Phnom Penh to Banlung with overland crossing to Vietnam, from Pleiku to Pakse, Pakse to Ubon
01.11.2012 - 01.11.2012 36 °C
This time of my backpacking travel took me to 4 countries in the Indochina region. My starting point was in Phnom Penh city, Cambodia which ended in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand. All in, the travel adventures took 7 days to be completed. So, how was this trip being done? It begins with arrival in Phnom Penh city by flight, then purchasing a bus ticket to Banlung in Rattanakiri province in Cambodia, followed by a minivan ticket onwards to cross the border from Cambodia to Pleiku in Vietnam. From Pleiku city in the Gia Lai (pronounced Ya Lai) province in Vietnam, then through minibus from Pleiku city to Pakse in Laos which then followed by a international bus from Pakse, Laos to Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand. Cost of bus ticket from Phnom Penh to Banlung is USD12, where the journey took about 11 hours, from 8am in Phnom Penh and ends in Banlung bus station around 7.30pm. The cost of minivan from Banlung to Pleiku city in Gia Lai province, Vietnam cost USD15, where the journey took about 5 hours, starting from 8am and reached Duc Long bus station in Pleiku around 1pm. The Cambodian immigration border checkpoint is Oyadaw while on the Vietnamese side is Le Thanh. Nevertheless, take note that though it was mentioned that the destination is Pleiku, the minivan from Banlung, Cambodia would not be continuing the journey direct to Pleiku as I was brought to another minivan from Gia Lai, Vietnam where I was required to changed to the minivan from Gia Lai province, Vietnam to continue to Pleiku city. This was after I had cleared the Vietnamese Immigration Border Checkpoint of Le Thanh. The minivan from Banlung would continue up to the point where minivans from Gia Lai wait for passengers from Oyadaw, Cambodia to tranport passengers to various part of Gia Lai province, including Du Long bus station and within Pleiku city. There was no any problem crossing from Oyadao immigration checkpoint but over at Le Thanh checkpoint, take note that you may be subjected to some form of strict luggage check by some immigration officers. Minibus from Pleiku city at Duc Long bus station in Gia Lai province, Vietnam to Pakse in Laos took about 10 hours, starting from 8am reaching Pakse at 5.30pm and cost of ticket is VND350,000, However, I noted that the cost of ticket on display should be VND300,000, so it is unclear on why additional VND50,000 was imposed though I paid the taxi cost by myself. This border crossing is through Bo Y in Vietnam and Phoukeua in Laos. This minibus would stop within the Attapeu province in Laos for lunch at the Lao-Viet restaurant cum guesthouse Du Loc. Though this province is in Laos, there are many shops and restaurants owned by Vietnamese people, where in general they could not speak Lao or Thai language. Almost all Lao national could speak dual language of Lao and Thai due to the thai tv channels influence in Laos. International bus from Pakse, Laos to Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand took 3 hours and cost of ticket is THB200, inclusive of taxi service, guesthouse or travel agent around Pakse will charged additional THB100 to THB150 depending on the mode of transport provided to the the Pakse bus station. The border checkpoint between Pakse, Laos and Ubon Ratchathani, Vietnam is Vangtao, Laos and Chongmek, Thailand.
