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Cambodia

Overland Travel Between Bangkok and Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville by way of Hat Lek / Koh Kong

Information current as of December 18, 2003

WARNING: The information on this page is now quite dated so please also see: Traveler's Reports, for recent first-hand accounts which include several important updates from travelers making the overland journey between Bangkok and Phnom Penh via Koh Kong.

In April 2002, Highway 48, neglected for decades and degenerated into a barely navigable jungle path, was reopened after having been reconstructed with the labor of the Thai army and money from a number of sources, including the owner of the Koh Kong International Resort Casino. This road, connecting Koh Kong with Sre Ambel allows a second overland route between Bangkok and Phnom Penh (the other route is via Poipet). I traveled the not then opened highway for the first time in January 2002 on a 250cc motorcycle and was quite excited by what I saw. But when I traveled the road a second time five months later I found a road, open only six weeks, in terrible shape due to recent heavy rains. However, The Thai army continued maintenance of the road, flattening down from time to time some of the areas that turned into piles of muck and hopefully this year the road will stay flat through most of the rainy season. For the time being this is certainly a viable way to travel between Phnom Penh and Bangkok.

While I'm nowhere near as familiar with this journey as I am the Siem Reap journey through Aranyaprathet and Poipet, I've at least been able to assemble something here that should be of use to somebody. And really, I'll be the first to admit, the Bangkok to Siem Reap section of this website has grown, umm, a little, shall we say, large.

The Journey

It's about 450 kilometers from Bangkok to the Cambodian border at Hat Lek and another 300 kilometers onward to Phnom Penh. The Thai leg of the journey is on Route 3 to Trat and on Route 318 to the border. Once across the border, you make your way into the town of Koh Kong where share taxis, trucks, or vans will take you to Phnom Penh.

The first part of the Cambodian segment of the trip is the 147-kilometer Highway 48 to Sre Ambel. This road, scenic and hilly as it winds its way through dense jungle, is unsealed, the condition of which is very dependent on the weather. From Sre Ambel to Phnom Penh, the trip is on National Highway 4, one of the highest quality roads in the country.

This is a long trip and not one likely to be made in a single day, especially traveling to Cambodia. Plan on six and a half to eight hours just to reach the border and depending on weather and road conditions at least seven and maybe many more hours to reach Phnom Penh. Unless you take one of the earliest buses from Bangkok (6:00 or 7:00 a.m.) anyone planning this trip to Cambodia should expect to spend the night in either Trat or Koh Kong.

It is also possible to travel Bangkok to Phnom Penh by way of Aranyaprathet/Poipet. In Poipet you can find share taxis all the way to Phnom Penh ($$) or take a pick-up truck to Battambang and from there, another truck to Pursat and onward to Phnom Penh. This journey is also about 750 kilometers and if you leave Bangkok early enough you can make Phnom Penh in one very long day. See the Bangkok - Siem Reap section for the instructions on getting to and through Poipet.

Transport

Fortunately, the Khao San Road packages used by so many tourists to go to Siem Reap aren't yet available for this journey. You have no choice but to use public transport to the border. Once in Koh Kong you will likely be approached by people working for the Narin's/Mealy Chenda guesthouse chain who operate their own transport service which I will comment on further down the page. If you spend the night in Trat you may find your guesthouse tries to sell you transport from there to Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville. They are selling you the Mealy Chenda service (see below). Some guesthouses on Koh Chang also sell this service.

Local Adventure Cambodia has also begun running vans between Koh Kong and Phnom Penh, charging 550 baht for the service. The van leaves each morning at 8:15 a.m. from Otto's Guesthouse. A Phnom Penh - Bangkok bus service is offered by Neak Krorhorm and Capitol but goes by way of Poipet and not Koh Kong. More comments on their service will follow.

The other ground option is to to a local taxi or pick-up truck. The former is not a bad option especially if there are more than one of you.

It's also possible to fly to Trat on Bangkok Airways for about $50. Two flights a day.

Bangkok to Phnom Penh

Bangkok to the Border

There is only one way to the border. The bus.

