The following post was written by a former contributor to Chasing the Unknown. The views expressed are not those of the site’s owner.
Before arriving in Cambodia, like any savvy traveler, I did my research and tried to learn about all of the possible scams we could potentially face as well as what it would be like to travel within the country. I read horror story after horror story about bus travel involving broken overflowing toilets, overcrowding, breakdowns in the middle of nowhere, inappropriate behavior from locals, stolen baggage, livestock (dead or alive) sharing a seat with you and unfathomable stenches inducing vomiting. And as far as we could tell, there are no traffic laws in Cambodia. Oh, wait, no, there are traffic laws, but the police rarely enforce them and if they pull you over (they’re much more likely to pull over foreigners), they’re just looking for a bribe.
Cambodians are supposed to drive on the right hand side of the road, but if there are other drivers already in the right lane, they will drive in the left. There is absolutely no yielding to pedestrians, just swerving and honking. Oh, the honking. Even though Cambodian vehicles are equipped with mirrors and turn signals, they are not used. Instead, anytime there is something that might be in their way in the road (or on the side of the road), be it another car, motorbike, bicycle, child, cow, chicken, dog, pig, goat, or a horse, it will get a very loud HONK. If anyone in the United States honked like that, it would mean one of three things: 1) They are trying to avoid/in the process of getting into a collision, 2) They are having a seizure or heart attack behind the wheel, 3) They are a giant asshole, and will be getting the middle finger from at least a few drivers. Not so in Cambodia (or Vietnam, for that matter); it’s just the norm. How do they even distinguish where the honks are coming from, since there are so many and they occur so often? To me, honking would just become meaningless due to overuse. I guess somehow, it just “works.”
Apparently, drivers must be licensed in Cambodia in order to drive. In order to obtain a driver’s license, one must go to driving school and pass a test. However, most people just bribe officials to obtain licenses. Scary, I know. No wonder there are so many vehicle collisions in Cambodia. In fact, 4.7 people die each day, on average, as a result of accidents. So, with all of that information here, in my perspective, is our experience on buses in Cambodia.
We covered approximately 1,866 kilometers by bus. I cannot remember how many total hours (or days) that took, but let me assure you, it was much, much more than it should have. See the end of this post for tips on bus travel in Cambodia that will save you time, money, and hassle.
The first bus we took completely spoiled me and set my expectations ridiculously high. We traveled from Phnom Penh to Kampot (150 KM) using the newest bus company in Cambodia, Giant Ibis. The buses are modern, the air-conditioning works, the seats are clean and as comfortable as you’re going to get. You receive complimentary bottled water; free somewhat decent WiFi; announcements in English; baggage is handled with respect; you can book online (for $1.00 fee) and the bus only stops for meals and bathroom breaks. Even though this bus is somewhat more expensive ($9 each) than other bus companies, it’s TOTALLY WORTH IT. If you still don’t believe me about Giant Ibis, read this review. I naively thought that we could avoid any Cambodian bus horror stories and solely use this company. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
We quickly learned that Giant Ibis did not cover the route from Kampot to Sihanoukville (130 KM), much to our dismay. Seemingly, the only option was to take a mini-bus, which only costs $5 each. We had both heard and read terrible things (I’ll get to those later) about taking mini-buses, and were advised to avoid them at all costs, so we were a bit apprehensive. I believe we used the company Sorya 168. While it certainly wasn’t the most comfortable trip we’ve taken, it ended up being much better than we expected. We were in what I would call a large (sometimes) air-conditioned mini-van with a bunch of other backpackers from Western countries. We each had our own seat and everybody was respectful of each other. There was even a TV screen at the front playing The Dark Knight Rises (in English!) and (crappy) WiFi available.
At this point, I was thinking – OK, maybe bus travel in Cambodia isn’t all that bad. Have we been lucky or savvy? Our next trip was from Sihanoukville to Battambang (~521 KM because of a stop in Phnom Penh) on overnight/sleeper buses. Again, horror stories danced in my head: people crawling around in the luggage compartment at night stealing items from bags, theft from your person while sleeping on the bus, bus breaking down at 2AM in the middle of nowhere, and the driver hitting a cow because he’s going too fast and hasn’t slept in 48 hours. We used the company Virak Buntham, we paid $16 per person and we bought the tickets from our hotel in Sihanoukville (our friends bought the exact same tickets from a travel agency and paid $18 each).
