Review: Giant Ibis bus, Phnom Penh to HCMC

Let’s face it, long bus journeys in Southeast Asia are unlikely to be the most fun part of traveling in the region. When a land border crossing is added into the mix, it becomes even more unpleasant, but is something of a right of passage. Luckily, Giant Ibis takes the pain out of crossing the Cambodia-Vietnam border, with a six hour bus ride from Phnom Penh to HCMC.

giant ibis hcmc

The Giant Ibis bus from PhnomPenh to HCMC (Saigon).

Several bus companies cover the popular Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) route. Of all the Cambodia bus companies, Giant Ibis is the best, unless of course you are looking for the kind of experience that includes blaring Khmer karaoke, lack of air-con and cramped seating. Giant Ibis buses all come with powerpoints, free WiFi and fairly spacious seating even for a larger person. They also offer a snack when you board the bus and the capable staff make you feel as though if something were to go wrong, they might be able to do something about it.

If you are headed from Phnom Penh to Vietnam, remember that you need to get your visa before getting on the bus. Visas are NOT available at the border, and the Giant Ibis staff will not let you continue on the journey if you have not secured your Vietnam visa in advance (here’s how to get a Vietnam visa in Phnom Penh). On the other hand, if you are headed from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, you do not need to get a visa at the border.

From Phnom Penh it’s 170 km to the border and takes about four hours. This includes a quick ferry ride across the Mekong as you pass from Kandal to Prey Veng Province, aboard which you will have the opportunity to buy snacks of fruits and fried crickets. Before boarding the ferry there are a row of houses/restaurants/shops that all have rudimentary toilet facilities. Be warned, you will need to bring your own toilet paper!

Giant Ibis HCMC PP

This is about as luxurious as it gets on this route!

Once across the river the bus continues until the Cambodia-Vietnam border. It is important to be aware that when you board the bus in Phnom Penh the Giant Ibis rep will take your passport to check whether or not you have the correct visa. This isn’t a scam, and your passport will be handed by safely. After a couple of hours you will arrive at the border.

The rep will have returned your passport to you already and, if you have not already done so, will advise you to fill out the departure form that the security staff at the airport usually staple onto your passport when you arrive. When leaving the Cambodian border the guard will check your passport, visa and departure form then ask for electronic fingerprint recognition. You can change money at the border but the rate is extortionate, so get Vietnamese Dong in Phnom Penh before you leave.

There is a half hour stop at the border at a restaurant with toilets. The food isn’t half bad, and the prices are reasonable — a meal and a coffee will set you back around $5.

On the Vietnamese side of the border, it can take a while to get through depending on how many buses are arriving at that point. The Giant Ibis rep takes all the passports for the border guards to check. They’ll call your name and hand it back to you, and you can pass through the gates. There is a conveyor belt and x-ray machine for large items of luggage that you are required to carry across the border as well as all your carry on luggage.

Giant Ibis PhnomPenh HCMC

Giant Ibis seats have powerpoints to keep your phones charged.

Once you are through here, the Giant Ibis bus will be waiting for you. Once everyone is back on, it’s another two and a half hours to Ho Chi Minh City. When you arrive in Ho Chi Minh City the bus drops you one street over from Pham Ngu Lao, which is the main drag for backpacker restaurants and bars. The traffic is notoriously faster and even more chaotic in Ho Chi Minh than Phnom Penh so be careful crossing the road!

On the return journey, you can get a Cambodia visa at the border as long as you’re from one of the approved countries. Tourist visas cost $30. Overall, it’s a surprisingly easy bus journey and border crossing without any of the scams that are usually seen at overland borders.

Tickets on Giant Ibis between Phnom Penh and HCMC/Saigon cost $18. Unlike every other company that operates on this route, Giant Ibis charges the same price to Cambodians and foreigners. You can book at any travel agent or guesthouse in Phnom Penh or Ho Chi Minh City, or you can also book on the Giant Ibis website for an extra $1 and select your own seat.

Giant Ibis schedule:
Phnom Penh – Ho Chi Minh City: 8:00 a.m.
Ho Chi Minh City – Phnom Penh: 8:30 a.m.

