Crossing the Border – Don Det, Laos to Kratie, Cambodia

We only had one more day left on our Laos visas, so it was time to move on…to Cambodia!

We booked a package ticket from Don Det to Kratie, which included the boat ride from Don Det to Ban Nakasang, the bus to the Cambodian border, and then another bus to Kratie, a tiny town in Northeastern Cambodia.

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The route

We woke up and walked to the beach where the boat was to pick us up at approximately 8am.  It showed up around 8:30 and took us across the river to the bus station.

Once at the bus station, this schmancy looking guy, naming himself our ‘guide,’ gave us the required border crossing documents to fill out.  He then asked us to give him our passports, the documents, and $40 to get all of our visas for us.  Cambodia visas only cost $35, but then there’s the stamping fee scam of $1 by both sides, and the bribe to get through without a passport photo (which neither of us had.)  Even if we had refused the guy and tried to go through on our own, it probably would have worked out to be about the same price or only a dollar or two less, so we decided the convenience was worth it.

The process of everyone filling out the documents and giving them to the guy took forever, and then we sat around waiting for a long time.  No one ever seems to tell you what you’re waiting for, but you have no choice, so you just wait.

Finally, we were instructed to board the bus that would take us to the border crossing.  Despite being very close to the border already, the condition of the road wasn’t great so it still took about an hour to get there.

Once we got to the border, we got off the bus and sat around waiting for our ‘guide’ to get out visas for us, which took at least another hour.  Eventually we were instructed to walk across the border (you can’t be driven) where we were stopped for this ridiculous “health check” scam.  Basically it was this plastic gun looking thing that they pointed about 3 inches from our necks, pressed a button, then it made a little beeping sound.  What this was allegedly ‘checking’ for, we had no idea, but it cost an additional $1 (included in the $40 we gave the ‘guide.’)

Once on the other side of the border, we waited to receive our visas and then had to wait for the handful of pioneers that decided to cross on their own, instead of paying the guide. When they finally made it over, they revealed that they had saved $3 by doing it on their own.

Finally, after more mysterious waiting, it was time for us to get on the last bus to our final destination.

As expected, the roads were horrendous and it took about 5 more hours to get to Kratie, making our journey a total of approximately 9 hours from Don Det.

We got off at the bus station, happy that we decided to stop in Kratie instead of going straight away to Pnom Penh, which is another 6 to 8 hours away-and where most everyone else on the bus was going.

We had no idea where to go once we got to Kratie, so we just started asking tuk tuk drivers to take us to a guesthouse.  Luckily, we found one who offered us a free ride to River Dolphin Hotel and promised us a $5 room.

We hopped on the tuk tuk and drove about 5 minutes out of town to the hotel, where we were greeted with glasses of orange juice and moist, minted towels (Jojo is convinced they were merely soaked in mouthwash, but whatever, it felt fancy.)  We were lead to our $5 room as promised, and were pleased to find that it was way nicer than any of the $10 rooms we had stayed in Laos!

We had dinner at the hotel restaurant before retiring back to our room, happy to have finally made it to Cambodia and ready to start our journey through the country!

Snacks: 30,000kip

Bus Package: 380,000kip

Lunch: $5 USD

2-Cambodia Visas: $84 USD

Dinner: $10.25 USD

Accommodation: $5 USD

Total Spent: $154.71 USD

Don Det – The 4,000 Islands

In the southern-most part of Laos, right on the border of Cambodia, in the middle of the Mekong, lies Don Det–one of the major islands of Si Phan Don, also known as the 4,000 Islands.

We arrived in Don Det after a pain staking journey from the North, ready to do what everyone comes to Don Det to do–nothing!

Well, not entirely nothing, but mostly.

We arrived by boat in the early afternoon where we promptly found a bungalow, equipped with a private bathroom and two hammocks in front.  We dropped off our bags and set off to walk the 7-8km path following the perimeter of the island to see what was going on.

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The main road of Don Det
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Jojo next to the river
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Some local livestock

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We explored the island for a couple of hours, passing by playing children, feral dogs, and local houses built on stilts.  We even passed a raging party of Laotians, in the middle of a dry rice field.  They were dancing to strange pop music and downing shots of lao lao, the local rice whisky.  At first we were anxious about interrupting their party, but then they started beckoning us to join them!  We declined because it was like 1pm, but it was really hilarious to see!

