Getting to Phnom Penh by Private Car or Minibus
The most popular route from Cambodia to Koh Chang is from Siem Reap to Koh Chang, but more people are either coming from Phnom Penh to the island or leaving Koh Chang to head to PP. And if you’re overlanding from Saigon to Bangkok then the route via Phnom Penh ( or Kampot / Kep / Sihanoukville ) and Koh Chang is an obvious route to take.
I had planned to do the trip from Koh Chang to Phnom Penh by minibus, in an effort to relate to the independent travellers on a budget who might be reading this site. But after I’d done a bit of researching this seemed to involve a lot of hanging around which would result in arriving in Phnom Penh after nightfall. So I scrapped that plan for two very good reasons a) I prefer to arrive in any city I’m not intimately familiar with during daylight and b) I’d miss Happy Hour at the FCC if I took the minibus.
So, this isn’t a ‘How to get from Koh Chang to Phnom Penh as cheaply as possible‘ type of article. It’s how to do it quickly and with as minimum amount of hassle as possible. Which, once you get to my age, is far more important than saving a few dollars. But I’ll also include other options for people who feel that travelling should include some hardship and suffering and don’t prioritise ending the day with an excellent 2-for-1 offer on all cocktails in a bar with cracking views over the Mekhong.
How I did it . . .
Having scrapped my plan to use a minibus service I decided to drive to the border, park there and then cross the border, grab a taxi and sit back and relax and pray that the 3G coverage enroute was good enough for me to get a bit of work done plus spend the journey messing around online. It seemed simple enough, and it was. And, aside from a few small outages the 3G internet worked very well even in the middle of nowhere.
I left the house at 7.30am. Got on the ferry around 8.15am. After 30 minutes crossing I was on the mainland. If you aren’t stopping to admire the views it’s under two hours drive from the mainland ferry pier to the border crossing. The road from Trat to the border at Hat Lek is one of the best in Thailand for drivers. There’s never any police; plenty of places where you can easily overtake the trucks heading to and from the border and, on the final 20Km or so, some very great views across towards Koh Kood and , on a clear day north to Koh Chang.
Hat Lek is a bustling village. the border here is rarely busy, the peak crossing times being early afternoon when the buses and minibuses arrive en mass bringing people travelling in both directions. On the Thai side the entry and exit Immigration offices are on opposite sides of the road. 100 metres away, on the Cambodian side their adjacent to each other which leads to queues forming of people who aren’t sure which window they should be queuing at. And it;s all a bit of a disorganised mess. Thankfully, although it may seem chaotic, it’s on a far smaller scale than at the main Poipet / Aranyaprathet overland border crossing where queues can be several hours long during High Season.
So I parked at the border. There’s covered parking with 24 hour guard for 200 Baht / day. This is mostly used by punters heading to Koh Kong Resort, a casino just over the border. It is located on the left about 50 metres walk from the Thai Immigration point. There were no queues on the Thai side and then on the Cambodian side there was a small group of people milling around Half were tourists and half were Cambodian guys who were there to ‘help’. By ‘help’, I mean offer to fill out forms, lend you a pen or arrange a taxi or motorbike taxi for you, in the hope of getting a dollar or two tip or commission.
This border only has one real scam – the Quarantine form. There’a desk, usually with a couple of people dressed in white who ask you to fill out a medical form. They then ask you for 50 Baht or so. There’s no requirement for the form and definitely no need to pay for it. This isn’t done at any other border. So depending on how you feel either just feign deafness, ignore any pleas to go to the desk and walk past or, fill out the form and then smile and refuse to pay for it. It’s just a game. Anyone clutching a quarantine form will instantly be marked down as being a bit gullible by the helpers offering their services.
You’ll need to get an Arrival / Departure card, fill it out. Ideally using your own pen – not one you’ve borrowed from a friendly chap loitering nearby. Then get stamped into Cambodia. On a typical day it shouldn’t be more than 15 mins total from leaving Thailand to entering Cambodia providing you have already got an E-visa. Which if you are sensible, you will have done.
If you haven’t expect to pay 1,300 Baht or so for your US$30 visa at the border. Plus waste time hanging around for that to be processed. And waste even more time if you insist on paying the correct amount in USD and refuse to offer an additional ‘tip’. You’ll also need a passport photo or an additional 100 Baht if you don’t have one.
This is the Cambodian Immigration office at the border. Technically, it’s not Koh Kong, you’ll be stamped in at the ‘Cham Yeam’ border checkpoint. The Departure window is the one furthest to the left, where the covered seating is. To the right of that is the Arrivals window. And the window just visible behind the tree on the right of the flagpole is where you need to get your Cambodian visa if you don’t already have one.
