Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Crossing the Cambodian/Vietnamese border


*Crossing the border by bus

My journey went from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. There are about five or so buses that depart a day between these two cities and to make the most of our time in Phnom Penh we decided to take the 2pm bus. The cost of this bus was only USD$11.

This ride was supposedly only 6 hours however from our experience we knew that we should give or take one or two hours, just in case. As part of the bus company we rode with the price of the ticket also included a shuttle van pick up from our hostel (88 Backpackers) to take us to the bus station. On board we were also given each a free bottle of water. This is  a good little drive through the countryside and it was interesting to see the varying styles of housing built, which were between brick two-story complexes to just raised bamboo huts. You also experience being on a five minute ferry ride crossing a river before having a short stop at a roadside restaurant before the border.

Before this stop the driver will explain in both English and Vietnamese the procedures. You are also expected to hand over your passport to the driver’s assistant at this point as well. The bus will stop at the Cambodian side where you then exit the bus as the driver’s assistant calls out your name. You receive your passport, stand in line at a booth where an immigration officer will then stamp in your exit date and you make your way onto the bus again. Again you hand over your passport to the driver’s assistant and it’s about a 5 to 10 minute ride to the Vietnamese border. In-between these two borders the area is lined with casino after casino and locals employed as promoters handing out discount cards to those trying to cross the boundary.
The process is the same again. You wait for your name to be called out to receive your passport. This time you must take your entire luggage with you before you head into the customs building. No matter how much the driver explains what the procedure is at the border it did not prepare us for what to expect here. The best I could describe it was more so of an organised chaos, using the word organised very loosely. There were no lines as such, a lot of people cramped in the building and a lot of waiting around. It is up to the driver to get your passports to a custom official to get all the documents needed before being able to go through security and over to the other side. It also didn’t help that there seemed to be only two custom officials working for the amount of people that were trying to enter the country. There were two lines or booths, one for Vietnamese passport holders and one for foreigners although I don’t think those rules were being followed. I never timed it exactly but I’m pretty sure we waited about an hour or so before my bus’ passports were done. It also seemed like if the driver had slipped over some extra money then our passports would have been pushed closer to the front of the queue, but either way we got through in the end. It was definitely an experience.

Once you received your passport and your bags went through security you boarded the bus once more and it was roughly another hour to two ride to the drop off point in Ho Chi Minh.  With the bus ride and the waiting time at the border I’d say the overall time took about eight hours.

*Crossing the border by plane

If you are limited on time this may be the fastest and hassle-free option. However, having a quick look at flight tickets today from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh you are looking at paying approximately USD$145 for a flight opposed to only USD$11 for a bus. Although, the journey does only take 45 minutes so this is definitely the more time-efficient way of travel. Also, you would expect the normal procedures at immigration like any other airport rather than just a waiting game/who is down to give a little bribe!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Overnight train to Sapa

You can book your train tickets to Sapa via online websites however it is a bit tricky finding a place to print these out and the tickets do take a little while to get sent to you via email. The easiest way (and slightly more expensive) is if a travel agency or your hostel can book this for you. They will book you onto the 'tourist trains'. Different companies own different cars on this train so depending on the company the price will vary. The more expensive cars I saw were owned by Victoria Railway Express and Sapa Adventure, if you had wanted to splurge a little bit. The difference is the quality of bedding, fixtures and condiments they leave you.

We went with a low to mid-range company, which was still pretty great. The beds were comfortable and it was only a 4 berth with A/C. There was also a TV, which wasn't turned on, and the cabins seemed relatively new. They also offered free bottles of water. There are also outlets on-board if you did need to charge anything. 

The train leaves Ga Hanoi and arrives into Lao Cai, which you then take a transfer bus or shuttle to the town of Sapa (about an hour to two hours drive away). The trains are labelled differently. We travelled on SPC3, which left Hanoi at 8.50pm and arrived into Lao Cai at 7.55am.  There are about 2 or 3 different train times to suit your schedule.

The cost of each train equates to roughly USD$30-40 each way. 

Our 4 berth cabin

The fancy train!

Overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa, and vice versa.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Hanoi by train

If you have the time I would definitely recommend taking the train from Saigon to Hanoi. You can use it to travel up the coast and stop along the way, or if you have a couple of days it does take 2 nights if you don't want to stop anywhere. It's a great way to see the beautiful coastline and countryside of Vietnam.

There are different room types on-board but the one we stayed in was a 6 berth cabin, hard beds and with A/C. This is the cheapest cabin type. Price also depends if you want the top, middle or bottom bunk. Price is cheaper the higher the bed.

The cost of this train from Saigon to Hanoi cost 1,356,000VND for the top berth (roughly USD$65) or 1,594,000VND for the middle bunk (roughly USD$76).