Head to the Eastern Bus Terminal (Ekkamai) at Sukhumvit Soi 40, opposite Soi 63 (aka Soi Ekkamai). Just say Ekkamai, or in Thai, "sat-a-nee rot mae Ekkamai", and the taxi driver will know what you want. You can also take the BTS (Skytrain), get off at Ekkamai station and walk up Sukhumvit Road. The bus terminal is 50, maybe 100 meters from the station.

Your destination from here is Trat, which is also where'd you go if you wanted to go to Koh Chang. Buses run all day, a first-class bus (recommended as they are faster and more comfortable) is 189 baht. Plan on five to six hours to Trat. First-class bus departures are as follows: 6:00, 7:00, 9:30, 11:00, 12:30, 14:00, 15:30, 17:30, 19:30, 20:30, 22:00, and 23:30. 11:00 is the latest you should leave if you plan on crossing the border that same day. However, if you are on a visa run, make sure you're on a bus no later than 9:30 a.m. or you won't be able to get transport from the border back to Trat.

If coming from Pattaya, head out to the highway (Sukhumvit Road) to the bus stand and flag down the first bus coming through to Rayong (50 baht). In Rayong, get a bus to Chantaburi (55 baht), and in Chantaburi, get a bus to Trat (48 baht). When I did this, all the buses were second-class. My waiting time for buses was negligible but the trip from Pattaya to Trat still took me five and a half hours.

Once in Trat, you need to make a decision. You're about an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes from the border plus however long you have to wait for the van to depart. The border closes at 8 pm. If you're not going to make it, then spend the night here. I stayed at the Trat Hotel and found it more than adequate (others however, have reported less than satisfactory experiences with this establishment). There were also some cute young women touting for guesthouses as soon as I stepped off the bus. There's a huge night market and enough foreigners come through here that most of the food sellers have English-language menus. Usually however, I make it to Koh Kong and spend the night there.

To reach the border at Hat Lek you take a van and they stick as many as fourteen people in one van. They run all day on a posted schedule (see photo below). Price for the 89-kilometer journey is 100 baht for everybody and is a fixed posted fare, so don't act like a moron and start haggling over it. The van stops right at the border. The vans depart from a location about fifty meters up from where the bus from Bangkok stops.

Most unlike the Aranyaprathet - Poipet border crossing you won't be swamped with so many touts here. A few taxi drivers and Narin's/Mealy Chenda people are walking around, but just as many touts will go for the Thai passengers and not the westerners. I wasn't paying much attention to what was going on but I would only assume they were working for the casino in Koh Kong.

The Border Crossing

Map of the Hat Lek/Cham Yeam Border Area

Map current as of December 18, 2003

The border opens at 7:00 a.m. and closes at 8:00 p.m. Most unlike Poipet, this border crossing is remarkably stress-free and hassle-free, except for the border guards who are more corrupt here than in Poipet. A few taxi and motorcycle taxi drivers hang around enquiring as to whether you'll need transportation onward, i.e. Phnom Penh, as they'll hustle for a commission from the drivers and hope they can get you to pay a little extra. There are usually one or two guys trying to sell you cheap cartons of cigarettes which Thailand won't want you to bring in. But for the time being, this border is nothing at all like Poipet and really doesn't require much discussion, in respect to touts and the like.

About the names. On the Thai side the area is called Hat Lek ('small beach'), but the stamp in your passport will read "Klong Yai" ('big canal'), the name of the larger municipality that encompasses this region. But when taking the van from Trat don't confuse things and get off in the town of Klong Yai, you'll still be 15 kilometers from the border. In Cambodia the area is called Koh Kong, but the immediate border area is called Cham Yeam and that's the stamp you'll get in your passport.

The vans drop you off at #1 on the map. It's a few steps to the Thai immigration kiosk. Then a few more steps and you pass a table where they do incoming customs inspections to see if you bought more than the legal limit of cigarettes from the guy that was standing around the Cambodian immigration booth. Another couple of steps and you're in Cambodia and you'll probably pick up one or two friendly motorcycle taxi drivers/touts. These guys, as polite as they are, are only using their English skills ultimately as an excuse to charge you more money. Just ignore these guys and choose a moto from the group waiting beyond the immigration area after you are finished with the entry formalities.

Walk over to the building on the left (#4). Here you can pick-up a visa if you need one and also this is where you get stamped into the country. 