Giant Ibis

3Eo Street 106, next to the night market, Phnom Penh
T: 023 987 808
37, Street 7 Makara, Behind Sokimex Gas Station, Kampot
T: 023 999 333
giantibis.com

Eating crab in Kep: Crab shack face-off, redux

Gone are the days when there were just one or two crab shacks in Kep to choose from. Lately, more and more restaurants have been popping up along the shore next to Kep’s Crab Market, including several higher-end offerings, and these are the only ones that seem to make it into the Lonely Planet. I’m still of the belief that the most unassuming places are what make Kep’s Crab Shack Row so special, but I’m willing to eat crab just about anywhere in town to put that to the test. In our last Kep crab shack face-off we compared Srey Pov Restaurant and So Kheang Restaurant to market leader and Lonely Planet darling Kimly. Both compared favorably. This time we try a few more and see if they can beat Kimly at their own crabby game.

eating crab in Kep

Your diligent crab testers getting down to business.

Diamond Jasmine Restaurant

Diamond Jasmine may have a name better suited to a showgirl than a crab shack, but this friendly, family-owned business is easily the new contender for best crab shack in Kep. (Those who have been going there for years say that they have always been this good, it’s just that no one was paying attention.) The menu is similar to Kimly’s but Diamond Jasmine is easily better in both flavor and value. The standouts are the curry crab — seafood that’s been stir-fried in Cambodian kroeung (called “crab with spices” on the menu) and prawns with Kampot pepper.

Diamond Jasmine Kep

Diamond Jasmine’s crab with spices. It’s addictive.

Both the size of the crabs and prawns and the size of the portions were much larger at Diamond Jasmine, and cost less. The crabs were the big ones that the crab ladies usually hold back unless you demand them, and a medium dish at Diamond Jasmine had as many crabs as the large at Kimly. The sauces had a lighter touch but were just as good, putting the flavor of the seafood at the forefront of the dish. The prawns were large and liberally doused in both fresh green Kampot pepper and ground black pepper, making the dish intense and delicious. The soup sngor chuok kdam aka sour crab soup, was light and citrusy, the perfect compliment to the heavier flavors of the curry and pepper dishes.

T: 012 359 434; 099 500 109

Srey Neang Restaurant

Located next to Diamond Jasmine Restaurant, Srey Neang is a quiet, unassuming crab shack that, like the rest of them, look out onto Kep’s crab flats. The menu is similar to every other Cambodian-owned restaurant on the strip — there’s a page each for crab, prawn, fish, and squid dishes, as well as a selection of chicken and pork and various types of “moodles.” We ordered prawns stir-fried with Cambodian kroeung curry paste (called “prawns with spices” on the menu), fried crab with clear noodles, and fish sour soup with lemongrass.

Srey Neang Kep

Greasy and delicious.

Heavy with oil, the fried dishes were perhaps not the most compelling of the face-off, but were very good. The chili-infused crab had an understated, greasy deliciousness. The prawns were wonderful, and their taste was only heightened by the fact that we heard them pounding the kroeung fresh for our order. The curry was rustic and chunky, which made it easy to appreciate all of the separate flavors. The soup tasted like chicken powder and was the weakest dish of the bunch. Srey Neang has absolutely nothing unique about it and the cold fluorescent lighting does the place no favors, but the incredibly friendly service and low prices make it with visiting.

T: 097 336 3121; 097 762 4042

Holy Crab

Holy Crab is one of the newer upmarket restaurants nestled in between the run-down crab shacks on Kep’s Crab Shack Row. With its punny name and an actual paint-job and attempt at interior decor, Holy Crab represents the new wave of Kep seafood eateries that will probably take over the whole strip eventually. For that reason, it’s hard to be objective about places like this. On one hand, it’s nice to sit down in a place that isn’t an ambiance black hole, lit by a lone fluorescent lightbulb. On the other hand, it seems ridiculous to pay double to price just to have someone else remove the legs off the prawns.

Holy Crab Kep interior

Yes, that’s paint on the walls of Holy Crab.

