Crossing over 4 countries through Banlung, Pleiku, Pakse and Ubon
I'm back in Phnom Penh after 6 years, where at that time, I had just started to venture out on a backpacking adventure over the South East Asia countries. My way of travel is not through a one time travel basis, where the trip would be completed throughout the travel period by hopping from one country to another at one go. My preference would be to travel to one or two or even few countries within the Indochina region if I had made up my mind that such is my travel destination for that particular time. My previous travel to Phnom Penh was aimed at travelling between 2 countries overland at one go, which was Cambodia and Vietnam. Of course it is not just about road travel to experience both countries as going out to explore the countries that one travelled to is as interesting and important to get to know the specific country much better. Much has changed over the years in Phnom Penh since my last visit. I remember travelling from Phnom Penh International Airport to the city with a motobike taxi cost only USD1 6 years ago but now, the price has gone up to USD3. Also, I witnessed more cars now as compared to years ago, where motorbikes outnumbered the former. The road from the airport to the city of Phnom Penh is also considerably less dusty as compared to 6 years ago. Surely, the road condition has also improved tremendously in tandem with the less dustiness of it years ago. At least, these are some of the changes that I could see happened in Phnom Penh, which is good for the people of Cambodia. Tourists and travellers visiting Phnom Penh and Cambodia in general would have contributed much to what can be seen today in Cambodia. International banks are also opening up due to the increasing needs by businesses within the country which reflect on how apart from travel industry, the trade or commerce industry have also developed rapidly. There are now more tuk-tuks than back in 2006 which also mirror on increasing number of people from out of Cambodia visiting the country.
Arriving in Phnom Penh this time around, I took the tuk-tuk to the city to look for a guesthouse to stay. There are taxi service available from the airport as well as tuk-tuk but should be costlier. I did not bother to ask as I know there are motorbikes or tuk-tuks available outside the airport from past experience. Nevertheless, if safety is a priority, then I would say one should pay more to compensate for such security. Why am I saying this? As I walked out to get a motorbike taxi or tuk-tuk, I felt that security could be a threat. One of the tuk tuk driver even warned me to keep away the gold necklace I worn to aviod being victim of snatch theft, which I obliged. Some of the motorbike or tuk-tuk drivers could speak and understand english while some could not. I never felt that safety could be so much a threat few years back when I landed in Phnom Penh but this time for some unexplained reasons, I felt so. According to one of the tuk-tuk driver, he told me that they go through a system of first in, first out, where the 1st driver who arrived at the airport would have the passenger go with him 1st. Maybe this applied to the tuk-tuks but not the motorbike taxi or motodups outside the airport. How true this is? I wouldn't be sure. As I chatted with the tuk-tuk driver, he told me that motorbike taxi cost USD3, the tuk-tuk cost USD5 and if I took the tuk-tuk inside the airport it costs USD7. He said I can go with him on his tuk-tuk but as we walked to his vehicle, a group of other tuk-tuk drivers came to him and spoke in Khmer. He then said, no, I cannot go with him as he was not the one who arrived at the airport 1st, so I need to get on another tuk-tuk which came later from elsewhere. So, if this tuk-tuk driver from elsewhere is the 1st tuk-tuk to have arrived at the airport, why was he from elsewhere to pick up passengers? This is some of the confusion that I experience on landing in Phnom Penh airport. But let me just say that the cost of taxi, tuk-tuk or motodup in Phnom Penh is still cheap in comparison to those in Lao PDR. It costs around USD20 to USD25 for probably less than 15km to the city of Vientiane from the airport. So, I thought since its just additional USD2 (USD5 for tuk-tuk compared to USD3 for motodup), I would have lost nothing with that since the seat of the tuk-tuk is much wider and comfortable with a covered compartment. It was also drizzling slightly as the tuk-tuk moved on to the city. The road was much more congested as compared to my last visit indicated heavy traffic due to more cars on the road in Phnom Penh. The congestion can be rather bad coupled with traffic lights along the road leading to the Phnom Penh city from the airport. This is a sign of development in Phnom Penh in comparison to years ago.