Whilst waiting for the Cambodian immigration officer to do his thing, I enlisted a random ‘helper’ to get me a taxi to Phnom Penh.
Within a couple of minutes a few drivers were offering their services. These ranged from a shared taxi for $40 – 50 to a private taxi for anything from $85 – 120. After a quick haggle with the cheapest driver for a private transfer, I got the price down to $75 and off we went. If drivers don’t have a pre-booked transfer from the border then they have to pay the police US$10 for the privilege of picking people up. The driver explained that the normal price for the transfer, in either direction, should be $70. But it would be very hard to get anyone to take you for that amount due to this unofficial ‘tax’.
It was around 4 and a half hours to my hotel in Phnom Penh which included a quick pit stop for noodles on the way. The final 20Km or so took almost an hour due to the city’s traffic. I forgot how big and sprawling Phnom Penh is nowadays. ( First time I went there was in 1997 when it was more of a wild west town where everything, apart from a couple of bars, closed early and the city was eerily quiet and in darkness by 8pm. Vehicles were either Chinese scooters or NGO Landcruisers. Happy days. )
All in all the total travelling time was around 8 hours. And by 5pm I was happily reading the Phnom Penh Post and sipping an awesome Passionfruit Mojito on the roof terrace of the FCC whilst people on the minibus were probably still 200Km or so from the city.
The return trip from Phnom Penh to Koh Chang was equally simple. I got picked up from my hotel just after 7am and was on a ferry to Koh Chang by 2pm. Home by 3pm. I used the same taxi driver. He spoke good English and drove sensibly. Or, more accurately, he drove sensibly for a Cambodian driver, which basically means his overtaking maneuvers weren’t quite as mad as most other road users.
The Cambodian Highway Code consists of one main rule – ‘Might is right‘. And whilst the average aging Camry can boss motorbikes and farm machinery on the highway, it has to yield to Range Rovers ( you wont have seen as many in your life as there are in Phnom Penh ) and trucks of any description.
Once across the border and back in Thailand it was time for a quick spot of Duty Free shopping. Hat Lek has a small selection of Duty Free items available at very good prices but as these aren’t strictly legal you need to know which shops to go to to find them.
For booze & cigs, the best I found is in the market just after you exit Thai Immigration ( coming back into Thailand) . Walk down the steep pathways between shops and go to the large shop on the left at the bottom. You’ll see a few bottles of spirits on the shelves and couple of cartons of cigarettes. It doesn’t look too promising.
But if you ask they’ll find cases of Angkor Beer etc and boxes of various spirits will be pulled out from under shelves with items at very cheap, totally tax free prices. Plus various brands of cheap Cambodian cigarettes if you smoke or want an ideal gift for a special someone. A couple of Thai soldiers were stocking up whilst I was there. They had about six bags of goodies and looked like they had a party planned. So I figured the place is unlikely to be busted by police any time soon.
How you can do it in the same time . . .
OK. So you don’t have your own car. In which case I’d recommend a private transfer from your hotel on Koh Chang to the border. It will take the same time as if you drive yourself. And for the return trip from Phnom Penh to Koh Chang, if you don’t want to arrange a transfer in advance, it will be possible to find a local driver at the border who will take you to the mainland pier for around 2,500 Baht or so. Although they probably wont bring you onto Koh Chang, just to the ferry pier. The main thing I’d advise is leaving Phnom Penh early, by 7am, so as to avoid the early afternoon rush at the border when the buses and minibuses all arrive.
Koh Chang to Phnom Penh by Shared Minibus and Bus.
To keep costs down then take one of the shared minibus services to Phnom Penh ( or Sihanoukville ) You’ll find tour agents on Koh Chang selling tickets to both destinations for around 1,200 Baht. You’ll be picked up from your hotel around 7am. You need to change minibuses at the border. There is some hanging around involved as you’ll get to the border around mid-day but will have to wait around until 2pm or later for the bus to Phnom Penh. They’ll be a couple of stops on the way and so you won’t be in Phnom Penh before 7pm at the earliest.
It is possible to channel the pioneering spirit of a true adventurer and do it yourself. In which case the trip will involve taking a pick up truck taxi from your hotel on Koh Chang to the pier. You need to make sure you are on a boat to the mainland by 7.30am. The taxi will be 50 – 100 Baht per person. The ferry to the mainland is 80 Baht.