For whatever reason everybody in the world needs a visa except Malaysians and overseas Khmers. You figure it out why Malaysians are visa-free. Tourist visas are supposed to cost $20 and you need one passport photo. If you don't have the photo, the guys here will charge you 100 baht for the service. Considering Cambodia law states that a passport application must be accompanied by a photo, the 100 baht fee is a legitimate request. For some time the guys were actually taking photos with a digital camera (also charging 100 baht) but have since abandoned that idea. Anyway, since we're talking rule of law here...

...Visas are supposed to be $20 but here they are now demanding around 1100 baht instead of $20 (more, 1200, 1300, if they think they can get away with it), pocketing the five extra dollars they get on the exchange. What can you do about this? You can bargain. And it's not easy to do this if you've never been to Cambodia before or you speak no Khmer. I had to buy a visa here recently and had no problems getting the visa for the proper fee - but my passport is full of Cambodia visas and stamps, I can manage to speak a little Khmer (very little), and I can prove I do business here. There were also no other foreigners in the room. You have none of these advantages. The best thing you can do is to take out $20 in US currency, do not ask about the price of the visa, lay the money on the table, and when they ask you for more money simply point to the money on the table and say nothing. When you do start talking to them, be very polite, laugh a lot, act like you are all best friends and remind them when they ask for more money that the legal visa fee is $20. Ultimately you still may not get the visa for $20 but you'll probably at least get 100 baht or so knocked off the original asking price. They may tell you the price is higher because the visas are stickers now. Laugh when they tell you this. Also, if you do pay more - do two things: ask for a receipt and also request that they stamp on the visa next to the word "fee" the EXACT amount of money you have paid. There's a place on the visa to do this. If they won't do either of these things, it's time to go back to insisting you pay only $20.

Please do not delude yourself by thinking, well, this visa on arrival is such a convenience, why shouldn't we pay more? Cambodia law is very specific on this issue. Tourist visas issued on arrival are $20. Period. There is no ambiguity here. They are not whatever the guards feel like charging based on whether their phone bills are due or they had a bad night at the casino. The fee is $20. The law is clear.

In any event, the chances of getting a visa for $20 are slim, but you ought to at least try and let them know that you know you are being gouged as well.

Business visas are also issued here, but they'll likely demand at least 1500 baht - about $35 for a visa that's only supposed to be $25. For this one, you really ought to get it in Bangkok unless you have preexisting business visas that say $25 on them.

The visa application form is so simple a monkey could fill it out. The only requirement for obtaining a visa - tourist or business, is that you have a valid passport and the proper money. You pay the money - they give you the stamps. It's that easy. Don't waste time worrying about showing onward tickets, proof of funds, contacts, etc. Nobody cares and nobody asks any questions. Cambodian visas are about one thing and one thing only - raising hard currency. The visa process has absolutely nothing to do with controlling who gets in to the country, for how long, or for what purpose. They really don't care.

However, this is applicable largely to westerners only. People from other regions (Middle East, South Asia, Africa) may have some problems that ultimately have to do with money. For more information see my discussion about visas on my FAQ-Legal page.

Vaccination Scam

Though it looks like it's a thing of the past, a common border scam was to require entering visitors to produce a vaccination certificate. There is no law requiring any kind of vaccination to enter Cambodia - no one has ever been asked for vaccination proof when entering the country by air. What makes ground entry so special? In the now highly unlikely event the border guards try to pull it on you, they'll inform you that if you don't have an international vaccination certificate (which you probably won't have), they'll take care of the problem for you - for a small fee. The best thing to do is simply say (politely!) "No thank you" and walk away. They'll probably tell you it's your choice but you'll need the form to leave the country or possibly face some kind of fine. I've seen law-abiding travelers exiting at Poipet with their 'official' forms in hand, dutifully providing the paperwork necessary to flee the country. The guards just hand it back without even a glance. But by all recent accounts, this scam is a thing of the past.

Health Form Scam

While the vaccination scam may have ended, the SARS scare has provided these guards with the opportunity to develop a new scam - the health form scam. Here, you fill out a rather official looking form which, by correctly completing this form, will certify you as SARS-free! Then they may ask you for around 50 baht, which you will have to talk yourself out of. If you live in Cambodia or at least speak a little Khmer this should not be a difficult task (it wasn't for me, once the guy realized I lived here he pulled the form away, even though I hadn't finished filling it out, and sent me on my way, never asking for a single baht). If you're a tourist, you'll probably have to pay.

