Laos – 4000 Islands & Crossing the Border

Our next and final stop on our Laos trip was Don Khon which is part of the famous 4000 Islands in the Mekong. We booked our shared minibus taxi tickets to Don Khon through Miss Noy Motorbike Rental for 60,000 Kip / 7 USD each. The minivan collected us from our hotel at 8am and it took about 3 hours, including a 30 minute toilet and snack break, to reach Nakasong.

Missed our previous Bolaven Plateau post? Read it here

From Nakasong, we had to walk to the river and exchange our taxi tickets for a boat ticket. If you buy your ticket from Pakse to Don Det or Don Khon, the boat ticket is included and you shouldn’t be required to pay extra.

Once we had exchanged our tickets, we loaded up onto a small long boat which first dropped off passengers on Don Det, and then took the two of us down to Don Khon. Yes, we were the only two passengers remaining on a boat of about 10 – 12 that were bound for Don Khon. We weren’t sure if that was a good or bad thing. The driver banked the boat against a slippery slope and we hopped off. Welcome to Don Knon we thought.

On the Mekong travelling to Don Det and then to Don Khon

We found ourselves on a quiet road alongside the river edge lined with small shops and restaurants. We loved it. It felt like we were back on Gili Trawangan or Gili Meno but instead of the ocean, we were on a quaint island in the mighty Mekong. If Don Det were Gili Trawangan, Don Khon is definitely Gili Meno.

We walked through the small town until we arrived at our accommodation, Pan’s Guesthouse. We booked a basic garden bungalow for 2 nights but they were kind enough to upgrade us to a riverside bungalow. The bungalows were great! They were clean and had comfortable beds, strong AC (a necessity in the heat), WIFI, a small refrigerator, and a patio with a table, hammock and 2 chairs. All for just 23 USD a night. This rate also included breakfast which we totally forgot about on our first morning. Oh well, we made sure to enjoy the complimentary breakfast on our last morning.

Our river view bungalow at Pan’s Guesthouse

After checking in, we grabbed some food and beers at a local restaurant down the street and then went straight back to our bungalow for an afternoon siesta. That evening, we enjoyed the delicious fish amok (fish steamed in banana leaf) at The Gardens Restaurant which we definitely recommend for a visit. Most places shut down at around 9pm on Don Khon so make sure to get dinner early otherwise you are going hungry. Same goes for drinking. From what we have heard, if you are looking for more of a party scene that stays open later, Don Det is where you must stay. If you want to enjoy some late night drinks on Don Khon, make sure to grab some drinks at a local mart during the day and enjoy them on the patio of your bungalow. We bought a small bottle of Laotian rice wine for about 1 USD with some lime sodas and enjoyed some mixers on our patio before calling it a night.

Delicious Fish Amok @ The Gardens Restaurant

The following morning, after missing out on our complimentary breakfast because we ate out, we rented two bicycles for 10,000 KIP / 1 USD each. We decided to take a ride and explore Don Det. The ride to the northern tip of Don Det took about 30 minutes but in the heat, it felt like hours! Make sure you lather on some sunscreen unless you want to look like the only lobster on the island. We got to the town/touristy area of Don Det at around lunch time and stopped in at Mama Tanon Cafe for lunch. We ordered the burger. The food quality was ok but the portions were massive.

After lunch, we got some quotes for Sorya bus tickets to Siem Reap, Cambodia for the following morning. We knew that the best company to go with was AVT (Asia Van Transfers) but we were trying to keep costs down so we opted for Sorya Bus at 176,000 KIP / 21 USD each. We had been quoted 176,000 KIP each on Don Khon and prices on Don Det were 20-30% higher. We then rode back down to Don Khon and stopped at the small tour office to purchase the Sorya bus tickets to Siem Reap. This, as we would soon learn, was a big mistake. But I’ll get into that soon.

