what I wanted. He speaks English! In fact, he's in year 2 of an English degree in Phnom Penh!! The drive got a lot easier, as we swapped impressions of our respective countries, told stories, and got along very well. He told the driver exactly where to take me, and I was off.
Confirmation of visas on arrival when coming from Vietnam (December 2002):
As I know there was some confusion as to whether visa's were available at the Chau Doc and Moc Bai crossings from Vietnam, I can confirm that when I came up via boat, some British guys on the boat obtained theirs at Chau Doc for $20US. There is also a simple sign up confirming this. The border authorities didn't seem to have any photo capabilities and as the guys didn't have any colour photos with them, they had to cut out the black and white photocopies of their passports they had with them and use them instead. As an aside, we waited around the immigration office for about half and hour before the officials decided that they were ready (they were not actually doing anything). I have since come to the conclusion that they were waiting for a bribe from us to actually do something, but since our boat driver did not speak English and was back on the boat - nothing eventuated. One, more classy, boat arrived and the driver/guide just collected all the passports handed them to the officials, who promptly stamped them and handed them back. Without any passengers getting off the boat, which was 60m away. I will assume some 'arrangement' had been sorted out with this particular boat.
Scam alert Phnom Penh to Chau Doc (December 2002):
Firstly, thanks for the in-depth info on the overland journey from Bangkok to Siem Reap. My friend and I used it and had a largely trouble free journey with no money going into the pockets of the touts
I don't know whether you are interested or not, but by being aware of this scam system, we encountered another one leaving Phnom Penh to Chau Doc in Vietnam by boat. We decided to take the boat as it only takes 2.5 hours to the border and is undercrowded and leaves at 2pm - plenty of time to sort out any loose ends and say goodbye to Cambodia. The scam goes as follows......
The boat is loaded up with around 12 people - all tourists as this boat costs $15. It arrives late and goes late. The 2pm sailing is closer to 3 for no apparent reason. We sail effortlessly to the in and out immigration points in the 2.5 hours suggested without a hitch. It's now around 5.30ish and as we leave the Vietnamese passport control for Chau Doc a few leaflets are handed out about a lovely looking guesthouse in Chau Doc. The inside of the boat is also adorned with various photos of the rooms available etc. It is as we approach the middle of the Mekong river that the pilot decided we can't go any further as he is having a problem with the fuel line. The engine is switched off and he frantically runs backwards and forwards between the engine and the control panel as we drift out of control on the river. Enter player number 2. One of the tourists on the boat is a very respectable looking Vietnamese chap who offers to help out. Between them the pair decides that we have some real problems on the boat and our new friend who is quite fluent in English lets the rest of the boat know. Occasionally, much to everyone's relief, the boat gets going again, but only for a few hundred metres. After this it is deemed that the problem is persisting and the pair once again try to fix the problem. Throughout all this we are reassured that everything will be fine and we will get to Chau Doc. This whole drama goes on for about an hour or so - making sure that it is well and truly dark when we arrive at Chau Doc, and far too late for us to continue to Saigon. Where could we possibly spend the night??
A lovely lady welcomes us to Vietnam at the dock, and offers the services of the guest house. A very cheeky scam, very similar to the Poipet scam. The difference with this one is that you are pretty much held prisoner on the boat - you can't get up and walk in the middle of the Mekong!!!
I'm not going to mention the guest house. I'm sure its a lovely guesthouse, and with the pull of Saigon, struggles to get by in Chau Doc, but I'm afraid that their tactics to get business are totally wrong!
The strange thing is that only myself and my friend knew it was a scam. The rest of the boat were totally taken in by the act - until we told them. When challenged, our friend on the boat suddenly forgot how to speak English and just laughed nervously shrugging his shoulders. The look on his face after docking was priceless when he knew there would be no commission that night.
Thanks. Keep 'em coming.
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