From the Border to Phnom Penh

Once stamped in you'll see a group of motorcycle taxis just up the road. Certainly one or two will have already been talking to you, mostly trying to find out if you're going to Phnom Penh and do you need a taxi and how much will you pay. These guys are perfectly polite but it's absolutely pointless and ultimately more expensive to talk to them about how much you'll pay to go to Phnom Penh. The only person you should talk to about the price of transportation is the driver himself. The touts are just working on a commission and the more they get you to pay, the more they get.

Narin's/Mealy Chenda offers van service to Phnom Penh for 600 baht, leaving each morning around 8:30 or 9:00 a.m. There are good points and bad points to this service. Mostly bad points. First of all, they are incapable of being straight up with you. No matter what time you cross the border, they will tell you they can take you right away and once you're interested, they will then explain that well, maybe not today, okay, you spend the night, we leave in the morning, okay, we take you to a guesthouse.

This little empire (Mealy Chenda - Sihanoukville and Kampot, Narin's, Narin's 2, TAT - Phnom Penh, and Smiley's - Siem Reap) are everything wrong with tourism business in Cambodia and even if you do use this van service I hope you won't stay at any of their guesthouses. Apparently they don't actually have a guesthouse in Koh Kong but they have some deal with the Phou Mint Koh Kong, which is really not a bad place to stay. It's located on the waterfront next to the bridge.

Mealy Chenda/Narin's/Smiley's are a filthy rich well-connected family who neither appreciate nor even deserve your business. This country is full of friendly local family-run operations that will bend over backwards to please you and they could certainly use your money far more than the Mealy Chenda/Narin's/Smiley's empire does. They offer nothing more than a package tour of Cambodia and they don't even offer a good one at that. They are rude. They lie.

I have had two experiences with their van service and both were negative.

My first experience was they lied a lot. They started with the "we leave now" bit even though it was in the afternoon. Then, once they had us interested, a little bit of hemming and hawing was followed by the explanation that well, maybe not today, okay, you spend the night, we leave in the morning, okay, we take you to a guesthouse.

Then they told us that upon arrival in Phnom Penh they would take us anywhere we wanted, but that was another lie. They go to Narin's 2 and that's it, and you can complain all you want, but they don't care. If they were charging something like 100 or 200 baht for this ride I could understand, but for 600 baht they ought to take people wherever they want to go, but they won't. Upon arrival in Phnom Penh I raised this point with the manager at Narin's 2. His response to my objections, and I quote, was "I don't care," as he put his arms up in the air and refused to make eye contact with me.

The second time I used their van service was in April 2003. I came through Koh Kong with no intention of using them. However, my guesthouse for the night told me that the van service was no longer Mealy Chenda, that they didn't like Mealy Chenda either, and now it was just a regular van and it would drop me off at the Central Market in Phnom Penh, and I, with five and a half years here - believed them. That was stupid. Anyway, 600 baht for a ride in a van or up to 800 baht to buy two seats in a Camry. Okay, we'll try the van again.

At 9:15 in the morning a van pulls up to the guesthouse. It says "Mealy Chenda" on the side. I even recognize the driver as the same worm who laid all the lies on me about the service last October. Well, too late, now. So eight of us head off to Phnom Penh, or so we thought, and traveling in a van which no longer has functioning air conditioning making for a hot and dusty ride that's not all that better than sitting in the back of a pick-up truck.

The ride from Koh Kong to Sre Ambel was uneventful except when about halfway there the Mealy Chenda van from the other direction (Sihanoukville, I suppose) meets up with us and - we exchange drivers! I begin wondering if the fact that we now have a driver who barely speaks English is anything significant? Well, we get to Sre Ambel and as soon as we hit the highway the driver pulls off to the side of the road and yells out to a van parked there with fourteen Khmer passengers sitting on top of each other. I understand just enough Khmer to realize he's asking if they can take four barangs (foreigners) to Phnom Penh. As it turns out only four of us in the van were going to Phnom Penh, the other four were going to Sihanoukville.