We boarded the bus and were instructed to take off our shoes and put them in a little plastic baggie. At this point, I though, “oh great, they’re trying to keep the bus clean! This will be nice!” As I happily entered the bus with my little shoe baggie in hand, my smile instantly turned into a look of horror. There were two levels of dirty, dingy, ripped brown seats fixed in 145 degree angles (for maximum discomfort), that were most likely not serviced (or cleaned) since the 1970s, with trash everywhere. The angle of the seats was akin to my worst nightmare on airplanes when someone reclines their seat in an already limited legroom situation, slamming into my knees and essentially lying in my lap (have I mentioned that I’m 5’10” with really long legs?). But oh, this was much worse. We were forced to put our bottom halves underneath the already reclining seat in front of us, along with our hand luggage, because there are no overhead compartments. My bags went on top of me, because me and my two bags and shoes literally did not fit in that tiny compartment underneath the seat. Fun times.
There was barely any room to walk through the aisle so people knocked into those in the aisle seat as they struggled to get by. The bus was filled with mostly (unhappy) backpackers, so at least we were all in this together. We traveled with our new lovely South African friends, Jenny and Philippa, which made the ride much more bearable, as we were all mortified and laughing together, wondering if this could get any worse.
So they call this bus a “sleeper bus” but I still don’t understand how they expect anyone to get any sleep. Never mind the uncomfortable seats and the air conditioning that only sometimes blows cold air – remember at the beginning of this post when I discussed the style of Cambodian driving? Add all that onto the fact that not all of the roads are paved and even if they are, they have giant potholes. The bus ride was so bumpy and swervy that I almost fell out of my upper-level aisle seat multiple times. Weren’t there seat belts, you ask? I am not even going to respond to that question with real words – *insert elephant sound effect here*. To make matters worse, someone kept crop dusting us throughout the trip – every now and again a terrible smell would waft in our direction. After 3 years of marriage and 6.5 years of being together, we knew damn well that neither one of us could produce that brand of stink. There was no way to escape, either, especially since at some point during the night, a bus worker strung up a hammock across the aisle right next to my seat and proceeded to sleep in it for hours. There was no f’ing way anyone was getting in or out of the seats in my vicinity during that time. Can you say fire hazard?
At 1AM we made a bathroom stop. I didn’t really need to go (and I was afraid to), but Marbree and Jenny couldn’t wait any longer. Here is the “bathroom” they used:
This photo was edited and lightened so you could actually see the bathroom. Marbree and Jenny had a much more difficult time. Oh, and it was muddy and there were no lights inside the “stalls.” Take a guess as to what you think was inside those corrugated metal boxes in the comments section.
Finally, at some ungodly hour in the middle of the night (3AM? Who knows? I just spent 8 hours on an uncomfortable, smelly bus, not sleeping!), we arrived at Phnom Penh and were ordered off the bus (“get off bus now!”). We were told to grab all of our bags and switch buses. This was new information to me, but hey, we were getting off of the old smelly nasty bus! Who cares if we’re so tired we can barely walk straight or remember which bags are ours? We got on the next bus (not without removing our shoes, of course) and holy crap it’s actually a nice bus! Where was this puppy 8 hours ago? Marbree and I had our very own “compartment” with a curtain and we shared a twin bed with pillows and blankets. There was even a flip-down TV screen and we each got our own pair of Beats by Dr. Dre headphones (not to keep, of course). Our bed was fairly clean and even somewhat comfortable. Have I died and gone to Japan, because this shit is nice! I was quickly reminded by the large message at our feet that no, I’m not back in Japan and, really, it’s at your own risk that you keep your valued property (what?).
I was actually able to sleep on this bus (with the assistance of earplugs because even at 4AM, the driver was still honking more often than not) and was awoken at 9:30AM to a bathroom and food stop. The food selections were … interesting.