Let me share a little bit of the journey experience travelling from Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos to Thailand on the road. Overall, I could summed up that the travel on road through mix of bus, minivan and minibus was rather a tough one in particular the section between Bo Y immigration in Vietnam to Phoukeua immigration in Laos. The road after Phoukeua border is one of the most challenging part of the border crossing within the Indochina region that I had come across thus far. This road cuts through the heavily mountainous landscape between the Laos and Vietnam border within the vietnamese central region. All along the way to Attapeu, the roads are gravely criss-crossed with some of them being very steep, so the driver needs to be very courteous and being alert all time to ensure a safe trip for everyone. The journey from Phnom Penh city was with the Phnom Penh Sorya Transport Company where the bus station was located near the Central Market. If you purchased the ticket directly from its bus station, the cost is USD12. You would pay additional USD1 for tuk-tuk service from the guesthouse to the bus station. Anyhow, you would still pay for the cost of tuk-tuk when you leave for the bus station, so, there should not be any fuss about this and also take note that the guesthouse did not charged any fee if you book the bus ticket from them. But your choice may also be limited. I stayed over at the 11 Happy Backpackers Guesthouse and it is the only option is to purchase the Phnom Penh Sorya Transport Company bus ticket. This bus company in fact is not new to me as I had travelled with this bus company back in 2006 when I travelled from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh city. Also, I had done some research on the bus transport from Phnom Penh to Banlung in Rattanakiri province and I thought Phnom Penh Sorya Transport Co. would be the best option. It caught me by off guard that the bus was about 90% full at the bus station in Phnom Penh and by the time it reached Kampong Cham and Kratie, the bus was 100% loaded with passengers comprising locals as well as travellers alike. The road within Phnom Penh city was considerably satisfactory with even toll gates in place to collect toll fees getting out from Phnom Penh city. Out from Phnom Penh city, the roads were a mix of underconstruction to partly damaged, bumpy and satisfactory conditions. Most of the scenes were filled with houses as well as ricefields and parts of the Mekong river. The journey was generally satisfactory if not good. The hot weather in Cambodia and the faulty air-condition system of the bus may caused the journey to be unpleasant but overall, it was fine. So it took 11 hours to reached Banlung from Phnom Penh and I would say the ticket of USD12 was inexpensive as compared to some parts of the South East Asia transport cost. Take note however that Cambodia is still a developing country and yet they could charged such a fee in managing a transport company.
The journey from Banlung to the Oyadaw Immigration Border Checkpoint was great with beautiful landscape and the road condition was in good shape. Throughout the journey, the landscape was a scene of a big valley filled with a massive greenfields and the fact that I travelled early in the morning, the crisp and the cool air added to the feel of being in europe or ocenia region of the world. At the Oyadaw border checkpoint, the crossing to Vietnam was rather smooth and easy. As there is no any concrete immigration building and the only immigration post is a semi-large wooden hut right at the left hand side of the dusty 2 lanes road, I just need to get down from the minivan and walk over to the immigration post to get my passport stamped. The road was blocked with a mobile steel gate with a rope being attached to this gate to block the way for checking purpose. The minivan would wait across the gate while waiting for passengers to have their passport stamped. There were only handful of people who crossed through the checkpoint and the waiting queue was not long, so expect to be cleared here at Oyadaw very quickly. Between Oyadaw border checkpoint to Vietnam is the Le Thanh border checkpoint and the road in between is a red laterite road and a welcome arch before reaching the more advance immigration building over at Le Thanh border checkpoint Vietnam. Prior to reaching the immigration building, there would be a vietnamese immigration officer waited at a border checkpost to screen through the passport before allowing to walk over to the immigration building. Most of the people seen crossing over were vietnamese who probably returning from work in Cambodia to their hometown for holiday. It must be noted that though the Le Thanh immigration is kind of an advance immigration checkpoint with scanner machine, the immigration officer would not bother to have your luggage scanned but instead would ask you to open up your luggage, unpacked the whole items inside it and asked to open up all sections of the luggage where there are zipped pouch. This is however quite regrettable but not a turn off to me to travel Vietnam. Hopefully, there would be some changes that would take place sometime in the future. However, the most dangerous and scarry part of crossing overland such as this is the safety of the luggage itself as I think it should be secured in a proper manner to avoid of it being tampered with. Though some of the action of officer at Le Thanh immigration was regrettable, I must also give credits to others who has been very polite, pleasant and friendly. Upon noted that there were foreigners going through the checkpoint, the officer in fact had his official cap being put on over his head and he even gave a greet and also a welcome wish once he stamped the passport. This should be some of the good example that hopefully would be a trend among immigration officers whereever it is in the South East Asia region.
