It is the kind of place you roll into and hope that this is where some locals are getting off.
Cambodia, what a trip. After leaving Thailand I was eagerly looking through Laos to the day when we would arrive in Cambodia. I wasn’t discounting Laos, but with a turbulent modern history and wealth of intrigue into the Wild Wild East of Asia, how could I not be chomping at Kampuchea’s proverbial bit?
Getting to Cambodia from Laos, is described as uncomfortable at best. From Vientiane our party decided that a midway pit stop would be needed to break up the 26+ hour bus ride to Siem Reap. Described as the transportation hub of southern Laos, Pakse was chosen as the destination of choice. What a shit hole.
We boarded an overnight bus, much to Greg and I’s distaste (refer to the Koh Phangan entry) but were persuaded by our friends in the end. Part of me was eager to prove to them, in fact, how awful overnight bus travel really is (despite their glowing affection for it). The overnight sleeper bus was lined by double-wide bunk beds welded into its interior, with a slim ‘hallway’ ending at a massive bunk bed that stretched the entire width of the bus (6 ‘beds’ wide?) This is to say that if you are traveling solo, you may be sharing a very slim ‘double’ bed with a local, possibly of the opposite gender. Or, it could mean that you end up with twice the bed for your Kip. Let’s just say that I was thankful to be smashed in with Greg because the proximity and the jarring of the bus rattled passengers together for the twelve hour duration. While the bus did indeed have a toilet, one would likely exit with water and floor dregs splashed about her feet and legs. Cue the hand sanitizer, which conveniently doubles as leg sanitizer too. Another thing, the night bus had black glass windows rather than curtains. All of this is nicely compounded by terrible road conditions and the fact that many Laos drivers don’t like to drive with their headlights on, operating under the impression that this conserves gasoline. Stressful, yah. I tried to keep my thoughts from straying to the fiery bus crash in the Sinai a couple years back that toasted up some tourists. After such taxing bus travel the reward of arrival typically serves as redemption. Unfortunately Pakse is the least enjoyable place in Laos.
Pakse, where to start. Well, the bus station is accurately described as a dirt parking lot with rudimentary food stalls. It is the kind of place you roll into and hope that this is where some locals are getting off. Utterly charmless, I was thankful that we would only be sentenced to one night’s stay. At a complete loss to locate the main street (largely because it just could not aesthetically be the centre of town) but indeed standing on it, we settled on the least shitty of three guesthouses we found. “Hey, what does the room look like?”
“It has a restaurant on the first floor and so it kind of smells like food.”
“Good food? Or bad food, because I can not stand the smell of tofu cooking.”
“I dunno, just food.” It only smelled like rice and it was on the third floor so it should have sufficed. Should have, but didn’t. Actually the room was above average, all things considered. Spacious room, large bathroom and wardrobe, medium size fridge, coat rack (Greg pointed this out as a bonus) and of course, TV, A/C and fan. All was fine and dandy until the electricity began tripping and the TV began to smoke. Putrid burning plastic filled the air, a smell that suggested that its inhalation was not good for one’s health. The staff down stairs weren’t particularly moved by the concerns of their (only) patrons. And by that, I mean that the Pregnant ‘lady’ at the front desk acknowledged it and did nothing at all about it. I’ve accidentally omitted that at this point in the trip, I was the only one in good health. The other three had spent the greater part of the day in bed, and when G is sick in bed you had better be sure he has some cable. Nightfall was impending and without power this was going to become a bloody awful night. With Angela spearheading the campaign we all packed up and made a dramatic exit (to the brother hotel of the guesthouse no less).
Slightly redeeming Pakse incidences included: chatting with the guys at the travel agency which was complemented by them pouring me a beer, feeding a stray dog an entire can of herring, and watching Alms Giving. Also redeeming (depends whether or not you perceive this as lewd and disgusting or crudely comical), Angela witnessed a guy masturbating while sitting between a building and a van just off main street. Oh Pakse!
The next morning we boarded our bus to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Greg was in immense discomfort and rallied to prove himself as a true Road Warrior. We had decided to skip 4,000 Islands simply because we weren’t compelled to chill out; Laos was putting us to sleep. Border crossing was a bit of a schmozle. Of course we ended up just paying some middleman to do the paperwork for us while we drove into Cambodia ahead of our passports. We plugged through northern Cambodia which isn’t characterized by a whole lot more than ‘extremely rural.’ We changed buses at an obscure ‘store’ and found ourselves at the rear of the Crappiest Bus in Cambodia. Crappy bathroom that smelled like boat petrol. Crappy window that didn’t open. Crappy driver who nearly caused twelve head on collisions. Crappy fear bus. We had departed at 8:00am and arrived in Siem Reap at 11:30pm. Of course the bus station is not centrally located and you are at the mercy of lurking tuk-tuk drivers. We hadn’t booked accommodation ahead of time but had little trouble booking into a hostel and crashing for the night.
Tips for traveling to Cambodia via southern Laos:
- Do break up the trip. I can not imagine what condition we would have arrived in if we had tried to do it in one go. You are going to spend the next day in recovery anyway.
- Don’t worry about visa-on-arrivals if you don’t already have a visa. This land border issued them no problem. They are also in the process of constructing a large immigration office which should reinforce this Laos-Cambodia border for hassle free overland travel.
- Do tell the Visa middleman on the bus that you will process your own Visa at immigration (if you want to). He will probably tell you that you can not but we picked up fifteen or so travelers at the 4,000 Islands stop who did their own paperwork and saved money doing so.
- Do be aware that overnight sleeper buses may leave you vulnerable if you are traveling solo. You may be uncomfortable if you are paired up with a local, and I have read that theft and sexual harassment has occurred.
- Do pack food for the Pakse-Siem Reap (or PP) route because the border crossing has a complete lack of options. No sandwiches, no shakes, no appetizing hot meals. Chips, soda, beer, instant noodle cups and fruit. Nothing too substantial.
- Don’t try to bring too much Kip with you. Bring at least some American dollars to float you through to your destination.
- Do bring a passport picture
- Do bring toilet paper, wet wipes and/or hand sanitizer on an overnight sleeper bus.
- Don’t expect too much from Laos bus travel.
- Do bring a good attitude, or Valium, or whatever you can to help you cope.