Traveling by bus in Cambodia

Taking the bus through Cambodia

As Kelly mentioned in her reflections on Cambodia, the country has come a long way in a short time, meaning its infrastructure can often surprise you in both good ways and bad. There’s no better microcosm for this than Cambodia’s bus system which can be a pleasant and hassle-free experience before turning into a head-scratching travel horror. I’m happy to say that we survived the process, and a lot of that had to do with the research we put in beforehand.

The options

Bus is the primary method of long-distance travel around Cambodia, with Siem Reap 6-7 hours north of Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville about the same distance south of the capital. There are myriad carriers, and without each carrier having a reliable website, it can be a frustrating process to book tickets.

To compare prices you may have to walk from office to office because Cambodia doesn’t really have central bus terminals, even in their major cities. Another option would be trying to book through your hotel/hostel, but be careful here because you may not always get the best price, and unless you’ve researched the brand beforehand, it’s tough to know what kind of experience you’re going to get.

We chose to do our homework and found, based on other travelers’ reviews, that Giant Ibis had the best recommendation as being safe, plus the company has a pretty decent website to allow you to book your tickets online. After we left Cambodia, we found the site, which is a way to do a little comparison shopping, but I can’t speak to its trustworthiness or effectiveness. Whatever method you choose, make sure you have an app like TripAdvisor handy so that you can check out what other people have to say about the company.

The experience

Everybody has that one friend that they’re a little nervous to ride with because they take a few too many chances, go a little too fast, and brake just a little too late. That friend has nothing on a Cambodian minibus driver. If you’re brave enough to keep your eyes on the road as they drive (not optional for someone prone to motion sickness like Kelly), you’ll definitely get your fair share of heart-pounding moments. This terror is a little less in a full-size bus because the vehicle isn’t as nimble and other vehicles tend to get out of the way more.

Not to get repetitive, but the infrastructure in Cambodia isn’t all the way there, and that includes less than ideal roads as well as a dearth of enforced traffic laws. What you get is a medley of vehicles ranging from tiny scooters to big rigs all weaving in and out of each other and only generally following the rule to stay on the right side of the road. If you’re from a big traffic city like New York, LA or DC, the sounds of honking horns on the Cambodian highway might sound like some sweet lullaby. However, instead of being some hostile measure to avoid a wreck, horns are just their way to say “Hi, I’m over here and I’m going to pass you now.” They pass each other a lot, so bring good headphones or earplugs.

On some of the nicer bus lines, you’ll get a free bottle of water, a towel and possibly a snack. Giant Ibis listed that they had wifi on all buses and even had the network name inside each bus, but we couldn’t ever connect, so don’t plan on being able to get a ton of online work done.

You’ll stop for food and bathroom breaks every few hours, but don’t expect these stops to necessarily be evenly spaced out or around meal times. Cambodians look out for their friends, and so you’ll stop where their friend has a rest stop. The drivers then get rewarded for bringing a busload of tourists to the tune of a free meal. This same thing happened in Vietnam and Bali. It’s a normal part of life in Southeast Asia, but unfortunately it’s not always going to get you the best prices or quality on food and drinks.

When you get to your destination, be prepared to find tuk-tuk and taxi drivers waiting like sharks. Many will offer to take you to a hotel – again, one that probably gets them kickbacks with no guarantees of quality – so it’s good to make sure you have an idea of where you’re going and make sure you don’t take them up on their offer to take your stuff for you unless you’re sure you want the ride.

Like most things in Southeast Asia, doing research before a Cambodian bus trip can save you a lot of time and hassle. That doesn’t mean you need to book everything in advance if that’s not your style, but at least know what a fair price is so that you don’t get ripped off and have the best experience possible. Have any great Cambodian bus stories? Leave them in the comments below!


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