Crossing over from Le Thanh immigration checkpoint, the minivan would wait until passengers have cleared the immigration process and to transport to the waiting vietnamese minivan from Gia Lai province. Here, you would be asked to change to the Gia Lai minivan destined for Pleiku city. This minivan would actually carry passengers mostly or as a matter of fact, they are all vietnamese to various part of Gia Lai province including the Duc Long bus station in Pleiku city. Apart from passengers, the minivan driver would also transport goods on behalf of traders between the border and Pleiku city with a fee surely. It would also wait until the seats are full before departing for Pleiku. As I reached the vietnamese border early morning from Banlung, there were still lack of passengers. As such, the driver invited me for drinks over at the makeshift stall near the immigration checkpoint while waiting for passengers who would crossed over from Oyadaw in Cambodia. After about 30 minutes wait, the minivan then moved to pick up more passengers before stopping at various points to pick up goods and more passengers. The journey all in took 5 hours from Banlung in Cambodia to Pleiku city. The road condition was generally in good shape, which is a narrow 2 laned roads and the scene was filled with greenfields and mountains with houses in between. I was dropped off at the Duc Long bus station in Pleiku city and what comes after this was extremely challenging due to the language barrier. The people here in Pleiku city basically do not speak english and don't be suprise even the motorbike taximen cannot understand even simple english. And do not expect the bus company staff or ticket staff would be able to speak english either. After some hand gesturing, shouts of guesthouse/hotel and vietnamese note-showing exercises, I went with one of the motorbike taximan to get to the Pleiku city in search for a guesthouse or hotel. We went through a few guesthouse and hotels, some within city area while some were slightly away from the city. The cost of guesthouse and hotels ranging fron VND200,000 to VND350,000 depending on location of the accomodation facilities. As I went on the journey looking for guesthouse, I bumped into Pleiku tourist agent and I asked the motorbike taxi to stop there to get some information about the tour within Pleiku and Kontum. The agent office was closed as it was a Sunday but the occupants of the shop were more than happy to extend their help by contacting Mr Nguyen Minh Dinh Tuan, the owner if the tour company. It was great to know after reaching Mr Nguyen on the phone that he could speak good english. I told Mr Nguyen that I would like to book a tour to Kontum to catch the traditional Rong House of the hilltribesmen in the central highland of Vietnam and to see the wooden church there as well. He was willing to arrange a tour on the next day but he needed to know where I stay and room number. I took his business card with me and told him I would be in touch with him again once I settled down in a guesthouse or hotel.
These were some of the challenges that I faced when in Vietnam. Seriously, language has been a very grave issue for backpackers here in the central highland of Vietnam in particular Pleiku, Kontum, Buon Ma Thout and Quy Nhon. When I was in Hue, there wasn't a language problem as most of the hotel or guesthouse staffs and owners could speak between moderate to good english, just like their counterparts in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city. Really, this was one of the most shocking discovery that I experienced. It must also be noted that over at Kontum, I believe this city has one of the most churches than anywhere else in Vietnam but yet the people do not seemed to speak english. However, it must also be noted that this is also the unique part of Pleiku and Kontum where generally, the 2 cities are still not overcrowdedly populated, the roads are small with low traffic volume, even motorbikes are not being noticed on the road and the atmosphere is quiet, peaceful with fresh air, great number of trees, awesome sceneries and best of all you could still cycle to anywhere within Kontum. Pleiku city is a big city as compared to Kontum but all in all, the road condition and traffic system in both cities are good and should be safe for bicycle travelling. The weather in Pleiku city can get rather cold in the early morning and late evening during end and early of the year season. While I was touring Kontum however, I noted the weather at Kontum was extremely hot during the afternoon but turned slightly cool towards the late afternoon. Pleiku is the capital city of Gia Lai province and is in fact a city full of traders and wholesalers as this town is a strategic crossings between 3 countries, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Goods can be transported overland from Vietnam to the 2 countries mentioned and onwards to even Thailand and China. And I think due to the language barrier, most foreign travellers would opt to travel to Pleiku, Kontum, Buon Ma Thout or Quy Nhon from Hue or Danang through a travel agent from the 2 big cities. That would be much easier and basically the agent there would also provide a driver who could understand and speak english.