I decided that the crickets didn’t look too bad and since I’ve seen them all over Cambodia, I may as well try one (they eat the deep fried sparrows bones, beak, legs and all, and I just couldn’t do it). One of the vendors gave me one for free to try (after taking the wings off for me). Jenny and Philippa photographed the occasion and watched with anticipation while I inspected and subsequently popped the cricket in my mouth.
It actually wasn’t bad! It tasted like crunchy, salty popcorn. I ended up eating crickets again while in Vietnam, I liked them so much. They seem like the perfect snack to have while drinking beer and hanging out at a bar. Apparently, they’re quite nutritious, too, so that appealed to the dietitian in me.
The rest of our trip to Battambang was uneventful, however, when we arrived we were accosted by about 10 tuk-tuk drivers all trying to take us to hotels. All we wanted to do was grab our bags and get away from that craziness. I even told a few guys to back off and leave us alone (remember the lack of sleep and comfort on our first bus? I was NOT in the mood). Eventually, the four of us went with a driver that offered us a ride for $1. Of course, once we got to our hotel and paid him said dollar, he followed us in and tried to get us to book tours with him. Jenny and Philippa already had someone they wanted to use, so we said something non-committal like we’d call him tomorrow, but he would not go away! Apparently, the drivers offer the ride from the bus station for $1 with the expectation that you will book an (overpriced) tuk-tuk tour with them (“I give you ride for $1, you take tour with me!”). The four of us rushed up to our hotel rooms and hung out there for a little while, hoping he’d go away (which he eventually did, but unfortunately on the next day when we took our tour with a different driver, we ran into him on the road, which made for an awkward moment for all).
Battambang to Siem Reap (177 KM): We took a true local bus (Sorya 168) for $5 each. One of our super Battambang tuk-tuk drivers, Dara, took us to the local bus station and helped us buy the tickets at the local rate. When we got to the bus station, we saw this, which was a little unnerving, but luckily, that wasn’t our mode of transport.
We waited for about a half hour after the time our bus was supposed to come at the “bus station” – a few crappy, dirty benches in a muddy area with a few food vendors around. What we ended up on was a full-sized, air-conditioned bus, but it truly was a bus for locals, as in, we were the only tourists on it. We got a lot of strange looks as we entered the bus and one woman said to me “where are you?” as we sat down. I was confused, and answered “on this bus,” but later I realized that she probably meant to add the word “from” to the end of her sentence. Oops. Just like our first night bus, it was an old (1980s, this time?), dirty bus in serious need of servicing with plenty of trash in the aisles and on the (upright) seats. I sat with my small backpack and Pacsafe Shoulder Bag on top of me, as the floor was filthy and so were the overhead luggage compartments. The usual annoyances occurred, of course: constant honking and swerving and air-conditioning blowing cold air only some of the time. However, the lovely addition of locals having very loud conversations both in person and on their mobile phones definitely added to the experience. Even my super ear plugs didn’t block out all of their shouting, but they certainly helped. Another delightful thing that we hadn’t experienced before was Khmer karaoke. Instead of showing movies or TV shows on the POS screen at the front of the bus, Cambodians like to play karaoke (and LOUDLY, too). This was mind-boggling to me, as there certainly wasn’t a karaoke machine on the bus (that would have been the tipping point for me) nor was anybody singing along (thanking my lucky stars for that). Khmer karaoke is the absolute WORST. The singers cannot sing to save their lives, the music resembles something I produced on my Casio keyboard when I was 10, and the acting in the videos is horrendous. To top it off, one of the videos depicted a rape-murder. Definitely PG and appropriate for the middle of the day. Experience a taste of our torture, er, I mean, the karaoke, here. When we arrived at Siem Reap and I looked into the luggage compartment, I noticed that my bag was sitting on top of a giant, muddy tire. The bus employee just grabbed our bags and flung them in a pile in the dirt. So of course, our bags were filthy and I noticed that my rain cover had been ripped as well. Awesome customer service and respect for personal property, guys. But for $5, I can’t really complain too much.
