On our third day (20 March 2012), we woke up at around 0500 to prepare for our 12-hour trip to Cambodia. We were packed and ready to go by 0630, because we were warned “Chanh” that we should be ready by that time. For our tickets, O asked him when we were still in Manila to buy Mekong Express tickets for us. The two-leg trip costs 22USD per person, and had to be paid in cash (as in US Dollars).
The bus conductor was very prompt, we were fetched from Phan Lan at around 645. After profusely thanking Van and “Chanh”, “Cam ern!”, we were herded to the Mekong Express bus parked along Pham Ngu Lao. One thing to know about Pham Ngu Lao, not only is it very busy because it is essentially the heart of the backpacker district, it also doubles as the bus stop of many busses.
The Mekong Express boarding process was very orderly. We were asked for our tickets and baggage. Each baggage was tagged and we were given part of the bag tags, which we were instructed not to lose. We were then pointed to our seats.
The Mekong Express Limousine Bus was just a regular airconditioned bus with a washroom in the rear. What initially struck us most was the décor. It looked like an 80s party bus. The curtains had pompoms on them. Very interesting. As O said, we should not raise our expectations. We didn’t, and we were pleasantly surprised. It’s not too bad, really.
At exactly 0700, we left Pham Ngu Lao. We had a Cambodian “stewardess,” who immediately spoke about the trip ahead: it will be approximately 6 hrs. to get to Phnom Penh. We will cross the Mekong River about 2 hrs. from Ho Chi Minh, and stop at the border at Moc Bai (Vietnam side) and Bavet (Cambodia side) in 3 hrs. We will also stop for a meal at Bavet, and the total travel distance is 262 kilometers. We were also given immigration forms to be filled out by us. The bus was full of passengers!
Our “stewardess” also handed out cold towels, a bottle of water an a box of snacks (ham and cheese sandwich). This came with the ticket, and also explains the premium price we paid for the trip. Other bus services are cheaper, as I understand, but Mekong Express had these additional factors that made us choose it over the others.
The journey was comfortable enough, and I fell asleep almost instantly. I only wake up again when we were about to cross the Mekong River. There was no bridge connecting the two banks, and we had to board a barge. Thankfully, we need not leave the bus and simply look at the river from our bus. It was barely a 10 minute ride between the two banks.
The next stop was at Moc Bai/Bavet border. Our “stewardess” asked for our passports and reminded us that we had to go down the bus with all our belongings, and present ourselves to the Vietnam immigration authorities. Inside the Vietnam border building, we passed through the x-ray machine and waited for our names to be called. It was a wee bit confusing, as there was no line, our passports were with our “stewardess” and she just called out names. Eventually, we got our passports, presented ourselves to a Vietnamese officer at the door, and out we went. A short distance away, we were asked to de-bus again, this time to present ourselves to the Cambodian authorities. On this side of the border, we lined up at the counters, asked for a picture and our fingerprints, and passed through a thermometer. This was the first time we were asked if we were Filipinos (the Cambodian who asked did not see our passports). This would be a theme of our Cambodia trip (How do they know we are Filipinos???). I understand some nationalities need to obtain a visa at the Cambodian border, but not for us Southeast Asians.
We again boarded the bus and we proceeded to an eatery on the side of the road about a kilometer or two away from the border. It was almost 1100hrs, so we thought of eating our lunch there. It was your good old carinderia (eatery), with prices ranging from 6,000-8,000 Riel per meal (that is roughly 2USD, or 85PhP). It was clean, and we were quite peckish, so we all settled down for a meal. What was noticeable were the individual trash bins in each table. We all thought, why didn’t we think of this! It was a very useful indeed. Another noteworthy observation T and O had was the excellent quality of the rice. According to them, it was aromatic and flavourful. I wouldn’t know, I am not a rice expert… even though I am a very voracious rice eater. Lastly, we noticed that you can actually pay in US dollars! There was no need to have your money changed, that definitely came as a surprise. After 30 minutes, we again boarded the bus and off we went to Phnom Penh.
To get to Phnom Penh, one has to pass through the provinces of Svay Rieng, Prey Veng and Kandal. Between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the provinces of Kampong Cham, Kampong Chhang and Kampong Thom will be traversed. After three more hours, we finally arrive at Phnom Penh. We first stopped at the market where the passengers getting off at Phnom Penh alighted. The bus subsequently went to the Mekong Express Terminal. We all had to get out of the bus and get our luggage. There we showed the part of the bag tags given to us (yes, there was a purpose, unlike the tags given to us by airlines :p). It was about 1330hrs. We had some time before our 1400hrs trip to Siem Reap, but not too much time. We just stayed at the (thankfully airconditioned) office, and decided to buy our tickets for the 24th Cambodia-Vietnam trip. It was similarly priced, 22USD per person, and the woman who assisted us was very sweet and charming. By 1350hrs, we were called to board the bus, and it left at 1400hrs. Unlike the Ho Chi Minh-Phnom Penh leg, the bus was only about 3/4 full.
For this part of the trip, our “stewardess” was a man. He immediately gave out the cold towels, bottles of water, and snack (this time, it was a tuna turnover, and a slice of cake). This leg of the trip was uneventful, except for the exceptionally beautiful sunset we saw at about 1800hrs. Unfortunately, I was unable to take a photo of it.
We also stopped for a meal at Stung Sen Restaurant, where we had dinner because it was already 1748hrs.. There were also trashbins under every table. We started to think this was a Cambodian thing. We had to eat very fast, as we were only given 30 minutes, and we dilly-dallied for the first 15 minutes.
