Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh by Bus – Crossing Bavet Border
Phnom Penh was our first stop in Cambodia and we arrived here from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam via bus.
I have to say this is probably one of the ‘dodgiest’ journeys I had ever been on.
An hour into our journey I was asked to join the conductor on another seat and he sheepishly whispered to me about paying an additional $10 to speed things up at the border as we had Vietamese e-visas. I was pressured and given no choice really, as he made it obvious we could be left behind. So agreed the price.
2 hours, 30 minutes in we arrived at Bavet Border crossing to find ourselves chasing the conductor through various gates as he had all our passports. Luckily we weren’t the only foreigners frantically following this stranger with our most valuable possessions.
We found out that the Cambodian visa actually only costs $30 if you were to do it yourselves and angrily pointed this sign out to the conductor when entering Cambodia. We had paid $35 (requested by the operator) + $5 (to ‘speed things up’) each. Later we received $5 back, as I think he felt bad.
And did it speed things up? No is the answer. There were no queues at the border, however a couple from our bus at outstayed their visa so we waited an hour for them to sort things. Again, they were getting bribed large amounts for quick entry/sorting of outstayed visa.
It all seemed fairly corrupt to us, and fellow travellers felt the same. But hey ho it was a cheap 7 hour (should have been 5 and a half hours) journey and we were now ready to explore the beauty of Cambodia…
Where to stay in Phnom Penh?
Mad Monkey Hostel Phnom Penh
This hostel suited all our needs and more. It has a lovely little swimming pool, restaurant serving delicious food and a rooftop bar with lots of events and activities.
It’s a very social hostel, with music blaring on until 12am most nights.
We had a private 3 bed room, seemed to be cheapest option for 2 people. The hostel is in walking distance to many restaurants and even the main sights.
We (Kelly more so!) took part in the quiz night, with a couple from the UK (of all places) we met. It just so happened that Olly was pretty good at quizes and we ended up winning a large tower of beer. I made the most of this, but wasn’t enticed by the shots, even if it was for our country!
First thoughts of Cambodia
Arriving into Cambodia it was clear that the infrastructure was fairly bad – with a very dusky road, often shared for traffic both ways. It was lovely to see children amusing themselves with the basics, they were roaming around on bicycles and chasing dogs.
Parts were very poor and reminded me of areas in India, where people get by and are happy with the basics.
Coming from Vietnam, the supermarkets around our hostel in Phnom Penh seemed very expensive (triple the price for most everyday items) and housed mainly imported goods. We managed to find Circle K’s which were cheaper near the palaces, so used these. Otherwise you can buy cheaply from the street vendors.
It was quite strange that the most common used currency was the American dollar, and we only paid with this throughout our whole stay in Cambodia.
Things To Do in Phnom Penh?
Wat Langka (FREE)
This was a fairly large complex we just came across on our route to the Royal Palace. It was home to many different coloured, decorative pagodas and the temples had a ‘Thai’ feel about them.
Independence Monument (FREE)
On our route to the Royal Palace we passed this monument in the centre of a busy roundabout and marks the centre of the city.
Wat Botum Park (FREE)
We walked through this park to get to the Royal Palace and it was very pleasant being surrounded by the pretty gardens that are well kept.
There is a monument statue in the centre which marks the allied relationship between Vietamese and Cambodian soldiers.
Temple of the Lotus Blossoms (FREE)
An untouched temple, with barely any visitors. The pagodas were different to what we had seen, with lady faces surrounding them.
Wat Botum Valley (FREE)
This was spotted from Wat Batam Park, so we decided to check it out. The place was empty from visitors again, just a few monks preparing decorations.
The wat was heavily decorated and hosted many pagodas and a large buddha statue.
Supreme Court (FREE)
This building was pretty spectacular – so much so, that Kelly initially thought this was the Royal Palace! It was in fact the Supreme Court, and a supreme one at that!
Royal Palace ($10)
When we eventually got to the Royal Palace at 12.30pm, we found out it was closed for 2 hours (lunch). We also got told the silver pagoda (main attraction) was closed for the day.
So we returned the next day at 9.30 and paid the $10 fee for entry. You can buy a tour guide for an additional $10 which we chose against, but I guess if there are a few of you chipping in, this is not a bad shout.