Siem Reap to Kratie (383 KM) cost us $15 each and we purchased our tickets at a travel agency after going to four different ones so that we could get the best price and vehicle. After asking multiple times, we were assured that it was an air-conditioned, VIP express, large tourist bus with the company Rith Mony**. For $15 in Cambodia (which is a significant amount of money there), that is exactly what we expected. What we got was pretty much what I described in our trip from Battambang to Siem Reap (piece of crap local bus). In addition to all of the wonderful things described above, this bus took us on a tour of every Cambodian slum in Northern Cambodia. The bus must have stopped at least 20 times to pick up locals. When every seat was taken, the bus staff pulled out tiny plastic stools and the locals sat on them in the aisles (worse fire hazard than the hammock?), which also quickly filled up.
One of the people sitting on the plastic stools was a man with an infant girl in his lap. At some point during the trip, we hit a large pot hole and the man dropped the baby with a loud THUMP. Needless to say, extremely loud screaming and crying followed for a good 10 minutes. Eventually, he handed the infant to a random woman who was reaching out for the child. What do you know, she was sitting directly behind Marbree! She proceeded to dangle the infant above Marbree’s head and shake her, all while shouting and singing(?) very loudly. After the kid proceeded to cry for another 15 minutes, this woman slapped the child and, surprise, surprise, the kid cried louder and harder! Who’d have thunk it? To make matters worse, the kid desperately needed a diaper change. While we thought we were in a pretty terrible situation, I felt much worse for the child: this was unsafe, uncomfortable and quite frankly, child abuse.
Many hours later, we stopped for what we thought was a bathroom and food break. Before we got up to get off the bus, an employee looked directly at us and the other Westerners on the bus, three French Canadians, and said “Kratie, Pakse, (something in Khmer that we couldn’t understand),” followed by gestures indicating that we should get off the bus. The employee opened the luggage compartment and walked away. We knew we weren’t in Kratie and we certainly weren’t in Pakse, Laos (where the French Canadians were going), so we were quite confused. We teamed up with the French Canadians (Max, Julie and Simon), found the employee, who, turns out, didn’t speak a lick of English. Thankfully, we found a restaurant employee who spoke some English and could translate: we need to wait here for an hour for another bus. “Here” was a dingy outdoor restaurant with trash and chicken bones all over the floor as well as a large dirt area with food vendors. According to the GPS on my phone, we were in Skuon, the fried spider capital of Cambodia and coincidentally, the middle of nowhere.
After a little over an hour, this pulls up:
A man gets out and yells, “Kratie! Pakse!” NO. FUCKING. WAY. Turns out, this was the “bus” that was picking us up. As we were approaching the van, we noticed that it was already (over)full with Cambodians and no passengers were getting out. All five of us started complaining: “it’s already full,” “where will our bags go?” “this is not what we paid for!” “I’m not getting in this shit van!” Max even had the bus guy call his boss and he angrily voiced his complaints. His group paid $25 each and were promised the same VIP Express bus that we expected. But what could we do at this point? We were over 250 KM from Kratie and the French Canadians were even farther from Laos. That little blue van I saw in Battambang was looking pretty good right about now. We decided that we just had to go with it and hope that we make it to our destination in one piece. The bus guy then started shuffling people around in the van so that there were about 4 people in the front passenger seat and about 6 or 7 in the first row, some on the floor. Our bags were put in the back of the van and three of us had to sit back there, leaning up against them.
Apparently the back door was broken, so two guys spent the trip dangling off of a rope on the outside of the van, which was holding the door closed. The sliding passenger door wouldn’t close either, so a guy had to hold it closed as well. As you can see from the photo above, what was left of the seats were ripped, broken and filthy, and most people didn’t even get to sit on one. This van probably would have failed an inspection in 1985, so at this point I was surprised the damn thing could even run.
The van gets going and what do you know, the air-conditioning is broken. The windows are open and dirt and dust is flying everywhere, including our mouths and eyes (at one point, Julie got hit in the face with a rock). There’s nothing like taking what is probably going to be a 4+ hour ride down bumpy dirt roads, crammed into a van with 12 smelly, dirty, sweaty Cambodians with no AC. To make matters worse, we kept stopping every half an hour or so to make pick-ups and deliveries. First, we picked up two giant bags of rice. Then, two huge buckets of what appeared to be slop. And finally, a box of live chickens. All of these things were tied to the back of the van with those same two guys holding them in place with that rope.
