The long, dusty, fun road.

Round the World trip
November 2014 – May 2015
week 4 of 24

Preăh Réachéanachâk Kâmpŭchéa | Cộng hòa Xã hội chủ nghĩa Việt Nam

by Xavier

There is a risk that this blog might read like Great Bus Journeys of Southeast Asia – of interest to any other transport consultants reading but probably nobody else. However, we have spent a considerable amount of this trip on buses, and some of them have been quite memorable, generally not for the right reasons.

We left Don Det, the most chilled out of places, to set off on another mammoth journey. Out of Laos and into Cambodia, heading to its capital city: Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh

This particular journey started with a short boat transfer to the mainland, then a two hour wait, and a short bus ride to the Cambodian border, where you pay US$2 for Lao officials to stamp you out of the country, US$1 for a derisory “medical check”, US$30 for the Cambodian visa, and an extra US$5 which the border guards charge, apparently, for being stationed at such a remote crossing with only one daily bus load to process. The bus company offered – in fact were very insistent – to handle all this for us for a small fee, but we didn’t see the point in that so we did it all ourselves. Once all the paperwork was sorted out, we crossed into Cambodia.

We thought the road ahead couldn’t be worse than those we’d left behind. Oh, how foolish of us. It took another ten dusty, boneshaking hours to cover the mere 400km to Phnom Penh, with a brief stop along the way for people heading to Siem Reap to change buses. Here we said goodbye to our kayaking buddies, who’d come on the same bus. We wish them all the best!


photo © Samantha Bill.

And so we arrived in Phnom Penh, and what a surprise it was to find our backpacks – which had traveled in the hold – covered in a layer of dust from the road, so thick we couldn’t recognise them at first. Even the tuk tuk driver we hired to take us to the hotel wouldn’t put the backpacks on his old and rusty vehicle without beating some of the dust off first.

In a moment of budget-waiving weakness brought on by the nasty stomach bug he got in Don Det, Simon had booked us into a very comfortable looking hotel for our stay in the Cambodian capital. It turned out to be a very nice hotel indeed. The lovely staff managed not to look too horrified when we fell off the tuk tuk looking rather bedraggled and with our filthy backpacks in tow. A hot shower and a few cold drinks later we felt much, much better, and in keeping with our new surroundings.

Next day we ventured out to see the sights of Phnom Penh. These tend to be focused on the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, one of the most brutal, genocidal regimes the world has ever known, killing more than a quarter of Cambodia’s population in the less than four years they were in power in the 70’s before they were overthrown by the Vietnamese. The Khmer Rouge, led by the monstrous Pol Pot, closed all the schools, the hospitals, and the factories, and forced the entire urban populations to leave the cities and become agricultural labourers. One school in Phnom Penh became the infamous S21 detention centre, where the “enemies” of the regime, mostly Cambodians, were held and tortured before being sent in trucks to sites outside the city (known as The Killing Fields) for extermination. Both the S21 prison and The Killing Fields are now haunting museums and memorials. We visited some of these sites over a couple of days, the sickening horror of what happened there will stay with us for a long time. Here is a brief video:

source: HistoryUnshelved channel, Youtube.

Having spent a relatively quiet few days in Phnom Penh, our next stop was – yes, after a six hour bus journey and yet another border crossing – Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, the commercial capital of Vietnam and hands down one of my favourite places on Earth.

We had first visited Saigon a couple of years ago, and spent a most memorable Christmas there. The traffic is still as insane as we remembered, merely crossing the road is a truly exhilarating experience though oddly it is illegal for foreigners to drive. There are great places to discover, a million things to do (and buy), and the people are great. In short, it was good to be back in this fun, crazy, amazing city.


Our time in Saigon was spent mostly chilling out, doing the odd sight-seeing, and generally soaking up the sensory overload that is this city. On our last night, after an unsuccessful attempt to go to the cinema (all films were in Vietnamese, except the last instalment of The Hobbit, which Simon refuses point blank to sit through) we were walking back to where we were staying when we got pulled over by a group of local University students who, as we found out, gather in the evenings in the same area several times a week, and ask passing foreign visitors to sit down and chat with them, for language practice. We ended up spending over an hour chatting with a lovely bunch of 18 year old boys and girls; many of them seemed very ambitious for their futures in booming Vietnam, wanting to work in finance or become Company CEOs (and why not). Some were also keen to talk about Vietnam’s politics and government – to the evident discomfort of others. As in China, the abandonment of communist economic ideology has not meant abandonment of the absolute rule of the Party. At one point one of the boys said he had difficulty pronouncing words that begin with “tw”, like “twelve” and “twirl” (sic.), and was keen in overcoming this handicap – to which I agreed, since there are other words in the English language that also begin with “tw” which he should find very handy to learn, especially if he wished to pursue a career in finance.

When the time came for us to make our excuses they surprised us with an amazing parting gift: an awesome “survival” guide for foreigners, and a set of shuttlecocks – đá cầu is a very popular game in Vietnam. We declined an offer to play, though we may give it a go at some point!

Saigon students gift

We seem to have some trouble uploading a couple of videos we took in Saigon, so here is a brief one we’ve found on the web instead. It sums it all up quite well, even shows some foot-shuttlecock (1:15):

source: Jan Kalserud channel, YouTube.

