Now, I love a land border as much as the next backpacker and I’ve crossed a fair few in my time with my trusty Berghaus Jalan. But the circus that is the border from Laos to Cambodia really takes the biscuit. As I edge closer to it, I’m told ghastly stories from those who have survived the experience; their wallets lighter, their spirits damper, their human rights affronted.
Buying a bus ticket from my departure point on Lao island Don Det to Cambodia’s Siem Reap is certainly an early indicator to the veracity of the stories. There is the option on sale; the gruelling route via Phnom Penh, advertised at 14 hours…actually 30 hours of the roughest road Cambodia has to offer. Then, there is the route which goes direct from Stung Treng to Siem Reap cutting out the stop at the capital and 20 hours of travel. But this option is spoken about in hallowed tones and hushed voices…and it isn’t on sale anywhere.
At one of the main travel vendors on the island, I ask about it and I’m told in whispers that it can be arranged but I’ll need to closely follow a script and admit to nobody that I am going this route. Apparently the roads are new and ungoverned, and as such run by dubious money hungry locals. All I gotta do is hand over the cash…so far, so dodgy.
The vendor is edgy, shout and as far as I’m concerned untrustworthy. Unluckily for me, he owns every smaller travel provider on the island so my attempts to circumvent him are thwarted. But I do buy through a hostel-recommended vendor, the Souksan Hotel on the northern tip of the island, which is about the closest I’m going to get to peace of mind.
We boat to the mainland the next morning where our guide offers to “arrange the visas” for $30 all in. The visa costs $20, plus I want to see this corruption first hand so I politely decline.
At the Laos exit, a bejewelled immigration officer demands $2 in return for an exit stamp. No problem, but I’ll need a receipt please sir…you see I am a travel writer. It’s a weak effort, but an effort nonetheless. The result is him withholding the exit stamp until I pay up…which I do.
Wandering through no man’s land, I’m stopped for a ‘health check’ where I have to fill out a document essentially asking if I have a temperature. Another $2 is demanded at this stage. Given they’re unlikely to be qualified doctors and I filled out the form myself, I politely decline. I’ve broken a sweat by this point because I’m quite the rule follower at home.
The real fun begins at the Cambodian entry point. A large sign suggests that the visa costs $20 and the entry stamp costs an additional $5. Sure, because that’s legal. In front of me, a group of French and Spanish are attempting to pay the actual shelf price of $20 but the immigration officer, covered in gold rings and wearing Ray Bans, rips up their forms and throws their money aggressively back in their faces screaming that they’ll simply be denied entry. Call me chicken, but it’s actually a rather terrifying show, and one I don’t want a bit part in as a young woman travelling alone. The principle is despicable, but the cost is less than a half pint of lager…so I make a decision to err on the side of safety and pay the man.
Of course, the French and Spanish group are booked on the same bus…so we still have to wait the two hours while they argue the toss. The bus is oversold too, so I share one seat with a French film production student for the next 7 hours, a journey broken only by a two-hour puncture. The resource-strapped driver doesn’t have a spare, so he borrows a moped from a nearby house and scoots off to get the burst tire repaired while we sit on the roadside in 34 degree heat sipping warm water.
But at the end of the day, which is when we finally arrive in Siem Reap 13 hours later and are eventually refunded half of our bus ticket, I remind myself that I am in a new country for the very first time…and there isn’t a journey that could dampen that feeling. Hello Cambodia.
And the soundtrack was:
The Clash ‘I Fought The Law’
We Are Scientist ‘Cash Cow’
Neil Young ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’
Bob Marley ‘Get up, Stand up’
Public Enemy ‘Fight the Power’