Overland from Lao to Cambodia--The Boat Mafia

Trip Start Feb 29, 2004
Trip End Apr 12, 2005

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Monday, July 19, 2004

Well, the overland (well, overriver, really) border crossing from Lao into Cambodia was every bit as do-able as I'd heard and read about on the net. And just as frustrating and mentally taxing.

You have to cross the river from Lao immigration in order to get stamped into Cambodia--their immigration office is on what seems to be a lonely island in the Mekong with nothing else besides just a couple of huts, some bored officials in khaki, a Cambo flag and...

The Boat Mafia.

When you come out of the little hut (after paying them about $2 for no apparent reason--unless you have unusually good haggling skills), you'll have the choice of either getting bashed for $10 each for the pleasure of being a passenger in one of their speedboats to Stung Tren--which is not even close to the normal $4-5 each you'd pay coming the other direction ($25 per boat) for a trip that's less than an hour downriver. Or you can do what we did. This entails sitting down on your backpacks in whatever shade you can find near the big group of guys squatting around looking bored and start trying to bargain them down. And keep trying. And keep smiling patiently, cause in Asia you're not supposed to lose your cool cause that means losing face. But it's oooooooh so hard.

And all the while the main mafia guy (all of maybe 22 years old?) keeps telling you all the lies and fabrications he can think of to justify their screwing you out of twice the real price: "Oh, petrol is very expensive in Cambodia." (Why is it twice the price to go DOWN river WITH the current, then??) "We use more petrol because it's a speedboat and we go fast." (Ok, then we want to go twice as slow and pay half your price. He didn't laugh...) "I have to pay taxes to Lao." (We thought we were in Cambodia???) Blah blah blah. To make a very long story short, we spent nearly 90 minutes of our morning trying to reason, haggle, joke, laugh, plead, use info from other travellers and statistics and logic with this guy, and in the very end when the sky started to cloud up he finally came down to $9 and then $8 each (for 5 of us).

btw, I've since talked to several people who've also gone thru that border crossing and have heard stories of people who have paid even more than $10 each, anmd of others who actually spent the night there because they refused to pay!

So if you're headed this way, be prepared, and try to reason with these guys like we did (and other people did before us as well) and tell them they're idiots because the word is out and people are avoiding going that way because they're being such assholes with the price. They don't seem to understand the power of the traveller word-of-mouth news chain and that if they clean up their act, loads more people would actually go thru there and they'd do better business (and have better karma--why is that not a deterrent in SE Asia??). If enough people say this to them, maybe it'll actually sink in eventually.

So, although it was not pleasant, I'm glad I went through the experience in a weird sort of glutton-for-challenges sorta way (and I was travelling with a nice group of people, too), but I certainly wouldn't do it again anytime soon.

If you happen to be going thru this border crossing yourself, email me and let me know how it goes--good luck, and don't let it discolor your first impressions of Cambodia or the Khmers, cause (I can say this now!) they're really lovely!!
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