Having been through the relatively frictionless land crossing from Nong Khai (Thailand) to Vientiane (Laos), we had high hopes that the second land crossing of our journey would be equally smooth. Unfortunately we had not counted on the resourcefulness of the locals, their ability to tell stories to tourists if it will make a sale and border crossing guards.
There had been a warning story from a fellow travellers who had made the crossing earlier. She had ended up stuck at Steung Trung for three hours waiting for a bus to take her the remainder of the way. We had also read accounts online of travellers getting stung for ‘extra’ fees at border control. Based upon their website we knew that the Cambodia e-visa cost ($30 USD + $7 processing fee)
In this light we had discussed with the bus ticket agent and made sure that we had a good understanding of the plan to get us from Si Phan Don to Siem Reap. It seemed straightforward, and we did not see much room for doubt:
Collection by boat to take us from our bungalow at Si Phan Don to Nakasong on the mainland
Get a VIP bus which would take us from Nakasong to Steung Treng in Cambodia. The same bus would be used for both sides of the border crossing meaning that we would be able to leave our bags on while we started travel.
Catch a minibus for the remainder of the journey to Siem Reap.
Seems simple enough.
We set off this morning feeling hopeful. We had collected some fresh sandwiches from a local restaurant to act as our lunch. The boat arrived on time and picked us up from our hotel. We even had a bit of luck as the hotel restaurant manager had managed to arrange for the boat to pick us up directly from the hotel, saving us a 10 minute walk with our rucksacks.
Alighting in Nakasong, we were walked to the bus operators offices, and were presented with the paperwork to fill in:
- Cambodia arrival and departure cards
- Visa on Arrival Form
One of the company reps also explained that by giving $40 USD to one of their operatives, would cover the visa payment and some of the other fees to be incurred. With our internal alarm bells sounding we realised that by managing the visa process ourselves we would save ourselves some additional money.
We were then walked to the bus station on the outskirts of Nakasong to the bus station. Here we started to realise the start of the chaos.Unfortunately it appeared that there were now more passengers booked than spaces available on buses. It turns out that there is not one VIP bus that performs this run. Instead there are multiple anonymous minibuses which are on hand to take people. There are no reserved seats, and it felt like a free-for-all with backpackers trying to get a space on a bus. With the additional challenge of trying to get four of us onto the same minibus (which can only take 11/12 people), this was not straight forward but through solid team work we managed to secure a place on a minibus and also we were all seated together on the front row.
The border is only 15-20 minutes from Nakasong and so we soon arrived at the Laos border post. The minibus driver immediately started unloading our rucksacks. It was clear that he had no intention of taking us through the border crossing, and he turned around and headed back to Nakasong as soon as he was able.
We were made to queue up at the Laos border control for an ‘exit stamp’ for which they wanted to charge us $2 each. Now in all my years of air travel, I have never needed to pay for this and often I have not even needed the stamp, so alarm bells started ringing again.
There were some french backpackers ahead of us in the queue and they were employing the ‘I have only brought the money for the visa’ tactic, to try and avoid paying this extra fee. The border staff were not in a kindly mood, and simply waved them through without stamping their passports. We had made the choice to pay the fee and get the stamp. It was fortunate that we did as on the 5 minute walk to the Cambodian side of the border post, we met some of the french who had been turned around for not having the exit stamp.
Outside the Cambodian border post, we met a Cambodian gent in a white uniform who had set up a desk with health certification forms to document where we had travelled, and whether we had any current symptoms. We were charged $1 each (adults only), for the privilege of filling these forms in. He asked to see our yellow travel vaccination books, but we had not brought them. As a result, all he was able to do was to give us each a piece of paper which listed some key numbers to ring in case we fell ill. As far as we can tell, this medical check was not mandatory (it was certainly not checked for by the staff further down the chain), so you can probably save yourself this fee.
Inside the border post we came to the Visa desk, who took the Visa on Arrival Forms, and $35 each. They rapidly processed that paperwork and added the visa into our passports. A further desk processed the Cambodia arrival card.
All told we paid $38 each for the border crossing and could probably have saved ourselves the $1 health check fee.
But what of our onward transport? We left the border control building and wandered on into Cambodia through a sentry post and towards a series of shacks that an official had vaguely hand-waved at. Upon arrival there we met some of our fellow minibus veterans sat waiting for a minibus to arrive, and some clear instruction.
As it was now past midday, we took the opportunity to make up our sandwiches and consume them. Of course it goes without saying that our minibus arrived while we were still eating them. We also found that there were more people trying to get onto the minibus than there were seats. There was no one from the bus company coordinating things. There was just the minibus driver with limited / no english trying to get things going as quickly as possible. Fortunately due to good teamwork again, we managed to get to the front of the queue and blag the front seat of the minibus again.
Steung Treng is about 45 mins / 1 hour from the border by minibus, and its bus station is by far one of the most anonymous places that I have ever seen. There is no indication of a timetable, someone in charge or even a menu at their restaurant. Minibuses start up, and you have to listen out for the drivers calling the name of their destination.
14:10: We had a roughly 40 minute wait there before we spotted a minibus surreptitiously moving from its parking spot into open ground. Hedging our bets we adopted our now well-practised formation: Hannah with bus ticket in hand at the front of the queue ready to reserve a spot on the minibus, and, more importantly, a small day sack with which to mark our territory at the front row of the bus.
17:00 a 10 minute pit stop at some small market town at the junction of two roads. No ATM.
19:00 finally arrive at Seam Reap. The Bus Station is about 5km from the centre of town, and of course you will immediately be surrounded by Tuk-tuk drivers looking to score your fare. We managed to beat our driver down from $2 each to $5 total, without either of us feeling cheated. At least the drivers here are willing to negotiate for the fare.