There are plenty of blog posts about Siem Reap and the Angkor Wat temple complex and its undoubted appeal as a tourist destination – this is not one of those posts. This post is a reasonably definitive first hand and unbiased guide to travelling to Phnom Penh in The Kingdom of Cambodia, travelling the NH1 Highway to Bavet via the Mekong Ferry and then crossing into The Socialist Republic of Vietnam at the Bavet-Mocbai border gates which are approximately 50kms from the outskirts of Ho-Chi Minh City – HCMC (formerly Saigon).
Finding What You Want In This Blog Post
I do not usually provide a table of contents in a blog post but as this is mostly a utilitarian post which people will want specific information from so I have detailed the sections below, so you can jump straight to the bit that you are interested in (navigation is manual). However, the post does follow a structure and can be read top to bottom from a “getting there”, “while in-country” and “getting out of there” context.
Table of Contents
- The Kingdom of Cambodia (in Khmer – Kampuchea)
- Political Stability & Economy
- Rising from a Low Base
- Attitude to Tourism
- Phnom Penh in Brief
- The Airport
- The Tonlé Sap, Mekong and Bassac Rivers
- Gambling & Casinos
- The Bavet Region
- The Moc-Bai Border Gates
- Duty Free Shopping
- Casinos & Gambling
- Ho Chi Minh City in Brief
- The Airport
- Getting There – Routes from Western Europe & the USA
- Airport Tax & VISA Rules & Requirements
- Airport Tax (Passenger Service Charges)
The list of entry points to obtain a Visa
- Visa Fees
- Tourist & Business Visas
- Visa Exemption
- Visa Extension
- International Border Crossings & Overland Routes
- What you Need to Know to Make the Best of your Visit
- The Locals
- Ethnic Groups in Cambodia
- Customer Service
- A Dollarized Economy
- Counterfeit Dollars
- The Weather
- Accommodation & Hotels
- Public Transport
- Driving “In Country”
- The Tuk Tuk Phenomenon
- Medical Facilities & Prescription Medicines
- Shopping & Counterfeit Goods
- Drinking water
- Eating Out
- Street Food
- Iced Coffee with Milk
- Chive Cakes
- Beek Skewers
- Fried Noodles
- Noodle Soup
- “Pop-Up” Restaurants
- The Smelliest Fruit in the World – Durian
- Socialising & Night Life
- Other Important Stuff
- Law Enforcement
- Urban De-Militarisation
- Tourists Shooting Guns
- Visit the Mekong Delta
- Random Pictures
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)
With the improvement in air connectivity and implementation of Visa exemption policy, tourist arrival from planes is expected to increase, which would drive the overall tourist arrival of the country.
Phnom Penh is the capital and largest city of Cambodia. Located on the banks of the Mekong River, Phnom Penh has been the national capital since the French colonized Cambodia in the 1860’s, and has grown to become the nation’s centre of economic and industrial activity, as well as the centre of security, politics, economics, cultural heritage, and diplomacy.
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)
Once known as the “Pearl of Asia”, it was considered one of the most beautiful French-built cities in Indochina. Phnom Penh, along with Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, are significant global and domestic tourist destinations for Cambodia.
The Phnom Penh metropolitan area is home to more than two million of Cambodia’s population of over fourteen million. The city is the wealthiest and most populous city in Cambodia and is home to the country’s political hub.
2.1 The Airport – Phnom Penh International Airport (IATA: PNH, ICAO: VDPP)
The airport covers a land area of circa 400 hectares. It is located 10 kilometres (5.4 NM) west of Phnom Penh. There are two terminal buildings an international terminal and one for domestic operations. The international terminal has 5 air bridges built in 2003. The airport’s design capacity is 2 million persons per year.
2.2 The Tonlé Sap, Mekong and Bassac Rivers
Phnom Penh is situated at the confluence of the Tonlé Sap, Mekong and Bassac rivers.