The tuk-tuk driver stop at the area near Sisowath Quay or the Riverside where there are many pubs available on this section of Phnom Penh city. As metioned earlier, there was a slight confusion about the fare of transport from the airport. When I reached the city area, I was told that the fare was only USD3 and I was stunned. As I thought it should be USD5 and USD3 is for a motodup. But I am more than glad that the tuk-tuk driver has been so honest and I thanked him for being such a nice man. As I looked around for a guesthouse to stay, I noticed 11 Happy Backpackers Guesthouse which looked quite nice from the outside with some creative interior on the ground floor of the lobby area, which also runs as a bar. The lobby itself is a good place to hang out withfellow backpackers alike as the theme colour is dark and it made the whole area in the lobby section with an atmosphere of a pub. In fact, this guesthouse has a nice bar at the rooftop level where guests could enjoy beers and food there. The road fronting the guesthouse is not busy and is quite a distance away from the pubs which located near the section of the road fronting Sisowath Quay. The room with window and without air-cond cost USD12. The guesthouse also provide sale of bus ticket for Phnom Penh Sorya Transport Company, where I booked a ticket from Phnom Penh to Banlung. The interior of the room and bathroom may look much worn out without any nice or modern decoration while the bed and the room accessories are very basic and simple. This is the place to stay for backpackers for probably a night or 2 before departing elsewhere in Cambodia for onwards travel. I had the opportunity to had few conversations with the staffs and some of them appeared to be very friendly and helpful while some were less so. I asked one of the staff about the Banlung border crossing to Vietnam when I bought the bus ticket from Phnom Penh to Banlung but she appeared to be lost on this. She even helped to telephoned the bus company to check on the information but that did not help too as they too did not have much information about this overland crossing. The information that I had is that this was somewhat like a new crossing and not many foreigners in particular know or used this border or overland crossing from Cambodia to Vietnam or vice versa. So, I was kind of worried about the transportation and the immigration process going through this route but I was much confident that things would be rather fine when it comes to the time of the crossings.
My reason for this trip to Phnom Penh is to be my starting point for backpacking adventure through 4 Indochina countries, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Of course having already landed in Phnom Penh, my travel plan is not just to get away from this capital of Cambodia right away. It is good to also explore instead of just travel. My last visit to Phnom Penh, I had visited some of the interesting places including the Silver Pagoda, Royal Palace, Wat Phnom and the Tuol Sleng Prison. I did not spent enough of my time in fact the last visit because my ultimate travel plan was to head to Ho Chi Minh city overland through the Bavet/Moc Bai border crossing. And for this time, I did not spent much of my to explore the capital yet again as I need to leave for Banlung the next day. With one day at hand, I decided to go with the motodup to check out the Independent Monument which I missed on my previous visit. During my visit, the monument was undergoing some construction and visitors were not allowed to get into the area of the monument. This monument is located in a good location and the area covered the monument is a huge roundabout facing a square in front. Adjacent to this monument is a huge Buddhist wat with multiple temples inside. And this is the symbol of the independence of Cambodia in 1953 from the colonialism of French. The monument was completed in 1958.
From Independent Monument, I then moved on to Wat Phnom, which I had visited before during my previous visit to Phnom Penh. But, a good tourist place would worth a second or third, forth, fifth visit or perhaps infinity. This wat during my visit is also undergoing construction and an entrance fee would cost USD1. There are now no longer child beggars seen around the area on the base of Wat Phnom as compared to my last visit where these poor children would run to you in a group and asked for some donations. Perhaps, the authorities are taking strern actions now that resulted in the arrest of such begging activities among children. To recapture my memory of my last visit at Wat Phnom, the wat is located on top of a small hill and the wiharn, surrounded by few chedis is located at the centre of the hill. There is multiple steps staircase leading up to Wat Phnom. The wall on the top of the staircase is beautifully crafted with Khmer arts and panitings. The walls in fornt of the wiharn are also decorated with great Khmer art, craft and designs. The wiharn may look small from the outside but the interior looks spacious and the wiharn building is quite tall. Inside the wiharn building, a massive Golden Buddha statue sitting on a tall big golden lotus flower placed in the middle of the wiharn. Below this huge golden Buddha statue is another 3 smaller golden Buddha statues surrounded by few other Buddha statues with robe as well as a reclining Buddha statue at the foremost front of all the Buddha statues. The walls of the wiharn are fully decorated with paintings of the Buddha and Buddhism teachings & spirituals. The wiharn building is surrounded by a few large and small chedis and covered with lush trees around the boundary of the Wat Phnom.