It was with great sadness (especially from my part) that we left Saigon, after one last drink at one of its rooftop bars, and we are now back in Hong Kong, for the festive season.

More on that on the next post, Merry Christmas for now!.

Hong Kong

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited.
All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited.

Been There, Don Det.

Round the World trip
November 2014 – May 2015
week 3 of 24

ສາທາລະນະລັດ ປະຊາທິປະໄຕ ປະຊາຊົນລາວ

(Lao People’s Democratic Republic)

by Simon

We left Vang Vieng on 8 December and found ourselves in Vientiane, Laos’ largest city, after a relatively painless four hours on a bus. Or rather, we found ourselves somewhere just outside it. Bus stations in Laos always seem to be inexplicably a long way from the city, fortituously guaranteeing an income for the serendipitous tuk tuk drivers about the station who kindly take you the last few kilometres for almost as much as you paid for the original ticket.

Eventually we checked into a guesthouse in the centre which was an improvement on previous lodgings, with forgotten luxuries like a balcony and cable tv. The bed, however, was once again rock hard and the toilet inside the shower, so we knew we were still in Laos.

Vientiane is pleasant enough but very calm and small for an Asian capital. We saw a couple of temples, the rather incongruous Arc de Triomphe replica, and visited the Lao National Museum to learn about how Comrade What’s-his-face of the patriotic Lao People’s Forces Bravely Overthrew The Nasty French Colonialist And Fought The US Imperialist; and here was the chair he sat in, and here the gun he held, and here the pot he drank his tea in, and here a photo of him meeting all sort of oddly-spelt foreign leaders… You get the picture.

What Vientiane does have is a number of good and reasonably priced cafés and restaurants, of which we took full advantage, though we totally missed the riverfront area for some reason.

Pimentón, Vientiane

After a couple of days we headed off on the sleeper bus to the 4000 Islands. We found this video on YouTube, which illustrates very well this part of our trip.

We’d been on sleeper trains before but never a bus. Certainly not a bus like this one.

Sleeper Bus

Not an experience for the claustrophobic, we got to share a barely padded bunk about the width of a single bed but shorter (so you couldn’t quite lie down and stretch your legs), which happened to be positioned just over the back wheels and in front of the engine, so we could feel the full force of every bump (and Lao roads have many). With no space to sit or stand (even in the toilet), being at the back also meant we got covered in the dust from the dirt roads, sucked in through the air vents. The two people on the bunk next to ours (a guy from New Zealand and a young woman from Italy, who didn’t know each other) were at least friendly enough.

Amazingly, we both managed some sleep, and a brisk seventeen hours after leaving our guesthouse in Vientiane we were on a little boat over to the island of Don Det.

We spent four nights on the island, surrounded by the Mekong river and possessing a wealth of flora and fauna. On the first day, whilst Xavi recovered from the sleeper bus, I borrowed a bike from the guesthouse and cycled over to the neighbouring island of Don Khon. During the colonial era, the French built a railway line across these two islands, so that traffic on the Mekong river could be taken around the waterfalls by train, allowing the river to be used for transport between Laos and Cambodia for the first time. The railway is long gone and about the only decent infrastructure on the islands is the bridge that carried it between the two. Unfortunately the chain on my bike came off at the furthest possible point. I managed to fix it but then it happened again, and again, and again, until finally it jammed and could not be fixed. So I had to drag the bike, rear wheel locked, the final three kilometres back, in baking heat, covered in oil and dust. Not an auspicious start to my stay in the islands.

Next day, having slept off the bus journey, we hired some slightly less ropey bikes (for 80p each) and went back, seeing the impressive Li Phi waterfalls and stopping for a Beerlao at a chilled cafe by the beach.

Don Det

In the evening, we bumped into Sam and Harry, a cool couple we had met in Vang Vieng, and joined them and their small group of friends at one of the local backpacker bars where, several beers later, we somehow agreed to go out kayaking with them the next day.

And kayaking we went. As it turned out, the guys were rather fitter and more experienced at this than we were, and so it was quite a struggle to keep up from the start. In order to keep the group going, Xavi had to share the two-man kayak with one of our guides, and I had to share my kayak with the other guide. Shouts of “Come on! Come on!” could be heard at regular intervals from the guy paddling with Xavi, much to the amusement of everyone else. We got to see some more waterfalls, swim in the river, and after waiting on a rock for some time, catch a fleeting and distant glimpse of the rare and shy Irrawaddy river dolphins (though in the distance it was rather hard to distinguish a dolphin from a wave.) Lunch was provided at a very local off-the-road “cafe” – which was probably a bad idea given how violently sick I got later on that night. Some more vigorous kayaking, a brief pause to watch the sunset, and we were back in Don Det just before it got too dark to be on the water.

Don Det

That evening we had dinner with our kayaking group, followed by drinks, Jenga, more drinks, a bonfire on the beach, more drinks…

They say “Been there, Don Det“. We certainly have.

Our next stop: Cambodia’s Phnom Penh.

Watch this space.

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited.
All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited.