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Thursday, May 31, 2012

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REVIEW: Hang Tep - Siem Reap (Cambodia) to Bangkok (Thailand)

We were trying to get from Siem Reap to Bangkok overland and we looked at trains on seat61 and we found very little information online about the bus transport.

Getting Info / Booking
Most guesthouses, hotels and hostels will provide booking on buses for guest but they provided very little information on who the provider would be so we decided to goto the offices directly and analyze for ourselves.  There are also a ton of travel agents in downtown Siem Reap that seem to offer tickets for the buses.

After spending a half a day trying to figure this out we ended up buying a ticket from Two Seasons Travel which seemed like the most trustworthy.  The tickets were approximately $15 per person.  They sold us a ticket on the Hang Tep bus company which had little information about it on the web except for a few notes that said they often oversell tickets.

The journey is basically from Siem Reap to Poipet (the border) then to Bangkok.


Reflection
Overall, this was the worst journey we had in Southeast Asia but I'm not sure that there is a better provider available.  The hardest part was from Poipet to Bangkok in the cramped minivan with luggage literally falling on people.  While it is affordable to go by bus we would highly consider flying (much more expensive) or the more consistent train option.  If you are in Cambodia or Thailand and want to start a bus business this is a route that could use some honest reliable bus transport with a very large possible customer base willing to pay more than the current prices.

I would give Hang Tep bus service 1 star out of 5.


Journey
We tried to keep an accurate time table and take as many pictures to document the journey for other travelers.

Notes Pictures
WAITING:

  • We arrived at the Cambodian Backpackers hostel in Siem Reap on our own Tuk Tuk as the agent at Two Seasons said if we waited for the free transfer we would not have our choice of seat. 
  •  When we arrived we counted over 60 people which was worrisome as the agent who sold us the ticket had told us that the bus never sells for more than 40 people.
Start Time: 7:30am
End Time: 8:05am
LOADING:

  • No bus in sight - Given that we were waiting for over a half hour just watching loads of people show up we started to get worrisome as there was no bus in sight.
  • Hunted down the bus - Around 8:05am I noticed that they were selectively asking a few folks to walk around the corner with them - trying to be discrete. So, I walked around the corner and saw a bus. I grabbed my wife and we ran around the corner to get on when we found it already had 18 people on it with close to 60 people still at the hostel. We made our way onto the bus while we saw our bags thrown into the storage. The man in charge who was very rude claimed there would be room for everyone. Another bus showed up and they put a few people in minivans. Not sure if anyone actually got left behind but it was pretty chaotic.
Start Time: 8:05am
End Time: 8:20am
DRIVING:

  • The driver would consistently answer his mobile phone and his assistant spoke loudly while sitting on a plastic white chair next to him.

Start Time: 8:20am
End Time: 9:15am
WAITING:

  • At our first stop to use the restroom they charged Real 1000 to use the restroom which were pretty bad conditions. 
Start Time: 9:15am
End Time: 9:50am

DRIVING:

  • The second leg of the journey was pretty uneventful.

Start Time: 9:50am
End Time: 11:20am
WAITING:

  • At our second stop to use the restroom was at the Poipet Hang Tep offices.  
  • Bathrooms here were free and we were told we were only a few kilometers away from the border.
  • You are given stickers to place on your shirt that says where your final destination is.
Start Time: 11:20am
End Time: 11:42am


Driving:
  • Poipet to the boarder
  • Kid porter scam - Driver calls a bunch of kids to "carry" our luggage when it gets off the bus.  they literally grab it as it comes off the bus and load it onto their carts.  Everyone on our bus was smart and took their luggage back but you have to keep a keen eye on it and note that it was all instigated by the untrustworthy drivers at Hang Tep.
  • No one from company at the border - just told to cross and someone will meet us on the other side.


Start Time: 11:42am
End Time: 11:50am
BORDER CROSSING:
  • You check out of Cambodia and then check into Thailand.
  • There is ~100 yard you have to walk.  
  • After the Thai crossing there is a Hang Tep gathering people.
Start Time: 11:50am
End Time: 12:30pm






WAITING:
  • We waited after the boarder for the group and then minivans to come take us to the next stop - a restaurant.
  • At the restaurant there was clearly a shortage of minivans to take us to Bangkok.  So we were agressive again to get on one of the earlier ones.
Start Time: 12:30pm
End Time: 1:30pm




DRIVING:

  • We were packed into the minivan with luggage literally falling on top of people, no leg room and very hot conditions.  Terrible journey.

