From Vietnam, we headed over to our next country: Cambodia! We chose to cross the Vietnam-Cambodia border overland by bus, from Ho Chi Minh City directly to Phnom Penh. After some research, we found three reliable companies that operate this route:
Mai Linh – online information was outdated and Mai Linh, the transportation giant in Vietnam, doesn’t operate this route anymore as of October 2014.
Mekong Express – despite being top-rated by foreigners, their main office in HCMC was too far away, and the agents selling for Mekong close to us were putting very high margins on the tickets.
Sinh Tourist – we ended up taking the bus with Sinh Tourist (famous and huge travel company everywhere in Vietnam), which offered one bus per day (leaving 6:30am) for $10 per person. Their office was pretty close to our hotel, which made everything even more convenient.
There are other companies (Kumho Samco / Sapaco / Khai Nam) that operate this route, but they are known for scams so we avoided those. The most common scam crossing the border was an additional $5 the bus company charges you to process the visa on your behalf. However, if you don’t comply and attempt to do it on your own, they will leave without you and steal your belongings if any were left on the bus. Also, border officers are involved in the scam and may make you wait a very long time for your passport back, at which point the bus may leave without you. Then you’re essentially stranded between Vietnam and Cambodia.
We boarded our bus early in the morning, hoping to not get scammed but also not be left behind. The bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City to the Moc Bai border crossing took about 2 hours and we didn’t have any problems during this part of the trip. The seats were fine, the AC worked pretty well and we had an English speaking guide, who helped us through customs.
Upon arrival at Moc Bai, our guide took all the passports on the bus to stamp out of Vietnam. The whole thing was pretty disorganized, with no one-on-one passport checking that we’re used to, just officers stamping piles and piles of passports without checking who it belonged to.
After being stamped out of Vietnam, we received our passports back and walked over to the Cambodian side of the border – Bavet – where our guide once again took our passports… plus $35 per person for the visa.
There was a lot of confusion in terms of the actual cost of the visa, as it was recently increased (as of October 2014) and websites have not updated their info. We did check the visa cost with the Sinh Tourist company in HCMC prior to buying our tickets, and they informed us of the new $35 per person (used to be $20) price. At the border, however, we saw signs indicating the visa prices were $30 for a visitor visa, $35 for ordinary visa. Our guide applied for an ordinary visa for us, even though we probably only needed a visitor visa. This made us think we did in fact pay $5 more. We are still uncertain if we could have gotten away with paying only $30 for the visitor visa.
The process was quick and smooth otherwise. Our guide filled out all the forms on our behalf – visa application, arrival card, etc. – we didn’t even have to sign anything. There were also no photos required (even though they tell you to bring some). Everything came back within five minutes and we fingerprinted through customs. A suggestion box for the immigrations officers was placed before you’ve even encountered any officers or gone through customs, so that was clearly just for show.
Upon entering Cambodia, we filled out a health form as well as received a body temperature check. The funniest part was a yellow notice we received in exchange for the health form, which warned us about potential deadly diseases in Cambodia… after we already entered the country.
The next 2-3 hours were a blur of falling in and out of sleep before a rest stop and a ferry to cross the Mekong River. That was our first bus-ferry ride. After crossing the river, we drove for two more hours until we reached the streets of Phnom Penh. It was a somewhat confusing journey, but everything worked out and we were in Cambodia!
Some first impressions we had of Cambodia were:
Roads in Cambodia were not that great. Buses would rarely go beyond 35 km/h and potholes were present all along the way. Sometimes we drove on gravel roads, which made things really dusty.
We were officially in a country where not only do we not speak the language, the English alphabet was not utilized, as was the case in Vietnam. This meant that we knew the places by their English names while the locals (and Googlemaps) knew the Khmer names, making both communication and finding our own way more difficult.
Most Khmer people who knew how to speak English spoke more understandable English than their Vietnamese counterparts.
USD was used as a de facto currency and usually for purchases above USD 10. This meant we had to juggle two currencies at the same time, USD and KHR (Cambodian Riel). Anything below USD 1 was in the form of Riel. It was common to pay and get change in a combination of both currencies.
Buildings in Cambodia had a different and distinct look. It was our first introduction to the Khmer-style architecture and a shift from predominantly Chinese influenced cultures in the previous countries to the ancient kingdoms of SE Asia.
We’re looking forward to getting to know all that Cambodia has to offer, starting with Phnom Penh!