Hmmm... Take one van (with no air conditioning!), charge fifteen dollars, travel halfway to your destination and dump off half of your cargo along with what, about 5000 riels each, stuffing them in a van with fourteen other Khmers and charging these passengers five times what you pay to pass them off!

Yes, Mealy Chenda will get you to Phnom Penh but they are greedy lying bastards. You want to make the jerks richer, take their van, otherwise travel local in a truck, Toyota Camry share taxi, or stop in at Otto's and ask about the Local Adventure Cambodia van service.

If I've convinced you not to use Narin's/Mealy Chenda, get on a moto and head to Koh Kong about 10 kilometers away and don't talk to anyone about where you are going or how you'll get there. Agree to pay no more than 50 baht and for that fee the driver better use the bridge, which has an 1100 riel toll for motos and he'll pay it. About two kilometers down the road there is a police checkpoint to verify that you have been properly stamped into the country. Taxi drivers, moto and car, tend to develop amnesia about certain guesthouses as the commission game is alive and well here. Stand firm.

Just before the new bridge is a turn-off for the boat taxis that used to be the only way to get to or from Koh Kong. As a result these thieving bastards extorted all sorts of money from tourists. It is possible your moto driver may try to take you to one of these boat taxis. Do not use them! They are scumbag thieves and I don't care if they'll take me across for two baht, given all the money these guys extorted in the past they deserve nothing. However, it won't be two baht to cross the river, it will be a bit more and no doubt your moto driver gets a cut.

The other van option is run by Local Adventures and departs from Otto's. It's a new service that has had a few problems getting started. They charge a little less than Mealy Chenda (550 baht) and do go direct to Phnom Penh, but there have been a few complaints of overselling tickets and also stuffing the van full of Khmers (who are paying less than the foreign tourists) to the point of being overcrowded for everyone regardless of what they pay. Still, it's an alternative to Mealy Chenda.

In June 2002, my moto did in fact start heading towards the boat dock and seemed quite disappointed when I redirected him to the bridge. When you get a moto at the border, you should make it clear that you are going over the bridge and not using a boat.

Koh Kong is a nice little town and if you feel like kicking back for a day, by all means do. If you've arrived in the afternoon you probably won't be able to get a taxi to Phnom Penh anyway, so settle in for the night.

Guesthouse info:

Otto's: Excellent food, good meeting place, information. Basic rooms with shared bath for around $2-3. Western-owned.

Kolab Cheay Den Hotel: Khmer place which was friendly enough when I stayed there in Jan 2002. Rooms with bath and TV, around $5-6 if memory serves. Near boat docks, next block up from Otto's.

Nokor Reach Hotel: Next to the market, popular with taxi and moto drivers (commissions!), basic rooms of no great value.

Phou Mint Koh Kong: New place next to the bridge with some fairly nice rooms with full amenities.

Bopha Koh Kong: Refurbished. I haven't been inside but it looks nice from the outside. Same street as Kolab Cheay Den.

Raksmey Makara: I don't know anything about this place except that its popular with taxi and moto drivers (commissions!).

Taxis to Phnom Penh can be obtained at the market. Your motodriver will know where to go.

Local Choices: Pick-Up Truck or Toyota Camry and How Much to Pay

You have a choice, crowded pick-up truck or Toyota Camry taxi and a seat in either is about the same price.

A single seat in a Camry should be about 400 baht ($10), but I'd recommend buying two seats (the whole front seat is ideal) for 800 baht ($20), though this can be bargained down to around 650-700 baht, which is of course not much more than the vans and for this you'll get a more comfortable ride, delivery to wherever you want to go in Phnom Penh, and the satisfaction that the person getting your money is the guy sitting next to you driving the car. Give serious consideration to this option! And also consider you can arrange departure for whenever you like. If there are three or four of you, you can hire a whole car for around $60 or 2400 baht, but this might be bargainable down to around $50/2000 baht. And that Mealy Chenda van is $45/1800 so think about that one.

Apparently, in Phnom Penh one seat in a pick-up truck to Koh Kong is indeed 400 baht, but if you take separate trucks (one to Sre Ambel and another one to Koh Kong), you can get the first ride for 100 baht, and the second for 200 baht - 300 total. As always, I suggest buying two seats and paying double.

