Bangkok — Phnom Penh — Siem Reap / Angkor — Bangkok Circle Route
With airfare in SE Asia being so affordable, flying one-way is the only way to go. You see what you want to see and move on when you’re ready. This trip, I did a circle route from Bangkok through Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, Cambodia. Just a short trip of two flights and a 6-hour bus trip. The total cost of transport was a mere $185. This post is an overview of how I got around, plus a bit of orientation on Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Click these links for more info about my hotel in Phnom Penh, intel on Angkor Wat, and Angkor Temple Tour 1 and Temple Tour 2. Here’s the route:
Leg 1: Bangkok to Phnom Penh
As usual in Asia, the lowest flight I found was on Air Asia for 2600Baht. That’s $79 one way. Booya!
One reason Air Asia is cheap is because they fly out of the crappy old Don Muang airport, which is now the domestic and LCC hub for Thailand. Note that if you are flying into BKK with the intention of bouncing over to Cambodia, be SURE to check if your flight leaves from Suvarnabhumi (the international airport). If it doesn’t, give yourself at least four hours of transit time to clear customs, get your stuff, get over to Don Muang airport even with a bit of traffic, and get checked in.
Cambodian Visa on Arrival
On the flight over, you’ll be given a visa application form which they process for you as soon as you get off of the plane. As long as you have your $20 ready, you will get a visa. Some people were charged $25 — not sure why — so have at least $30 with you, just in case. You’ll also need a photo. The official website says it’s 2 inches X 2 inches…but on the form it’s 4cm by 6cm. Again, I don’t think they will care as long as it’s your photo and you have your $$. Note that there is a cash dispenser right at the customs area that dispenses US$ (ALL cash machines in Cambodia dispense $$, which is the preferred currency), but don’t rely on it. Have cash on hand.
When you leave the airport terminal area, you’ll see the taxi stand right in front of you. Be forewarned: taxi and tuk-tuk prices are all fixed. And by fixed, I mean in the mafia, scamming kind of way. I asked an air conditioned limo car and the most beat-up looking tuk-tuk; they both quoted $9 for the 6Km trip into town. It was hot, I was tired and had luggage, so I went with the taxi. Of course, when I got to my hotel, I was told the price was $12 as the driver presented me with the official ticket. I’m guessing that $9 was for the guy who calls the taxi over, and $3 is for the driver. Who knows.
In fact, although I always try to learn the cheap ways to and from airports in SE Asia, on my first trip, I don’t sweat it too much. But if you’re really traveling on a budget, you could save a few bucks by figuring out how to beat the price fixing.
Staying in Phnom Penh
I stayed two nights at the Blue Lime Hotel, which I found on Agoda.
It was exactly $80 a night with all taxes and Agoda commissions included. Not cheap, but not expensive either, given that I had a room with my own private swimming pool. Plus, it’s right near the Royal Palace area, which is a safe, not so run down part of the city. Indeed, it’s a bit of an opulent showcase area for the country, so the streets are wide and clean, and the riverfront area is well developed with some great restaurants and bars with great happy hours.
Based on my walking around in every which direction all day, I’d say these are the areas I’d most likely stay at again.
And note that right at the end of 178th street on the river is where you’ll find tons of bars and restaurants — great places to chill as the sun is going down. I read a lot online about having beers at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club — but the locals I know there said it’s hugely overpriced and the food isn’t any better than any other place. We were just across 178 on the second floor at the River Crown restaurant enjoying some great food and the same great view… and 50-cent beer happy hours. Life is good :)
Leg 2: Phnom Penh to Siem Reap
Most people move between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap either by flying, taking the boat up the river, taking the bus, or hiring a taxi. I like traveling overland to get a feeling for the landscape, and I prefer to avoid long trips by boat — plus I’m a huge cheapskate when I travel solo — so it was the bus for me.
Mekong Express VS Ibis
So which bus company is best? The two biggies are Ibis and the Mekong Express. Ibis is the bigger, newer, more comfortable one…but when I checked, they said they have no onboard toilet, so I went with the older and somewhat shabby Mekong Express. I didn’t need the toilet, but I followed the condom philosophy: You might never use it, but in those rare times you need it, you’ll want to have one with you. And on a 6 – 7 hour bus ride with only one stop at the half-way point, you don’t want to be toiletless after a night out of 50-cent beers and spicy food. Besides, I don’t need opulence when I take the bus. I just need a seat and somebody who knows how to drive. For more info on bus schedules and so on, the canby publications site has some great intel.
