Phnom Penh to Bangkok in under $50

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On this trip, it’s been important for us to find the most cost-conscious ways of getting from point A to point B. In South East Asia,  it’s pretty easy to cut costs if you’re willing to put in the work. From walking from travel agent to travel agent, to researching extensively online and knowing every way possible, to taking the less direct route, you can always make your budget work.

Flights in South East Asia are usually cheap, but sometimes when booking last minute the prices will suddenly be unaffordable. We missed our chance to get a plane ticket from Phnom Penh to Bangkok as planned and we weren’t about to opt for the extremely badly reviewed bus company offering $30 overnight “VIP” buses. There were far too many stories of drivers falling asleep and landing their buses in a ditch.

We’ve thoroughly enjoyed using one website called The Man In Seat 61 for cross-checking all of our transportation options before we make a final decision. The site is basically a hub for anything you need to know about train and bus travel in most countries. So, we decided to take a route we found on his site but added a few of our own preferences.

IMG_5069Here’s our step by step guide for how we got from Phnom Penh to Bankok for less than $50:

Step 1: We jumped on a 10:30 PM night bus with Giant Ibis (great bus company that you can book online, choose your seat seats, and it has wifi!) from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap for $15. It was a 6.5 hour overnight drive on a”hotel bus” where you get a full lie down bed, as opposed to traditional sleepers with recliners. The one half of the bus was double beds, so my boyfriend and I got to sleep side by side with plenty of room.

Step 2: After arriving safely in Siem Reap at 6AM, we hailed a $2 tuk tuk to take us to the bus station for a $9 bus (as suggested by Seat61). Our driver told us the buses get really full (who knows if this is the truth) and suggested a private taxi instead. We asked how much, and he said $30 to get us to Poipet where we would cross the boarder. So at $15 each, we were totally cool with that. He drove us to some guys he knew and they tried to get us for $35. A little haggling and the threat of walking away, and they caved for $30. It took two hours to get to the border in a nice car.

Step 3: At 8:30 AM we walked across the boarder into Thailand! No lines, just some quick passport stamping and then we walked into Aranyaprathet. Note that the visa rules have changed and you can now get a free 30 day visa when you arrive by land, instead of just two weeks as it was previously.

Step 4: We got food and hung out in a cafe before taking a $3 tuk tuk ride to the train station to grab the 1:55 PM train to Bangkok. We waited at the train station and bought our $1.50 train tickets from Aranyaprathet to Bangkok (6 hours). The only option is a 3rd class seat, which is bench seating. The 3rd class soft seats filled up quickly, so we were stuck with the leftover hard seats in 4th class. The windows come right down so the ride is really breezy and nice. The only issue we had was with the food, as we couldn’t tell what it was they were selling. My advice would be to take the time and get some snacks for the trip, or be ready to try some unusual Thai food.

And with that, we arrived safely in Bangkok. A little bit hungry but no worse for the wear. All in all, our trip cost us (per person):
$15 bus from Pnom Penh to Siem Reap
$2 Tuk tuk in Siem Reap to car
$30 Car from Siem Reap to Poipet
$1.55 Train from Aranyaprathet to Bangkok
Total cost: $48.55 (USD)

It’s a bit of a journey but if you’re mentally prepared for it, it’s really easy and not too bad since it’s all broken up into steps. All in all, it was really cool to figure it out for ourselves and we’d recommend the trip for the adventurous souls.

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So right on Koh Rong

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Koh Rong is a tiny gem of an island just off the coast of Sihanoukville, Cambodia. We were looking forward to getting away from the chaotic partying of the mainland, so we took a $5, two hour ferry ride to Koh Rong.

IMG_4922We didn’t book anywhere to stay in advance and finding a quality, affordable place to stay proved to be quite a challenge. Most places to stay were above bars and had an open concept roof as well as thin bamboo walls. Not only could you hear music until 2AM, you could also hear your neighbours’ conversations. It wasn’t in our budget to do $40+/night bungalows, so we walked further down the coast. We eventually found a really cute guesthouse up on a hill that had an amazing view of the entire island. Probably due to the distance from the main drag, it was only $12/night.