Another tourist sights that I missed during my previous visit to Phnom Penh is the National Museum. This museum is another icon of Phnom Penh with its unique and distinctive building. The architecture of the building is desiged to look like a wat and the bright red colour further adds to the attractiveness of this museum. The museum displays various historical items ranging from during the pre-Angkor to the Angkor period which include sandstones, bronze, Khmer arts, Khner sculptures, paintings, textiles and Buddhism, ceramics and the daily accessories used during the 16-20th century. This red building has 5 main front towers, each with a tall black coloured door. The main entrance to the museum being the middle tower of these 5 towers. At the rear of the main building is an open courtyard with a garden, with another 2 towers on the left and right of these garden. This place is worth a visit to appreciate the great Khmer architechture and to see how the Khmer empire and its people had developed into a civilised country from 16th to 20 century. Taking a tour around the city for a day by the motodup cost quite reasonable at USD10 and the driver would wait for you while you take a tour at those place of interests. While I was on such motodup tour, in within it was lunch hour so I thought the driver would have been hungry after few hours of tour around Phnom Penh city. He introduced me to a restaurant downtown that serve barbeque meat including the buffalo meat and stewed pork. The price was reasonable with half carton cans of Angkor beer, 2 plates of buffalo barbeque meat and a plate of stew pork with pickled salad, it cost a total of USD12. Not bad I thought and it was a great dining experience as I never tasted buffalo meat before and the beers are also cheap. In all the places I travelled, I enjoy drinking the local beer and Angkor beer is one of the famous local beer in Phnom Penh. I think most beer lovers would not want to miss a taste of it. Over at Phnom Penh, you would not need to scratch your head to look for beer bars. There are in fact loads of them in particular the Sisowath Quay as well as along the side streets of Sisowath Quay. I took a stroll along Street 136 and this is a street which has good number of beer bars. Along the Sisowath Quay which faced the stunning Mekong river, its also a place to take a good night walk when weather is not scorching hot to enjoy the beautiful night scenes along this riverside area where most shops, bars, restaurants and gueshouses and hotels are light up with colourful lights .
Early the next morning, I left the guesthouse at 7am by tuk-tuk to catch the bus to Banlung at 8am. So, I was back to where I was 6 years ago at the Phnom Penh Sorya Transport Co bus station. I think this place did not changed much with the big and noisy crowd still being seen over at this small bus station. One thing that I fondly remember about Phnom Penh is the french bread stuff with ham and cold salad which is being sole at one of corner of this station. I remember 6 years ago, I could see many such mobile traders on the road while travelling from airport to the city but this time around, these were hardly seen. I hope Subway would not have taken away this french bread business from the local as I believe the locals depend on their living from such business to have 3 meals a day and to support their family financial needs. The bus departed quite on time at 8am and I was caught by surprise that the bus load was almost 90% full. And most of the passengers are locals. The journey on the road out of Phnom Penh city is a combination of poor and satisfactory road condition with some parts of the road undergoing construction. While some parts of the road can get very bumpy and dusty, the overall road condition has been acceptable. Along the way, the bus stops at Kompong Thom and Kratie, a port town to drop and pick up passengers as well as goods. The bus continue its journey to Banlung from Kratie and arrived in Banlung bus station at 6.30pm. All in the journey took approximately 11 hours from Phnom Penh to Banlung, which is located in the northeast of Phnom Penh in the Rattanakiri province. Upon reaching Banlung bus station, there are many tuk-tul and motodup drivers waiting for the passengers to get down from the bus. So, there is no worry about the transport to downtown. The fee from the bus station to downtown cost USD3 for the entire tuk-tuk, which could accomodate few passengers. I went with one of the tuk-tuk driver to get to banlung town and then settled down at Mean Heng guesthouse located near the wet market of Banlung. The cost of fan with twin bed is as low as USD7 with windows. I asked the driver about the transport to the border to Pleiku in Vietnam. The tuk-tuk driver offers a trip to the Oyadaw border checkpoint from Banlung for USD15 with a motodup driven by his son the next morning. He mentioned that, after crossing the Oyadaw border, I could get a ride from the vehicles that pick up goods at the border to Pleiku city. I was not too convinced about this. I thought it would be good to look around the town in Banlung to check if there is any bus or minivan that offers transport service to Oyadaw border or even Pleiku city. As I walked around the town I found a guesthouse which has a signboard that offer various transport services within Cambodia and out of Cambodia to Laos and Vietnam including Pleiku. The cost of ticket is USD15 and it mentioned Pleiku. At night, the Banlung town appears quite with some street traders seen selling thier goods in particular fruits, consumer goods as well as food. I found a restaurant that sells french bread. Since I was interested to try it yet again, I bought it to get a taste of it and it taste as good as ever. It costs someting like 5,000 riel for half size bread. It also to be noted that the weather at night gets rather cool in Banlung. The minivan departs the next morning at 8am from the guesthouse where ticket was booked. It came on time and I was the only passenger on board. The scenes along the way from Banlung to Oyadaw border was stunning where the road cuts through what seemed to be like a valley of a large greenfields. The cool crisp morning air adds to the feel of being like in Europe or Ocenia region during winter.
The road from Banlung to Oyadaw was basically in good condition, not dusty nor bumpy at all. Reaching the Oyadaw border, this is a very small border crossing between Cambodia and Vietnam. The main immigration building is a mid-sized red wooden hut. There is a mobile gate with a rope tied on the worn-out mobile metal door to block the crossing of vehicles and for checking purposes. The road is rather dusty due to the fact that after the immigration border checpoint, the roads are in laterite conditions as it is not being covered with tar all the way to the Le Thanh border checpoint in Vietnam. The area between Oyadaw and Le Thanh border crossing is also surrounded with thick jungle. After having my passport stamped, it was auld lang syne to Cambodia and welcome to Vietnam.