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)
2.3 Gambling & Casino’s
Vietnamese gamblers make up 38.5 percent of the players, with Chinese citizens accounting for 25.7 percent and Malaysian visitors 20.8 percent.
In Cambodia’s border casinos in towns such as Bavet and Poipet, the majority of the players are Thais and Vietnamese.
Exterior NagaWorld Hotel & Casino, Phnom Penh
At Night (Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)
South Vietnam, as an anti-communist republic, fought against the communist North Vietnamese and Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, with aid from the United States of America and countries including Australia, New Zealand and South Korea.
Saigon fell when it was captured by the communists on 30 April 1975. Vietnam was then turned into a communist state with the South overtaken. On 2 July 1976, Saigon merged with the surrounding Gia Định Province and was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City after Hồ Chí Minh although the name Sài Gòn is still commonly used.
The city center is situated on the banks of the Saigon River, 60 kilometers (37 mi) from the South China Sea and 1,760 kilometers (1,090 mi) south of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. The metropolitan area, which consists of the Ho Chi Minh City metropolitan area, Thủ Dầu Một, Dĩ An, Biên Hòa and surrounding towns, is populated by more than 9,000,000 people, making it the most populous metropolitan area in Vietnam and the countries of the former French Indochina.
The Greater Ho Chi Minh City Metropolitan Area, a metropolitan area covering most parts of Đông Nam Baộ plus Tiền Giang and Long An provinces has an area of 30,000 square kilometers and a population of over 20 million people.
According to the Mercer Human Resource Consulting, Economist Intelligence Unit and ECA International, Ho Chi Minh City is ranked 132 on the list of world’s most expensive cities for expatriate employees.
4.1 Ho Chi Minh City Airport (SGN)
Tan Son Nhat International Airport (IATA: SGN, ICAO: VVTS), is the largest airport in Vietnam. It is located 4 mi (6 km) north of the center (District 1) of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The airport operates from two terminal buildings – Domestic Terminal 1 and International Terminal 2. The new international terminal opened in September 2007 with the capacity of 8 to 10 million passengers per year, giving the airport a total capacity of 15-17 million passengers per annum.
Skyscanner Flight Options, Prices & Stopovers
Visitors who enter from Vietnam through Bavet (VN: Moc Bai) or Ka-Om Samnor (VN: Chao Doc) will need to have already obtained their visas prior to their arrival through a Cambodian Embassy or Consulate overseas.
Tourists also can obtain visa through the online E-Visa. Some nationalities are required to get a visa in advance at the Royal Embassy of Kingdom of Cambodia in their country – these countries are Afghanistan, Algeria, Arab Saudi, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Nigeria.
A passport and visa are required. Tourists and business travellers may purchase a Cambodian visa valid for one month at the airports in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and borders. Both require a passport valid for at least six (6) months from the expiry date and a recent passport-sized photo.
A departure tax is charged on all domestic and international flights. All charges that apply are listed below for the various scenarios:
6.1 Airport Tax (Passenger Service Charges)
- For International Travel Foreigner: Adult US$25 Under 12 years old US$13 Under 2 years old FREE
- Cambodian: Adult US$18 Under 12 years old US$10 Under 2 years old FREE
- For Domestic Travel Foreigner: Adult US$6 Cambodian: Adult US$5
6.2 The list of entry points to obtain a Visa
Airports: Phnom Penh International Airport & Siem Reap International Airport
Cambodia-Vietnam border: Bavet International Check Point (Svay Rieng Province); Kha Orm Sam Nor International Check Point (Kandal Province); Koh Rohka International Check Point (Prey Veng Province); Banteay Chakrey International Check Point (Preyveng Province); Tropeang Sre International Check Point (Kratie Province); Prek Chak International Check Point (Kampot Province); Phnom Den International Check Point (Takeo Province); Oyadav International Check Point (Rattankiri Province); Tropieng Phlong International Check Point (Kampong Cham Province);
Cambodia-Thailand border: Cham Yeam International Check Point (Koh Kong Province); Poi Pet International Check Point (Banteay Meanchey Province); Osmach International Check Point (Odor Meanchey Province); Sihanoukville International Check Point (Sihanoukville Province); Choam Sanguam International Check Point (Banteay Meanchey Province); Prum International Check Point (Pailin Province); Doung International Check Point (Battambang Province); Preah Vihear International Check Point (Preah Vihear Province);
Cambodia-Lao border: Dong Krolar International Check Point (Steung Treng Province); Tropieng Kreal International Check Point (Stung Treng Province)
It is required for the visa applicants to submit passport, application forms, a recent passport-style colour photograph, and such other documents as determined by the status of stay.