If you’re hoping to visit Koh Rong, it’s important to note that it is a tad bit more “rustic” than you might imagine. The mosquitos are fierce, the wifi is crap everywhere (oh well, turn off your phone!), and power cuts out routinely throughout the day. Finding hot showers anywhere on the island is unlikely — saving water and electricity is a huge priority to the island, as it’s still pretty underdeveloped.

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Luke checking out the plankton at night.

Embracing the authentic island vibe, Koh Rong is a great place to just sit back and relax. You can explore the various beaches, go kayaking, enjoy a seafood BBQ at night, or go snorkelling in the day. We spent most of our time in our hammock on the beach, enjoying $1 smoothies and $1 chicken fried rice. We also took part in many of the BBQs offered at night and had a really tasty grilled barracuda dinner ($5).

One night, we did a $5 boat ride to go snorkelling with the bioluminescent plankton. They were so cool to see! You could see faint blips of light, light fireflies, all around you. Stirring up the water made them glow brightly. It was definitely worth the money to get out there and experience it!

Luke was excited to get up close and personal with one of the island’s water buffalos. The local kids are also super cute to watch and stray puppies and kittens are always happy to cuddle. We spent about 3 days on the island relaxing, suntanning, and enjoying really cheap food before taking the $5 ferry back to Sihanoukville.

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See-ya later, Sihanoukville

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Sihanoukville is the backpacker’s beach of Cambodia. While some love it and other’s hate it, we truly enjoyed ourselves. We had heard that Sihanoukville was a bit of a pit, but we kept an open mind and enjoyed our first taste of ocean air.

Serendipity Beach is absolutely overloaded with backpackers, bars, and locals trying to sell everything under the sun. During the day, you can score a spot on a chair to tan, get a $2 pedicure, a $1 bag of mixed fresh fruit, a grilled squid on a stick, or just people watch. At night, the beach turns into a party haven for every kind of traveler.

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All of this for $1. How can you resist?

It’s important to note that Sihanoukville has hands down earned it’s reputation as somewhat grimy. Everything is so incredibly cheap, so backpackers who are low on funds flock here to party. Hostels and restaurants often trade work for room, board and booze, so it makes for an interesting staff. When we walked down the main strip at night, we were hounded by Aussie guys with dreadlocks and girls with cut up neon t-shirts handing out promo flyers. In the morning as we ate our breakfast, it wasn’t uncommon to see at least one drunk person being carried home by their friends (yes, even at 7-8 AM…)

That being said, it really depended on the area you’re in. We rented a bike, and after getting pulled over by a cop for having our headlight on (and having to bribe him $10 to let us go), we headed over to the more secluded Otres Beach. It’s a bit of a drive away from the main drag of Serendipity, but it was well worth the trek. The beach was almost empty, it was notably cleaner, and there were fewer locals peddling their wares. The distance from town gave us a little bit of tranquility.

The one thing we loved about Sihanoukville the most was how cheap everything was. We fell in love with an Italian place that offered a three course meal for $5.50 a person, and it was by far the best food we’ve had on our trip. It was fun to go from restaurant to restaurant trying such good food for so cheap. I still crave the delicious pasta, pizza, and meat trays from this place…

Luke celebrated his birthday in Sihanoukville and I surprised him with a snorkelling trip off of Koh Rong Samleum. It was $25 each for the full day (including breakfast and lunch) and about a 3 hour boat ride to the spot. He loved it and I got to snorkel for the first time in my life. The reefs were pretty but the water was a bit cloudy; overall I’d recommend  waiting until you get to Thailand if you want to splurge on a scuba dive trip. We ended his birthday off with a massage at Relax Massage (the best of our trip) and roman candle fireworks we bought for $1 to set off on the beach.

All in all, Sihanoukville is a classless place, but if you’re looking to relax on the beach, enjoy cheap food and lodging, or getting away to the nearby islands — have fun and keep an open mind.

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Unwinding in the sleepy town of Kampot

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Before we had finished the paperwork required to check in to Ganesha Riverside Eco Resort, our host Billy suggested we take a moment to go see the sunset. We walked past huts on bamboo stilts and stood at the edge of a rice field just in time to see a deep orange sun set over the Elephant Mountains. It felt like the perfect response to bustling, chaotic and unsafe Phnom Penh experience.