Holy Crab’s offerings were definitely more refined in terms of preparation, but I strongly believe that the messiness of it all is part of the experience. One of the nicer things we tried was the crab soup, which was a rich, flavorful consomme with tender morsels of crab and slivers of black mushroom. It was wonderful, but the bowl was so small as to only be a few mouthfuls (seriously), and at $5.50 was priced similarly to one of the giant vats of crab soup at the neighboring crab shacks. If you’re looking for a more upscale night out, though, in that respect, Holy Crab delivers.

T: 097 632 3456

Srey Ka Restaurant

Srey Ka has an unassuming interior — that is, it’s completely bare-bones with little more than a few flypaper-covered fluorescent lights and Cambodia beer posters all over the walls. But the spartan decor belies the food, which is slightly more expensive than some of the more low-budget crab shacks (and by slightly, I do mean slightly, about $1 per dish) and a bit more refined. The tom yam soup we ordered had deboned fish, a rare occurrence in Cambodia. The soup was one of the best we had in Kep, it spicy but well balanced, and filled with fresh herbs. We also ordered stingray with hot basil. This was one of a few items they had on the menu that we hadn’t seen elsewhere, and it was a highlight of the meal.

Srey Ka Kep

Crab with Kampot pepper at Srey Ka had both pickled pepper and ground black pepper.

For the purpose of comparison, though, we ordered crab with Kampot pepper and prawns with spices (kroeung). The crab with pepper had ground black pepper and pickled green pepper, which was an interesting change, although I still prefer the fresh green pepper. The prawns were good, but not as appealing as those at other shacks. Overall, Srey Ka was better for their beyond-crab-and-curry-prawn offerings, but if you’re just looking for crab, it’s not the best choice.

T: 092 819 554; 097 700 1515

This time’s winner? Diamond Jasmine, for sure, but we’re still partial to buying crab directly at the Crab Market. Learn more about how to buy crabs direct from the crab ladies.

Urban homesteading in Cambodia

I’ve always harbored fantasies of having a life like the Little House on the Prairie book series that I devoured as a kid: growing my own food, building houses, killing bears. And while I’m not ready or willing to commit to full self-sufficiency, my life as a Cambodia expat — and our move to Siem Reap — has allowed us to dabble in urban homesteading.

growing seedlings in Cambodia

Starting with a bunch of seedlings to see what will actually grow well in Cambodia.

Urban homesteading encompasses a wide range of activities that are often associated with farm life, like growing your own food, canning, preserving, composting, and raising animals. Unlike real farmers, though, urban homesteaders live in suburbs or cities and so have limited space to work with. The brilliant designer of the Move to Cambodia book, Dan O. Williams, also designed one of the movement’s most inspirational tomes, The Backyard Homestead. He gave me a copy a few months ago and I attacked it like a kid on Christmas morning.

All my adult life I’ve lived in dense cities, and pretty much my biggest homestead was a window box filled with basil, oregano, and thyme. In Siem Reap, though, we’ve got a house with a garden big enough to allow us to grow our own food, or at least entertain fantasies of doing so. When I enquired about raising livestock, one of my neighbors waved aside the idea, telling me, “This is the city, not the provinces!” But he wasn’t too citified to add that if our geese had any babies, he’d like a few.

homestead geese in Cambodia

Contenders for the most spoiled geese in Cambodia.

One of the things I love about living in Cambodia is that there’s still a lot of flexibility about what you can do, and so much is still unregulated. Back in the U.S., many cities have laws against keeping chickens or ducks inside the city limits. Now I get woken up by roosters every morning, so I understand why those laws exist. But being a Siem Reap expat allows me to live out my sustainable-living fantasies while still living ten minutes away from a grocery store that stocks brie and Doritos.

Since we moved to Siem Reap we’ve slowly but surely started working our way towards our own rural idyll. The ducks and geese we’ve accumulated are just pets, but they certainly help contribute to my image of myself as a gentleman farmer. Our house came with five mango trees and two jackfruit trees, and we’ve since planted six papayas, a lime tree, a pomelo tree, a passionfruit, and two bananas. I have high hopes for the papayas and bananas; they’re both fast growers that can start bearing fruit in less than a year.

We planted three bananas, but the ducks attacked and demolished one of them. The ducks generally are not interested in my goal of raising my own food, and seem to think my goal is to raise their food: they spend most of their day trying to get around my creative attempts to keep them away from my seedlings.

