Ca1 - Arriving in Cambodia
Our car papers finally arrived in Vientiane and we now needed to leave Laos and attempt to cross the border into Cambodia. There were things we had planned to do and see in Southern Laos en route to Cambodia, but we had been severely grounded waiting for car repairs to be completed and now it was time to leave so we could meet our visa deadlines for Cambodia and Thailand.
Plus the car was no better and we dared not take it off road to explore the more remote routes in Laos that had been highly recommended. (The Thaket Loop) https://wikitravel.org/en/Thakhek
We decided to stick to the main road, and to break the 700kms to the border into two days of driving. We stopped halfway in Thaket, slept in Landy in a backpackers hostel and then made it to the border the following afternoon. Unbelievably, the gears started working in an approximation to normal and so we could begin to enjoy the journeying. (We feel this is probably temporary as it has happened many times before).
On day two we set off at sunrise, to ensure we reached the border with Cambodia in good time and we saw the deep red sun rising in front of us through the massive trees lining the village roads.
We noticed a different feel to Laos as we drove South. Gradually the jungle landscape gave way to more cultivated vistas. Jim remarked that as the trees thinned out, the landscape looked almost like an African Savannah. The air seemed drier. There were more coconuts and fewer bananas, although the Mekong River and its tributaries, never far away were still full and life giving. The highly raised stilted wooden houses were designed to cope with water running beneath in the rainy season.
Roadside vendors near the rivers were occassionally selling fish, hanging from bamboo stalls and others were selling other foodstuffs including melons and coconuts.
The small towns and villages seemed better cared for and the well spaced stilted wooden slatted houses appeared less ramshackle, and had both charm and beauty and supported an ancient way of life where people spend a lot of time living outside.
Each cluster of buildings supports a small possy of scruffy short legged dogs scavenging for scraps
The verges were grazed neatly by legions of small skinny brown cows wandering over the roads. When not dodging cows you were dodging dogs and occasionally water buffalo.
The roads on day one were poor and time was spent avoiding the potholes. There were many small motor bikes scuttling between the small villages. Lao women often perched behind their men (and children) sitting sideways on to preserve their dignity, the majority wearing the Lao wrap around skirt, edged in gold threaded patterns below navy or plum coloured cottons and silks. School kids, boys and girls, swarming out into the traffic on bikes and scooters with barely a backward glance to appraise the on coming traffic.
The roads supported many rural vehicles which were a cross between a motorbike and a tractor. These vehicles had a motorbike or perhaps a lawnmower, engine but were clearly a form of agricultural transport with massive long axels and great long handlebars and supporting small carts on the rear and in turn moving people, crops and animals around. These vehicles were common in Laos and later in Cambodia. Many poor farming people probably using them as their only form of transport to pop into the nearest town if they did not have a motorbike, which here often were loaded up with whole families and shopping.
Each building on our route had a large round black metal cauldron outside. Then we saw a shop selling these. At first I thought they were some kind of cooking pot or oven. Then I saw a few of them smoking and others full of rubbish. I have concluded that they are for incinerating rubbish!
Travelling salesmen pottered from village to village selling cheap plastic brightly coloured toys, balls and the like and probably popular food items only available from town.
Some of these bikes had loads of baskets suspended from all sides and looked very unstable. Other vendors sold drinks and food stuffs from bikes or motorbikes with some kind of portable food or drinks dispenser on the front or side, like a side car.
On arrival at the border between Laos and Cambodia, we knew that we were missing the final customs stamp, although we had the invitation letter from the Ministry of tourism. We had been trying since February to obtain the relevant permissions directly. We thought we would attempt the crossing with the car and the papers to hand. If that failed we knew that one of us would need to leg it over the border and travel to Phnom Penh by bus to get the documents stamped and return to fetch the car. Bear in mind that we had been writing to the Ministry to obtain the letter since February and it was only issued to us, via friends in PP, in November. Then because another Bank Holiday was in prospect, the Customs were not prepared to endorse and certify the documents on the preceding day. (It takes about 5 minutes to apply a few stamps and signatures).
Much to our surprise, following Cambodian Customs review of our car documents at the border, we were invited to cross into Cambodia with our car. Jim scampered back into Laos and got our Carnet stamped out and our passports exited (without me) and then crossed into Cambodia where I was waiting. In the meantime the customs officer had asked me to get on the back of his motorbike to travel to an adjacent building on the perimeter of the border. I guess this was to speak to his boss who remained in the shady ambit of a large fan under an awning in front of a traditional bungalow. When Jim entered with the car, he failed to locate me and so I was swiftly transported on the back of a second bike, back to passport control where the formalities were perfunctory.
We finished off the passport and visa formalities quite quickly and sped off elated that we had escaped several days of separation and a long hot slog for one of us to PP. This experience was not matched by other travellers whose experience of crossing was long drawn out and stressful. I am still wondering if it will haunt us later.
That afternoon we trundled off to Stung Treng to get local currency and the ever important SIM cards. Following success we sank into the nearest cafe, Indian, had a Madras Curry and rice and a very strong Tequila Sunrise.
We bedded down in a very indifferent motel and drifted back to the Indian cafe for breakfast. Jim had a full English and I had Meusli, Yoghourt and mixed fruit. I mention this only to demonstrate how eclectic the food offerings are when travelling far and wide. The bustling market in Stung Treng sold almost everything including fresh fish and meat unrefridgerated.
Unencumbered by further formalities, so we thought, we set off that morning, intrepidly for a remote World Heritage site, Preah Vihear Temple, close to the Cambodian border with Thailand, with Sonia driving and Jim fretting about the illusive route.
When we filled up with fuel we were tickled by the ubiquitous chicken alongside the Buddhist shrine.
We were so happy, drifting along a surprisingly good road, with scarcely any motorised transport aside from rural vehicles and salesmen, when Jim’s phone pinged ominously.
It was a message from Les Cheris, now in Thailand. They had had an unhappy message from Mr Cho of the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism, as they had procured our car papers for us. He was deeply dissapointed to hear that we had evaded the proper formalities at the border and had entered short of a few official stamps.
To be fair, at the border we had been advised to collect the remaining stamps on exit. This did not impress Mr Cho who was in deep trouble.
So we decided to do the decent thing, abort our temple plans and make haste to Phnom Penh before the Customs office closing time.
Those of you familiar with Jim and Sonia will know that when driving against the clock, it gets a bit competitive. We certainly scared a few roving dogs and scampering chickens on the route!
We arrived in Phnom Penh in the nick of time and located the fabulous Mall building accommodating the Customs Office. The Customs office is located on the 5th floor of the swankiest sky-scraper in town.
Whilst Jim stood guard over Landy in an illegal parking spot, Sonia entered fearlessly and wandered past the shops selling Cartier watches and Hugo Boss clothes and whizzed up to the 5th floor in her road weary attire, where there were many men in uniform busy stamping official pages of unintelligible script.
I had to find three different offices on this busy floor and was dealt with speedily and courtiously at each step of the way. I left to rejoin Jim and Landy with the requisite stamps, some 40 minutes later and just before the offices closed at 5pm.
We felt that we had deserved the very good dinner we found in a French restaurant in Phnom Penh, Bistrot Langka, where we were the last to slip in, courtesy of the patron, without a reservation.
Outside the forecourt, in the little yard there was a bustling drinks party, to celebrate the opening of the wife’s tiny French clothing store with pieces designed and made locally.
This was all a massive contrast to the slow life we had witnessed in the many tiny habitations we had passed on route and the bustling markets with wares being sold by squatting women on mats on the ground.
Our next destination is Siem Reap, but not before experiencing some of the delights on offer in Phnom Penh.