The town of Kampot is a quaint fishing village with a French colonial twist. The surrounding farms grow world famous Kampot pepper and there are large salt farms lining the ocean coast. Ganesha is hidden twenty minutes away, off a couple of dirt side roads. It really doesn’t get any more idyllic. We didn’t get up to too much in Kampot, as it’s more of a place to sit back and relax with nature. We spent time in our hammock and played cards in the evening to deep house music — our favourite way to kill time.

The one thing we enjoyed most about Kampot was how seriously everyone took the sunset. Every evening, right at 5 p.m, locals lined the riverside to watch the sun set over the mountains. Watching (and joining) everyone as they stopped to take in the natural beauty of the landscape before dinner was our favourite part of the evenings. Little things like that are uncommon in the western world.

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Our view driving through Kep.

We decided to take one day to see all there was to see in Kampot and its sister town, Kep. We rented a $5/day motorbike and drove out to get our very own Kampot pepper, straight from the organic farm. They sold three varieties of pepper: white, red, and black. Each has a distinct flavour – white was for fish, red for poultry and beef, and black was used on everything.

After the short tour, we headed through Kep to dip our toes into the ocean and experience the oceanside crab market. The crab market in Kep was bustling with locals selling any kind of seafood you could imagine. Every restaurant sold crab, making it hard to choose one spot. Eventually we settled on a place called Holy Crab, encouraged by some online reviews.  The view was amazing and the crab dishes were even better. We chose a crab salad with two crabs ($6) and a green Kampot pepper baked crab ($8). They were hands down some of the best dishes we’ve had during our travels!

A nice break from the bustling cities of Cambodia, Kampot was delightfully understated and hopefully it stays that way to preserve the beauty and simplicity of it. A city untouched by tourists, the food and people made it one of our favourite destinations in Cambodia.

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A riverside hut at Ganesha

Getting robbed in Phnom Penh

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The last picture of Luke and his “murse” together in Vietnam.

While travelling South East Asia, we’ve felt safe most of the time. We had read and heard some of the horror stories of Phnom Penh — bag snatching, muggings, and scams — but we felt that our general cautiousness and not cutting corners on safety was all that was necessary. Those stories can be heard from almost any country you visit, after all.

When we arrived in Phnom Penh, we checked into our guesthouse and headed towards the night market. We were starving, so we just dumped our bags and headed out. As we stopped to check directions on our phones, Luke suddenly got shoved and a guy on a motorbike ripped his side bag off of him and drove off. Luke was okay and luckily his bag was cheap and it was a clean break of the strap. He had his wallet in his pocket, his passport at the front desk, and his cell was in his hands — thank goodness. It was definitely a fluke since he normally keeps everything in the bag. But, we soon realized that we had forgotten to take out my passport. Just like that, my passport was gone.

We went back to the guesthouse and the front desk staff gave us a “meh, it happens” sort of reply. We went to the police station, which was a hole in the wall that had zero actual cops in it. Someone called the police, and two eventually showed up. An officer took our statement, stopping us constantly to ask the most redundant questions. Things like, ‘so have you been to the musuem? Where were you headed? Which shoulder was the bag on?’. We knew enough about Cambodia to know the cops weren’t going to be much help, but for insurance purposes, we needed the statement. We didn’t sleep all night.

The next morning, we went to the Australian embassy (the closest Canadian embassy to us was in Bangkok) and began the process. The costs and hassles we were facing were insane. I was informed that I’d need to buy an exit visa, since my Cambodian visa was in the passport, which would take about four days in Phnom Penh. Then, I needed an emergency travel document (a one-time passport, essentially), which would take me to one place — either home or Bangkok. In Bangkok, I would then need to apply for a whole new passport at full cost and wait a month for it to come, since I needed it to continue our travel plans. All in all, this was starting to look like a month and a half ordeal plus about $1000, when we factored in the accommodations in places we hadn’t intended on staying in, the unplanned flight to Bangkok and so on. We were devastated. The silver lining was that thankfully it was just one passport and no cell phones, cash, or cards.