We grow the herbs we can't find at the market, such as Italian basil and dill.

We grow the herbs we can’t find at the market, including Italian basil and dill.

We’ve also made some raised beds, where we are starting with several types of beans and herbs that aren’t reliably available in Cambodia, including dill, Italian basil, and flat-leaf parsley. Cambodia expats have been griping for years about the lack of flat-leaf parsley (hint: you can buy it at Veggy’s in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap occasionally), so I figured it would be worth trying to grow our own.

Outside of those window boxes I have no experience cultivating anything except a sense of dissatisfaction, so there’s been plenty of trial and error.We’ve seen a lot of Cambodians growing corn, so we’ve got a few stalks planted, as well as eggplants, peppers, and a few other random things here and there. Our green-bean plant decided to produce just a handful of beans before it expired, giving us a literal three bean salad (beans turn out to need more direct sun). We’ve got tomato plants on our roof that are just starting to fruit. Larger varieties of tomatoes don’t do well in Cambodia; they can’t get enough sun and the humidity causes their skin to split. So we planted several types of cherry tomatoes to see which would work.

tomatoes on the roof

And our roof is covered with cherry tomatoes.

It’s been a learning process. The plants that grow at home often won’t do as well in Cambodia. But with local vegetables and herbs very inexpensive at the market, focusing entirely on Asian vegetables didn’t seem very appealing. However, we’ve learned the hard way that cold-weather vegetables just don’t want to grow here. Our beets died and our kale has decided to remain microkale (although it still tastes good). We’re growing a few other local bits and bobs, like betel and lemongrass, and will probably add more as we give up on trying to grow things that don’t like this climate. I’ve also been looking for plants that aren’t native but might be able to handle the weather here; I’ve got a tomatillo plant that’s six inches tall that I’m holding out hope for, and have several types of pepper seeds on their way.

Because the soil in Siem Reap is so inhospitable to most plants — it’s sandy clay that has low nutrients — we’ve started composting to supplement it. Composting also gives me a sense of self-righteousness that more than makes up for the effort it takes.

It’s hard to overstate the privilege we experience as expats in Cambodia; for example, we’ve been able to hire a gardener to come once a week and help us figure out what we’re doing, something we wouldn’t be able to afford at home. He’s been transplanting local plants and helps create barriers to keep the ducks from eating them. We still need to do the bulk of the work and water everything on a daily basis, but having the help is an undeniable asset. Also fantastically helpful is being able to learn from the locals, who obviously know quite a lot more than we do about the best way to grow things here. Even in our relatively suburban neighborhood most of our neighbors have at least a few chickens and several fruit trees and other edibles growing.

making pickles in Cambodia

It turns out you can pickle just about anything.

Canning and preserving are next on my list, and I’ve gotten obsessive about making pickles and various other fermented projects. Fermenting things is almost too easy here; fermentation can start in a matter of hours because of the heat. Right now I’ve got a vat of jackfruit hooch going, which I intend to make into vinegar, and I’ve been making kimchi and sauerkraut as well.

I’m alternately jealous of and daunted by the “real” homesteaders in the Cambodia expat community. While our garden is still mostly a barren wasteland, other expats have moved to Cambodia to fulfill their dreams of owning a proper farm and are happy to act as a resource for other would-be farmers. There are several online communities for Cambodia expats who are interested in agricultural topics: the Living in Cambodia forums are owned by an American farmer and have a decidedly barnyard focus, the Siem Reap Agricultural Network Facebook group is one of the best resources in the country, Phnom Penh Seed Shop sells seeds but can also offer growing guidance to amateur farmers, and Agriculture Consulting Team (ACT) in Cambodia is also worth a look.

What’s going on with work permits in Cambodia?

Update 1/8/2015:

It seems that the long-promised enforcement work permit is finally happening.  In yesterday’s Cambodia Daily, an article declares: Government to strictly enforce work permit law from next week. For those naysayers who say they’ve heard this before, this time we think they’re for real. The rules are still very unclear and are being enforced different in different cities, but this is what is generally true:

All foreigners on long-stay “ordinary” or “business” visas need a work permit, regardless of their actual work status. Those on NGO visas are exempt.

