Thursday, February 6, 2014

9. Laos/Cambodia border, Muang Khong - Kratie, Cambodia

175 km

Crossing the border at this remote location was easy - on the Lao side of things! They have a huge, brand-new -and unoccupied- border checkpoint building, and a series of ramshackle wooden shacks on the side of the road behind it. I stopped first at the imposing new building of course , and after I found all doors to be locked I went on a few hundred yards to pay a visit to the wooden shacks. Their windows were all boarded up, against the heat of the sun, I suppose, but there was again this little hatch at the very bottom of the boards which has you bend down in a deep "kowtow", I assume to show respect, in order to communicate with the invisible person inside. This very low mounted hatch at border crossings isn't unique to Cambodia, though, I saw it almost everywhere else.

The immigration officers cleared my exit out of Laos without a problem, but indicated that now I have to ride back some 10 kilometers since I passed the Customs building there. OK, not a problem at all. I ride back and find the building, hidden under the trees, and clear customs for the motorcycle, which simply meant handing in my temporary import license. Back to the border checkpoint and after some honking to get somebody to open the barrier I was on the Cambodian side.

Here things are a little bit more involved. I have to leave the motorcycle at the gate and walk about 500 yards through the baking sun to the main building to clear customs. There is a lot of consultation and discussion among the officers about  my case, much studying the multitude of visas and stamps in my passport, until somebody has the the brilliant idea to ask me for my "Carnet de Passage", which I don't have ( Oh my lord! I have to tell them in a firm voice and clear terms that Cambodia is not a Carnet country and that I don't need a Carnet. After a while of back and forth, they obviously got tired of me and told me to walk back to where the motorcycle is parked.

There I enter the wooden barrack, a young, beefy immigration guy in a white T-shirt chats a bit with me, issues all the stamps, and before giving back the passport he openly asks me for a bribe: $5.00! I jokingly grab him by the neck with both hands as if I would want to strangle him, his superior officer at a desk in the back looks entertained, and after a while everybody laughs and he says that there isn't a bribe. That all was a joke. Since we all had a good time, I gave him two dollars, and he was very happy.

The barrier was opened and I was on my way. This is the fourth crossing of an international border in Southeast Asia, and on this trip -until December-, it will be my last.

Waiting for my turn at the steel bridge, Asian Highway 11 (AH11).

The road out of the border area is first of good condition, and empty of any traffic. It leads you through vast deforested areas, rice paddy, and some newly cultivated rubber plantations. Cambodia has lost much of its natural rain forests between 2003-2013 due to logging, the areas are being re-cultivated with rubber trees and the building of rice fields, which isn't the same environmentally, of course. The German environmental group ARA which works here, states that the forested areas in Cambodia decreased from 61% to 46% (in the last ten years. Cambodia is in a group of three countries where forests have decreased), whereas dense forests decreased by a staggering 52%..
The road, Asian Highway 11 (AH11), which is one the major north-south connectors turns "Cambodia-style" pretty soon afterwards, meaning patches of asphalt, maybe a quarter mile long, alternate with the worst road conditions, dirt, sand and gravel. Everything is held together by big potholes. The fact that there are intermittent asphalt segments makes riding all the more tiresome and frustrating since I have to decelerate from riding speed to walking speed every so often, the entire way. It is a mystery to me why a good road all of a sudden changes into the worst possible track, and back to a good road again, albeit only for a very short distance.

I make it to Stung Treng, the first bigger town south of the border in Cambodia, and almost stayed here, but the lack of a decent place, and the relatively early hour made me to continue.

All the riding in Cambodia after crossing the border is paper-based, I am using my hardcopy map. When I stopped after crossing the border and tried to change the micro-SD card in my Garmin GPS, I found that the Cambodia SD must have been stolen out of my room during my last overnight stay. The theft is inconvenient and doesn't make me necessarily happy, but it is replaceable; I will buy a new card at ARUNA Technologies  when I arrive in Phnom Penh.

BTW: The card is one of only three things which were taken from me on my entire journey since October:

1. My rainsuit was stolen out of the unlockable, zippered TOURATECH pouche, mounted to the crashbars (potentially on my first stay in Phnom Penh/secured hotel parking lot);
2. A little nylon pouch for my Xena disc-lock alarm was stolen from the same pouch;(
3. Now the SD card.

Well into the evening hours I make it to Kratie, Cambodia, a small, actually lovely French-colonial designed town on the river Mekhong. I am fascinated by that river and surprised how much it would mark the trip.

Mekhong in Kratie, Cambodia, after sun set.

Mekhong in Kratie, Cambodia

Some of the guesthouses on the river were either closed, or fully booked, but I managed to get a US $7 room with a view of the river at a somewhat questionable place. The young girl at check-in, which was a wooden table with a bunch of papers and a flashlight (Warning: Power outages!), had only one eye, but was sufficiently friendly. The room is OK for one night, and I also get free secure parking right in the hotel lobby.

Secure parking in the lobby of the Riverside Inn, Kratie, Cambodia.

I went out for dinner and walked the small, lively provincial town a bit where the night food market was in full swing.

When I unpacked this evening, one of my prized possessions fell to the floor without me noticing, one of the neoprene heavy duty bungee cords. They are impossible to get in this part of the world. I noticed it only the day after when I was ready to pack again. I walked around the reception area and through the outdoors food joint, holding up the left over bungee asking people whether they have seen one of those.

The young food cart vendor girl, looked at me, smiled, went to her scooter to retrieve the cord which she had securely stored under the seat. All was well. I wasn't mad at her but gave her a hug.

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