6.3 Visa Fees
- Single entry visa fee for tourist (T) (30 days): US$ 30
- Single entry visa fee for business (E) (30 days): US$ 35
6.4 Tourist & Business Visas
Visitors from countries not under Visa Exemption Agreements must apply for a Tourists (T) or Business (E) visa valid for one month at the point of entry. Visa K can be issued to a Cambodian national entering the Kingdom on a foreign passport. (The applicant has to provide well-documented evidence, such as proof that one’s parents were Cambodian).
6.5 Visa Exemption
The nationals of the Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia do not need a tourist visa and may stay in Cambodia for 21 and 30 days respectively.
6.6 Visa Extension
The tourist (T) and business (E) visas can be extended at the Immigration Department, National Police. The Diplomatic (A), Official (B) and Courtesy (C) visas can be extended at the Consular Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A tourist visa can be extended only once for up to one month (single entry). A business visa can be extended for: One month (Single entry).
Three months (Single entry) Six months (Multiple entry) One year (Multiple entry) Overstayers will be fined US$ 5 per day.
- Cham – Descendants of Cham refugees who fled to Cambodia after the fall of Champa. 222,808 (2012 est.)
- Chinese – Descendants of Chinese settlers in Cambodia. 695,852 (2012 est.)
- Cambodian Hokkien Khmer Khmer Kandal – “Central Khmers” Ethnic Khmers indigenous to Cambodia proper.
- Khmer Krom – “Lowland Khmers” Ethnic Khmers indigenous to Southeastern Cambodia and the adjoining Mekong Delta region of Southern Vietnam. The provinces of South Vietnam all bear ancient Khmer names as they were once part of the Khmer Empire, until the 19th century when the French made Cambodia a protectorate.
- Khmer Surin – “Surin Khmers” Ethnic Khmer indigenous to Northwestern Cambodia and adjacent areas in Surin, Buriram and Sisaket provinces in Northeast Thailand, in the region known as Isan. These provinces were formerly part of the Khmer Empire but were annexed by Thailand in the 18th century.
- Khmer Loeu – “Highland Khmers” Umbrella term used to designate all hilltribes in Cambodia, irrespective of their language family.
- Mon–Khmer speakers Kachok Krung – There are three distinct dialects of Krung. All are mutually intelligible.
- Krung Brao Kavet Kraol – 2,000 (est.) Mel- 3,100 (est.)
- Kuy – A small group of people mostly located in the highlands of Cambodia.
- Phnong Tampuan – Ethnic group located in the Northeastern province of Ratanakiri.
- Stieng – Often confused with ethnic Degar (Montagnard) Ra’ong Mnong – Ethnic group located on the eastern province of Mondulkiri.
- Samre Chong Sa’och Somray Suoy Austronesian speakers Jarai – Mostly located in Vietnam, the Jarai extend into Cambodia’s Ratanakiri Province.
- Rhade – The majority of Rhade, or Ê Đê, are located in Vietnam. They share close cultural ties with the Jarai and other tribes.
- Tai Thai – 43,000 (est.) Lao – Living mainly in the Ratanakiri Province.