In the future, retirees may have a special visa, but for now, they need a work permit.

Employers are responsible for obtaining a work permit for their employees, but in practice this is not always happening. If you have a formal employer, you should speak to them about your situation.

Business owners, the self-employed and freelancers need a work permit, but they can sponsor their own. Technically you need to register your business (and get your taxes set up) to do so, but you can start the work permit process before actually completing your business registration.

If you’re self-employed without a visible business, it’s likely that you will be able to avoid the requirements some time while they look for more visible foreigners. However, it’s my personal opinion that the requirements are going to get more stringent and it will be harder to get a work permit in the future without a “real job.” Therefore it may make sense to bite the bullet and do it sooner rather than later.

In many cities, businesses that employ foreigners are being told they must get work permits. If you wait until you are asked for one, you will be fined $125, plus the regular costs. Therefore, it makes sense to get your paperwork in order before you end up on their hit list.

Those who apply for work permits are required to pay $100 for each calendar year from their first long-stay visa. This means if you arrive in September, 2013 and apply for a work permit today, you will need to pay $300, for years 2013, 2014, and 2015. Most long-term expats are able to negotiate a lower rate — it’s been the case that they will generally settle for 5 years ($500) regardless of the length of your actual stay. Previous (French) reports of them waiving the back years entirely have been unsubstantiated.

Although a residence card is also required, they have not started issuing them yet.

Another requirement is that foreigners submit to a blood test each year, to test for unspecified communicable diseases. A fee can be paid to avoid the test, and if you, like I, are terrified due to the recent HIV outbreak in Battambang that was quite possibly deliberately spread by a local doctor, I would just pay the fee.

It’s important to note that at the current time, work permits are not tied to visas. So even if you are on a “business” visa, you do not have a work permit. Moreover, it’s an entirely different department that is is issuing work permits than the one that issues visas. This means that even if you do not have a work permit, you will be able to renew your visa at a travel agent (but not at the immigration office), and you won’t be stopped coming in to or leaving Cambodia if you don’t have a work permit. For now.

There are a number of businesses and consultants offering to do the work permit paperwork for fees ranging from $20 to $60. I’ll get a list together if anyone is interested. I’m testing out SmartUp Cambodia in Siem Reap, and will let you know in 4-6 weeks how it goes.

Don’t shoot me, I’m just the messenger. It’s possible this will all blow over as in years past, but personally, I don’t think it will.

Update 8/28/2014:

In today’s Cambodia Daily, there’s an article entitled Work Permits Now Required for Foreigners. “The Labor Ministry has begun to enforce a long-neglected law that requires foreigners employed in Cambodia to have work permits, according to ministry officials.
Teams of inspectors have begun scouring the country to ensure that foreign employees and businesspeople have the proper documentation, with employers and workers facing hefty fines in the event that they are not certified.” The article also mentions large retroactive fines and payments for prior years.

Elsewhere, the French Embassy has been advising its citizens that they should get work permits, but pay for 2014 only, ie. no retroactive fines for previous years.

In Francophone Cambodge Mag, Anthony Galliano of Cambodia Investment Management reports back from his recent meeting with the Ministry of Labor. He reports that they have clearly stated that volunteers, retirees, and the unemployed will not need work permits. Anyone drawing an income in Cambodia will need a work permit from a registered business. If you are a shareholder in a licensed, registered business, you do not need a work permit. If you are self-employed or are a shareholder in a non-registered business, it would behoove you to register your business, although it seems unlikely that the self-employed will be one of the first groups targeted. Galliano suggests using this reprieve as a chance to quietly get all necessary paperwork in order.

Update: 8/22/2014 

The Cambodia Daily has published an article saying the Ministries of Labor and Interior “met on Thursday to outline the government’s plan to more strictly enforce measures for employers of foreign nationals to ensure that their staff has proper documentation.” It looks like they will be asking all employers to get work permits for their employees. There is no mention of any other class of visa holder such as volunteers, self-employed, retirees, etc.

8/8/2014

You may have heard that the situation with Cambodia work permits has changed recently. That’s half true. In order to work in Cambodia, one has always needed a work permit. However, it was very rarely enforced and the great majority of people didn’t bother. In the last few weeks, however, there have been several announcements that the work permit requirement is now going to be enforced.