After about 4 hours (which, by the way, is the time it SHOULD have taken us to get to Kratie), we pull off the road onto a dirt area. At this point I’m thinking, oh shit, this is when they’re going to beat us and rob us and leave us on the side of the road. But wait, there’s another van there, and this one is actually decent-looking! Are we saved? Are they transferring us onto a different bus for the rest of the trip? Once we stopped and the door opened, we started asking if we should get out and go onto the other van. Oh, no. We’re not getting OUT of the van. There are 5 people outside waiting to get INTO our van. THIS. CAN’T. BE. HAPPENING. The main bus guy starts telling us to shove over and make room for the new people. We’re already 3 people across and barely fitting. Max can’t take it anymore and has a conniption. He refuses to move over and let the people in, saying he paid $25 for a seat on a comfortable, air-conditioned, express bus and this is far from what was promised to him (all true). He starts demanding we all receive a refund. He’s using the bus guy’s phone again to talk to the boss. None of this is getting us anywhere. Those people are still standing outside and we’re stuffed in the back of a very hot and dirty van, sweating our asses off. I tell Simon to join Julie, Marbree, and me in the very back and for Max to slide over and let the other people in. Besides, the Laos border crossing closes in a few hours and we’re not even to Kratie yet. He agrees, and more sweaty, smelly bodies cram into our van. There are now twenty-three people in a van that seats eleven. Plus the two out back. After two more excruciating hours, we finally make it to Kratie. The French Canadians are dropped off with us and told that they cannot go to Laos tonight. We all go for some dinner and beers and try to laugh about what just happened over the last 12 hours.
NOTE: We understand that this was a fairly standard way of local travel in Cambodia. The conditions we experienced, while horrible and shocking to us, are normal to Cambodians. If we had been told up front exactly what to expect, the correct timing for the trip (it took 12 hours when it should have taken 8), and paid the local price, we would have been more OK with the situation. We didn’t appreciate being lied to and put in a completely unsafe mode of transport. Marbree, crazy lady that she is, enjoyed the chance to travel the way the Khmer do and – other than spending too much – the entire experience. Me, I just wanted to wipe the dirt and sweat off my face and stretch my long legs.
Kratie to Phnom Penh (234 KM) cost us $5 each. Our hotel booked the tickets for us and we were quite nervous when they told us that we’d have to pick up our bus tickets on the bus. You want to have tickets in hand so the bus company doesn’t try to charge you again, claiming they never received payment from the hotel (we have heard of this happening). We got on the bus and weren’t even asked for tickets initially. Eventually, an employee came on board and asked us for our tickets, and we calmly told him that our hotel booked them for us. He seemed to accept this and went on collecting tickets. However, ten minutes into the bus trip another bus employee handed me her cell phone and said, “it’s for you.” My first thought: “how the heck did my mother track me down in Cambodia and through a bus company, no less?” Alas, it was not my mother, but the bus company’s main office. Again, I relayed that our hotel had booked the bus tickets for us, our destination was Phnom Penh and we already paid. The company ended up being Virak Buntham again, but we had no control over this because our hotel booked the tickets and the hotel’s staff wasn’t the greatest with English (our bad for booking tickets this way). Virak Buntham is severely lacking in organizational skills, but at least they didn’t make us pay again, so bonus points for honesty. This was another local bus, so all of the typical annoyances apply, but after our complete and utter nightmare getting to Kratie, this didn’t seem so bad (and we paid the right price). Our trip took several hours longer than it should have because, again, we picked up locals along the way and we had to make a very important rambutan pick-up and delivery.
Phnom Penh to Saigon, Vietnam (~291 KM) cost us $18 per person and we went with Giant Ibis (bought the tickets at their office in Phnom Penh). The trip was great, we passed through the Cambodia-Vietnam border seamlessly and quickly with no problems. The bus had mostly tourists and it wasn’t even 1/4 full. A very pleasant ride, indeed. Here is a photo of the inside of said nice, mostly empty bus:
It’s nearly impossible to avoid all the scams and terrible transportation experiences of Cambodia, but here are my tips to make the journeys easier (both physically, mentally and financially):
1) Buy your bus tickets directly from the bus company’s ticket office in town. This will not only guarantee that you get the bus that you are paying for, you’ll also save paying travel agent/hotel’s commission fees as well as “tourist prices,” which are usually unnecessarily inflated.