- Shan Kula Vietnamese – Live mostly in Phnom Penh where they form a considerable minority and parts of southeastern Cambodia next to the Vietnamese border.
- Hmong–Mien – The Miao and Hmong are hill tribes that live in urban and rural areas.
- Miao Hmong Yao Tibeto-Burman Burmese – 4,700 (est.)
- Japanese – mainly first generation entrepreneurs and investors in Phnom Penh
- Koreans – mainly first generation entrepreneurs and investors in Phnom Penh
(expert commentary courtesy of https://www.selectiveasia.com/cambodia-holidays/weather)
Cambodia is blessed with one of Asia’s simpler weather systems and despite having two distinct weather seasons you can travel in Cambodia all-year-round. In general, the entire country is subject to the same weather patterns, mainly due to the relatively uniform altitude and latitude throughout Cambodia.
There are two distinct seasons – dry (October to late April) and wet (May to late September). Within each season there are variations in temperature, with the final few dry months leading up to the wet season (March and April) and the early months of the wet season (May and June) usually being the hottest of the year with temperatures in excess of 35°C at times.
Humidity is at its height during March and April whilst the coolest months of the year tend to between October and December, however this is cool for Cambodia but far from chilly (avg temperatures 24°C – 26°C).
7.5.1 The Dry Season: October – April / Early May
Cambodia’s dry season lasts from October to April, when the dry north-east monsoon arrives, characterised by hot wind blowing across the entire country. Whilst November to January are quite cool (high 20°C’s) by April the weather is scorching making early morning and late afternoon Angkor Temple tours, with a few hours by the hotel pool at lunchtime, the preference for many.
Thanks to the hot weather this is unsurprisingly the season when Cambodia’s tourist numbers peak. In more remote parts, the roads are at their best and journey times are shorter because of this. Kep and Sihanoukville on the south coast are popular during this season as they bask in the brilliant sunshine and sea conditions are very favourable.
7.5.2 The Wet Season: Early / Mid May – October
Cambodia’s wet season comes courtesy of the southwest monsoon and lasts from May to October, bringing with it almost 75% of Cambodia’s annual rainfall. Across Cambodia, throughout much of the rainy season, daytime temperatures average between 25°C and 27°C. The early months of the wet season (May – July) remain very hot with infrequent rainfall usually in the form of short downpours. In the latter months (late July – September) the rains tend becomes more constant and is heavy at times, especially in coastal and rural regions.
Travel in the more remote corners of the country is almost impossible due to the state of the roads and journeys into the north east are inadvisable during the peak wet season because of this. There is also very limited access to Bamboo Island (near Kep) due to high seas. On the upside, travelling in monsoonal Cambodia does have its advantages. The dust is gone and the lush greenery of the countryside returns. Angkor Wat in particular is stunning in the wet season, with moats brimming with water and a severe drop in visitor numbers.
7.6 Accommodation & Hotels
Plenty of choice catering for all budgets and tastes – in Phnom Penh:
7.7 Public Transport
There are no state run public transport services.
7.8 Driving “In Country”
Simple one this – “don’t do it” – driving is not for the faint hearted. Yielding “right of way” translated into local road etiquette means wading into a sea of oncoming mopeds and hoping they stop. Sometimes they do – sometimes they don’t. If you are a meek sort of person you will be trying to make a right turn for several hours if you do not take the plunge and stick your vehicles nose out.
When and if you do try this it is a roll of the dice whether you will end up in a collision. The only way to lessen the hassle here is to drive a vehicle with government plates – not easily sourced.
“Rush hour” starts at 05.00 hours and lasts until 22.00 hours. Where China has bicycles Cambodia has mopeds.
On rural roads – where I have been rear ended several times the excuses and reasoning for the collision are generally hilarious if they were not so worrying. On Highway 1 close to the Mekong ferry we slowed our Lexus 4×4 to allow cattle who were blocking the road to be moved out of the way.