As we got back to the guesthouse after many tears, I checked my phone and had four emails from people commenting on my personal website. Three foreigners told me that a local guy posted on a Facebook group that he had my passport and left a number. They had Googled my name and found my website and Twitter. We quickly called the embassy, cancelled the paperwork, and got a tuk tuk driver to call the guy and arrange for us to meet him. We waited for an hour in the tuk tuk for the guy to finally call us again. Finally, we get a call and head down a sketchy alley way. We had read online about cases of extortion when passports had been stolen, so we came empty-handed other than a small bit of cash. We were still a bit nervous about  to what to expect.

Finally, we found the right house in the heart of a Cambodian slum, and the man came out with his entire family. He was the sweetest guy and he told the tuk tuk driver that he had found my passport scattered on the ground with a few papers. He just wanted to make sure it was me before giving it back, which he promptly handed right over. We offered him $40 as a thank-you and he humbly accepted it and offered us a ride back on his motorbike. It was an extremely emotional day for me to say the least.

The kindness of strangers was overwhelming. Our trip got to go on completely uninterrupted (other than some shaken nerves) and to this day, I can’t believe it worked out the way it did.

We got lucky, but honestly if you’re visiting Phnom Penh, please be extra careful. On the Phnom Penh Facebook group, there were three additional posts about people being robbed in the same way as us that week. Our friends commented similar feelings towards the city – it’s normal to see motorbikes drive by slowly while conspicuously checking out what you have on you. You can never be too careful anywhere — wear a money belt (uncomfortable and not stylish, I know) and hold your purse/backpack while you’re walking. Lastly, always keep your passport locked up at your hotel and never get too comfortable.

With that, we take a massive sigh of relief and thank the kind locals of Cambodia for showing how great this country can be, despite a few bad seeds.

Exploring the enchanting Angkor Wat

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Seeing the Angkor Wat was on our dream to-do list since we began planning our trip to Cambodia. When we arrived in Siem Reap and felt the hot air on our faces, things felt a little surreal. We had just left our winter jackets behind in Vietnam and fresh, clean air was an unexpected treat. It all felt invigorating and exciting.

The morning after we arrived, we packed two sandwiches to go and hired our trusty tuk-tuk driver Burri. For $17 USD, he would take us on a large loop around the temple complex, finishing with the sunset at Pre Rup. The cost to get into the park itself was $20 per person for one day. There was the option to go for a three-day pass for $40, but we figured we would try to cram as much sightseeing into one day as we could.

Although we had seen other tourists’ photos of the temples, nothing could have prepared us for the size and sprawl of the temples. Angkor Wat is the world’s largest single religious monument. Considered “heaven on earth” in the Hindu religion, this temple is an earthly depiction of Mount Meru – the home of the gods. This one temple is surrounded by a 190-meter moat, which gives you an idea of how huge the temple complex is.

We began with Angkor Wat, by far the most impressive temple. There were thousands of tourists roaming the hallways, climbing the towers, and posing in front of the intricate stone carvings. It is said that there are over 3000 nymphs carved intoIMG_1015 the walls, each one drawn in a unique pose, with 37 different hairstyles. On one curtain wall, we saw the portrayal of a marching army, complete with all the different types of soldiers, elephants, and machines of war.

After we forced ourselves to move on (we only had one day to see as much as we could), we got to see some very different temples. Some temples included the heads of the gods, towering over 12 feet tall. There were bridges with dozens and dozens of stone guards on either side, and one temple with a giant tree growing out of the ruins. This famous temple, Ta Prohm, was used for Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider. It was an incredible blend of massive architecture and natural decay. Samie was a fan-girl at this temple and could barely contain her excitement. Crawling through the hallways and seeing the trees overtaking the temple and imagining a movie being filmed here was really cool.

We had our first brush with monkeys while exploring these temples, as there are hundreds in the surrounding forests. Samie hadn’t realized that these adorable little animals are actually aggressive little terrors and she got chased, screaming, when she tried to take a close-up photo.

Pretty soon, we almost ran out of time. Watching the sunset at Pre Rup was the highlight of our entire day. Most people choose to watch the sun rise at Angkor Wat, but we heard that it could get pretty crowded in the morning. Hands down, we made the right choice with the sunset. We climbed the wat to the very top and joined some other peopl, sitting on the edge of the temple to watch the sun set over the jungle. The view was nothing short of perfection. There were no clouds, and we got to see the sun turn a brilliant red before it disappeared.

Here’s some of our favourite pictures:

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