Here’s what you need to know.

First, this announcement has happened every few years for a long, long time. Most of the time, they crack down on a few expats and then the issue is dropped. This time the threats seem more serious, but it is still very much up in the air. There have been a few crackdowns this year, most notably in Kampot, but nothing has changed yet for the great majority of expats in Cambodia.

It appears that if you work for a company in Cambodia you will, at some point in the near future, need to get a work permit. They are going after the largest and most visible companies first.

Expats who have been in Cambodia the longest have the most to worry about. Work permits cost $100 per year, and they are checking passports and counting how many years you have in Cambodia and charging for the previous years. They also add fines into the mix–which are, of course, not listed in the prakas and are subject to the whims and financial solvency of those collecting. This means that those with newer passports will pay less.

Thus far, it seems that Kampot has been the only city to be seriously affected. Even in Kampot, while many people were told to get work permits, many more were ignored. In other cities, there have been reports of police going door to door asking foreigners for a copy of their passport and visa. It’s possible that this is a prelude to a work permit crackdown later in the year, or it’s possible that the sangkats are just getting their records up-to-date, as they are supposed to keep track of where all foreigners live, anyway.

At the present time it is the employer’s responsibility to secure the work permit for their employees, although this may be changing. Any foreign employee of a registered business will need to get a work permit, although there is probably no need to do it until the Ministry of Labor demands it. However, many large employers are finally getting the message and registering their foreign employees, so you may be one of the lucky ones that gets your work permit quickly and without any hassle.

It’s important to note that at the current time, work permits are not tied to visas. So even if you are on a “business” visa, you do not have a work permit. Moreover, it’s an entirely different department that is is issuing work permits than the one that issues visas. This means that even if you do not have a work permit, you will be able to renew your visa, and you won’t be stopped coming in to or leaving Cambodia if you don’t have a work permit.

And then there’s the residency card. According to the prakas, foreigners need a visa, work permit and residency card. Thus far there has been no proof that any residency card has ever been issued to a foreigner, so for the moment, this point can be ignored.

But I’m a volunteer, retiree or unemployed?!

The status of volunteers, retirees, the unemployed is still very much up in the air. Work permits may be required for all holders of long-term visas. However, a recent visitor to the Ministry of Labor says that those not drawing a salary in Cambodia will not be affected.

So what should I do?

Probably nothing. This may, as it has many times before, blow over. If you work for a large organization, your employer will secure a work permit for you. If you work for a small organization, it’s likely that you will not be asked for a work permit for at least a while. It is my personal opinion that marching into ministries and waving cash around trying to solve problems that have yet to be clarified or put on paper is a bad idea. So I wouldn’t advise doing anything until the rules become more clear, unless your employer has already brought it up.

But, but, but…

These rules have been on the books since 1995, and there’s nothing wrong with Cambodia finally deciding to enforce them. Of course it’s not ideal that are choosing to retroactively punish expats for not having work permits when it was often not possible to get work permits in years past. But it’s important to remember that Cambodia, even with an extra $100 a year tacked on for a work permit, still offers one of the easiest and cheapest visa/work permits in the world.

This is all of the information that is available to date. Clear as mud, right? Remain calm and let’s see what happens. We’ll update this blog if anything changes.

Looking for more information? Check out our page about Cambodia visas and our page about Cambodia work permits.

How to get from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap (and vice versa)

These days, there are a couple of easy ways to go from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. There are options to fit every budget, but some are nicer than others. Currently the road is in abysmal condition, so if you’re going by land, be prepared for a bumpy ride for a fair amount of the trip of the trip which now takes between 6 and 7.5 hours.

Giant Ibis bus

Travel in style with Giant Ibis bus.

Bus

There are dozens of bus companies offering service between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Many are old, overcrowded and make dozens of stops (but are cheap, running around $6). The most popular amongst expats was Mekong Express, who are known for their safety record albeit shabby older buses. In 2012 a new company, Giant Ibis, started running buses between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and have quickly become the new favorite. They offer WiFi and, most recently, power outlets on board. We’ve got a detailed review of Giant Ibis buses from a recent trip, including photos. Both companies take 7 or 7.5 hours and include a stop for food. You can purchase tickets for both companies at nearly any travel agent or guesthouse in both cities, and Giant Ibis also offers online reservations.

