Sunday, February 17, 2013

Phnom Penh to Pakse along the Mekong by bike

This is an informational post about my cycling route along the Mekong river from Cambodia to Laos.

From Phnom Penh I went on the NW side of the Mekong. I rode 40km of dusty highway under construction through very pour neighborhoods, but then there was a fork in the road and going right took me to a small rural road along the Mekong. I rode 50km of unpaved little roads through villages seldom visited by any tourist, absolutely splendid.  Then another 20k on somewhat paved road you arrive in Kampong Cham.
There are lots of little restaurants along the way, locals are friendly and welcoming so homestay can be an option though I didn't ask. Kampong Cham has several hotels and guesthouses.

From Kampong Cham stay on the W side of the Mekong for 30km, then take a boat across in Stung Trong. But before you take the boat, stop at the restaurant on the corner across the street from the boat ramp to have a chat with .... who speaks perfect english. The boat will cost you 4000 riels?
You can buy vegetables and fruit along this stretch.
Then enjoy the mekong on the E side all the way going through muslim villages to the touristic town of Kratie.
About 50km north of Kratie the road is not easy to follow, use your compass and instincts to get lost but head towards the main hwy again to go to Stoeng Treng.
Lots of little restaurants and fruit and vegetable along the way. It is possible to sleep at temples and at restaurants.

Between Stoeng Treng and the border with Laos there isn't much, but you'll have a couple places to eat lunch and use up your Riels about 10km before the border.
The cost of your Laos Visa depends on your nationality. With my Canadian Passport I had to pay $42 (+$2 tourist rip off stamp fee), while US passport pays $35, Belgium, $35, France $30.... go figure.

In Laos, I took a boat to Don Dhet island for 25,000kip (should have only had to pay 20,000 but prices increase after 4pm in Laos, and this close to the border!). I think the turn off to the boats was 10-15km after the border. There is an ATM on this road to the boats, take out some local money or better yet exchange US dollars if you have. Normally 8000kip is 1dollar, but on the island the exchange can be as low as 7000kip to a dollar, and my bank gave me an exchange of 7500 when I pulled money from the ATM.
On Don Dhet, the more south you go on the Island the cheaper the Bongalows get.
You can ride from Don Dhet to Don Kon island south of it connected with a bridge. There is a beautiful but littered with tourists waterfall on the west side of the island.. 25000kip entrance fee. I didnt go to the beach or the dolphin watching point, but they are there, so leave time to check them out because you 25kkip ticket is good for the day for all these places.
50m east of the bridge that connects the two islands you can find boats that go up the river to the big island of Don Khong. I was lucky, I went there at 3pm when the round trip tours from the big island are returnig the tourists that came south for the day and I just hopped on with them for free.
When I asked about boats the night before someone said I would have to pay 50dollars... dont pay it! Try going by the bridge just before 3pm ;) the boatride up the river takes 2hrs.

From Don Khong, to get to the magical pathway on the West of the Mekong, I took a boat from the North West edge of the island (end of the paved road basically) across to the west side of the mekong. There was no official boat station or anything here though... so I just stood around for a bit, asked a couple locals, then a guy showed up and took me across on his little flatbed boat for 10,000 kip.
On the west side,  you ride through lots of little villages. Whenever you're in a village, there is the main unpaved road, and then also a little path right along the mekong - detour to go along the mekong... don't miss the bamboo shoots and little kids yelling sabaidee here. I litteraly came to tears from happiness on this stretch,  so beautiful.

Then there is a tricky bit that cost me an hour of poking around but proved to me that my instincts are to be trusted ... about 50km up the river, after the village called Outhoum Kao, the road ends at a stream. There is a pulley operated wooden boat you have to take across this stream to continue along the mekong. There is a guy sleeping in the shack across the river who will help you across for 1000 kip (i gave him two), so if you don't see anyone around just yell at the river and he'll show up :)

Then another 15km and I cut inland to the town of Sukuma, with a guesthouse on the road heading north of the roundabout on your left handside.

The road to Champasak is also unpaved, but afterwards you'll have pavement all the way to Pakse.
Wat Phou was poo...small sight and in my opinion not worth the 30,000 kip entrance fee. If you do want to go though, turn left once you hit the paved road fork... right takes you to champasak,  left to Wat Phou. Other tourists I talked to said they liked the view from the top of the stairs... I was too lazy to climb, maybe that's what I missed in my visit to Wat Phou.

From Champasak to Pakse, there is a new paved road that goes along the mekong all the way, 27km to the bridge that connects you to Pakse.  I really liked it, good views with the mountains on the left and river to the right.
You can also take a boat up mekong from champasak to Pakse for 60,000kip per person. I heard the pier is under the tourist info centre, but I never found the info centre :)

In Pakse I stayed at the Khaemse guesthouse.  It's new, so the prices are lower, but it has an awesome patio over a river, it's at the end of a quiet street and it's close to restaurants and markets.

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