The beds are reasonably comfortable even though they say they are 'hard beds'. It comes with bedding (pillow and a blanket). The train leaves Ga Saigon at 11pm and arrives into Hanoi 2 days later at 5.30am. To purchase these tickets you just need to go to the train station itself. The lady that served us didn't speak much English but with a calendar, calculator, some diagrams and just hearing the two cities there were no problems. (However, initially we did think it was an overnight train so were surprised when we found out on board it was a 2 night train! That was the only thing that was hard to specify with the language barrier. It all turned out okay, though).

If you forgot to bring food on board there is a food and drink cart that goes through the train about twice a day. The food offered is traditionally Vietnamese but delicious nonetheless. This costed roughly 50,000VND so about USD$2.50 for the food and about the same or slightly less for drinks. Otherwise you can quickly run out when the train stops at a station as there are many stalls along the tracks. There's not much of a selection and it's best if you can get on the good side of the conductor as he'll keep an eye out for you to make sure you're back on board before they depart.

TIP: Taxi drivers will come ask to take you to your destination as soon as you step foot off the train. I recommend leaving the station and try to flag a cab outside or further away on the street. Make sure they are metered as well and if you can find a way to Google Map where you need to go, you can make sure that they're not just taking you for a ride!

Beaches of Vietnam

6 berth, hard beds, A/C

Buses: Cambodia

So this is a short post to give you a rough idea on what prices you should expect when travelling between certain cities in Cambodia on their inter-city bus system. One thing about the transport- always expect delays.

*Siem Reap to Sihanoukville
Sleeper bus (approximately 11 to 12 hours). This bus left at 8pm and was supposed to arrive in at 7am the next morning, however, we were an hour late.The back of the seat is at a 45 degree angle so it's pretty comfortable. I'm about 5'4ft and I just fit; however, those that are a little taller may want to try request the seats/beds at the back as they had slightly more leg space. If you have ear plugs, an eye mask and a neck pillow, you'll be good to go!

Cost: USD$18 per person

There are other companies as well that have an hour or two earlier departure times and prices are all similar. From memory the earliest bus may leave around 6-7pm and the latest around 9pm.

*Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh
Unfortunately, as we had a very windy day on our last day out from Koh Rong Island to the mainland our ferry was delayed due to the large swells so we missed our 2pm bus. These buses are typical passenger buses and costed only USD$6. 

There were about 5 to 7 buses going throughout the day between these two cities and a few different bus companies; however, they do book out quite fast. The travel time between these two cities is supposed to be around 5 hours.

TIP: If you do happen to have a group of 3 or 4  you can order a taxi instead. This takes only about 3 hours opposed to the 5 and there was a set price of USD$50-60 depending on what time of day you leave. Split this between the group and it's not much more than a bus.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Angkor Wat in a day

If you're on limited time, as we were, and you're heading towards Cambodia you will definitely want to make sure you make it to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. It is the largest Hindu temple complex, the largest temple in the Angkor group and is the best preserved. It is believed to have been built in the first half of the 12th Century and was estimated to have taken 30 years to construct.

The Angkor group is breathtaking. A magnificent sight and is definitely the highlight of my trip to this country. You can choose to see the beauty of this area either at sunrise or sunset. Sunrise is usually the most popular option, which we chose to do. Unfortunately we had a cloudy morning but the view was still amazing. It felt so surreal standing there watching the sun rise behind the monuments, something I had been dreaming of seeing for a very long time. We were told that you could expect the best sunrises in the months of March and April.

The magnitude of Angkor Wat's complex is unrivaled. They offer 3 day passes to allow visitors to see the whole area but as we were only able to visit Siem Reap for one night we could only get the day pass, which was definitely enough to be able to get the full experience of this ancient city.

We chose to go through our hostel when organising this visit, which cost us USD$18 between the three of us. You can however bargain between other tuk-tuk drivers for the best price. The driver also acted as our guide, helping us with the entrance pass and gave us options of the best temples to visit for the day we were there. Tipping is not compulsory nor unacceptable but as he was so friendly, patient, flexible and knowledgeable we decided to give him a little something at the end of our visit as a show of appreciation.

Our day started at 430am and it took about 15 to 20 minutes to get from our hostel (Siem Reap Hostel) to the complex. A day pass costs USD$20 and they issue a personalised ticket for each visitor. This means taking a photo of you, which we had not expected, so we now each have a souvenir of this place that has our puffy, only had three hours of sleep face printed on it. Before you enter each temple you will be asked to show this to the guards so make sure you keep it in a safe place if you don't want to have to backtrack to pay for a new one.

Puffy morning face

If you are there for only the day I would recommend making sure you visit at least these three temples:
- Angkor Wat (main monument)
- Bayon
- Ta Prohm (where the movie Tomb Raider was filmed)

This will give you a diverse range of different types of temples in the complex and in my opinion are the most spectacular ones. Also, there is a delicious locally run restaurant near the entrance of Bayon if you are looking for a place to have something to eat.

The day ended at about 4pm but the drivers are flexible so if you want to leave earlier you can always organise your schedule with them.

Angkor Wat at Sunrise

Outside the entrance of Bayon

Bayon Temple

Stone faces at Bayon

Ta Prohm ruins

Ta Prohm