Why go to Phnom Penh
Easily one of the least developed capitals of South East Asia, Phnom Penh has its own special charm and it is not a rare case when travellers who planned to make just a quick acquaintance with the city on their way to some more exciting destinations end up hanging around for weeks if not months. With wide leafy boulevards, exquisite Buddhist temples and a beautiful riverside promenade Phnom Penh has a distinct – if vanishing – French fleur which may soon be overshadowed by mushrooming high-rises and new Western-style shopping malls.
From Bangkok to Phnom Penh
The road distance between Bangkok and Phnom Penh is 660 km. To get to the Cambodian capital you can either go overland or fly. There is a direct bus from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, but if you do not feel like spending 13 hours in the same seat, you can split your trip into several parts, e.g. from Bangkok to Siem Reap and from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. Flying saves you a good deal of time: it takes less than 1½ hour to get from Bangkok to Phnom Penh by plane.
From Bangkok to Phnom Penh by bus
Currently there is only one direct bus from Bangkok to Phnom Penh. The route is served by a government-operated Transport Co International. The departure time has been changed several times since the route was put into service back in February, 2013, and now, a bit inconveniently, the bus is scheduled to leave the Northern Bus Terminal in Bangkok, Morchit, every morning at 5am. It arrives to Phnom Penh by 6pm the same day and literally robs you off the whole day. The border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia, which the bus uses, opens at 6am what partially explains the bus schedule. Tickets cost THB1000 making bus travel a budget friendly way to get from Bangkok to Phnom Penh.
The bus takes about five hours to get from Bangkok to the border and seven more hours to reach Phnom Penh; add at least one hour (more often – two hours) to get through the border formalities – mostly at the Cambodian side, as exiting Thailand quick and straightforward. Aranyaprathet–Poipet border crossing is often very crowded and long queues are common.
Note that you can face a variety of visa scams related to obtaining your Cambodian visa or getting through the Cambodian immigration. For more details on these scams check our ‘Scam Alert’ section below.
There has been contradictive reports about quality of the service before, but the travellers who have taken this trip in 2016, mostly agree that the bus is usually if not brand-new than in quite a good condition. There is a toilet on-board, though you may want to use standard toilets at the gas stations during pit stops en route. Air-conditioning as often in Thailand, may be an issue, too: it can get freezing cold on board, but blankets handed out by the bus attendant help somewhat. Expect a complimentary bottle of water and some snacks in a form of a muffin or pastry plus some rice and curry for lunch.
In Phnom Penh, the bus brings you to Phnom Penh Transport Co office in Preah Ang Non (102 Street), around Wat Phnom area. It puts you in the walking distance to the riverfront where some great digs with even a greater views across Thonle Sap River can be found.
Why is taking a direct bus from Bangkok to Phnom Penh convenient? Firstly, you do not need to change transport at the border, and secondly, you have the quickest transfer between the capitals. Though the trip is quite long and takes around 13 hours, there are enough pit stops en route to stretch your legs, so it is not as tiring as it sounds.
Do not be surprised if instead to going directly to the border your government operated bus at a certain point makes a stop at a ‘visa agency’, sometimes bearing a ‘Cambodian Consulate’ sign. The touts will try to force you to obtain your Cambodian visa there, insisting that it is the only official way to do it and that it is not possible to get your visa at the border. You can in fact let them do all paper job for you – it will cost you about USD15-USD20 extra; but in fact you can easily obtain your Cambodian visa all by yourself while entering the country. In any case be prepared to spend about one hour at the visa agency as some of your fellow travellers who are unaware of the scam or do not mind paying some extra baht will use the service. It is absolutely useless to argue, so be patient.
Note The official visa fee for a tourist visa is USD30 but you will be inevitably asked to pay some THB100-200 extra for ‘speeding the process up’ by border officers. Also, be sure to have one passport-sized photo to attach to your application.
If you want to avoid the annoying situation at the travel agency or at the border, apply for your Cambodian visa online through the official web-site of Ministry of Foreign Affaires and International Cooperation of Kingdom of Cambodia. The e-visa costs USD30 plus USD7 for processing your application. E-visa is accepted at all the major international borders of Cambodia, including Phnom Penh International Airport, Siem Reap International Airport, Poipet (Banteay Meanchey), Cham Yeam (Koh Kong) and Bavet (Svay Reing).
