The route we decided on had us heading north to Laos from Phenom Penh. We had received some sound advice to stop in Kratie to break up the long bus ride to the border, so that is what we did. We didn’t arrive in Kratie until after dark, so we essentially used it as a hub city and didn’t do much exploring. From what we did see, it seemed like a pretty sleepy town that didn’t have too much going on. You could take a river tour on the Mekong and look for Irrawaddy dolphins, but you can also do that in Laos, which is where we were headed.
After reading about the border crossing and talking to a couple of tourist offices and hotels, we decided to book the combined, mini van, bus, bus, and boat ticket to 4000 islands in Laos. The border between Cambodia and Laos is apparently very sleepy and not many buses or taxis are waiting on either side. So, if you don’t do a combined bus ticket, then you might not have a ride. This is one of those moments where Dave and I know we don’t want to do the tourist bus border crossing-any organized border crossing can be riddled with scams-but don’t really have any other options, so we go for it.
Well, the mini van, which took two hours, was late to arrive at the bus drop off. This was because they were waiting to fill the van, and by fill, they mean add an extra person to every row. This means 4 people sit where 3 people should actually be sitting…aka luxury travel. This delay made the bus driver annoyed with all of us because he had to wait. Thankfully this ride to the border was short and there was plenty of space for everyone.
On the way to the border the bus worker was asking everyone if he could have their passports and the money needed to get a visa for Laos. He explained that if he got all of the visas and stamps, versus each of us individually, it would go much faster. Right away buzzers went off in our heads that this was definitely a scam. At about the same time, another traveler from China also had the same feelings. The bus worker was telling us that it would cost a US citizen $45 for a visa. We are usually pretty good about knowing what it would cost, but our book only had a range of what it could be based on your nationality. We also knew there would be some miscellaneous fees they would charge for stamping just to get more money out of us. So all in all, we didn’t really know if it was $45 or less.
We, of course, asked many questions to see if this was a scam and if the guy doing it got any money out of it. He repeatedly told us it wasn’t a scam and this is how much it will cost and assured us that we could ask anyone at the border and if it was different he would give us back the money. We asked many times if we could just do it by ourselves. He implied that if we did it ourselves that it would take too long and the bus wouldn’t wait for us on the other side. When we enter a new country we have no idea what they would or wouldn’t do in regards to leaving behind tourists. So Dave, Jen, our Chinese friend, and I all agreed to give him money and if the price was different we’d get any extra money back.
Once we reached the border, the bus worker headed off with all of our passports and visas. Both Dave and our new Chinese friend wanted to follow him and ask the workers how much it was, but the bus worker was adamant that if they did that, it would cost more and go slower. They were only allowed to ask the fellow tourists on the bus, which were obviously getting charged the same as us. Dave and our Chinese friend were just as adamant about finding out the true cost and not getting scammed out of money. They had followed him and asked him at every check point how much everything was and eventually broke him down to the point where he said “alright, I get $1 from the cut” but when they did the math he was actually get $5 from every person. That is a lot of money for someone living in Laos and for people traveling on a budget. They had pestered and harassed him enough so he finally gave them their money back, but Dave was concerned he was going to tell the bus driver to leave with out us. Turns out, he wasn’t even coming with us on the bus to 4000 islands and his threat of the bus leaving was completely made up. Thanks to the insistent Dave and our Chinese friend, the four of us didn’t lose $4 and we made it to Don Khone no problem.
One of the main reason for coming to Don Khone was for the Irrawaddy river dolphins. The book recommended we see them either early in the morning or late afternoon. We had decided to check them out early in the morning. The boat launch was a good 4 km (2.5 miles) away from our hotel. This was too far to walk, so we decided to rent bicycles the night before and ride them early the next morning.
We went for an evening stroll to test out the bikes and remind our bodies of our cycling skills. Our little stroll provided both beautiful scenery of the Island and an awesome sunset.
The next morning we headed out early so we could see the dolphins when they are most active. About 3/4 of the way there we hear a loud bang noise. Both Dave and I turned around and see Jen slowing down with a popped tired. We knew we were closer to our destination than where we came from, so we tried different tactics to get the three of us to the boat landing. Jen took Dave’s bike and Dave and I tried to ride on the bike together and hold the one with the flat tire at the same time. We’ve seen many, many people ride two people to a bicycle and hold crazy things, so it would be easy. Yeah right! We had a really hard time trying to balance just the two of us on the bike and then we had a bicycle that didn’t roll very easily on the side. We tried for about 5 minutes and gave up. Dave just started running with the bike next to him. Thankfully we were only a 2 min. jog away. We found a boat captain and headed on the river and would deal with the tire after.
Amazingly enough, we got to see some dolphins. There was one or two that were active that morning. It was very hard to catch them on camera, but we got one good shot and one ok shot. They are very quick and camera shy.
After the dolphin viewing we found a person that was willing to look at and repair Jen’s flat tire while we ate breakfast. He got a new inner tube put in pretty quickly and then started to pump up the tire.. In the process of pumping up the tire, we hear another loud bang and a very surprised bike repairman. After further inspection, he found a huge slice in the tire, which had caused the two popped tires. After some quick engineering skills with the old inner tube he gave us back a bike that could hold air. We checked on the fix the whole way back to our hotel. At one point the fix had come off but the tire stayed inflated. So we had to do a quick repair to the temporary fix of the tire. Thankfully the bike made it to both the waterfall we wanted to see that was on the way back and to the hotel without a third flat tire. Phew.
Jen tried to negotiate with the bicycle owner since she paid the repairman herself. Of course he didn’t want to pay because he said it was her fault the tire had a slice in it. There was a very heated argument for well over 15 minutes that included the gentleman, his wife (who didn’t speak English), and Jen. They reluctantly agreed to splitting the repair cost with both parties feeling screwed. Over all it was a fun day filled with adventure. It would be less memorable if things had gone smoothly.
One last fun thing to mention was Jen convinced the sweet older lady we rented rooms from to give us a cooking class. The lady didn’t speak much english, but thankfully she spoke French and there were some French people who translated for us.
And lastly, they had A LOT of bugs come out at night. We walked through clouds of bugs at times. Strange.