From Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh: Journey to the heart of Cambodia
Needless to say, Vietnam and its neighbor Cambodia have always shared complex historical, social and economic ties. From territory disputes over the southern region, the dark Khmer Rouge past to long-held cross-border trading activities, the formation and growth of these two countries have interwoven so closely that experiencing one will facilitate understanding of the other.
If you already find yourself in Vietnam, especially Southern Vietnam, a getaway trip to Cambodia is highly recommended. In this article, I feature one of the most popular routes between the two countries: Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) to Phnom Penh (PP).
The thought of taking a cross-border bus might sound scary or shady to some people, but rest assured that bus is definitely the cheapest, easiest and most frequent way to travel from HCMC to PP. Take a walk along Pham Ngu Lao Street (a famous backpacker area in HCMC) – the side right opposite to September 23 Park – and you can spot numerous bus offices that hang advertising boards about daily trips to PP.
Each bus company should offer at least 3 trips per day, from as early as 7am to as late as 3pm. The journey is supposed to be 6-hour long, but traffic jam in both HCMC and PP, plus a 30-minute meal break and two stops at each country’s border gate, usually turns the trip into 7-8 hour long. Trust me though, with a book, some good wifi and/or good nap, the trip would not seem that long!
Ticket price averages at $10-$12, which ensures a decently comfortable bus experience no matter which bus brand you take. If you opt for cheaper option, beware of certain poor bus services or unnecessary hassles on crossing border.
The booking process is super easy: you can either buy directly at bus offices on Pham Ngu Lao Street or call a bus company’s hotline, leave them your phone number as booking reservation and pay when you start your trip. Any other adjustments in your trip schedule, from time change to cancellation, can be made through a quick phone call as well.
Most tourist hotels, especially those in Pham Ngu Lao area, also sell bus tickets to PP, so you can consider buying your tickets directly at your hotel, although the price may be a few thousand VND more expensive.
While quality of bus service should not vary much, I do have some comments on the three most popular bus names you might here: Sapaco, Mekong Express and Kumho Samco.
Sapaco (a Vietnamese company) and Mekong Express (a Cambodian company) are among the first to run buses between HCMC and PP. Unsurprisingly, these two brands are most familiar names among local Vietnamese and Cambodians. A long history of operation allows both companies to offer a larger number of daily trips (5-6 trips) and fast cross-border services.
However, bus conditions are doubtable. I took a Sapaco bus 2 months ago and was truly disappointed with the run-down bus condition: some seats are unable to move back, and the bus floor has certain holes. There was no wifi, even though the website said the opposite. This might also just be my bad luck, but everyone will have to agree with me that a bus by Sapaco in general looks a lot older than that of newer brand like Kumho or Phuong Heng, or even of Mekong Express.
Regarding Mekong Express, though I have never used this company myself, I have heard more good recommendations than complaints, so I bet they do keep up with market competition and maintain their buses better than Sapaco.
Kumho Samco is the newer one, with nicer and wider seats, plus good wifi connection. I prioritize wifi because I usually have to contact my Cambodian friends to pick me up when I enter PP. If Wifi is of utmost importance to you, definitely go for Kumho! Kumho’s lunch stop is also newly built and feels a lot cleaner than that of Sapaco or Mekong Express.
Another new brand some of my friends highly recommend is Phuong Heng. Though they only run 3 trips per day and their buses do not have wifi, their seats are similar to the business-class ones on flights, making the long-hour bus-sitting experience much more comfortable. Besides, because each bus has only 3 rows instead of 4, the bus feels more spacy and runs much faster.
Last but not least, If you are willing to pay a bit more for more comfort and shorter journey, some brands such as Mekong Express or Kumho Samco offer the VIP van (11-14 seat) option at around $15.
Should saving time be your one and only concern, there is always the flight option. Only Vietnam Airlines offers direct 55-minute flights between HCMC and PP, so price is understandably high, averaging from $80 to $170 for one way trip and above $200 for round trip.
If you are an adventurous soul, the good news is that crossing Vietnam-Cambodia on a motorbike is feasible. The route you take should be similar to that of a bus going from HCMC to PP. It is feasible to take a Vietnamese-plated motorbike across the Moc Bai (Vietnamese side)/ Baxi (Cambodian side) border, albeit some fees or bribes might be needed.
If you are a Vietnamese or citizen of a Southeast Asian country, you are exempt from visa requirement and only need to have your passport stamped on entering Phnom Penh. Other countries, in most cases, are eligible for Cambodian visa on arrival at airports or at border gates.
If you travel by bus, the bus staff will usually help take care of passport stamping and visa issue on behalf of their customers, the cost of which is already included in the price of your bus ticket. Check with the bus company about their particular procedure. The only weakness is that the bus staff will just follow the routine process without telling you exactly what’s going on, leaving you a little bit clueless about what to do or where to go. Therefore, if it’s your first time to travel from HCMC to PP, your best bet is to go with the flow and follow people on the same bus as yours.
Top things to do in Phnom Penh
As the capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh promises a modern beat of active lifestyle, busy traffic and booming urban landscape, at the same time still being deepened with traces of traditional and historical legacies. While one can argue that Phnom Penh is more suited for working and living than for a one-week holiday, this city does offer real delicacies to charm your heart and even make you want to come back.