I should also tell you about the entertainment in Mekong Express. For each leg of the trip, they show a movie on the wonderfully designed tv :D. For our trips, they played Indiana Jones (the new one), a Khmer film, and Khmer mtvs. The mtvs were very entertaining! They are unlike the mtvs we’re used to watching, they are much rather like the videoke films, but with a storyline. One story could be told in several songs, so you’d have to watch the next video. It’s fun 😀
Finally, and after about 13 hours, we arrive at Siem Reap. The bus parked at the bus terminal, where there are numerous tuktuk drivers waiting for us. We immediately gathered our things, and carefully chose our tuktuk driver. We settle on Li, who gave us the ride for 3USD. We asked to go to Soria Moria Boutique Hotel, where we were booked for two days. Upon arriving at Soria Moria, Li asked if we already had tours booked. We asked for his prices, and said that it was 15USD a day, with additions for other trips (like the farther temples). We also asked if he knew of a tour guide who could accompany us during the trip, and he said he will take care of it. O and Li shook hands and it was a deal. He said we had to be ready by 0700hrs the following day.
Fast forward to 23 March 2012.
We decided to avail of the hotel pick-up service offered by Mekong Express. It just so happened that we went to Central Market that afternoon, and saw the Mekong Express office there. We did not have our tickets with us, but since their system was online, they found our reservations. However, horror of horrors, we did not have reservations for the Siem Reap-Phnom Penh leg, and the bus was already full! We had to explain that we booked the ticket at Phnom Penh 3 days prior, and paid in full. We were offered the aisle seats, which we refused. It would be uncomfortable and not at all worthy of the 22USD per person! We asked if they could just bear the expenses of booking us in another bus company, but the manager of the office said she will try to fix the problem. Apparently, the sweet and charming girl who assisted us failed to book us for the Siem Reap-Phnom Penh part of our ticket. After several fretful minutes, the manager using 3 different phones, struggled to procure seats for us. In the end, however, she did get tickets for us, although we were seated in separate rows. We did not mind, and we were just very grateful that the mess was settled. For that, we are very thankful to Mekong Express for not simply abandoning us, and acknowledged (though not directly) that it was their fault. Also, we would like to thank the staff at Siem Reap for being so accommodating. They also took down our hotel and our request to avail of the complimentary pick up from the hotel.
For our trip back on 24 March 2012, we left the wonderful Borei Angkor at around 7. Since we were ready by 0600hrs., we still had time to grab some breakfast. At the lobby, we met fellow Filipinos who were also taking a bus (though not Mekong Express). It is so Filipino to ask “What is your work?”, which is an awkward question especially when posed to strangers. Anyway, by 0700hrs, we were picked up from the lobby by a minibus, and brought to the Siem Reap bus terminal. There, our tickets were checked, luggage tagged and put in the bus compartment, and seated. Once again, we had the complimentary water, cold towel and snack of 2 kinds of bread. We stopped over at a restaurant midway between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and in the street stalls, O bought some mangoes for 2000Riel. It was different from the mangoes sold in the street in Manila, in the sense that the condiment was salt with chili. In Manila, it is usually bagoong (fish paste) and chili.
We once again changed busses at the Phnom Penh terminal of Mekong Express, where our passports were checked and listed down (in some sort of guest manifesto), to be submitted at the Vietnamese border. Once again, there was the complimentary water, cold towel and snack. After some time, we finally reach Bavet. We stopped at the same bus stop we stopped at on our trip to Siem Reap. We ate a meal again, we anticipated that we would not have much time when we reach Ho Chi Minh. At the border, and we were requested to go down to get our fingerprints again, and at the Moc Bai part, we had to get all our stuff out of the bus to undergo the x-ray machine.
There we met a fellow Filipino (let’s call him XYZ), who told us a tragically comic story of how he came to the bus. He related that he brought the wrong passport so he did not make it to his original bus schedule, had to buy a new ticket, and he would meet his friends at a department store in Ho Chi Minh, a city he had not yet been in. He asked for our help, but we did not know the store either. After about 2 more hours, we finally reach Ho Chi Minh. Once in the busy part of the city, he shouted “Ate!” (a Filipino term of respect for women older than the speaker), referring to me, and I spun around. I actually did not know what he wanted, but I approached the stewardess anyway, and asked if he can be dropped off. The stewardess beckoned XYZ and told him directions. He looked dazed and confused, but we are not in a position to help him any further. We merely wished he would meet his friends. (NB: we met XYZ again at the airport, he was also about to fly to Manila. Thankfully, he met up with his friends)
Upon arriving at Pham Ngu Lao, we immediately hailed a cab to go to the airport. It was hard at that time (around 2030pm), because the cabs were occupied. There was even an accident right in front of us, not a major one, but still caused some commotion (it was between an Innova cab and a motorcycle). We got to the airport in no time, waited for about 20 minutes before check in, and got through uneventfully. I just have to note that the airport was extra chaotic as there were a lot of people waiting in the lobby, it seemed that the departure and arrival gates were the same. I also have to note with envy the fact that there were direct to Europe flights from Ho Chi Minh. At the time we were there, there were three flights to Paris! How I wish it would be the same in Manila, but as luck would have it, the last direct to Europe flights from KLM have been cancelled already.
Before boarding, we still had some time to kill so we searched for a pho place in the airport. We settled at Lotus Restaurant at the mezzanine floor, where there was also a Burger King, a coffee place, and some massage places. We wanted some pho to cap our Indochina trip, and we did get our fill. Unfortunately, it was expensive at 8USD per serving, plus it was really just mediocre pho. Oh well, as I am writing this I am craving for some pho!