2) If you don’t have the ability to go to the bus company’s office and you must book with your hotel or a travel agent, ask which bus companies offer the route you want to take, write down the names and Google the heck out of them before booking. Book with the one with the best reviews (or the fewest complaints).
3) Spend the extra few bucks (legitimately, not in commission) for peace of mind and go with a reputable company, such as Giant Ibis (when possible). Never, ever, take a bus with Rith Mony (we didn’t know at the time, but their safety record is horrendous). If you take Sorya, be prepared for a similar local bus experience.
4) Before you hand over your money, try to make sure that you will receive paper tickets (or something that says you’ve paid) at the time of booking. We have heard of travelers being told that the bus company already had their information or they can pick up the tickets on the bus only to be charged again. As mentioned above, only once have we arrived at our bus without paper tickets and it turned out OK (albeit annoying).
5) ALWAYS keep toilet paper on your person during a bus trip, especially if you are a woman. There is no guarantee that there will be toilet paper (or anything clean to wipe yourself with) at the “rest stops.” I brought along a few of these and they were lifesavers (and refillable): Charmin To Go Travel Toilet Tissue. You’re really lucky if you have access to an actual Western toilet, so get ready to squat and hold your number 2 until you reach your destination.
6) Hand Sanitizer (or Antibacterial Liquid Hand Soap) is also wise to carry. Proper hand washing and basic sanitation is not a priority in Cambodia and you will frequently encounter “bathrooms” with no soap or even a sink to wash your hands. There will be a basin of disgusting water to put down the hole to push your waste through, however. We were pleasantly surprised that we only got diarrhea for one day while in Cambodia, as bathrooms in restaurants also tend to be without soap (oh, how I miss those bathroom signs saying “Employees must wash hands before returning to work”).
7) Bring your own water and bus snacks if taking a long trip. The places the bus stops for meals are sometimes overpriced, dodgy in the cleanliness department, or offering food that you wouldn’t eat in a million years (unless you are itching to try sparrow, cricket or spider).
8) We were so glad that we carried Antibacterial Hand Wipes and Facial Wipes with us – especially during our absolute nightmare bus trip from Siem Reap to Kratie. Cambodia is very dirty, roads are frequently unpaved and if you travel with open windows, you WILL get filthy.
9) Before you travel, order good quality, but inexpensive foam earplugs. I found these to work the best – Howard Leight MAX-1 Foam Ear plugs. They saved my sanity on our terrible bus trips. Bring several pairs and keep them in a small, clean plastic case. They’re cheap, fairly comfortable, and will block out a majority of the terrible Khmer karaoke, incessant honking, loud mobile phone conversations, and crying children.
10) Bring along a few Combination Luggage Locks. Lock up the bags that you’ll be putting under the bus as well as the ones you’ll have on your person (if you are going to sleep). Even though we’ve never had anything stolen from our bags, we’d like the think that the locks were a good deterrent. When you leave the bus for a bathroom or food break, bring your hand luggage with you (there are many signs on the bus reminding you of this). We also each have a bag made by Pacsafe, a company that makes anti-theft bags with a complex locking mechanism, wire mesh lining, and RFID protected pockets.
11) If you’re traveling with a large backpack, I’d recommend buying a Rain Cover. Not only will it protect your bag contents from getting wet, it will also protect it from dirt and mud when it is inevitably tossed in the mud by a bus employee. If the rain cover gets dirty, it’s pretty easy to hand wash. Your backpack, not so much.
*Some of the product links in this post are Amazon Affiliate links. If you purchase anything from Amazon though our links, we get a small commission (which helps us travel longer, so thanks!).
**CORRECTION: I had originally written that we took our trip from Siem Reap to Kratie with (maybe) the company Sorya, but upon further checking, it turned out to be Rith Mony.