Start Time:1:30pm
End Time: 2:20pm




WAITING:

  • Stop for gas.  These natural gas minivans have very small tanks so you stop very often.
Start Time: 2:20pm
End Time: 2:40pm





DRIVING
Start Time: 2:40pm
End Time: 3:55pm
WAITING:
  • Stop for gas

Start Time: 3:55pm
End Time: 4:15pm
DRIVING:
  • Finally arrived to Khaosan Road in Bangkok

Start Time: 4:15pm
End Time: 5:45pm


Sunday, March 11, 2012

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REVIEW: Mekong Express - Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Phnom Penh

We were trying to get from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Phnom Penh overland.  One resource we came across was the seat61 site that mentioned three companies (Mekong Express, Sapeco and Kumho Samco) that did this route.

Based on a number of based forum posts on Sapeco we decided against it and we chose to book our travels with the Mekong Express.  The hotel we were staying at booked it for us for $12 without a hitch for the 7am bus.

Pick-up
The fares includes a free hotel pick-up about 15 minutes prior which was a bit late but overall not a big deal.  The  bus offers assigned seats and gives you a baggage tag.  We were impressed that they staff was delicately handling our baggage.  It is approximately a 50 person bus with two seats on either side of an aisle.  The bus does have a bathroom though we did not see how clean it was but people (even foreigners) were using it.

Ride
The drive was smooth on the bus with AC services and sometimes showing a movie.  They provide a water bottle and a sandwich lunch which is a nice touch.  We did not find the sandwich appetizing so we gave it to the begging kids on the streets.

Border crossing
The border crossing is one place that the Mekong Express company is not completely honest.  They ask for your passports to exit Vietnam and enter Cambodia.  They also ask for a $25 visa fee to enter Cambodia.  Well, the actual fee is $20.  We were warned of this $5 additional fee from other travelers so we asked the staff what the $5 additional charge was and they said it was for paying the officials to process the visas fast.

When we said we would just stand in line ourselves the representative threatened us saying that if it takes too long then they would leave us at the border.    We called the staff out on the threat and she immediately backtracked and said it was okay if we tried to process it ourselves and we told her that if the line was long we would pay their "processing fee."

We got to the border the staff was not helpful in pointing us to where we needed to get the visa which was expected.  So, we learned that there are two processes one needs to do to enter Cambodia - (1) get the visa sticker  (pay US$20 and have a visa form filled out with a passport pict) and (2) get the arrival stamp with finger scanning.  The first is done at the booths and the second is done at the office to the left of the booths.  In the end we lost 5 minutes in the confusion but we were still out of the border crossing before many people who had given their passports to the Meekong Express.  So, we were not left at the border.

Arrival
We arrived in the center in Phnom Penh and were immediately bombarded with tuk tuk drivers offering to take us to our hotel or get us a hotel.  We had a hotel booked but were not sure how much the tuk tuk should cost.  If you go into the Mekong Express office where you are dropped off it shows a map of city and how much a tuk tuk should cost based on where you are going.  Generally, its US$3 to get to the river area where a number of the hotels are.

Overall, except for the Cambodian visa issues we had a good experience with Meekong Express.  I would rate them 3 out of 5 stars for their service.

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TIP: Traveling money

While planning for our trip we considered how we were going to pay for stuff along the way.  We did not want to carry thousands of dollars of cash and we were going to be using 11 different currencies.  This post is relevant for travelers coming from N. America.
ATM We use the Fidelity Cash Management account ATM card which does not charge any fees itself and will refund fees the ATM banks will charge.  There was no limit to the number of transactions fee refunds in the cash management account.  Note that there is still  is a 1% currency exchange fee that all banks and currency exchanges charge so no way out of it.
This really took the ease off worrying about which ATMs to use and literally saved us hundreds of $s with many ATMs charging $5 per transaction.
Credit Card We use Capital One No Hassle credit card that charges a 1% foreign transaction fee but gives you 1% rebate basically making it a no fee transaction.  This is a zero annual fee card.  
In our travels through SE Asia many places charge a 3-4% fee for using a credit card making the trip to the ATM much more frequent.

What is this blog about?



As we travel we've collected some tips on navigating the world but did not always find a good forum to post it.  So, for the time being we've created this blog to note tip and tricks we learned while traveling.
Many of our accomodation reviews can be found on Trip Advisor.  To start, we'll post experiences and reviews of transport options we wish we found before we were traveling.
Hope this helps future travelers.