(This is the second of three stories on tourist attractions in rural Cambodia. Tomorrow:
stung treng – Just six months ago, it was rare to see a foreigner walking the rivefront of this quiet provincial capital near the Lao border.
But these days, with the Mekong river running high and word of a newly opened international border crossing into Laos spreading, the sight of Western travelers stepping off the fast boat from Kratie has become a regular afternoon occurrence.
There are also a steady number of foreign tourists coming south through Laos into Cambodia.
“We’re getting more and more foreigners now,” said Men Manpeoudolla, manager of the Hotel Sekong, which has taken the lead in arranging transport to Laos and Ratanakkiri province for foreigners. “Much more in just the last few months.”
Although it rates just a paragraph or two in most tourist guidebooks, Stung Treng is a scenic, pleasant town in its own right, offering rare dolphins in the Mekong River and Chenla-era ruins. But the main draw for the new influx of foreigners is that it lies at the crossroads to other tourist destinations.
Typically, travelers have been staying a night or two before crossing into Laos either by river or by road. Some go east to Ratanakkiri province, an increasingly popular destination for foreigners that is now just a three- or four-hour journey over a vastly improved road.
“There are a lot of good reasons for tourism here to develop,” said David Wright, an NGO official who has lived in Stung Treng for several years. “It could be part of a natural loop. People can go from Bangkok to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, then up the Mekong through Laos and back to Bangkok.”
Foreigners have been able to travel through the Lao-Cambodian border since September 2000, according to Nick Ray, author of Lonely Planet’s Cambodia guidebook. “But it has been on-and-off in terms of people actually believing it,” he said.
Ray predicts foreigners will continue to head to Cambodia’s north, and not just as a way of getting to Laos. Kratie, Ratanakkiri, Mondolkiri and Preah Vihear provinces all have a lot of tourism potential, he said. Stung Treng, located at the confluence of the Mekong and Sekong Rivers, lies in the middle of it all.
In October 2000, tourism ministers from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Burma agreed to open more border crossings, provide visa-on-arrival services and improve travel by overland routes. In January, Cambodia and Laos agreed to open their common border. But officials said at the time it could take years to successfully open the border, especially since roads linking Cambodia’s interior provinces to Laos have yet to be developed and are often in poor condition.
Tourists going from Stung Treng to Laos by road pay about $20 to travel by motorcycle taxi for several hours along a difficult road that was carpet bombed by US warplanes in the 1970s and has been neglected in the years since. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Hun Sen appealed to the Chinese government for funds to repair the road and others in Stung Treng and Kratie provinces.
But until the road is upgraded, most tourists will probably take the river route to Laos. Like the famous French expedition that traveled up the Mekong river in 1866, tourists will encounter swift waters, numerous islands, remote villages and, in places, thick jungle.
Fast boats from Kratie only run to Stung Treng from June to December, when the wet season rains keep the river high. But smaller boats can make the journey from Stung Treng to the Lao border year-round, according to Exotissimo tour guide Cheng Phal. One or two boats leave Stung Treng daily for the border, making the trip in about three hours for $5.
But because the river border post at Koh Chhoeuteal Thom is not yet an official international border station, crossing into Laos via the Mekong River requires a permit letter from the immigration police in Stung Treng, as well as a visa from the Lao embassy in Phnom Penh.
Permit letters are not needed at the road crossing, which is about 5 km from the river border posts.
“The province has been sympathetic to tourists because the road is in poor condition and hasn’t been finished yet,” said Koh Chhoeuteal Thom border police official Long Mony Reak.
Prices for the permit letter have varied from $10 to $40, according to tour guides and tourists questioned recently. Stung Treng immigration police official Sous Sokunthea said last week that the price for the letter is 10,000 riel (about $2.50).
In October, 109 foreigners requested and received the permit letter, according to Sous Sokunthea.Tourists should also expect to be asked for about $5 as they pass through the Cambodian and Lao border posts.
Once inside Laos, tourists can catch a bus or a tuk-tuk to Pakse, 100 km to the north. Improved roads in southern Laos mean the journey takes just two hours from the border.