Overlanding from Bangkok to Saigon

Following on from the overland adventure from Singapore to Bangkok, the next leg of the journey is now upon us. The modernity of Singapore and Malaysia are now long behind us, and going forward the standards will drop considerably before reach southern Vietnam. But just how hard is it to plan this second leg of the overland journey, and what parts of the trip need more attention (and bravery) than others?

Wat Arun at sunrise
Wat Arun at sunrise

Some people have so much fun in Bangkok that they simply don’t want to leave. For a lot of young backpackers, this will be their first ever overseas trip, and they choose Thailand because it is cheap and easy (despite the congestion and pollution) and it has some absolutely incredible street food! Yet if you have plans to head onwards on your overland journey to Cambodia and then Vietnam, then leaving Bangkok is something you will have to get used to at some point. There are no trains from Bangkok directly in to Cambodia (the line does exist, it’s just not in use), but from Hualamphong Station there is something informally called “the Cambodia Express” which takes you within 3 miles of the border. From there, you will definitely need a bus.

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Directly using the bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap will set you back a mere 750 Baht ($23) per person. It isn’t really possible to buy these tickets online, so you must purchase them at the Northern Bus Terminal (Mo Chit Terminal) in Bangkok. The journey takes up to 10 hours to reach downtown Siem Reap, but it is often quicker than that (depending on the crowds at the Aranyaprathet border). Comfort is fine on the bus and they are of international standard (though the driver may not be!). You should receive a bottle of water and snack on the bus but just in case it is wise to bring a few goodies yourself. Within 4 and a half hours of leaving Bangkok you should be at Aranyaprathet – then the rigmarole of the border crossing begins! On the Cambodian side, when you’ve crossed the border and are now in Poipet, it should only take maybe 2 hours to reach Siem Reap, but you must consider that the actual border crossing itself will almost always add on a couple of hours to your journey time. Thai and Cambodian immigration officials are not known for being the quickest…

A step-by-step guide on the bus journey from Bangkok to Siem Reap can be read over at Berries Enthusiast. By the way, if you did want to take the train from Bangkok to near the Cambodian border (rather than the bus the whole way), then check out this recent review by TheWholeWorldIsAPlayground!

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Well, after such a long bus journey (and probably after being scammed at the border), you will be more than happy to arrive in Siem Reap! My advice is not to make this a mere stopover – spend as long as you can here! I really mean it! Siem Reap is cheap enough and backpacker-friendly enough to actually warrant a long stay, and apart from exploring the Angkorian temples, there is actually much more to see and do here than you probably realise. 7 nights in Siem Reap is perfectly acceptable (make it 14!), and it gives you the chance to take in the wonders of Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei et al without getting “templed out”. Some people genuinely don’t care about temples (ARE YOU STUPID?!), but there is enough daytime and night time entertainment to keep even the most stupid of people occupied in Siem Reap.

I used Giant Ibis, as I know they are reliable and good value for money
I used Giant Ibis, as I know they are reliable and good value for money
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The journey to Phnom Penh is usually safe and efficient

After putting up with the bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap, the bus journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh is actually a bit of a disappointment (or quite refreshing, depending on your point of view). The journey takes around 5 hours and there are obviously no border crossings to negotiate. There are plenty of bus and coach companies that can take you on this popular journey within Cambodia, but the companies that seem to get the best reviews are Mekong Express, and especially Giant Ibis, who I have used without problem in the past. Incidentally, Giant Ibis also run from Phnom Penh to Saigon, so it’s wise to use them for as much as possible on this overland trip. Any coach company you use on the route between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh will probably have a stopover somewhere enroute for a “toilet break”, and you can use the strategically placed roadside café to buy refreshments if need be (but most coach companies hand out a snack onboard to each passenger).

Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh
Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh

A stopover in Phnom Penh is something that most people will want to include. Then again, if you didn’t stop in the Cambodian capital, where would you go? Straight to the Vietnamese border from Siem Reap? That’s a very long journey and not advisable! If truth be told, Phnom Penh is not the most fascinating city in the South East Asia, although it does contain stark reminders of the country’s sombre past, such as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeng Ek Killing Fields. These “tourist attractions” are essential for any itinerary in Phnom Penh. Sisowath Quay is also a nice place to chill, beside the Mekong, and it also happens to be the prime place in the city for food – but don’t expect much local food, as you’ll probably end up eating fish and chips as the restaurants around here ill-advisedly cater for the tourists (they don’t think we enjoy foreign food). If you have time, try to check out the National Museum of Cambodia, which may sound like a museum (well, it is) but you’ll be very impressed with Cambodian architecture of the façade.

The buses continue through Cambodia to the border with Vietnam
The buses continue through Cambodia to the border with Vietnam
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On a final rest stop before the Bavet/Moc Bai crossing

For me, it was much easier to carry on using Giant Ibis transport from Phnom Penh to Saigon ($18 per person), although obviously other companies are available. You’ll have to do your own research on what best suits you. One thing I will remark on is that for this leg of the overland journey, things suddenly seem to drop in quality – this is perhaps the kind of South East Asian bus journey you hoped for and feared in equal measure! The buses are smaller, and the interiors are much older, yet it should still take no more than 4 hours from Phnom Penh to Bavet at the border with Vietnam. You will enjoy brace yourself for a quick ferry ride as the bus passes over the Mekong River to continue to the border crossing itself. Vietnamese visa on arrival is not available for most nationalities, so you have to arrange it in advance (probably in Phnom Penh or Bangkok). X-Ray machines are in use here and all large luggage will need to be taken off the bus and walked through the scanners at the border.

A detailed recent review of the Giant Ibis bus journey from Phnom Penh to Saigon can be found at Move to Cambodia. A slightly older review of the same bus journey but with Mekong Express can be read at ArtyDubs.com.

Moc Bai border - welcome to Vietnam!
Moc Bai border – welcome to Vietnam!

You shouldn’t spend as much time dilly-dallying at the Bavet/Moc Bai border as you did at the infamously ponderous Aranyaprathet/Poipet border beforehand, so within an hour you should have passed through the border (visa permitting, of course) to the Vietnamese side at Moc Bai. This border crossing is typically one of the easier ones in the region. Your bus will be waiting for you (make sure you get on the right one!) and it is at least another 2 and a half hours to downtown Saigon.

Arrival in Saigon! Time to party?
Arrival in Saigon! Time to party?

Most bus companies will drop you at the main backpacker haunt of the city, Phạm Ngũ Lão Street. Be advised that this is a heavin’ and happenin’ area of Saigon – so if you’re arriving in the afternoon or early evening, you may even want to find some Vietnamese street food and/or hit the bars before even finding your accommodation! If truth be told, Saigon is not the nicest part of Vietnam – or at least it wasn’t for me – and while you may want to take a little time to find your bearings in the country (and brush up on that Vietnamese language!), the true beauty of ‘Nam lies further north. That said, Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral is stunning, plus there are a number of intricate pagodas and temples scattered around the city, if you’re interested in that kind of thing. And for something a little different, there’s the Cu Chi Tunnels, which were used during the Vietnam War and are actually a pretty cool thing to go and see for a half day.

A soft sleeper cabin on the Reunification Express
A soft sleeper cabin on the Reunification Express

Travelling by train in Vietnam is very cheap and very convenient. While it can be something of a rigmarole to purchase tickets online, there is one reputable company, Baolau, who are recommended by Lonely Planet (and me!), that makes things so much easier for us all! From Saigon train station, you need to hop on the North-South Railway (otherwise known as the Reunification Express) and head up the coast to Hanoi, via Danang and Hue. For Hoi An, jump off at Danang, as the town doesn’t have a train station itself. The whole journey from Saigon to Hanoi by train should cost no more than around $120 per person in the sleeper cabins, and $75 in the standard seats, but these standard seats are not recommended.

By the way, if you’re wondering why I didn’t include Laos in my overland itinerary, it was because for a lot of people, the country is the least impressive in the region. But is this analysis of Laos justified?

Don’t fancy overlanding from Bangkok to Saigon? There are direct flights on Thai Airways, Vietnam Airlines, and Qatar Airways for around £150 in economy class. The flight takes less than 2 hours. So this may be the easier and the quicker option…but where is your sense of adventure?!

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