Laos to Cambodia: Don Khong Island to Stung Treng and border scams

October, 2014

The border crossing from Laos to Cambodia: Don Khong Island to Stung Treng, is stressful…

Prepare to be ripped off in both countries when crossing this border, as all the officials are corrupt and perpetuate the scams.

The only way to stop the corruption is by refusing to travel this way. But then, your only alternative is to fly or by private car.

Border scams

Reading and hearing much about all the scams at the Veun Kham/Dom Kralor crossing, we thought that somehow perhaps, this wouldn’t apply to us as savvy travellers.

It all started in Don Khong Island…how could anyone think that travelling from this idyllic serene island would be such a pain?

Buying bus tickets for the Paramount Angkor Express Bus Company (140,000K) to Stung Treng (Cambodia) from Pon’s Guest House, I specifically ask (several times) if the bus is a straight-through journey. We want to miss the border scams.

The owner (speaks perfect English) confirms yes. You would think after travelling seven months in SE Asia, I would know better. This trip is only about 80 kilometres in total. What can possible go wrong?

Well for a start today, the today 80 kilometres took around 8 hours!

Laos map, 2 month travel, border crossings
Border crossing from Thailand to Laos, followed by 2-months travelling in Laos, and exiting via border crossing to Cambodia

First border scam goes something like this…

After the boat across the river from Don Khong Island, we seem to be stranded – felt like it – on the other side.

Waiting almost 2 hours, finally we’re shoved on a packed tourist bus to Don Det. The first scam.

In Don Det, we wait again.

The ‘Agent’ orders everyone to complete all paper work and demands our passports, before catching another minivan to the Laos border.

I’m forever nervous when handing over my passport to anyone, especially in Asia – panic attack.

This ride only takes 15 minutes and everyone is charged USD$1 “stamp tax”, which goes straight into the official’s pocket.

At the border

Our minivan’s group walks over a kilometre in the soaring heat, whilst donning all our backpacks, to the other side.

On the Cambodian side, everyone pays another USD$1 for a “health check”.

What a pathetic attempt of measuring your body temperature, using some sort of fake bleeping infrared gun. The official pretends to check for Ebola and provides a yellow paper afterwards, to see a doctor if you feel sick.

Waiting more hours at the border for our passports to be stamped and returned, but also for the second minivan to arrive, we are ripped-off by the scams, corruption, and agent.

In total, the visa saga cost USD$40 although a visa is only only supposed to cost USD$30.

Not that much more you say? But it’s the stress of how the whole day manifests itself and also also the principal. Especially, as you know that corrupt officials are ripping you off just because they can – this doesn’t sit well – just like the 8 hours of travel to cover 80 kilometres.

Travellers that initially refuse the ‘Agent’ have a much harder time by the border police. In the end, these travellers only paid a few dollars less, but takes these guys longer to go through the crossing.

Final border scam

Don’t change money at this crossing as you’ll be ripped off.

The Agent also gets a kickback from the money changer and he pushes you to change money at this point.

Instead, ask the many travellers passing through, as someone is bound to have left-over Lao or Cambodian currency.

I changed money in this way and received the correct exchange rate for the day – we’re all in the same boat, so fellow travellers don’t rip each other off.

After the long wait at the border crossing, the minivan finally arrives to take us to Stung Treng.

The Agent is very angry with me and tries to hurry me into the minivan, before finishing my exchange with another traveller – but, I stand my ground and he has to wait.

Avoiding scams

The only way to avoid the scam at this crossing is get the direct bus, which also handles all the border crossing.

The Tourism office at Don Khong is the better place from which to book your direct ticket. Alternatively, insist on a ticket with the Phnom Penh Sorya bus company, as this company goes straight through and without hassles, apparently.

The other way to avoid this scam is to fly into Cambodia.

Minibus to Stung Treng

Cambodia: Stung Treng
Stung Treng’s location

The dirt road from the border to this small town in northeastern Cambodia can only be described as appalling and the worse I’ve seen in many years!

The massive craters along the way sees our minivan buried almost half-way deep once driving into these ditches.

At one spot it feels as if we need to be towed out of the hole. Only the skill of the driver who probably has driven this route a thousand times, sees us safely out of these craters.

Last scam for the day

After an 8-hour day and finally dumped in a small minivan depot outside of town, the driver’s brother then wants to charge us another USD$5 to take us the 2 or 3 kilometres away into town. Although this amount doesn’t sound like a lot of money, this is another rip-off.

All I want to do at this point it to collapse on with a cold drink…

Sick of all the scams and being ripped off today, we set out walking with all our gear to the guest house.

Cambodia seems much hotter than Laos and other countries in SE Asia – maybe it’s the lack of trees?

An hour and many bottles of water later, and with directions from friendly locals, we finally find the guest house along the river.

Cambodia, smiles, stung treng
Gorgeous Cambodian smiles!

Stung Treng

Stung Treng is treated by most travellers as a stop-over to get to Laos or passing through to get to Kratie.

Apart from a couple of Wats, there isn’t really much to do here – drink Angkor Beer and watch the sun set over the Mekong? Not bad really.

Walking all over town feels a little like travelling through the last frontier town.