Travelling out of Pleiku city to Pakse in Laos, I purchased a bus ticket from Duc Long Bus Station which is a considerably huge station for a city such as Pleiku. One of the most notable bus company is the Mai Linh Express where the corporate colour of this transport company is an iconic green colour. Apart from bus services, it also provide other services through minibus as well as taxis. Most of the taxis plying the road in Pleiku city are Mai Linh. Over at Duc Long Bus Station, Mai Linh Express provide services from Pleiku city to Quy Nhon, Buon Ma Thout, Nha Trang, Danang, Ho Chi Minh city and Pakse. From Duc Long bus station in Pleiku, the bus or minibus to Pakse would move on to Kontum, onwards to Ngoc Hoi to pick up or drop off passengers/goods along the way. This can be termed as a norm over here in Indochina region, where apart from transporting passengers, the bus or transport company would also provide trasportation of goods for a fee. Crossing over the border between Vietnam and Laos is over at the Bo Y Border Checkpoint in Vietnam over at Ngoc Hoi and Phoukeua Border Checkpoint over at Attapeu province in Lao PDR. The road travel from Pleiku to Bo Y Border Checkpoint has been smooth mostly on a 2 laned roads where conditions are satisfactory. Crossing over from Bo Y to Phoukeua, there has been no problem over at the immigration checkpoint with officers over at Phoukeua being very friendly and pleasant. After the immigration clearance over at Phoukeua, what comes after was one of the most challenging border crossing I ever experienced thus far. As the road from Attapeu province in Lao PDR cuts through a massive mountainous valley, the roads are steep and bends are very sharp at some points. But, the driver has been courteous and driving on a very careful manner and he seemed to be familiar with the road conditions. So, credit should also be given to Mai Linh Express bus drivers for their good driving attitude for this trip. The minibus stopped at one of the Lao-Viet restaurant cum guesthouse in Attapeu for lunch. There is also a money exchange shop next to this restaurant cum accomodation facility. Most Vietnamese enterpreneurs would set up businesses within the border area in particular Laos and Cambodia and Attapeu province is without exception. Even as far as Pakse, there are Vietnamese restaurants and guesthouse that could be located. These vietnamese traders and their workers do not seemed to understand Lao or Thai language while the Lao people could on the other hand speak dual language of Lao and Thai due to the Thai tv influence. However, due to the fact that they receive mostly vietnamese customers travelling out from Vietnam to Laos and Cambodia, language is no barrier to them. The sceneries in Attapeu province are beautiful and awesome as along the road to Pakse in Champasak province, the landscapes are massively covered with large mountains and hills, parts of Mekong river as well as rice fields. The minibus would stop at various points in Attapeu province to pick up or drop off passengers and goods along the checkpoints that has the transport company signboards. The final stop in Pakse is not for near the city and tuk-tuk to anywhere else within the city area cost between 10,000 to 15,000 kip. From Pakse city, the international bus leave for Ubon Ratchathani at the Pakse International Bus Station and takes about 3 hours to reach the Ubon Ratchathani bus station. The border crossing between Laos and Thailand from Pakse is the Vangtao border checkpoint in Lao PDR and Chongmek border checkpoint in Thailand. Cost of bus ticket cost THB200 if purchased from the bus station. However, you would be charged additional THB100-150 depending on the mode of transport from the guesthouse of hotel you stay where you purchase ticket from. If you purchase the ticket by yourself, you would still need to pay for the tuk-tuk to get to to bus station to purchase it and then hire the tuk-tuk yet again to transport you to the bus station to board the bus. So, actually the additional cost adds up to the same amount whether you buy it yourself or through the guesthouse. I had been travelling many times along the Vangtao/Chongmek border crossings, so I'm rather familiar with that crossings. However, some changes noted over at this border crossings where travellers no longer walking through the uncovered and unpaved walkways surrounded by trees. An underground tunnel has been completed and travellers would now walk under this tunnel to cross over to the immigration office of both the Lao PDR and Thailand.