Travel to Ban Lung

Stung Treng Travel Blog

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Sitting in the centre aisle 'seats' (plastic stools)!

So there are three places in Don Det that sell tickets to Ban Lung, the capital of the Rattanikiri province, and the main place I wanted to visit in Cambodia, even though I barely have time to make it back to Bangkok as things stand. The first, Island Travel quoted $25. The second Xangphon (or something similar) quoted $40, and the third, by the river, the Open Bus Ticket was $45. I was worried about the difference in price as I have heard stories about travel operators saying they'll take you across the border and then just leaving you there. Xangphon told me Island Travel make you stay at Stung Treng for the night (which I don't have time for), but when I asked them they told me it wasn't true, so I dubiously decided to trust them to save money.

I joined a large group of 25 people heading across the border and after a trip on the Mekong back to the mainland (made slightly more amusing by the driver who cut the engines halfway across to answer his mobile ("Halloh!? No, Ah'm driving tha bot at tha momet!"). If you don't see the funny side of that, let me remind you that this is a remote island in Southern Laos with 4 hours of electricity a day and people live in bamboo shacks...

At the mainland we were transferred into minibuses (briefly driven by an 8 yr old, frighteningly and amusingly enough) and to the border. We paid $1 to exit Laos, and then waited "one moment" (1 hour) for another minibus to take us across into Cambodia. The Irish boys we were with were spewing. They wanted to watch the Manchester United vs Liverpool match that evening in Pnom Penh... At the border the police mused over my passport picture (so faint as to be suspected a fake) and though I suspect a bribe may have been the hope as he slowly flicked through and looked unconvinced, I feigned all understanding and waited patiently, knowing that with 20 people to get through anyway, I had some waiting to do regardless.... Eventually he returned my passport and with everyone issued with Cambodian visas (though the internet sites say they don't do visas) and we were on our way again fairly painlessly.

We crossed the water to Stung Treng by a brief river boat (apparently the bridge is due to be completed soon) and ate a welcome lunch at Ritchie's on the other side, before being seperated into diffent minibuses according to destination. Here I discovered that as suspected, there was a forced overnight stay in Stung Treng (arse end of nowhere with no obvious charm or redeeming features). There were two other people who had decided to go to Ban Lung but with no tickets they had no bargaining power, Me however, I went hell for leather, shouting down the house about my lack of time and the lies their office had fed me. I asked them why they had taken my money if they couldn't give me what I was promised? And we couldn't get a shared taxi as it was Easter Sunday that day so everyone was refusing to work. Apparently I had the support of my new comrades who sat surrepticiously showing me the thumbs up as I stamped and raved. Finally they agreed to drive us to a place the local bus is known to stop, 25km out of town. They could book me a seat but they couldn't promise Shona and Martin so it would be up to them to fight their corner. So we drove and got dropped off at a roadside cafe and waited with our 'grass jelly juice' drink (really, REALLY don't ever be moved to try this).

When the bus arrived the cafe owner negotiated for us, and we were given 3 plastic children's stools with which to sit in the aisle on. This would be fine on almost any roads except this particular ones which are known to put most tourists off even with the promise of a luxurious chair seat. After all the cycling of the past week, and much sitting on wood and floors crossing the border, my poor bottom was sore enough and felt flat in all the wrong places. After a short time (by which time the road had already deteriorated into mere orange dust) the bus stopped to help another broken down bus and we spent an hour by the roadside dodging the dust from passing vehicles. The sun set when we got back on and we bounced along the bumpy roads for a further 2 hours. Sometimes we seemed to get stuck, and the bus heaved its bulk gently up huge bumps, its four corners rocking violently. We stopped for gasoline, metered by a naked man wrapped only in a checked cloth (the Cambodian cloth-for-all headscarf cum skirt cum neckscarf cum facemask etc) who wound up an upturned drum which drew a metered amount of liquid up into a measuring tube above. When the agreed amount was in the tube a valve was released to let this into a can to be poured into the vehicle tank. It was oh so reassuring to see the man with a cigarette in his hand.... I waited for the 'BOOM'....

We finally pulled into Ban Lung (happily now in vacated seats) and into a orange-red town. We were mobbed by the usual plethora of guest house touts but we had recommendations which all drew blanks. They told us they had shut down (who knows if they were lying?), that they had never heard the names we gave, and we had no choice to take a taxi as the only taxis were motorcycles and we were too many. We were particularly being hounded by a group promoting the Lake View Ranch, and when we mentioned the name we had been told 'Mr Sifali', one bloke pipes up that that is indeed his name. Again, we are mightily dubious we are being duped, but for lack of any other choice we agree to go with him and his touts, so we are part loaded into a car (with 3 other stray westerners we have picked up)

and onto motorcycles. Before I know it, I and Martin are being whisked away by 3 very amusing motorcycle drivers who race down the red, bumpy streets like crazy men.

At the guest house we are shown round a very beautiful 'old governer's house', with marble floors, gemstone walls and polished wood panelling. Mr Sifali, as he is indeed who he says he is, confirmed by a plaque on the second floor stating 'My name is Mr Sifali, and I always wanted to own a guest house...'... explains that it is a new business, his baby, that he isn't completely set up yet, and that he doesn't want to decieve us, so we are welcome to see what he has and he will drop us back in town if we refuse. We are shown a dormitory room, initially refused on account of security, but agreed to when we realise we will have it to ourselves, for $2 a night. The bathroom leaves A LOT to be desired. The WC is a 'hover WC', and there is no shower except buckets of water, plus a nightly stream of industrious ants that course from a large hole in the wall.. But the girls (stray westerners My and Mya) agree to a room for 2 with proper bathroom and we arrange to borrow it. There is the promise of brand new bungalows in the style of Cambodian homesteads tomorrow, and an inauguration ceremony. Basically we are so taken with our genial host, his honesty and his desire to please, that we agree.

After welcome showers (in our friends' room), we all met at the hotel restaurant for dinner. Mr Sifali again explained that his poor mother was still hired as cook, and that although she was a great cook, he wanted to hire someone else as he didn't want her working so hard. We ordered with some guilt, to be reassured it was the assistant today. The food was good (though several items on the menu were off), and we drank several Angkor beers (new country, new local beer) and got to know each other a little better.

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Sitting in the centre aisle seats…
Sitting in the centre aisle 'seat…
Stung Treng
photo by: Deats