šŸšŒ 4000 Islands to Cambodia Tip: Spend the extra few USD and book with AVT (Asia Van Transfers). They will pick you up on the Cambodian side of the border for 20USD and take you to Siem Reap. You will need to buy a separate ticket to the border for around 9USD. Total cost od 29USD. Don’t think twice, just do it. We didn’t and regret it too much, so please learn from our mistakes. You can read why further below.

That night we ate dinner at Happy Kitchen & Bar. This spot is owned and operated by a Chinese guy. The food was great but don’t expect quick service as he is the only one preparing food. We ordered a spicy chicken and pork soup which tasted a lot like hot pot. The only things missing were the szechuan peppercorns and some vegetables. When the owner asked, we told him that we really enjoyed it and also remarked that the flavor reminded us of Chinese hot pot to which he simply replied, “No”. Ha.

Anyways, Don Khon in a nutshell; It has such a relaxing and laid back feel to it. It is really a great place to kick back, enjoy cheap local cuisine, knock back a few ice cold beers in the heat and just say’ “to hell with it, I’ll just do it all over again tomorrow.” I’ll reiterate, if you are looking for a party then Don Det is the place for you. If you are looking for a quiet and laid back atmosphere, Don Khon is a must. The two islands are connected via a bridge so moving between the two is quick and easy.

The next morning we were up bright and early in preparation for our trip to Siem Reap. This time we made sure to grab our complimentary breakfast before departing the island. Now, before I begin, let me break down the expected itinerary for the day. First we were to be taken back to the mainland by longboat. Secondly, we were to board the Sorya bus which would take us to the border which was apparently 1 hour away. Next, we would have to cross the border on foot. And lastly, once successfully across the border, we would board another Sorya bus which would take us to Siem Reap in about 6 hours. And here we go…

An early departure from Don Khon

We were ferried across to Nakasong on the mainland at 8am and arrived at 8:30am with no problems. We were ushered to a store where our tickets were checked and exchanged for a new ticket. We were then told to wait. We waited. And waited. We waited some more. At 10am, the bus rolled up to the store. Yes! Time to go! We all loaded up into the bus and we set off. Well, that’s what we thought. Literally about a minute into the ride, the bus pulled into the hospital parking which also doubled as the minibus taxi stop. The bus was turned off and we sat. The bus driver got out and decided to have a friendly breakfast stop for himself with some other chaps. After about 20 minutes, the bus started turning into an oven so we all got off.

The Sorya Bus that was suspected of carrying drugs

The tour operator came up to us and told us not to exchange our tickets for minibus tickets. Huh? What? Next thing minibus drivers approached us and told us to exchange our tickets and get onto their minivans. This is when we realized that something fishy was going on. Oh god. What now?? Apparently the local cops had stopped the bus from leaving and we were told that the bus was to be inspected for heroin. Really?? Heroin? The cops took the tour operator aside and we didn’t see him for about 2 hours. After those 2 hours, he emerged and told us, with absolute defeat in his voice, to load up on a different companies minibus. That was the last we saw of him.

Waiting in the heat for our ride to leave

3 hours behind schedule, on a hot minibus with no AC and stuffed full of tourists, we finally left Nakasong for the Laos-Cambodia border post. That 45 minute ride to the border I mentioned earlier actually only turned out to be 15 minutes long. We arrived at the border, grabbed our bags and made our way to a border control window to have our passports checked and stamped. Magically, a 2 dollar stamp fee appeared. I thinks it’s pertinent at this stage of the story to tell you about the wonders of the Cambodian e-visa.

Everybody crammed on a minibus taxi

šŸš©Cambodia E-Visa Tip: Get the Cambodian E-Visa online before you do the border crossing. Make sure that, based on you nationality and where you will cross into Cambodia, you are eligible to apply. Some border crossing posts do not process e-visas. Make sure to check the e-visa website to see if you qualify. It costs 35 USD irrespective of nationality. It also costs 35 USD if you apply for a visa on arrival but it has been known for this price to fluctuate at the border, if you know what I mean. So, to avoid the corruption and paying more than is required by the Cambodian government, get an e-visa.

