Roaminallover-Here, There and Everywhere
"You will be picked up between 7.15am and 7.45am from the hotel, and taken to the minibus " he said. The bus goes at 8 and takes about 8 hours" he said. " Yes, the minibus goes all the way to Pakse" he said "The luggage will all fit in the back, you won't need to sit with your luggage" he said. Oh how wrong he was. Despite our hotel contacting the driver twice the feeder bus didn't arrive until 8.10, which made us somewhat concerned as the main bus was scheduled to leave at 8 . We needn't have worried, we weren't going to miss our bus......as this was the bus. A somewhat battered 12 seater minivan, which, although fitted with aircon, only had natural ventilation today. When we got on the bus there were already four passengers, but by the time we had completed at least four circuits of the town we had 13. Maybe that should have been another indicator of things to come. There was a significant amount of luggage, some of which indeed did fit in the back under the seats, and the remaining bags were squashed behind the seats, on top of the passengers, and behind the driver. It certainly proved to be an interesting dilemma for the driver as with each new batch of passengers he pulled off bags and rearranged them. We suddenly became nostalgic for India where they strapped them to the roof. We arrived at a service station in Stung Treng about six hours later, to find this was where a second bus would take us across the border. We joined a group of similar size inside the service station unsure about how long we would have to wait. Eventually a large VIP bus pulled up at the side of the road. That's good you're all thinking. A VIP bus for our intrepid travellers, just what they deserve after such an arduous six hours. Well the excitement was short lived . As in India we haven't figured out what the initials VIP stand for here. Whilst it's admittedly a slight step up from the transport the locals have to use it's certainly a long way from the definition used back home. We had the obligatory dirty curtains and pelmets decorating the bus and the door handle was secured with rope. The doors did open and close, when accompanied by a purposeful shoulder "nudge". As we settled into our seats, we were handed immigration forms for Laos, allowing us to complete them before we reached the border. At least it would have done if there was any way to get the pen to write ON the paper and not my trousers. The state of the road deteriorated almost as soon as we left the service station, as we veered from left to right over the track. At this point we were fully expecting to see at least one of the wheels roll off and make its way across the arid landscape. The driver's assistant soon got up from his seat to start collecting the forms, passport photo and passports explaining that for an extra dollar he would get the visas. He also added that in addition to the visa fee, we needed two dollars to be stamped out of Cambodia, and two dollars to be stamped into Laos. We were told that if we gave him the passports we could just stay on the bus. If we decided to do things ourselves we would have to take all our luggage. Having read various reports and reviews of the border online I was aware that the additional fees over and above the visa fee were scams so I was on high alert. We told the assistant we wanted to take the passports ourselves. We were pleased to find many of the others on the coach had made the same decision, and most of us climbed down to collect our bags. We had to take our own bags from the hold, as the driver just opened the metal doors and stood back. Our first stop was the Cambodian border control - to obtain the stamp to indicate we had left there. A relatively simple process of sliding the passports through a low level slot, just big enough to get a hand through. I passed our two passports through and a voice came from inside, " four dollars". As everyone seemed to be paying the money I reluctantly slid four dollars across the divide and waited. After a few minutes the passports reappeared under the hatch, duly exit stamped, and we moved onto our next stop - Laos immigration. An A4 notice advised that the cost would be the cost of the visa + 1 dollar service charge. There was also three or four pages of A4 paper stoked to the window listing the respective visa prices for nationals from different countries. We dutifully handed over the 35 Dollars for each of ours + the extra dollar and were told to move on to the next window which is where the fun started. As we waited and the group got bigger it soon transpired that some of the group had refused to pay the exit money coming out of Cambodia and were just allowed through. We watched the dour border guards stamp the passports on the other side of the glass, whilst we discussed the fact that the staff were charging additional fees over the standard visa fee. The glass door slid across and a passport held open. One of the group stepped forward to claim the passport, to be told that he had to pay two dollars to get the visa. He asked why he had to pay a further two dollars and was told he just had to pay. A number of us stepped forward and questioned the guard but he was still adamant the payment must be made. When it became apparent the payment would not be forthcoming he put the passport in the desk drawer and closed the window. The same procedure was repeated with each person. Each one declining to pay unless a receipt could be provided. Eventually a stalemate was reached. The drawer containing 15 passports by this time. The coach drivers assistant came across and then threatened that the bus would leave without us if we didn't pay up. He returned to the bus and it slowly pulled away, leaving twelve of its passengers on the pavement. By this time the clock was ticking on and we were aware it would soon be dark so we knew something had to be done. Whilst objecting to the principle of the "extortion" we knew we would have to give in so we could get our passports back and find somewhere to spend the night. By the time we capitulated, paid our two dollars and got our visas back it was dark. This must be the first border post we've been too which had no taxis queuing for customers, so our first job was to find a lift to the nearest town. Eventually we found someone who was headed to Nakasang. This was ideal for the eight of our group heading for 4000 islands as it's where the boats leave for the islands. Although the group had only known each other for the duration of the journey we'd all be through a collective experience and everyone was embracing before going our separate ways. The four of us who weren't going there stayed in the town for the night and had to get onward transport the following day. As the coach was already full when we joined it we had to sit on small plastic stools in the aisle of the bus. We're having the proper backpacker adventure.......! We had originally planned to spend done time in Pakse, but as our travel buddies Rey and Sandy were going straight to Vientiane we decided to stick together. The coach took us to first to Pakse, where we discovered the connecting bus was due to leave six hours later at 8pm. What else could we to but head for a bar with our new friends Sandy and Rey from San Francisco? It's amazing his time passes quickly when you spend it with friends. We were soon heading to the bus station in a zippy little tuk tuk bus. The two rows of wooden seats accommodating all our luggage and bottoms. The sleeper bus we were destined to travel in turned out to be a dorm on wheels. The majority of the sleeping berths were on the upper deck. The sleeping areas designed to accommodate two Lao sized people rather than 2 portly westerners so we were nice and snug. Three other girls, Caitlin, Mimi, and Yasmin had joined our little gang, having travelled with us from Nakasang so we were soon sharing Oreo biscuits and having quite the bedtime feast. Surprisingly we all managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep, and were all wide awake as we pulled in Vientiane. Was our border protest against corruption worth it? For the sake of the extra two dollars we could have left our principles at the border and sailed through, but if we had we wouldn't have experienced the camaraderie from the other ten travellers. We wouldn't have been impressed by the strong principles and desire to highlight corruption amongst the young, predominantly French group. We wouldn't have met and spent the next few days with our new American friends Sandy and Rey, finding out about issues in the USA, and sharing memories over cold Lao beer. We wouldn't have met the energetic Caitlin and Mimi, from the UK who enthused everyone around them with their energy and respect for others. So in summary, Yes, it was worth it. We all lost out financially as we had to refinance our onward travel from the border which had already been paid for, but we gained much more in the form of great friends and memories.