Sunday, November 16, 2008

Saigon to Siem Reap by land

Mocbai Bavet border Cambodia VietnamCambodian immigration at the Mocbai-Bavet border. The spindly rooftops and detailed carvings here are a prelude at what awaits at Siem Reap.

Perhaps going from one country to another by land is one of the most interesting things to do when exploring Southeast Asia. The land travel from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Siem Reap in Cambodia, for instance, could be a bit tiring as it entailed long hours of sitting in a bus. But if you're traveling on a budget, this should do the trick. And it's fun! It also provided insights on what Cambodia looks like, not to mention that only a handful are adventurous enough to do the same when they’re traveling abroad.

I should say, one should try doing this at least once in his lifetime!

Traveling by land from Ho Chi Min City in Vietnam to Siem Reap in Cambodia is easy and safe, and far cheaper compared to taking a plane. Be forewarned, though, that the trip could take about 12-14 hours. But not to worry about pee breaks as the bus driver willingly obliges to halt when prompted (we stopped more than six times during the whole stretch of the trip for this).

I bought my bus ticket at the Sapaco office located along Pham Ngu Lao Street in Ho Chi Minh. Travel guides indicated that my guesthouse can easily arrange the trip. But as I was wary of extra charges, I decided to go personally to their office since it was just a block away from my guest house in Bui Vien.

The ticket was only $22.

A fellow blogger recommended that I take the Sapaco bus line since he had a good experience with that. Sapaco also appears to be the safest option. I’ve read from online fora that other bus lines that ply the same route allegedly ask their passengers to get off halfway the trip and leave them hollering for a ride in the middle of nowhere.


I was told to be at the Sapaco office at 6am the following day. When I got there, I was escorted to a van that brought me to the bus waiting two blocks away.

A few minutes after the trip commenced, the bus conductor collected our passports.

The conductor announced that we would have to get off the bus in a few minutes for the immigration.

But to my surprise, someone hastily shouted, “Dadalhin ang bag? Errrr… should we bring our bags?”

The conductor replied that there’s no need to bring our belongings. For my part, I was trying to suppress my laugh. Well, this is the downside of traveling alone.

So when we got off the bus, I decided to follow the person, and in my very pretentious American accent, I asked him if he is a Filipino. He said he is, and I replied, “Nagulat ako biglang may nag-Tagalog. (I was surprised to hear someone speak in Tagalog).”

It could really be surprising to hear someone talking in familiar language in a place that's not really a common destination for Filipinos.

The fellow Filipino told me he works in Phnom Penh. He was with his family for a few days in Ho Chi Minh. They were also headed to Siem Reap to check out the Angkor temples after a couple of days in Phnom Penh, I was told.

So we all went inside the immigration office and waited for our passports to be released.


I thought the structures within the border are interesting, especially the façade of the Cambodian side with its Angkor Wat theme. A good prelude to what awaits me in Siem Reap, I thought. Later on, I found out that most structures in Cambodia have that same motif — roofs with spires, detailed carvings, and all that stuff.

A monument that marks the Mocbai-Bavet border. The pic looks eerie, though, as it was about to rain at the time.

I was actually intending to take pictures of the border but since I was the last one to be called by the immigration officer, I wasn’t able to steal a few seconds for photo ops.

We hopped into the bus again, and got off at the Cambodian side of the border. The approval of visas/passes is actually a quick process. Or is it because Filipinos are visa-free?


You’ll know you’re in Bavet when you see a number of casinos. And you’ll really know that you are already in Cambodia when gates of establishments have those Angkor Wat-esque intricate stone carvings. I've also observed that patios of homes have small Buddhist monuments with smoky incense sticks.

After a few minutes, we stopped at what seemed like a bus stop with several stalls selling cigarettes, noodles, softdrinks, junk foods and fruits.

After an hour or so, we stopped again, and I realized that we were about to cross the mighty Mekong River. It took quite a while before my bus took its turn to go aboard a ferry, which is similar to that of Roll-On-Roll-Off (RORO) system in the Philippines. The Mekong crossing lasted about 15 minutes, so I got off to check out this iconic river. There's really nothing special or scenic, but at least I've got a close encounter with this river that I've only encountered in our Asian history classes!


I arrived at Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, at around 1:30pm. All of the passengers were asked to take their belongings as they got off the bus. At the bus stop, myself together with a young British couple, were escorted to an office similar to that of Sapaco in Saigon.

An office personnel helped the three of us to a tuktuk that took us to another bus stop, located in front of the Cultural Center of Cambodia, where the bus bound to Siem Reap is waiting.

I did not pay extra for the tuktuk
and the second bus. Apparently, the $22 is for the entire trip.

It seemed that I had no choice but to have my luggage kept at the compartment. I brought a luggage, a backpack for my laptop, and a small bag for my cameras, and it would be uncomfortable if I try to squeeze in my luggage with me inside the bus.

As for my experience, it’s safe to leave bags at the compartment; I didn’t lose a single belonging.


The trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap is a seven-hour long journey.

The roads are paved, and the view of the countryside is
almost similar to that of the Philippines. If the South or North Luzon Expressways in the Philippines present views of mountains and rolling rice fields, that of Cambodia is flat for the most part. The reddish soil is planted with rice, crops, and palm trees in between rice paddies.

There are Angkor Wat-like Buddhist structures that pop out from time to time — small temples/monuments in the middle of farm lands, intricately carved stones (or cement?) at school gates, and even graves that shaped like the spindly rooftops of Angkor Wat!

All throughout the trip, the TV in the bus showed videoke/music video of Cambodian songs, which actually sounded like jukebox music in the Philippines. There were Cambodian teenagers in the videos. (I therefore conclude that Pinoy actors look better-groomed but in general, Cambodians and Filipinos don’t differ that much in terms of looks).

Cambodian countrysideThe Cambodian countryside. This photo was taken during one of the many pee breaks.

Halfway the road from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, we stopped at another eating station where there were lots of fruits and other food items for sale. I even saw a woman with a tray on her head containing what looked like fried tarantulas, while another one was carrying a basket full of lotus seeds. I would have tried eating any of these, but I reminded myself that I couldn’t be too adventurous since I’m traveling alone, and hospitals are not part of the agenda.

I was so hungry at that time since I only had noodles during the Bavet stopover. I was afraid to try the Cambodian foodstuff, so I ended up buying imported wafers just to sate my hunger.


It was 7:30 pm and it was already dark when we were told that we are already in Siem Reap.

As I was about to hop off the bus, a lot of tuktuk drivers and touts were blocking the doorway but I managed to slip through without having been pestered. I picked up my luggage at the compartment, and no sooner was I able to get a
tuktuk that would take me to Rosy Guesthouse for $2.

So hungry was I, that I ended up ordering two sets of meals at the café-slash-restaurant of Rosy.

Good Morning, Vietnam! 
No man's land: crossing the Cambodia-Thailand border 
When in Siem Reap, should you check out the Tonle Sap Lake? 
Post card from Vietnam: the motorcycles of Ho Chi Minh


Barb Lorenzo said...

I loooooooooooooooove!!!!

Although, of course, I did it the other way around. I sooo miss discovering new places.