Getting through the Laos passport control was simple. We handed over our passports along with the 2 USD “stamp fee” and collected it at a second window. Once our passports were back in our hands, we crossed the border on foot. Once on the Cambodian side, we were asked if we had e-visa or were paying for the visa on arrival. E-visa! For us, it was simple. We were taken to a passport control window separate to the travalers who were applying for the visa on arrival. All we had to do was hand over our passports with the printed e-visa and another small 2 USD “lets-just-call-it-a-donation” fee each. Wham, bam, photo and finger prints taken, passport back in our hands, thank you mam! From what we could hear, the visa on arrival kids were not having as good of a time as us. A group of French travelers were sure they were getting ripped off and refused to pay 35USD. One person stepped out of line and in a very fascist style, was ordered to get back to their place. While all this was going on, we were walking to a small restaurant where other travelers, who had also successfully completed their crossing, were waiting for the rest of us.

Crossing into Cambodia on foot

Another important thing to note is that sometimes the Cambodian border control officers will insist that you pay 5 USD for a health check. DO NOT DO IT! It is not required at all, unless you just want an update on your current condition.

After about an hour, the French travelers finally emerged looking defeated. We all boarded the bus that was parked outside the restaurant and holy cow, what a state this machine was in. Inside looked like Chernobyl with a dust/sand coating as thick as the Sahara desert. Aircon, ha! Nice try. Seats, torn. Some machine under a seat towards the front of the bus would make an awful noise every 5 minutes which was easily solved by an older Cambodian man giving it a hard kick. What had we gotten ourselves into? Why didn’t we book AVT??

This was the bus that collected us on the Cambodian side of the border

At this point, we had made conversation with a few other fellow travelers on the bus and it turned out that half of us were bound for Siem Reap and the other half were headed for Phnom Penh. After about an hour of the bumpiest ride on a road that had more pot holes than stars in the sky, we arrived at a small bus yard in god-knows-where. There was just one other smaller bus parked in the yard. We were told to get off the bus and wait.

Our ride to Siem Reap

This would be the point where Siem Reap and Phnom Penh travelers would split onto two separate buses. Well, we waited for about another hour until we were told to all get on the smaller bus. Apparently the Phnom Penh bus driver just decided not to pitch. Perhaps because there were only 4 travelers going to Phnom Penh, he didn’t deem it worthy of his time.

We loaded onto the small bus and set off. They told us that we would first stop in Siem Reap and then the bus would continue onto Phnom Penh. A few hours into the ride we stopped for dinner. After getting back on the road, an hour or so later, the worst thing happened. The sound of flaccid rubber spinning around a metal wheel filled the bus. We had a flat tire.

The driver desperately trying to get the wheel off

The driver and his assistant jumped out, grabbed their tools and tried to loosen the lugs but to no avail. They made a few calls which seemed to also have no end result. After about an hour of their effort, they gave up and decided that it would be best for us to carry on with the flat tire. We set off, slowly. After about 10 minutes, the smell of burning rubber filled the bus. The tire had started smoking and completely ripped apart. Again they tried their luck at getting the annoyingly tight lugs off the wheel but still, they didn’t budge. Three of the foreigners decided that they would give it a go. With all of us on the bus to put weight on the wheel to stop it spinning on the wet tarmac, the 3 guys jumped on the pipe, which was attached to the wheel spanner, until crack! The first lug came loose. These 3 heroes managed to break all the lugs loose and the driver got to work putting the spare tire on. The spare tire, which was as smooth as a slick tire, was tightened on and we set off for Siem Riep.

So, what was supposed to be about a 7 hour journey in total from 4000 islands to Siem Reap, turned out to be a 17 hour journey. We arrived in Siem Reap at 1am the following morning! We were supposed to arrive around 6pm. If you don’t mind enduring unpredictably long journeys, book the Sorya bus, otherwise, and I reiterate, pay the extra few bucks and book with AVT.

Continue with us to Siem Reap and the ancient temple ruins of Angkor Wat

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