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Lao children carrying puppies down the road

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Once we got to the other side of the island, we stopped at a place called One Last Bar, where we ordered two amazing homemade ginger ales and enjoyed the riverside view.

Don Det is similar to Vang Vieng in that there are drug-filled edibles available everywhere (happy shakes, happy bags), lots of people with dreadlocks, and…not a ton of Lao culture.  That being said, it is wayyyyyyy less rowdy and much more laid back.  One could argue that Don Det is also a ‘party town’ but people are not nearly as loud or obnoxious about it.

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Not as subtle as in Vang Vieng

That evening, we had dinner at Jasmin Restaurant, (one of the best Indian restaurants ever) before retiring to our modest bungalow.  The mosquito net was essential too, because it was sweltering hot until about 3am (so we had to open the windows, to even be able to sleep.)

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The next morning we decided to move to a different bungalow.  There was nothing wrong with the one we had been in the first night, but we decided it would be worth the extra $2.50 to get one right on the river.

We found one on the other side of the island that better suited our needs, and decided the day would be best spent in the hammocks out front.  I do not exaggerate when I say that is all we did the entire day, with the exception of brief ventures out for food at mealtimes.  After our lengthy journey down the entirety of the country, it was well deserved and well appreciated!

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…and then we did the same exact thing the next day.  Don’t judge, you would have too.

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After two glorious days of doing nothing, we decided it was time to go out and explore again.  This time, we rented bicycles and rode across the bridge to the neighboring island of Don Khon.  

We rode along the bumpy dirt road of Don Det to the bridge that connects the two islands.  It was scenic, but also painful.

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The bumpy dirt road
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Crossing the bridge to Don Khon

Once we crossed the bridge, we headed straight for Tat Somphamit, also known as the Li Phi waterfalls.  Apparently ‘Li Phi’ means spirit trap and it is believed that the spirits of dead people and animals are trapped there.  Despite its morbid mythology, the raging waterfall was spectacular!

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The top of the Li Phi waterfalls

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We walked all the way down to the bottom of the falls to Li Phi Beach.  Although the water was much slower at the bottom, there were still signs warning people not to try to swim because of the currents.  It was still nice to walk along the beach, though.

We went back to our bikes and decided to continue on to Tha Sanam Beach a little further along, which was also really pleasant, though the sand was a thousand degrees and really painful to walk on.  We stopped for a coconut at one of the stands near the entrance before heading back.

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We rode back to Don Det in the blazing afternoon heat, just in time to catch sunset at a local restaurant.  The hazy clouds made it look like an orange ball just floating above the trees.

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We had done just about all there was to ‘do’ in the 4,000 Islands, but we wanted just one more day of lounging around in the hammocks.  After all, we still had a couple more days left on our Lao visas and we had no other destinations planned before heading to Cambodia.

So, we did!  And it was just as satisfying as the other days.  We also treated ourselves to a wood-fired pizza at a restaurant down the road which was excellent.

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…then Jojo got sick. 😦

We were worried it was food poisoning, but it ended up passing pretty quickly (and luckily, because had a long bus ride booked for the next morning.)

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We loved Don Det and wanted to stay forever.  We were really glad that our change of plans ended up taking us there, when we had not originally planned to go.

We were also sad to say goodbye to Laos, but excited to venture into Cambodia.  Laos was good to us, and we will surely visit again some day.

Our Grand Expedition from the North to South of Laos

To start this post, let us first explain how we ended up on the nonsensical route that we did.

Our original “plan” while traveling Southeast Asia was to start out in Vietnam, then go to Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia.  We started out in Vientiane Laos then headed north, with the intention of taking the two-day slow boat from Luang Prabang over to Thailand.  We would travel south through Thailand and then on to Cambodia before going back to Thailand where we have a potential gig lined up.

When doing some research on visas and the logistics of all this, we considered that perhaps it would be wiser to go to Cambodia before going to Thailand so that we wouldn’t have to worry about multiple Thai visas (since we would be leaving and then coming back.)  The unfortunate part of this plan was that we hadn’t considered it until we were already in Northern Laos.  This new plan would require backtracking down to Vientiane, and then traveling even further down to Pakse and the 4,000 Islands before crossing into Cambodia.