How Long Does it Take?

It's a slow ride to Phnom Penh which will vary depending on weather and how long you are delayed at the four ferry crossings. In June 2002, when the road was in very poor condition due to a lot of recent rain, the Koh Kong to Phnom Penh trip took eight and a half hours, with six of those hours spent covering the Koh Kong to Sre Ambel section. In October 2002 and again in April 2003, with no mud, the ride took about six and a half hours. The ferry crossings, which cost 100 baht each, are one reason this ride costs a little more per kilometer than share taxi routes elsewhere in the country.

Most recently, December 2003, I needed seven hours and fifteen minutes to reach Phnom Penh. The road is rough but dry.

If you want to go to Sihanoukville you can still use this road option, just take the taxi to Sre Ambel and then hook up with another car or truck heading south to the beach. But for the time being, the morning speedboat from Koh Kong to Sihanoukville is a better option except in the rainy season.

Once past Sre Ambel, the road is an excellent highway. On arrival in Phnom Penh, if you took a Camry, the driver should take you wherever you want. If you came in a pick-up truck, expect to be dumped at the Central Market. The tourist vans take you only to their affiliated guesthouse, no matter what they might have told you (unless they sold you off to a local van, which, in that case, you'll end up at the Central Market).

Cost Summary

The more expensive way:
1.) Taxi from somewhere to Ekkamai
(about) 80 baht  $2.00
2.) Bus from Bangkok to Trat
189 baht  $4.70
3.) Van from Trat to border
100 baht   $2.50
4.) Motorbike from border to taxis, including bridge toll
50 baht  $1.25
5.) Taxi, Koh Kong to Phnom Penh (two seats for more comfort)
700 baht $18.50
TOTAL: 1119 baht or $28.95

The cheaper way:
1.) Public bus from somewhere to Ekkamai, assume one transfer
7 baht   $0.15
2.) Second-class bus to Trat
(about) 140 baht  $3.50
3.) Van from Trat to border
100 baht   $2.50
4.) Motorbike from border to taxis, including bridge toll
50 baht  $1.25
5.) Taxi, Koh Kong to Phnom Penh (one seat)
400 baht $10.00
TOTAL: 697 baht or $17.40

Phnom Penh to Bangkok

Your journey will begin at the Central Market. Track down a share taxi. See above for the approximate costs and description of the road.

When your share taxi drops you off at the Koh Kong market get a moto to the border. Getting stamped out of Koh Kong is a perfectly routine matter. Head over to Thailand and walk through the little gate. A border guard will probably make a cursory inspection of your bags so be sure you didn't buy too many cartons of cigarettes from the guy hanging out at the Cambodian immigration booths.

Important: For nationalities that require a visa to enter Thailand, visas are NOT issued at the Hat Lek entry. You must have one in advance.

Get stamped into Thailand and walk up the road a few dozen meters to where the vans to Trat are parked. 100 baht, fixed fare. They will drop you off in the center of Trat and several bus companies right there have comfortable luxury buses to Bangkok, some leaving as late as 11 pm at night. So while you may not be able to do Bangkok to Phnom Penh in a day, you can make Phnom Penh to Bangkok in one, albeit, very long day.

The Boat Option

While the whole point of this page is to discuss land travel, speedboats have always been part of this route. There are two lines - Koh Kong to Sihanoukville and Koh Kong to Sre Ambel. Use the Sre Ambel route if Phnom Penh is your destination. The Koh Kong to Sre Ambel boat is 300 baht and leaves at 7:00 a.m. arriving in Sre Ambel about three hours later. A return boat leaves in late morning. There's also a morning boat to Sihanoukville, 8:00 a.m. and $15. A return to Koh Kong leaves at noon. A share taxi from Sre Ambel to Phnom Penh should be about 100 baht a seat.

Keep one thing in mind: these boats were built for river travel - and they are being used on the open seas. Think about that if it's the rainy season and the seas are rough.

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If you'd like to share your experiences, good or bad, traveling on this route, please e-mail me your overland travel stories or just e-mail me anyway.

To read reports from traveler's doing the Bangkok to Phnom Penh overland trip go here.

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