Giant Ibis also has a night bus between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap that runs in both directions at 10:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. I have a longstanding fear of night buses, but Giant Ibis’ version is as safe and relaxed as one could hope. Read a detailed review of the Giant Ibis night bus.

Tickets cost $12 on Mekong Express for foreigners and $9 for Khmers and $15 on Giant Ibis for all passengers.

Giant Ibis Schedule:
Phnom Penh – Siem Reap: 7:45 a.m., 8:45 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 10:30 p.m., 11:00 p.m.
Siem Reap – Phnom Penh: 7:45 a.m., 8:45 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 10:30 p.m., 11:00 p.m.

Giant Ibis
T: 023 999 333
W: giantibis.com

Ticket offices:
Street 106, Phnom Penh
T: 023 987 808

6A Sivatha Road, Siem Reap
T: 063 768 808

Mekong Express Schedule:

Phnom Penh – Siem Reap: 7:30 a.m., 8:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 14:25 p.m.
Siem Reap – Phnom Penh: 7:30 a.m., 8:30 a.m., 9:45 p.m., 12:30 p.m.

Mekong Express
Booking office outside Orussey Market, Phnom Penh
T: 012 78 78 39; 098 833 399; 023 427 518
Siem Reap T: : 063 963 662; 012 315 858
W: catmekongexpress.com

Plane

Cambodia Angkor Air operate flights between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh five or six times daily. This is the fastest (and most expensive) way to travel; if you’re short on time, flying is the best option because it only takes about 45 minutes. Cambodia Angkor Air is not the most reliable airline in the world, and if a flight is mostly empty, they will bump you to the next flight. In high season, though, flights are usually booked solid. Flights can be booked online or through any travel agent. The cost is $100+ for a one way flight or $200+ for a round trip. Occasionally travel agents can get better deals, so it’s worth asking. Read our full review of Cambodia Angkor Air with booking tips.

Cambodia Angkor Air 2015 High Season Schedule:

Phnom Penh – Siem Reap: 8:50 a.m. Mon and Tues only, 10:40 a.m. daily, 12:00 p.m. Mon-Wed-Fri-Sat only, 13:10 p.m. Mon-Tues-Wed only, 14:05 p.m. Mon-Tues-Wed-Thurs-Fri only, 15:55 p.m. Mon only, 17:50 p.m. Mon-Wed-Fri only

Siem Reap – Phnom Penh: 8:00 a.m. Thurs-Fri-Sat-Sun only, 11:20 a.m. Thurs-Sun only, 15:25 p.m. daily, 17:30 p.m. Thurs-Fri only, 20:45 p.m. Tues-Thurs-Fri-Sat-Sun only

Seila Angkor Khmer Express

Seila Angkor’s Ford Transit vans can get you from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap.

Mini-bus

Expats in the know seem to travel by mini-bus, as the trip is significantly shorter than by bus. There are many, many mini bus companies covering this route, but we’ve personally vetted the ones below.

Elephant Express (aka Elephant Expresses Transportation) was recommended to me by a friend who does the Siem Reap to Phnom Penh route often, and swears that Elephant is the safest of all of the mini-bus services between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. I’ve taken them, and agree that they seem relatively safe compared to some of the other companies. They make the trip in between six and six and a half hours, occasionally have WiFi and drive comfortable 16-seat Toyota HiAces. Seats on Elephant Express cost $8 for Khmers and $10 for foreigners. The price includes a tuk tuk pickup at your hotel in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. Read our full review of Elephant Express here.

Seila Angkor is popular mini-bus company that does the Phnom Penh to Siem Reap route. The trip takes between five and six hours. With the current road conditions, in order to do the trip in five hours the drivers need to take some hair-raising liberties, and occasionally they can drive faster than I’m comfortable with. Most of the time, though, the trip takes six hours and the drivers go at a reasonable pace. Seila Angkor run 16-seat Ford Transit vans, and all seats come with a removable head/neck rest, a small bottle of water and a moist towelette. It’s good to understand the seat setup before you book, because you can reserve seats by number. Read our full review of Seila Angkor mini bus here.