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15.5 hours. Right.

Here is what actually happened:

We started out with an uneventful, four hour bus ride from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang.  Once we arrived at the Luang Prabang bus stop, we intended to book a sleeper bus for that night down to Vientiane–only it was full, so we couldn’t.

At that point our choices were to stay the night in Luang Prabang and take a bus in the morning that would take all day and put us in Vientiane the following night, or to take a sleeper bus the following night.  12 hours sitting on a bus all day sounded horrid so we opted to hang out in Luang Prabang and take the sleeper bus the following night.

While we enjoyed relaxing in Luang Prabang one last time, we probably should have just taken the day bus, because then we could have gotten an actual night’s rest at a guesthouse in Vientiane.  Instead, we spent 12 agonizing hours in a Laos sleeper bus (why didn’t we learn the first time?) crunched up on the ground while the bus violently bounced and swayed all the way to Vientiane.

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We arrived in Vientiane at about 7am with another set of choices.  Do we take another 12 hour day bus straight away and head down to Pakse or wait and do another night bus?  With the horrors of the sleeper bus we had just exited fresh in our minds, we couldn’t bear the idea of doing it again two nights in a row.  Instead, we hopped on a bus two hours later, and headed down to Pakse.

We were assured that the bus to Pakse would be 12 hours, putting us in the city around 10pm which should have been a decent enough time to find a room for the night.  Only, the bus stopped half a hundred times on the way to Pakse for god knows what reasons, extending the journey to about 15 hours.

Do you know how many guesthouses are open at 1am in Pakse?  None.  There are none.

There was only one other backpacker on the bus with us who was also stuck in this situation and the three of us set out to find some kind of accommodation for the night.  Exhausted from no sleep and almost 30 hours on buses, we wandered the deserted streets of Pakse knocking on guesthouse windows, in hopes of waking up the employees and inquiring about rooms.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the people we were able to startle awake all told us that they were full.

An hour later, we found ourselves sitting on a bench by the road, all but given up.  “There is one more on my map, I’m going to go check it,” said our new Spanish friend.  Sure that his efforts would fail, as they had for the last hour, we sat on the bench consumed with exhaustion, frustration, and helplessness.  

Just as we were adjusting ourselves in preparation to sleep on this bench, the Spanish guy reappeared, waving.

“Come on, guys!”

We sprang up and he waved for us to follow him to this one last guesthouse he had found!  It was a little pricier than we would have liked, but being 2am and after what we had been through, we were grateful for anything.

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We woke up the next morning and decided we simply did not have the energy to get to Don Det that day.

Instead, we spent the day exploring Pakse, which is perhaps the most boring city on the planet earth.  Despite being the third largest Laotian city in population, there was hardly anyone around.  Anywhere.  The whole day.

There also isn’t really much to see or do in Pakse and it was Valentine’s Day, so we decided to celebrate by eating lots of delicious food that we normally wouldn’t splurge on.  For lunch it was Dok Mai Lao Caffe, an Italian restaurant run by two older Italian men which was excellent.  For dinner, it was Le Panorama on top of the Pakse Hotel where we could look out over the entire city and watch the sun set.

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The next morning, it was finally time for us venture on to the last leg of the journey to the 4,000 Islands.

A mini-bus picked us up from our hotel at 8am and took us to the bus that would take us about 3 hours south of Pakse to Ban Nakasang, where we boarded a ferry that took us to the island of Don Det, our home base during our stay in the 4,000 Islands.

Perhaps it wasn’t the most logical route, but we finally made it to Don Det, and the hammocks awaiting us on the porch made our arrival that much sweeter!

Journey Breakdown:

Wednesday 2/11: Bus from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang (4-5 hrs)

Thursday 2/12: Sleeper Bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane (12 hrs)

Friday 2/13: Day bus from Vientiane to Pakse (15 hrs)

Saturday 2/14: Valentine’s Day in Pakse

Sunday 2/15: Bus/Ferry from Pakse to Don Det (3-4 hours)

Success!