While stationery we were rear ended by a Vietnamese registered coach with 90 people on board. The perfectly acceptable explanation that was given by the driver of the bus was that it was not his fault as the brakes on the bus did not work and therefore he could not stop. Seems fair.
The mopeds also act as the work horses for goods haulage and can be seen all over the country clearly heavily overloaded and quite dangerous. The drivers appear to have an uncanny sense of balance on non-windy days.
The moped also acts as a form of mass family transport.
Mini-vans are also frequently seen loaded beyond safe capacity. Stay well clear and never tailgate – loads regularly dislodge. Give these guys a wide berth.
7.9 The Tuk-Tuk Phenomenon
The most popular form of “taxi”. They come in all shapes and sizes but safety is a concern. No collision protection and no seat belts in most. Cheap and cheerful – always negotiate – there are no meters and no rate cards – USD3 will get you from one end of Phnom Penh to the other during the day.
There are local clinics and hospitals – many medications requiring prescriptions in the West are OTC in Cambodia – but the street stalls selling them trade counterfeit medication with all the attendant risks. Stick to the pharmacies in the large shopping malls.
7.11 Shopping & Counterfeit Goods
Buyer beware – brands are counterfeit in 90% of the cases unless buying at one of the international brands local stores of which there are few.
Street traders will consistently pitch – all their stuff with few exceptions is knock-off. Don’t be tempted.
Also your “change” will more than likely be in counterfeit dollars – adding to the hassle later when you try to use them.
7.12 Drinking Water
Do not drink the tap water – ice cubes in your drink may be ok – but why take a chance.
The most important part of every meal is rice. In fact, Cambodians greet each other by saying “Nyam bai howie nov?” (“Have you eaten rice yet?”)
Plenty of choice for local dishes – slippery slope after that – plenty of fast food outlets serving chicken and KFC’s on every corner but Cambodian concepts of acceptable poultry bear no resemblance to Western standards.
(Excerpts from and credit to http://www.movetocambodia.com/food/eating-street-food-in-cambodia/ for elements of this section)
Many visitors believe that the Kingdom’s roadside delicacies consist of little more more than deep-fried tarantulas and stir-fried crickets. Concerns about hygiene also keep some foreigners from indulging.
But the best street food isn’t about bugs–either the edible or intestinal kind–and it’s too good to miss. You just need to choose wisely. The safest street foods are those that are cooked in front of you and served hot, which kills off bacteria.
“Street food has two advantages over food cooked in restaurants: transparency and immediacy. When you eat on the street nothing is hidden; you can judge whether or not the person handling your food, the surface on which it’s prepped and the plate on which it will be served is clean,” said food journalist Robyn Eckhardt, who has written extensively about street food in Asia and Turkey for international publications.
“And because the time from stall to table is just seconds, you can be confident that your food hasn’t languished long enough to collect the odd bacteria.” Here are some of the safest and tastiest dishes that you’ll find on the streets of Cambodia. Although they are usually sold at street-side stands and by roving vendors, you’ll also find them at the food area at Central Market, which has grown-up-sized seats and perhaps slightly higher hygienic standards.
7.14.1 Iced coffee with milk: Perhaps the easiest introduction to street food is its beverages. The thoroughfares of Phnom Penh are lined with coffee shops selling kar-fe toek doh koh toek gok, or iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk. If you’re like me, knowing that the beans are roasted in lard makes the sweet, strong coffee taste that much better. Some choose to have it without the condensed milk, but they underestimate the mental clarity aroused by the tingling of dental cavities caused by the drink’s unabashed treacliness.
7.14.2 Chive cakes: Fried in shallow pans by mobile street vendors, num kachay are small chive cakes, made with glutinous rice flour and served with a sweet, spicy fish sauce. You’ll find similar versions of this dish in Thailand, but the recipe is believed to have originated in China.