In terms of pricing, Mekong is about $13 for foreigners, although I think I paid $15 at my hotel as they arranged everything for me. And yes, if you check the Mekong site, you’ll see that foreigners pay $13, while Cambodians pay only $10. If you didn’t already know, this kind of double pricing is Standard Operating Procedure in most countries in SE Asia. I know that some travelers get their panties in a bunch about this. And I get why this bothers people — because it’s not that things are being made cheaper for the locals…it’s that foreigners are just ripped off in terms of prices at pretty much every turn, particularly at sightseeing venues. So this can add up, especially for younger travelers on a shoestring budget. Anyway, just be aware that you’ll be paying more than any local prices you may have been quoted.
For those of you who DO NOT enjoy riding for 45 minutes in an old mini-van crammed to capacity with a bunch of strangers, then find your own way to the Mekong (or Ibis) bus terminal. A local trike will get you there for $3 or less (depending on how hard you like to negotiate), and they’ll go straight there. The mini van that picked me up, on the other hand, took a much less direct route. In fact, even if I had planned the route with a random number generator, it would have been more efficient that the path they took us:
And yes, this is the actual route. I was writing it down on a map as we were driving around. I was the 3rd person picked up. They went straight toward the bus terminal, but just before we arrived, they picked up one French guy, then went alllllll the way back up the river. I guess the plan was to pick up the “rich” people from the casino hotel in the swanky part of town last so they would suffer the least discomfort. Their plan backfired, however, when the Aussie couple sitting in the good seats refused to move and the two high-falootin’ casino types were forced to sit on these broken side-car chairs. HA! Anyway, to avoid being driven around Phnom Penh in a beat-up old van, just find your own way to the bus.
The bus ride itself was cool. The road is pretty good, and traffic wasn’t bad. Here’s the route:
Staying in Siem Reap
I loved Siem Reap. It’s a fairly well laid out and planned city, there is tons of green space, and the river that runs down the middle makes for some nice trike rides on the way out of the city to the temples. People are friendly as could be. They aren’t shy towards foreigners, yet they don’t seem jaded like you see in other tourist-oriented cities. There’s a kind of innocence you feel in the people there that just makes it a very easy place to be. I stayed at the Royal Crown Hotel and Spa, which was great for about $65 a night via Agoda. Here’s an overview of the market area of Siem Reap.
If you are staying near the market area, you can walk everywhere. For local trips, just jump in a tuk-tuk. And remember to ALWAYS negotiate the price BEFORE you get in the tuk-tuk (or taxi, horse carriage, water buffalo ride, etc). You aren’t likely to get too burned in Siem Reap, but negotiating in advance keeps you safe and will get you much lower prices. Why is this important? Because it’s foreigners paying idiotic prices thinking it’s “cheap” that drives the prices up to a point where the drivers won’t even bother picking up a local. So fight to keep the base prices low, then tip if appropriate.
Leg 3: Siem Reap to Bangkok
OK, I have to say, I loved the airport in Siem Reap. It’s small, but check in went smoothly, and the Asian Kitchen in there had great food! The flight back to Bangkok was relatively short and hassle free. And the one bonus of flying into Don Muang, the domestic airport that serves Air Asia flights, is that there is zero wait at immigration, and the ride back into Bangkok is short. I landed at about 10:30PM and I was back in my condo on Sukhumvit by about 11:10.
Note that the Siem Reap <==> Bangkok corridor used to be monopoly controlled by Bangkok Air. They used to charge about $500 round trip in peak season. Because that monopoly has ended, expect more flights to go to Siem Reap out of Bangkok (and vice versa). This all bodes well for the consumer. I paid less than $100 for the return flight home, which is about right given how close Siem Reap is to Bangkok.
And that brings us to the end of the circle tour of BKK ==> Phnom Penh ==> Siem Reap ==> Bangkok. If you have done this or any part of this trip and have any intel to add, please leave a comment. Or if you just are bored on a Thursday night reading this, leave a comment anyway.