It’ not uncommon to see a doctor’s surgery open out on to the dusty dirt main road, with patients inside attached to drips in makeshift hospital beds.

I would hate to fall ill here…

The middle of town looks like a shamble. Rubbish is strewn everywhere and road works are “in progress” – for years, apparently.

Accommodation

Le Tonle Tourism Training Centre (Prek Village, Stung Treng Commune) is a not-for-profit training guest house, which provides “vocational training to disadvantaged youth from Cambodia’s north-eastern provinces of Kratie, Stung Treng, Ratanakiri, and Mondulkiri.”

The very clean accommodation is in a beautiful old traditional wooden house opposite the Mekong.

Sit on the deck whilst watching the sun go down, sipping a cool refreshing drink, is a welcomed break from the heat. Enjoy your breakfast on the deck – it’s a treat.

The owner is lovely and the service is very good.

Food

Food in Stung Treng is delicious and plentiful.

Le Tonle Tourism Training Centre

The in-house restaurant in Le Tonle is wonderful, with fantastic service and local food from the students!

One of the best local Amok dishes I’ve ever tried.

Although prices are a little high, it’s an excellent cause and you’ll meet many passionate students training throughout the day.

Noodle shop

Don’t know the name of this noodle shop as this is a word-of-mouth eating place.

Try and find this shop as exceptional local noodle dishes are served at dirt-cheap prices. Alcohol is also sold here at a good price.

Laos: Dong Khong Island rice fields
Dong Khong Island (Laos)

Thoughts

After travelling the short distance from Laos to Stung Treng and just a few days of looking around here, apart from benefiting the corrupt I’m not sure how over 25 years of foreign aid money has helped this country.

I haven’t seen much evidence of where the aid has been spent. Let’s hope the rest of Cambodia is better.

The last time I travelled to Cambodia was in 2004. Much can happen in 10 years and then again, perhaps not.

Leaving Stung Treng

Le Tonle guest house organises the 2.5-hour drive in a very good minibus (USD$6) and apparently, this journey is on good roads to Ban Lung – we’ll see…

Visit my Nilla’s Photography Cambodia gallery for more images. More blogs on Cambodia.

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45 thoughts on “Laos to Cambodia: Don Khong Island to Stung Treng and border scams

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    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Heather, thanks for the feedback. I’ll certinaly take this on board for future posts as busily trying to catch up with my current posts.
      Glad you enjoyed my blog and will be back – I have 9 months’ worth to post yet!

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  4. Hi Nilla,

    This is Alfred. I am planning to take a side trip to 4000 islands from Siem Reap, and head back to Phnom Penh via Stung Treng. I am actually nervous because I have read a lot of scam stories at the border of Laos and Cambodia.

    I would like to ask something:
    – What time did you travel from Don Det to Stung Treng?
    – Is there any ticket outlet in Don Det for the trip from DD to ST? If yes, how much? If no, how did you manage to have a trip from DD to ST?
    – Any further tips you can recommend or suggest for a solo traveler like me. 🙂

    Thank you so much for this article! Any kind of response is highly appreciated.

    Many thanks,
    Alfred

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Alfred
      Thanks for stopping by and leaving me some feedback. Unfortunately, there are border scams on both the Laos/Cambodian sides and there isn’t much you can do about this apart from flying. The trick is to minimise the amount you’re scammed for if it’s possible and be prepared to wait everywhere so allow the whole day for travel. To answer your questions:

      • The small boat left Don Khong to the mainland around 9am. Here we waited almost 2 hours for the next bus to Don Det (a 15-minute ride). At Don Det we waited about 1 hour for the minibus and “passport handling”. We were then driven to the border crossing and had to wait for Immigration until walking across into Cambodia. Waited hours again for the next minibus to take us to Stung Treng and finally arrived around 5pm – it was a long day to only travel 80 kms!
      • I believe there is a ticket outlet at Don Det but I suggest not to purchase your ticket here as this is where the scams begin (unless this has changed since 2014). Try and buy your ticket from your hostel/hotel or even better, if there’s a government tourist office where you’re staying. The ticket from Don Khong to Stung Treng cost about US$17 but this was in low season, high season is more expensive. This price was for the complete trip.
        If you’re crossing borders in SE Asia, a tip is to have your visa in your passport before entering, especially for Cambodia, so this will minimise how much corrupt officials will charge for an on-arrival visa. The border crossing from Thailand into Northern Laos was easy.

      Good luck and hope you have a wonderful time! Although 4,000 islands is a relaxing region, it’s a little too touristy for me; I much preferred the northern part of Laos for its stunning scenery.

      Let me know how your border crossing went as I’d love to hear all about it! I’m back in southern Thailand volunteering until mid-May, so if you’re in this area we can grab a coffee.

      Nilla

      Like

    1. Thank you for your kind feedback! Laos is an inspiring country but see it before it becomes too touristy! I noticed such a huge difference the second time I visited but then again, this was after 25 years. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jackie, I know exactly what you mean about not having time, especially when I’m travelling! I also have my photographic website that I’m very behind with but hope I’ll have this under control soon. Glad you’re enjoying my posts and I’m definitely enjoying your posts also! After Cambodia, I have Vietnam to upload, so stay tuned 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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