Another popular scam is selling you USD6 ‘quick pass’ card for passing through Cambodian immigration. No need to buy it as it does not give you any advantage.
Flights from Bangkok to Phnom Penh
Flying is definitely the most time-saving – but not money-saving! – way to get from Bangkok to Phnom Penh. There are flights to Phnom Penh from the both airports in Bangkok. The leading low-cost airline in Asia, AirAsia, operates two flights a day from Don Mueang International Airport; the national flag carrier Thai Airways and the first Thai Boutique airline Bangkok Air use Suvarnabhumi airport. The two latter are by no means cheap and out of promotion periods bring you to Phnom Penh in style and for no less than THB7,000 (about USD200), though the fare includes check-in luggage and meals.
Standard AirAsia tickets from Bangkok to Phnom Penh cost from THB2000 and up – do not forget to add the extras you need including luggage, meals or selected seats. If you are lucky to catch one of AirAsia’s big sales, you can fly one way for about THB1000.
To get to Don Mueang International Airport from the centre of Bangkok use airport shuttle buses – A1 from Morchit bus terminal and A2 from the Victory Monument (from 60 min. to 80 min.). Hua Lamphong train station is connected to Don Mueang airport by commuter trains (50 minutes).
In Phnom Penh, the airport is located 10 km west of the centre. To get to the city, take a taxi. These are available at the airport for a flat rate of USD7. To pay less, get out of the airport gate and catch a motorbike taxi, a tuk-tuk or an ordinary taxi for USD2-USD5 depending on the type of the vehicle.
Getting around in Phnom Penh
If you have traveled at least a bit anywhere in Cambodia, you may have noticed that the Khmers know no modesty as far as the width of their roads is concerned. This local love for expansions makes Phnom Penh tough for covering on foot. Tuk-tuks and motorbike taxis are ubiquitous and plentiful; they are an affordable and easy way to get around the city. Expect to pay from USD1 to USD3 for a tuk-tuk ride, even less for a motorbike taxi.
Renting a scooter is also an option in Phnom Penh. Daily rates are about USD5. Note that helmets are a must, traffic is chaotic and accidents with casualties are not unheard of. Rent only if you are an experienced rider – we mean with some experience in Asian countries.
There are public buses in Phnom Penh. Tickets cost less than USD0.5 per trip. The most useful route is Line 03 which stops at the International Airport, Central Market and Night Market. Line 01 combined with some walking brings you to the Royal Palace and National Museum.
Where to stay in Phnom Penh
For a short-term stay in Phnom Penh, the most convenient area to stay is the riverfront. There is a wide choice of accommodations in all price ranges, all coming with excellent river views and proximity to all the restaurants, cafes and shops Sisowath Quay can offer for a visitor to enjoy the city.
If you are planning to stay in Phnom Penh more than just a couple of days, always check weekly and monthly rates. Many guesthouses offer discounts for longer stays and you can save considerably if giving your host a notice in advance.
For over a month long stay, look for apartments for rent. Many landlords ask for a minimum stay of two month but you can always negotiate. Normally a modest studio with some sort of a kitchen will cost you about USD100 less than a room in a guesthouse for the same period.
Things to do in Phnom Penh
Have a look at the darkest years of Khmer history in Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or venture further afield to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Savour Phnom Penh’s – alas! – rapidly vanishing French flavour, indulge in world-wide cuisine offered in its fancy restaurants at half the price you pay anywhere else or absorb the local colours visiting markets and people-watching. There is an abundance of worth-seeing places of interest around Phnom Penh, easily explored during a day trip, including Phinom Chisor, a stunning example of the Angkorian period temples, or Koh Dach, the Silk Island, where you can witness the process of silk weaving and buy some of the finest textiles in Cambodia. All in all, architectural wonders, busy nightlife venues and shopping opportunities galore in Phnom Penh. It may not become your favourite city in Asia, but Phnom Penh definitely deserves a closer look.
Onward travel from Phnom Penh
Going further southwest from Phnom Penh, in 2½ hours you can reach a beautiful town of Kampot or, if longing for the beach, head to a seaside resort of Sihanoukville (4½ hours) with picturesque island of Koh Rong within an easy reach. Venturing southeast, you get to Vietnam and its bustling southern city of Saigon (6½ hours). Going back northwest do not miss Siem Reap with imposing temples of Angkor Empire or, if enchanted with the magic of sacred tattoos, check Battambang (6 hours).