Finally home. It was a fantastic and exhausting trip. We haven’t even unpacked all our bags yet. I can’t wait to post the photos and write about the things we saw (yes, the temples, and oddly enough, a LOT of weddings while on the road), tasted, and got to do, but first, here’s a post about getting to and from the two cities.
When I was making arrangements for the Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Siem Reap trips, finding reliable overland transport choices available between the two cities was one of the things I spent a great deal of time on researching online.
A friend who backpacked through Asia many years ago recommended Sihn Cafe (now known as Sinh Tourist). I also looked at the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree travel forum to find out what other travelers were recommending. In the end I decided to book tickets with the Sinh Tourist online, to go from Saigon to Siem Reap; and to book Mekong Expess (highly recommended by people in forums) when we got to Siem Reap for our trip back to Saigon. I hope this post can help folks planning to travel to these cities and trying to figure out how to go from Saigon to Siem Reap.
From Saigon to Siem Reap
Bus line: The Sinh Tourist (17 USD)
The bus company popular with backpackers since the early 1990s reportedly decided to change their name after many other tour companies started using “Sinh Cafe” in their names as well. Unlike Mekong Express, you can book your tickets with Sinh Tourist online.
Under the Open Bus category, I booked Saigon to Phnom Penh for 6:30 am (10 USD), then Phnom Penh to Siem Reap for 2 pm (7 USD) on the same day. (You may want to stay a day or two in Phnom Penh if a 12-14 hour bus trip in one day sounds like torture–because it can feel like it.) It takes around 6 hours to get to Cambodia’s capital from Saigon, so there was enough time to make it to the 2 pm Siem Reap-bound bus.
If you’re booking online, you have to do so three days before your preferred date.
After booking the tickets, Sinh Tourist emails the link to the eTicket, which you need to print out and bring with you to their office in Saigon.
On the day of departure for Cambodia, we were advised to be there by 6 am to check in. Line up at the check in counter and hand over our eTickets and passports. Afterward, you’ll be given your boarding pass and baggage tags, somebody will put the tags on your baggage and put them in the baggage compartment of the bus. Then you can enter the bus and take your designated seat. Once the bus leaves, the bus attendant will collect all the passports.
After about two hours, the bus will reach the Vietnam-Cambodia border. You will be asked to get off the bus and collect your baggage. Then you will go through immigration and baggage inspection. If you’re from the Philippines, Brunei, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Singapore and Malaysia, you don’t need a visa to enter Cambodia. Otherwise, you need to get a visa (at the border) and to pay the 20 USD tourist visa fee.
An hour before reaching Phnom Penh, the bus goes on a ferry at Neak Loeung to cross the Mekong river.
We arrived at the Sinh Tourist PP office by 12:30 pm, with the trip being a little under 6 hours, with border stop. (We were not so lucky going back.)
Once at the Sinh office, bags were brought down and passengers heading to Siem Reap were asked to wait inside for the Siem Reap-bound bus to arrive. You can order lunch inside the office while you wait or just go next door to the nearby restaurant where the food is cheaper. When the bus arrives at 2 pm, you get your bags and load it again in the new bus.
Other than the 1 1/2 hour wait for the second bus (and the border crossing), Sinh Tourist bus took short 5 to 10-minute stops for toilet breaks. We arrived at Siem Reap a little past eight in the evening and the bus dropped off the passengers at the less chaotic Sinh Tourist office and hotel (and not at the Siem Reap bus station).
From Siem Reap to Saigon
Bus line: Mekong Express Limousine Bus (25 USD)
Although it was more expensive, we decided to take Mekong Express because some online travel guides and forums mentioned that this was the ‘best’ bus company and that you don’t need to change buses at Phnom Penh. This wasn’t the case.
You still have to change bus. You also need to go inside the ticketing office in PP, show your ticket, have them make a mark on it or something before being allowed to go inside the Saigon-bound bus. The only perk is that they don’t stay at the station for 1 1/2 hours like in Sinh Tourist. But they do have a couple of 20 minute restaurant stops, aside from the PP and border crossing stops. The toilets at the Mekong Express stops are a little more decent compared to the Sinh Tourist toilet stops.
Regarding toilets, one of the things going for Mekong Express is that they have a toilet inside the bus. So no, you won’t need to hold it until the next stop. They also have a bus attendant who sometimes acts like a tour guide, pointing out any historic sites you’ll be passing by.
Where else does the eight dollar difference go? You get a little box of snacks (a small savory bun or turnover and some baked sweet) for both trips. (Both Sinh and Mekong also give complimentary bottled water so no need to lug your own.) Mekong Express also has an option to be picked up from your hotel along with other passengers. We were scheduled to leave for 7:30 but after all the passenger pick-ups, we got to the bus station and on the bus at almost 8 am.
The trip was uneventful, save for the very un-express-like speed of the driver from Phnom Penh to Saigon. And just as luck would have it, the Vietnam police randomly picked our bus at the border after all the immigration procedures were done to inspect each and every passport of the passengers to make sure we had all the necessary stamps. We got to Saigon past 9 pm. The bus dropped all the passengers along Pham Ngu Lao Street in District 1. We couldn’t get on a cab and get to our hotel fast enough. Bath, bed, thankyouGod.
If I would have to travel between Saigon and Siem Reap again, I would probably stick to Sinh Tourist, just because it’s cheaper and based on this one trip, there’s really not much of a difference in terms of the the travel time. If you’re particular about toilets though, pick Mekong Express. Let me know if you have other suggestions or if you have any questions.
For more on Saigon and Siem Reap, here are some suggested reads:
What to eat in Saigon: From finding pho to the Lunch Lady
What to do in Saigon (besides eat)
Angkor Wat in the morning
Day 1, Beyond Angkor Wat: exploring the other temples of Angkor
Day 2 of Angkor temples
Where to stay in Siem Reap and cures for temple exhaustion