The border crossing from Cambodia to Laos seemed a very simple task, but how naive we were. We spent one night in Kratie to recover from the crazy karaoke bus ride from Phnom Penh (all buses in Cambodia come equipped with nonstop ear exploding Asian Karaoke music) and arrange onward travel. We were told by the hotel manager it was better to pay an extra dollar to get one less boat journey for the crossing. Stupidly we took his advice.
The following morning a quality minibus with a/c arrived at the hotel to transfer us onto another bus which would bring us to the town of Strung Treng. That was the last time we would see decent transport for a long time.
I looked at our new vehicle it had a tower of goods strapped with rope on the roof rack that was equal in height to the actual minibus. I squeezed past the locals, sat in the back seat beside the window that didn’t open and waited. There was no air conditioning. More goods and people kept arriving. The cramped sweltering bus stopped whenever it had the opportunity to collect even more people and goods. The 15-seater now had expanded somehow to hold 19 sweaty individuals and a ton of goods on the roof.
With great relief, we disembarked at a guesthouse a couple of hours later in Strung Treng. I should have known better but thought foolishly that the worst of the journey was over. The man greeted us with menus and said we were to wait 1 hour.
The 4 of us were rounded up and escorted to the car ferry terminal. Once onboard we waited yet again. The ferry made of black steel acting as a radiator in the midday sun. So much so that the soles of my black rubber sandals began to melt. So we hid in a sliver of shade beside a pickup truck. After 45 mins waiting it took 5 mins to cross.
Apparently, there was a car to bring us to the border but that was thoughtfully parked at the top of a rather steep hill. So we picked up our now sizzling black packs and sweated and gasped to the top. Alex opened the car door and this local lady who was a complete stranger dived in past and made herself comfortable in the passengers’ seat. Our jovial escort had vanished at this stage. The four of us were a little concerned as to how 4 rather large westerners were to fit into the backseat of the car. I am sure this was not included in the price of the ticket.
The driver laughed and pointed at us to get in. It was either that or swim to the border so we squished ourselves in and got closer to Ben & Becky than I had originally anticipated. Then before we took off another local lady got in the front seat to our amazement. There was now a total of 7 in the car with no air-conditioning. Imagine a fully clothed smelly sauna and you get the picture.
So again innocently I believed the 2 women would get out in a few minutes and everything would be ok. My optimism failed me. We turned down this rough potholed road with sharp dips and hills that you would expect fit only for a 4 wheel drive jeep but our driver had no problem in speeding along in his Toyota Camry with 7 people in the car. Body parts gyrated whilst my legs were pinned underneath Becky who at this stage was lying across all 3 of us in the back with her feet stuck out the window. I looked out and we were in the middle of nowhere. Had I really paid extra for this privilege?
The car rolled back and the placid driver looked under the bonnet, unscrewed the cap of the radiator, and water violently exploded past us. Could this really be the road to Laos? Eventually, the engine cooled and it made it across the steep hill. Several bumps and bruises later we arrived at the border the joy I felt was indescribable knowing I would never have to face that Toyota Camry again.
At the unofficial border, the driver had to call the ‘officials’ over from there slumber and go to the shack which was immigration. There was nobody around. They collected their $1 tip and stamped our passports and smiled. Then we crossed into no man’s land which consisted of a bar, a game of boules and a shack. You could immediately feel the pace of life go into reverse the closer you got to the Laos side. The tiny shack for Laos immigration was also unmanned due this time to the game. Two men came over one in a police T-Shirt the other just in casual clothes to stamp our passports and also ask for a small tip. Later I found that my passport was stamped with a date of 29th March and Alex was stamped with a date of April 28th – it was March 30th? Welcome to Laos.