Down The Mekong in Cambodia – Stung Treng

It was time to get out of the tourist trap and onto the open road into the real Cambodia. However, the journey to our next destination up on the Laos border would be a five-hour slog in a minivan … or so we thought.

Very few people travel from Siem Reap to Stung Treng and for good reason. The road is a single carriageway in various states of repair through remote northern Cambodia so the 300 kilometers would take the best part of a day. We decided to do it this way to save covering the same ground twice up and down the Mekong.

Our minivan, which had seen better days, left at around 08.30 so by 10.30 I was dismayed to see that we’d only travelled about a centimeter (about 50 km) on the map. It was going to be a long day.

Around an hour later the driver pulled off the “highway” and into a field where an elderly couple with their entire worldly possessions were waiting. Over the next 20 minutes, they proceeded to load the already crowded and sweltering van with the contents of their home which included chairs, tables, pots, pans, fans, a motorcycle … and a box of chickens.

It was time to grin and bear it and try to get comfortable for the rest of the journey through the arid featureless landscape. After the lunch stop, the road started to improve a little and distances were covered more quicker. We finally rolled into Stung Treng at around 15.00 in various states of pain and discomfort, the worst journey was over.

I was expecting a dusty feral village but Stung Treng turned out to be quite a sizable town with a great riverfront where the Mekong and Sekong rivers converge. Our Chinese guesthouse cost $15 bucks a night and there was a little shop across the road selling meat and Pâté baguettes for just over a dollar. These are the staple food in Cambodia, a remnant of French colonialism, and we enjoyed them.

The main reason for visiting this town, and the highlight of my trip, was access to Sopheakmit Waterfall which is part of the epic Si Phan Don area in southern Laos where the Mekong splits and cascades around thousands of islands.

But first, we had to find bikes to rent or someone to take us there, which was not proving to be easy. Very little information was available and even less English was spoken up here. We ended up stumbling into the tourist and river police office which turned out to be quite fortunate.

These guys couldn’t be more helpful and arranged transport for us to the falls for the following day. With the mission accomplished, it was time to catch a Mekong sunset with a cold Beer Lao.

Our driver arrived promptly the next morning and we were on our way north to the Laos border. Once off the highway, the road deteriorated into a bone-shaking strip of rippled red dirt stretching for 40 kilometers. They say the harder a place is to get to, the more you appreciate it and this was definitely the case here.

The epic landscape can only be described as the Grand Canyon of waterfalls, I’d never seen anything like it. A 180-degree vista of cascades ranging from torrents to trickles surrounded us. The sound was immense as was the volume of water flowing through the matrix of islets. I can’t imagine what it would be like in the wet season when the Mekong is in full flow.

Another bonus is that there was virtually nobody there aside from a few bored trinket sellers, a couple of hardy bikers from Malaysia, and the odd local girl selling cold beer by the riverside which I naturally gravitated towards. This place was my primary target for the trip and it didn’t disappoint.

Back in Stung Treng, it was time for a siesta. The mid-afternoon heat was oppressive, approaching 40 degrees so walking around town in it was a bad idea. Once things had cooled down we went back to see the police to book onward travel. They were pleased to see us and offered us a cold beer and a seat to join them in eating fresh river fish, various insects, and the best Kampot pepper and lime sauce I’d ever tasted. It turned into a bit of a lively evening with flowing drinks, Khmer pop music, and dancing. Not sure that would ever happen in Thailand!