7.14.3 Beef skewers: A common afternoon or evening snack in Cambodia, sach ko chomkak are skewers of beef cooked over hot coals. They’re best enjoyed tucked into a crunchy baguette and accompanied by tart green papaya slaw and spicy red chili sauce. Cambodia street food fried noodles Not the most visually appealing, but fried noodles are some of the cheapest, most filling street food in Cambodia.
7.14.4 Fried noodles: Variations of fried noodles abound in Cambodia, but whether they’re made with short, thick rice noodles that resemble worms, soft yellow egg noodles or packaged deep-fried instant ramen noodles, mi char is one of the simplest and most satisfying afternoon snacks. While sellers have many different variations, beef and pork stir-fried with tender greens are the most common. For an added treat, ask for a fried egg on top.
7.14.5 Noodle soup: One of the most popular breakfasts in town, kuy teav is a noodle soup made from pork or beef bones and rice vermicelli and topped with fried shallots, green onions and bean sprouts. Fish balls and pork are usually added, although you’ll sometimes find rare-beef kuy teav as well. But don’t dare call it pho! Many Cambodians believe that the dish originated in Kampuchea Krom–the area of Southern Vietnam that was once part of the Khmer Empire–and that the famous Vietnamese soup came second. A delicious Phnom Penh speciality version of the soup, kuy teav Phnom Penh, featuring blood, liver, intestines and tongue, is not for the faint of heart (or squeamish expats).
These exist on the footpath / sidewalk and are common place. Street stalls line the streets.
Not for me but if it is to your liking – go for it – knock yourself out – you probably will. My Simple Rule – DO NOT EAT IT.
Worth a quick mention is durian whose name is derived from the Malay-Indonesian languages word for duri or “spike”, a reference to the numerous spike protuberances of the fruit. There are 30 recognised Durio species, at least nine of which produce edible fruit.
No Guns : No Goats : No Smoking : No Durian : No Drinks : No Dogs
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)
The fruit can grow as large as 30 centimetres (12 in) long and 15 centimetres (6 in) in diameter, and it typically weighs one to three kilograms (2 to 7 lb). Its shape ranges from oblong to round, the colour of its husk green to brown, and its flesh pale yellow to red, depending on the species.
It is common to see these signs in Hotels & public places which gives you and idea of how offensive the odour of this fruit is to many people.
7.16 Socialising & Night Life
Surprisingly, the nightlife is good fun but PP is not bangkok – still it offers a selection of dance clubs, sports bars, neighbourhood pubs, karaoke, upscale clubs and more.
Bars and clubs are scattered across the town but as the city is fairly compact it’s never more than a five or ten minute ride between places, usually less. And there are several little clusters of bars and nightspots around town allowing you to hop easily from one to the next.
There is no centralized red light district in Phnom Penh, but the area around Street 130, Street 136 and Street 51 is where the majority of bar girls can be found, at any time of the day or night. Most of the ‘bars’ are little more than brothels with beer.
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)
Popular spots if that is your thing are: Catch 22 B, Island Bar, Sharky Bar, Martini Pub, Matilda Bar, 69 Bar & Mr. Butterfly Bar.
Best nightclubs are: D.R Bar Night Club/Discotheque Dance club, open into the very late evening. DJs every night playing hip-hop, rap, funk, trance, house and R&B. Attracting a young local crowd as well as tourists and expatriate. Full bar with beer, spirits and cocktails.. #40, Street 214, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 7:30PM – 4:00AM Tel: 011-337327 and Heart of Darkness Bar.
8. Other Important Stuff
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)
8.2 Urban De-Militarisation
You will also be offered “special” deals at tattoo parlours. Wait until you get home. Although personally I have had tattoos done in SEA but with people I knew and who were highly recommended.
8.4 Visit the Mekong Delta
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)
Finally here is a picture of a very cute and very small dog I met while hiking in Poipet. He was not impressed – clearly.
(Photo Credit: Graham Penrose)