Next, take another songtaew (pickup truck taxi) from the mainland pier to Trat bus station. This will be 60 Baht or so. At the bus station you’ll see the stand, with sings in English, for minibuses to the border. These leave every hour or more frequently if busy. Ticket price is 140 Baht.
Once over the border you’ll need to get to Koh Kong. So figure on US$5 for a tuk-tuk to Koh Kong bus station. From there you can take a bus to Phnom Penh at around 12:30. If you arrive after lunchtime then you’ll be spending the night in Koh Kong, as there are no afternoon buses. Or you give in and pay for a taxi.
So if you are planning on doing this independently I’d try to be on a boat off Koh Chang as early as possible in the morning. Don’t leave it until 8 or 9am. This leads to another problem in that it’s very hard to get a taxi to the ferry pier for the first ferries at 6am & 6.30am. Due to the fact very few people want to leave this early. So you’ll have to pay a lot more than expected to get someone to take you.
If you are planning to head to Sihanoukville ( or further afield to Kampot or Kep ) then the same process applies. Prices to Sihanoukville from the border are the same as to Phnom Penh. Likewise but timings are very similar. It’s an all day trip and buses leave Koh Kong bus station between 13:00 – 14:00
Coming from Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville to Koh Chang it’s possible to buy a ticket all the way, again with a change of bus / minibus at the border for around US$28. Or if you are just heading to the border and plan to take a taxi from there to Koh Chang or shared minibus from there, then you’re looking at around US$12 for a ticket.
Worth bearing in mind that most bus services only go to Koh Kong, the town near the border, and not to the border itself – which is technically at a place called Cham Yeam, but is known to everyone as the Koh Kong border crossing. As far as I can find out, only one company – Virak Buntham offer a bus service from Phnom Penh that actually drops off at the border itself. If you’re dropped off in Koh Kong then you’ll need to take a taxi, tuk-tuk or motorbike taxi to the border about 15 minutes drive away.
The minibuses to Koh Chang will use Centrepoint ferry pier and there will usually be a detour to buy tickets at a tour agent’s office at Krom Luang pier. The reason you buy tickets there is that the tour agency gets discounted tickets, as do many transport providers for their passengers, but they will sell you the ticket for the same price as you would pay at the pier. The driver and the tour agent then spit the commission, on each ticket they’ll be making 50 Baht profit. Which soon adds up.
Report on taking the Phnom Penh to Koh Chang minibus, from Rich, 8 November 2016
Just did this trip 2 days ago via a series of buses and vans and to say the least it was an adventure. We bought a ticket for $26 that included the ferry across to Koh Chang. It took over 12 hours as we were picked up from our accommodation in Phnom Penh at 6:45am by a Virek Buntham van. We were then taken to the bus stop where we got in a minivan that took us about 15km from the border.
We were told to get out as the usual suspect of tuk tuk and motorbike drivers surrounded us. Obviously we were’t at the border yet so we decided to just wait and let the drivers scatter. We walked into the random hotel we were dropped off at and they said there would be another bus to pick us up in about 10 minutes. A large bus came shortly and we were taken to the border crossing.
After walking to the Cambodian border and getting our Thai visa we were spotted by someone at the Virek company. He asked where we were going and we told him Koh Chang. We waited around for about 30 minutes and then they yelled for us to get in a random pick up truck. Hesitantly we obliged after making sure he was serious. 4 of us pilled in the backseat where we would be for the next 4+ hours to Koh Chang. Once we got near Trat we stopped at an office where they offered to take us directly to our hotel once we crossed the ferry for an extra 240 Baht (120 per person). We paid this as it was raining and we just wanted to get to our place and be done with the trip.
We crossed the ferry in the pick up truck and he took us to our hotel. All in all it wasn’t the worst trip we have had but it was extremely random.
If you have a choice I would say choose a bigger bus as the minibus is very uncomfortable and cramped. Also, be strong when people try to offer you other things such as a motorbike or their help at the border. Don’t give in to the scams as you have already paid for everything to get you to Koh Chang.
Another alternative is buying the ticket to the border and then taking a minivan to Trat and getting a ferry ticket there. Either way you will spend about the same with a bit more hassle.
Flying to Phnom Penh
And you could also fly, there are no direct flights but you can fly on Bangkok Airways from Phnom Penh to Bangkok to Trat the same day and, depending on the flights you choose will be around the same time or a bit longer than by private transfer. The price will be much higher at around US$280 per person. Not including a taxi from Phnom Penh to the airport and transport from Trat Airport to Koh Chang.
This is really only an option for those with a phobia of using land borders to enter and exit countries or a lot of unused air miles.
Photos: Mouse over for a brief description & click for the bigger picture