When we first started out on our adventure, we hadn’t given much thought to the actual crossing of borders to the 4 countries we planned to go to. But as the time came to do our first we had a fair amount of jitters. As a relatively new traveler, crossing a border for the first time you play out all the worst case scenarios in your mind’s eye; getting separated at the border, losing your passport, getting detained and questioned in a language you don’t understand, all of it. The experiences themselves felt intimidating in the moment, but, like many things, now having the experience under our belt it feels easier and easier each time. Our first border crossing experience was part of a longer travel disaster and could not have gone worse. Juxtapose that against our crossing out of Laos into Cambodia and you get a very different experience. Although not without some shaky moments, it was so much easier than our first crossing. As this is a lengthy post if you are looking for a specific crossing just click the crossing you are interested in Hanoi to Luang Prabang or Don Det to Siem Reap.
Hanoi to Luang Prabang – Cau Treo Border Pass
- Book in person and ensure your ticket says Luang Prabang
- Despite bad exchange rate, do some money exchange at the border for tuk tuk’s on arrival
- If your phone is unlocked, get a SIM at the border crossing
- Bond with bus mates!
- Do NOT use 12GoAsia. Expensive and poor responsiveness to disputes, sent us to wrong city.
- Do NOT sit in the 3 seat undercarriage spot unless you all know each other. It is cramped with strangers, also next to toilet.
Bus: 980,000 VND or $42.00 per person via 12GoAsia
Border: $32.00 per person (could have saved a 1$ if we would have had passport photos)
We booked a bus out off Hanoi through an online booking company called 12GoAsia who we had used several times before in Vietnam with no issue. Instructions were sent via email telling us to go to counter 57 at the Hanoi Bus Station where we would be handed our ticket and board our bus. We arrived early, roughly an hour and a half before our bus was scheduled to leave. The girl at the counter was the only one of the other 100 counters that wasn’t banging on the window asking me to come over to them. As I arrived at the counter and showed her our booking on my phone, she called someone, confirmed our booking, and sent us out to wait by the bus with our tickets in hand. The bus operations in Vietnam are very much cargo orientated, meaning that for the next hour and a half we watched our bus get loaded to the gills with various cargo; live chickens, food, local luggage, etc. Finally, as the time for our bus to leave had come and gone, we approached one of the gentlemen in the orange shirts who seemed to oversee what was going into the bus with our bags, asking him to load them. He was very non-committal, but eventually shoved our bags into a tight spot next to some live chickens in a box. We boarded the bus with some fellow travelers and were squeezed into the back undercarriage which had 3 reclined seats all next to each other with a low ceiling. Although they had a little more leg room, we would recommend taking a seat that is all your own as it was a little uncomfortable to share with a stranger. Our bus departed around 5:45pm and arrived at the Cau Treo Border Pass at roughly 3am. We figured we would take off from there and head out into Laos but instead the bus turned off and we had to wait until the border crossing opened at 7am. Knowing that we would have booked a later bus so we could have enjoyed a more complete day in Hanoi.
As everyone started rousing around 6:30-6:45 outside the bus there was a location to change money and buy SIM cards (also a magician entertaining people, it was weird). We elected to not buy a SIM or change out some money, which turned out to be the wrong decision. Our guy in the orange shirt told everyone to head towards the border station but didn’t exactly lead the way. As we aimlessly walked towards the buildings, we eventually found the right door but don’t expect to have someone leading you.
As we arrived at the exit checkpoint, we had to pay $1 per person, our bus driver collected our passports and they were returned to us one by one. After this, we exited and walked about 10 minutes to the Laos side of the border. Here we realized the importance of having extra passport photos! No worries if you don’t as they have a set up to take your picture, for a $1 per person fee. We paid our fee and walked another 5 minutes or so to our waiting bus. We boarded once more and were through the border.
The border crossing itself was fine as there were fellow travelers on our bus in the same boat. My recommendation is to buddy up with your bus mates and bring passport photos to save cash!
