The border crossing from Laos to Cambodia: Don Khong Island to Stung Treng, is stressful, especially with the scams.
Prepare to be ripped off in both countries when crossing this border in October 2014, 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.
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 on 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 asked (several times) if the bus is a straight-through journey. We want to miss the border scams.
The owner (who 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 possibly go wrong?
Well for a start today, today’s 80 kilometres took around 8 hours!
First border scam goes something like this…
After the boat across the river from Don Khong Island, we seemed to be stranded – felt like it – on the other side.
After 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 paperwork 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 at 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 agents.
In total, the visa saga costs USD$40 although a visa is 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 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 doesn’t sit well.
Travellers who initially refuse the ‘Agent’ have a much harder time with the border police. In the end, these travellers only paid a few dollars less, but it takes these guys longer to go through the crossing.
Final border scam
Don’t change money at this crossing as you will be ripped off.
The Agent pushes you to change money at this point as he also receives a kickback from the money changer. Instead, ask the many travellers passing through as someone is bound to have left-over Lao or Cambodian currency.
I changed money like this and received the correct exchange rate for the day. We’re all in the same boat, so typically, fellow travellers don’t rip each other off.
After the long wait at the border crossing, the minivan finally arrived 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 the other traveller. I stand my ground and he has to wait.
The only way to avoid the scam at this crossing is to get the direct bus, which also handles all the border crossings.
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 without hassles, apparently.
The other way to avoid this scam is to fly into Cambodia.
Minibus to Stung Treng
The dirt road from the border to this small town in northeastern Cambodia can only be described as appalling and the worst I’ve seen in many years!
The massive craters along the way see our minivan buried almost half-way deep once driving into these ditches.
At one spot it feels as though 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
Finally, after an 8-hour travel day, passengers are 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 into town. Although this amount doesn’t sound like a lot of money, it’s another rip-off.
All I want to do at this point is to collapse on a comfy chair 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 a couple of kilometres away.
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, with directions from friendly locals, we finally find the guest house along the river.
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 much to do in Stung Treng. Drink Angkor Beer and watch the sunset over the Mekong? Not bad really.
Walking all over town feels a little like travelling through a last frontier town.
It’s not uncommon to see a doctor’s surgery open out onto 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.
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 traditional old wooden house, opposite the Mekong.
Sitting 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 excellent.
Food in Stung Treng is delicious, cheap, and plentiful.
Le Tonle Tourism Training Centre
The in-house restaurant in Le Tonle is wonderful, with fantastic service and local food delivered to 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.
Don’t know the actual name, but everyone calls this the noodle shop and this is a word-of-mouth eating hub.
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.
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 Cambodia.
I haven’t seen much evidence of where the aid has been spent. Let’s hope the rest of the country is better.
The last time I travelled to Cambodia was in 2004. Much can happen in 10 years but 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…