It was a spectacular place to visit and very much resembled the Royal Palace in Bangkok. I mean they both have an Angkor Wat mini model, come on!
Unlike Bangkok’s Palace, this was less busier at this time and we spent a good 90 minutes wandering the grounds.
The gardens are beautifully kept and the palaces aren’t too bad either!
There are 2 areas, and the 2nd area contained a large mural surrounding the complex and plenty of pagodas in different styles. The silver pagoda was the highlight, and this contained the emerald Buddha statue which you get to admire from all angles as you walk around it.
On exiting there are little museums/shops and you are provided with a free bottle of water. Much needed after strolling around in 32 degree heat!
As we left the palace we saw a large gathering of people and waited 30 minutes for some special guests to arrive on a moving platform which was carrying a gravestone (it was heavy as the monks tried to lift it off). There was a little ceremony with lots of interesting outfits, bongo drums, horns, red carpet and ‘queen style’ hand waving. To this day we’re still not sure what we just watched, but we were entertained none the less.
Wat Ounation (FREE)
On first arrival here the temple was closed due to a funeral, so we returned the next day to visit.
To get here we walked through a small neighbourhood containing monks going about their daily business.
The complex is fairly large and contains the largest gong we have seen so far!
Wat Phnom Temple Park ($1)
An interesting temple on a hill, with surrounding gardens. It’s a Buddhist temple with plenty of statues and lotus offerings.
Central Market (FREE)
Shaped as an ‘X’ this place is a central hub for locals and tourists. Here you will find jewellery, souvenirs, clothes, knock off gear and anything else you can imagine. It’s a bustling place, but very busy!
Khmer Rouge Killing Fields ($6, includes audioguide)
As a place to visit (not for the fainthearted) and having an afternoon free we bartered (from $20 to $12) with a tuk tuk to take us there and back. Considering the journey took 45 minutes across busy/bad roads and over crooked bridges (only accessible by small vehicles), it seemed a good deal.
We spent a whole hour at the killing fields and the audioguide is an absolute must.
Completely unaware of Cambodia’s history, this place was a total eye opener and really touched us.
Essentially these killing fields were part of a collective of fields where more than a million people (25% of Cambodias population) were killed by the Khmer Rouge (lead by Pol Pot) between 1975-1979 (less than 40 years ago!).
The reason for the killings by Pol Pot and his regime were scarily worrying as they murdered their perceived political opponents and anyone known by them. The Khmer Rouge regime was highly autocratic, xenophobic, paranoid and repressive.
Walking around these particular killing fields you hear the stories of survivors, and Cambodians who had lost loved ones.
The area is very eerie and the tour around the fields is well layed out.
You see mass graves, torture items (including sharp palm leaves still growing on trees today), trees that were used to kill babies, a ‘magic’ tree which would hold a speaker playing noise to hide the screams, a lake for reflection, plenty of bones and materials that have resurfaced and the Choueng Ek memorial which houses 100’s of victims skulls.
It really is a devastating place to visit, but a must see in order to learn about a huge part of Cambodia’s history. Me and Kel left holding in tears. I found this place a lot worse than my visit to Auswitz, and to be naive enough not to know about this history made me annoyed in myself.
So much of Cambodia is still feeling the effects of this regime today, as the memory has been passed down through generations.
Where to eat in Phnom Penh?
Chinese Noodle Restaurant ($9 for two)
Kelly found this through TripAdvisor and I’m so glad she did! We enjoyed delicious dumplings, hand made beef noodles and a typical egg fried rice with pork.
David’s Restaurant ($8.50 for two)
Close to the palace, this is a popular joint for western food. We were craving burger and chips, and it was delicious. Plus it wasn’t as expensive in comparable to close by restaurants.
Mad Monkey Phnom Penh ($11 for two)
We took advantage of our hostels Khmer buffet night, which was essentially an all you can eat. As there weren’t many participants the food only lasted between 6.30-7.30 which was a shame, but it was delicious food!
Phnom Penh certainly gave us a great introduction into the Cambodian history and its effects. It’s such a friendly place with so much to see.
From Phnom Penh we took the 7 hour bus across East Cambodia to Siem Reap.