Day 32: Sapaco Tourist from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh

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Just a short walk away from my hostel, I got to the Sapaco Tourist office to wait for my 9am bus. The bus ride is expected to take around 6 hours.

My trip was done at the time when online booking in Vietnam and Cambodia was not so readily available. Now, you can book your tickets from 12Go Asia or Baolau for this journey on board Giant Ibis, which really saves you the hassle of deciding which company to choose, factoring in extra cash to carry with you and currency to pay in.

I was informed the day before by the counter that there will be assigned seating, a meal break and a toilet on board. The last factor was the deal breaker for me in choosing my bus, since I wasn’t familiar with the roads in Vietnam and Cambodia and I wouldn’t know when the next rest stop might be.

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At 9am, our conductor, together with a list of all the passengers on board and the seat assignment, leads us to where our bus is parked at the Pham Ngu Lao bus terminal across the Sapaco Tourist office.

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Spot the hidden bus? My bus is parked in one of the bays towards the end of the terminal, in red and bearing the destination of “Ho Chi Minh – Phnom Penh – Siem Reap”. The “- Siem Reap” part can be ignored as they will actually sell you a ticket there, just that you have to change buses, possibly to another company, at Phnom Penh. The last two buses also belong to Sapaco Tourist but they are for shorter trips from Ho Chi Minh City to the Moc Bai border only.

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My bus ready for departure. Luggage is stored in the luggage compartment below. You might be yelled at if you decide to do otherwise. Not me though, I was walking around the middle of the crowd so I just followed suit with what was going on before me.

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The interior of the bus with a toilet behind. I was able to use this immediately before the bus even departed. But beware – there are no lights, no ventilation and no water. But I would still rather have used it.

Once the bus departs, the attendant comes around to take your passports and prepare for Vietnamese and Cambodian immigration. If you do not have a Cambodian visa, the attendant can help you get one for US$35, which is US$5 more than the official rate, as a service charge. If you require one, and haven’t got an e-Visa, it is wise to pay the extra US$5 as he can get the process done literally in almost an instant, as compared to you queuing by yourself. On top of that, you run the risk of the bus leaving the border without you.

Citizens of Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam and Myanmar can travel to Cambodia visa-free. When I told him “Singapore no need visa” just in case he was planning to pull a scam on me, he replied “No visa, Singapore friend.” Well that’s a good start.

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Passing by a railway bridge across the Saigon River along Trường Sa. The bend in the background leads to Saigon Railway Station.

After around 10 minutes, the bus arrived at another Sapaco Tourist bus terminal, this time picking up passengers to Moc Bai border, and loading other cargo in the luggage compartment, under each and every seat, the toilet and the space in front of the toilet, effectively making the toilet unusable. So next time if you ask if there is a toilet on board, perhaps you should change it to a more precise question such as “Is there a toilet on board that I can use freely throughout the bus journey?”

Once the bus departs the terminal full of goods and new passengers, the attendant hands out a bottle of mineral for each passenger. Thanks for the effort, but I don’t think I’ll be drinking it for this journey.

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Rural scenery towards Moc Bai border.

Departure immigration and customs was painless at Moc Bai, Vietnam. Follow the conductor to his chosen immigration counter, where he will hand the officer the stack of passports he collected before. The officer will then call out your name one by one, and you collect it, and you reboard the bus which is waiting just outside the exit of the building. In it, you will find a Cambodian immigration card, already filled out by the attendant.

Arrival immigration and customs was also painless at Bavet, Cambodia. Since the immigration card was already mostly filled up, just put in details such as your hotel name for your stay and you can just proceed for immigration, or if you require a visa, follow the attendant again to get your visa done up. Fingerprinting is required in Cambodia, and the machine was in front of me, but I was not required to do it at the Bavet border. Maybe I’m a friend to them. After immigration and customs, there is a counter selling SIM cards at cheap prices. You can get it here if you want internet access during the bus journey. The bus is again visible once you exit the building.

You are also not required to bring your luggage in the luggage compartment along with you for both checkpoints. In fact, you actually don’t have to bring anything with you aside from your passport, but remember to bring along your valuables to play safe and to follow common sense.

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A short drive away from the Bavet border, we arrived at a roadside restaurant, possibly operated by Sapaco Tourist themselves.

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The quick meal menu is pretty much mixed vegetables rice. A very expensive one at that, but not that you have a choice. You can pay in Cambodian Riel, Vietnam Dong or US Dollars at the stated prices.

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The interesting selection at the restaurant. The food seems relatively clean, I didn’t see any flies around.

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My “1 dish rice” with a free side of cold vegetables the guy threw on. Since I didn’t know how a local Cambodian would eat this, I just accepted it, even though if given a choice, I would have ordered like how I do in Singapore. Good thing there was free tea to wash down the rice as it’s pretty dry without any curry or gravy.

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New Cambodian scenery.

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In the past, the crossing across the Mekong River was done by a roll-on roll-off ferry. Now, the Neak Loeung Bridge replaces the ferry crossing, shortening the journey time and offers new views of Cambodia.

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Crossing the Neak Loeung Bridge.

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Crossing the Mekong River from above.

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Descending from the bridge.

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Crossing the Bassac River with a traffic jam, officially entering the city of Phnom Penh.

I sensed something was amiss when the bus made a left turn instead of going straight to the Sisowat Quay where my hotel was near and the other buses such as Mekong Express and Giant Ibis stop at. True enough, I ended up at an office which is not near the river, and I had to get a possibly rip-off tuk tuk to get to the riverside, which costed me US$7. With that additional cost, I regretted not going with Giant Ibis as it would have costed the same.

Price I paid from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh: VND 230000 (around S$14)

But don’t take Sapaco Tourist if you have other options! Yes, it was a good ride, they are a reputable brand, there are much worse companies running this route and it was my own fault for assuming that the bus terminates as the riverside. But the cheaper fare as compared to Mekong Express and Giant Ibis doesn’t apply anymore when you have to factor in the tuk tuk to your final destination. Not to mentioned the lack of availability of the toilet on board when they use the space to transport their cargo, whatever that may be. At least Giant Ibis and Mekong Express tells you outright that they do not have a toilet on board as they don’t want the bus to smell. If another opportunity to travel this route arises, I will definitely book Giant Ibis or Mekong Express.

My trip was done at the time when online booking in Vietnam and Cambodia was not so readily available. Now, you can book your tickets from 12Go Asia or Baolau for this journey on board Giant Ibis, which really saves you the hassle of deciding which company to choose, factoring in extra cash to carry with you and currency to pay in.

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