Our main issue, which we are not alone in looking at other posts, is that the bus we had booked to Luang Prabang did not bring us to our final location, instead they brought us to Vientiane which is 12 hours south of our desired location. The confirmation email we received mentioned that we could stop in Vientiane, and we may be asked to transfer buses. When we arrived, we were gruffly told we had arrived and to essentially suck it up buttercup. We caught a tuk tuk to the Northern Bus Station in Vientiane and then booked a bus north to Luang Prabang. After our 21 hours of travel to get to Vientiane, the idea of not being in our location was disheartening to say the least. The bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang was crammed full of people and poor Mandy had only a half of a seat on what was probably the bumpiest ride we had, full of stops we had no desire for. When we arrived at our hostel at 6:30am after some 36 hours of travel we crashed out hard and ultimately decided to stay in Luang Prabang for awhile to recover. We to this day have an open case with 12GoAsia, no refund or acknowledgement yet. I will update this post if we do!
Don Det to Siem Reap – Stung Treng Border
- Book with AVT! Totally a legit company, highly recommend.
- Save some money, and shop where you book your ticket to the border. We paid $3 but we saw as much as $12
- Do NOT book with Green Paradise bus travel all the way from Don Det to Siem Reap unless you want a 9 hour trip to be upwards of 15!
- Don’t wait around at the Don Det ferry terminal, just board when you can and show your ticket. If possible remind they guy you book with to be there in morning when you leave to pay the ferry!
- Do NOT get in line for the visa runners. Go to the departure window and only hand money and passport to people in official uniform. Save $5 per person!
Bus: $3 per person to the border, $20 per person from border to Siem Reap
Border: $35 per person for VISA, $1 per person for photo, $5 per person to hire VISA runner.
Gearing up for another border crossing we did some research on the crossing and what to avoid. Most everyone was consistent. Use AVT (Asian Van Transfer) not the local Green Paradise bus booking which had similar long delay horror stories online that brought back flashbacks of our 36 hour debacle getting into Laos. AVT can be contacted either via Skype or email and the company was very responsive. They walked us through the steps of crossing the Lao-Cambodian border and we couldn’t recommend them more!
We booked our ticket off Don Det to the border through a local stand the day before we left. When we arrived at the ferry terminal to connect to our minivan that would take us to the border there was a little hiccup in the boarding. After calling for all the people with yellow tickets, the first ferry filled and departed. The rest of the 20 people or so waited to be called on, and waited, and waited. Eventually, one of our fellow travelers spoke Laos and went and talked to the ferry operators. They had assumed we were waiting for a guide for another tour. We all boarded and gave our tickets. Enter the confusion. Apparently when you book the person you buy the tickets from needs to be there in the morning at your departure to pay the ferry operators. It seems that didn’t happen for a good majority of us. After much back and forth we held firm we had already paid and were sent off on the ferry around 9:00am, roughly an hour after we were supposed to depart. From Don Det we arrived in Nakasong, where a minivan took us to the border crossing. There were two different bus stations, one about 400-500 meters from the ferry terminal, and another probably a good 1.5 kilometers which is the one we went to. Show your ticket and they will tell you if they can help or not. The actual minivan didn’t leave until 9:45 so we ended up having plenty of time.
When we arrived at the border station, we followed a couple van loads of travelers. In our email from AVT they recommended we avoid the visa runners and to only hand our money and passports to officials. When we arrived immediately the men on the left (not in official uniform) to form a line and not to go to the window. Even with the tip not to do it we fell in line and ended up paying the extra $5. Most travelers went to them as they had an air of authority. In the future simply go to the departure window and get your exit stamp. Then walk across to the Cambodian side and pay your $35 visa fee.
Our experience was a little strange as they collected our passports and money on the Laos side and then told everyone to walk over to the Cambodian side, without our passports. Insert the nightmare of losing passport here. Thankfully once on the other side, our names were called one by one and we all received our passports. Next you receive a fingerprint scan and a photo (assuming you don’t have a passport photo) and you are on your way.
The AVT stand was just on the other side of the border and the minivan ride was just as promised. We took off around 11:45am from the border heading towards Siem Reap. At around 1pm we arrived at the Riverside Guesthouse. From here the travelers going in different directions are put onto different minivans and you can get some lunch if you want. Around 2pm we were on our way to Siem Reap and arrived around 6:45pm. On arrival, the van door opened and a French man who spoke great English informed us that we were to be transferred via free tuk tuk to our final location (in our case an Airbnb that was about a 15-minute drive away). The whole experience was very smooth with the only shakiness being with the visa runners, which to be fair AVT warned us against. Considering we were at the right location with a free ride to our place it already was WAY better than our previous border experience.
We hope these border experiences help pave the way for future travels friends! Cheers!