Before we dive into things to do in Phnom Penh, it would be helpful to know that USD is widely used, even a more favorable option than the local currency “riel”, in Cambodia. Also, $1 should be the average minimum price for a service or product in Phnom Penh anyway, so do not feel the pressure to exchange to riel if you already have some US dollars in hand.
Ready to explore Phnom Penh?
Visit Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide
You can’t say you have been to Phnom Penh without visiting this historical landmark. Be ready for a profoundly heart-wrenching, yet informative experience. If you don’t have a tour guide, the audio tour, available in multiple languages, is highly recommended. Its detailed and well-narrated audios will allow you to best absorb the historical significance of the museum.
Tuol Sleng Museum stands as a stark reminder of how vulnerable humanity can be. The museum was once the infamous Security Prison 21 (S-21) – a local high school being turned to center of torture by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Every corner of Tuol Sleng tells an horrifying story of the genocidal crimes Pol Pot’s forces have imposed on more than 12,000 innocent lives imprisoned there between 1975 and 1978: a courtyard half-filled by tombs of 14 last victims, razor wire covering the school corridor, classrooms displaying instruments of torture and disturbing images of the captured, cabinets filled with human skulls and exhibitions retelling the horrendous invasion of the Khmer Rouge, etc.
You can also meet and have a conversation with one of the rare genocide survivors, who usually sits at Tuol Sleng to share his stories and promote his anecdotes about his terrifying time at S-21.
Entrance fee: $3 for entrance fee; $6 for audio tour; Free for students and locals.
Open daily from 7am to 5:30pm.
Admire the Royal Palace
With its renowned archaic beauty, the Royal Palace introduces another side of Phnom Penh. Shining under classic Khmer roofs and gilded ornaments, the Royal Palace takes its visitors to a space of sacred serenity, distinct from the hustle and bustle of city life. Residing by the riverfront, the striking structure consists of 4 main parts: the central one, also the main attraction, is the 59-meter tall Throne Hall. The Silver Pagoda resides on the south side while the Khemarin Palace on the north side. The west part is the private sector, also called “Inner Court”.
Only the central and south side, plus the Moonlight Palace (Chan Chaya Pavilion) on the eastern portion of the palace, are open for tourists, the rest being restricted to the King’s living area. To enter the Palace, make sure you wear clothes, or at least find something that cover(s) your knees and elbows.
Entrance fee: $10/ person.
Open daily from 7:30a to 5pm.
Eat, eat & eat
A country’s cuisine is a reflection of its historical formation. Nowhere can that be truer than in the case of Khmer cuisine. You can easily find anything from Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese to French traces in Khmer delicacies, such as balute, chive cakes, fish amok, Khmer red curry or bai sach chrouk (pork and rice). Similarity, however, does not make Cambodian food any less unique or less worth a try. As a Saigonese, I personally fall in love with Khmer cuisine since it tastes less intense that what Thai or Chinese food might offer. As a noodle fan, I find the signature “Nom banh chok (so-called “Khmer noodles”) excitingly different from any types of noodles I can find in Vietnam.
From abundant street food to fancy restaurants, Phnom Penh has a wide variety of dining styles to offer. Street food is readily available outside street markets, while restaurants usually concentrate in the central town with very friendly services and charming decór. (I would generally rate restaurant services in Phnom Penh higher than in Ho Chi Minh City)
One particular restaurant that I was deeply impressed with and would highly recommend is called Romdeng. Not only does it serve tasty and authentic local food (including a rich menu for vegetarians), the restaurant also serves meaningful social mission. As part of the TREE Global Alliance, Romdeng provides training to and is staffed by former street children and marginalized youth. The space itself is another big plus: Set in a gorgeous colonial building, Romdeng hosts a pool, a family area, as well as beautiful paintings and handicrafts also made by disadvantaged youth. All in all, this restaurant is definitely worth a visit!
Enjoy local coffee shops
Ordinary as it may sound, chilling in a coffee shop is a great way to hide away from the burning heat on the street and immerse yourself in the local vibe. Besides, coffee shops are becoming a true culture mark of urban life in Phnom Penh.
The increased number of coffee brands speak for the booming coffee culture here. Local brand Brown Coffee & Bakery is considered a household name, or I dare say the “Starbucks of Phnom Penh”. Though the number of Brown Coffee shops is not the largest in Phnom Penh, the popularity of Brown Coffee among locals is undeniable. When I ask for coffee recommendations from my Cambodian friends, Brown Coffee is always the first name to be mentioned. I can’t figure out yet what is so special about Brown, but I second that their coffee tastes good!
Another popular coffee chain you can easily spot on Phnom Penh streets is Café Amazon, owned by Thai oil and gas giant PTT Plc. It is easy to tell that their strategies to get a foothold in Phnom Penh’s coffee consumption market are different from that of Brown. Café Amazon gives me the impression of a fast-food way of serving coffee: It has a limited menu with drinks (tea, coffee & smoothies) only, no breads, desserts or sweeties. Drinks are served in one size only, and trust me these cups are huge! The price range is much cheaper than Brown, especially considering the cup size. What’s more, the space in Café Amazon shops is designed in a much more functional than artsy or classy style. The franchise model allows this brand to expand rapidly after 3 years and boasts run the largest number of outlets in Cambodia generally and Phnom Penh specifically.
Albeit with fewer shops, American brands Starbucks and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf still position themselves as strong competitors in the market, catering towards the higher-income customer segment.