From Tat Lo it was another bus journey back to Pakse. Now Pakse itself is ok, nothing special, just ok. However it embodies everything that I dislike about the Laos bus service. Many people have labeled me as mad for taking nearly every journey in India on local buses however I stand by them as being far better than the private service. Firstly because they are fascinating but more than that, they are convenient! Every bus station is slap bang in the center of the place you are visiting. In Lao it is different. For some reason every bus station is outside of town meaning you always need to enlist another form of transport to get where you want to be. Pakse is the classic example of this. The southern bus station is seven kilometers outside of town, the northern bus station even further! Why? To get any money out I had to take a tuk tuk into town, visit the ATM before getting a tuk tuk back again. For all the love I have discovered for buses on this trip this has really driven me to the edge!
Anyways enough of the rant! From Pakse I caught a SHARED sawngthaew (emphasis on the shared) which saying it was packed to the rafters is an understatement. There were goats on the roof as well, another thing to add to my collection of ‘things you see when your traveling in Asia’. On arrival at Ban Nagasak I caught a boat over to Don Det one of the four thousand islands.
Don Det was lovely. I didn’t stay for too long as I was already far too relaxed after Tat Lo and just like Tat Lo the whole purpose of the four thousand islands is to sit in a hammock all day with a good book. Not a lot else happens other then a daily swim in the Mekong that your hut overlooks! On my second day I pushed myself onto a bike and road around the island and onto neighboring Dong Khon. There there is a waterfall with spectacular rock formations and a couple of not particularly well kept beaches. The principle joy of the ride however was observing the passing village life as locals attend to their daily business. It’s all very beautiful and scenic.
The following day I left for Cambodia. At 8am I was given a lift over to the main land by my accommodation and deposited at the bus stand. There were two notable issues. First there were lots of other people waiting to get onto my bus and no one seemed to be going to where I wanted to get to. Anyways I was expecting to change buses several time, and daren’t I say it not even reach my destination! Secondly everyone was a tourist. Every form of transport I have taken on this trip I have purposely avoided any transport just for tourists. However considering most people on Don Det are Westerners and that the accepted advice is that the easiest way to cross the border is on one of these buses, I had little choice!
The journey to the border was quick enough. I had purposely chosen my seating position and where my bags were placed to make sure I had a clear run at the border and not have to stand in line for ages. It worked a treat and I was first across the border (after numerous dollars for stamps!). It was actually a very cheap border crossing as long as you had your wits about you and did not fall for the pay your visa in baht line. I demanded it in dollars (I know my conversions now!) and got it for far cheaper. The plan fell apart when I then had to wait an intolerable amount of time for everyone else to get across the border. When finally we thought that everyone was through we were told we were missing six people and as it turns out had to wait another two hours!
Eventually we boarded the bus and sped away. A while into the journey I was tapped on the shoulder by one of the conductors who told me I would be getting off very soon. Two hours and one food stop later I was dumped in a place I did not want to be having been told I had missed my connection. Or rather they had run late and so the bus I should have got in Stung Treng had already left. Lovely! The only saving grace was that when we had turned into the town of Kratie I had thought to myself, ‘this looks nice, maybe I should get off here.’ I had no intention to carry out the idea though!
So the bus left me and an American girl standing there confused and a little disorientated. There’s not a lot you can do in that situation. Confronting them is never going to get you anywhere other than into a situation that very easily could escalate out of control. So instead I marched to the bus station and spoke with their office there. After enlisting a translator we talked it through and despite the lady behind the desk being as rude as they come I eventually got a promise I would be on the bus tomorrow from a random guy on the phone she passed me. I left pleased that we had resolved the issue peacefully but also understanding that there was little chance of a bus tomorrow actually showing up and letting me on, so would need to think of an alternative plan. As I headed for the hotel that my interpreter owned, I reached to pull out his card to help with directions. It was ok, cheap, but nothing special. It was the least I could do for his help! As I arrived I checked my pockets and realized I had dropped my wallet when pulling out the card. It was nowhere to be seen. A brilliant start to Cambodia!
My motto in India was always when things are going well expect the worst and visa versa. The same seemed to apply to Cambodia because as I walked to try and find a working ATM (the main one was down), the whole town seemed to open their arms to me. It was like Sri Lanka all over again, everyone was saying hello and coming to speak to me. It was a wonderful moment. Even the local drunks seemed aware of my hard day, inviting me to drink whiskey and eat fish with them on a couple of upturned beer crates. Other than saying I was English in French I couldn’t really converse with them. Rather I just listened to them attempting to talk to me and occasionally muttered a terribly pronounced thank you in Khmer which they loved. It was a great moment. On realizing the glasses were adding up I bid them farewell only to find the ring leader on his moped telling me he’d take me to a bank. Considering he couldn’t stand up for five seconds let alone drive I declined. Come the evening I was joined by another local who spoke better English and we talked about Inter Milans decline in the Champions League amongst many things. All this happened whilst I had some delicious noodles being cooked up by a lady dressed in Pajamas (It’s in fashion here to wear pajamas with teddy bears and other child themes). From such a terrible start to the day, it had all turned around very quickly.
There’s not a lot to Kratie, if you are not there to see the dolphins (I had seen them on the slow boat to Luang Prabang). However a random walk around town was great. The market was dirty, bustling and noisy. All the key ingredients I come to expect of a good market. Further outside of town I kept being stopped by children and adults to chat. Kratie really is an insanely friendly place. Finally I wondered along the sand that stretches for miles along the Mekong. There is a small floating village which was interesting to see.
After an eventful but none the less overall great time in Kratie I hoped on a bus (with a different company!!!) and left for Siem Reap, a twelve or so hour long journey, home to supposedly the number one sight in South East Asia.