Mey Hong Transport (formerly Apsara) is the most popular company, with comfortable mini buses equipped with seat belts going between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap four times daily. The trip takes a hair-raising 5 hours and costs $10 for tourists and $8 for locals (including expats). The only downside is that the Phnom Penh office is located in Toul Kork, slightly outside central Phnom Penh. You’ll easily get a tuk tuk from the station into town for a couple of bucks, but you’ll save money by walking away from the Mey Hong station and getting a tuk tuk on the street rather than one of the vultures at the station who wait for unsuspecting tourists to price gouge.

Seila Angkor Schedule:

Phnom Penh to Siem Reap: 6:30 a.m., 7:30 a.m., 8:30 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 12:45 p.m., 2:00 p.m., 3:00 p.m., 4:00 p.m., 5:00 p.m., and 6:00 p.m.

Siem Reap to Phnom Penh: 6:30 a.m., 7:30 a.m., 8:30 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 12:45 p.m., 2:00 p.m., 3:00 p.m., 4:00 p.m., and 5:00 p.m.

Seila Angkor Khmer Express
#63 National Road 6 (across from Samaki Market), Siem Reap
T: 097 777 7393; 077 888 080

#43Eo, Street 154, Phnom Penh
T: 023 697 1888; 012 766 976; 077 697 672
seilaangkor.com

Elephant Express Schedule:

Phnom Penh to Siem Reap at: 7:00 a.m., 8:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m., 3:00 p.m.

Siem Reap to Phnom Penh at: 7:00 a.m., 8:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m., 3:00 p.m.

Elephant Expresses Transportation
#5 Street 118, Phnom Penh
T: 023 983 133; 012 323 172; 097 888 1149

#18, National Road 6, Phum Bateay Chas, Sangkat Slorkram, Siem Reap
T: 063 963 133; 012 323 175; 011 549 999; 097 888 1139
facebook.com/elephantexpresses

Mey Hong Transport Schedule:

Phnom Penh to Siem Reap: 7:00 a.m., 9:00 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m.

Siem Reap to Phnom Penh: 7:00 a.m., 9:00 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m.

Mey Hong Transport
#213 Street 289, Toul Kork, Phnom Penh
T: 092 411 611; 023 63 72 722

0667 National Road 6, Siem Reap
T: 088 84 11 633; 063 965 979

Taxi

Taxis between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap cost between $65 to 85. If you are catching a taxi directly from the airport, expect to pay more. Private taxis are almost always Toyota Camrys and can fit 4 passengers as long as they don’t have a lot of luggage. The trunks are not huge, so if you’ve got more than one piece per person, it’s going to be a tight squeeze. Private taxis can be hired through any guesthouse or travel agent. Most tuk tuk drivers also have a few taxi-driving friends and relatives, so ask around and you’ll easily find one. Make sure to confirm the price before the trip, as misunderstandings are common (and frustrating). SUV taxis are also available through many travel agents. 5-6 hours.

Mini-van taxi

Mini-van taxis between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap cost between $100 and $180 and can carry up to 15 passengers. If you’ve got more than a couple people and want to give the bus a miss, this is a good option. The vans are usually new and clean, but ask to make sure the one you hire has seat belts. You can hire mini-van taxis in Phnom Penh next to the Landscape Hotel across from the Cambodiana Hotel on Sisoqwath Quay. Van drivers gather there and you can negotiate your own price. Mini-vans can also be booked through any travel agent or hotel, but you’ll get a better price if you go direct. If you aren’t in Phnom Penh, you can call Sopheap Bung. Sopheap works with several other van drivers and can organize the right size van for you. His number is 012 894 155 and the trip takes about 6 hours.

Shared taxi

Another option is a shared taxi. You can get shared taxis from the southwest corner of Central Market (Psar Thmei) in Phnom Penh. The cost is approximately $6-12 per person, and the drivers wait until they have enough customers to fill up the taxi like a sardine can. Although the cars are 5-seater Camrys, most will wait for at least seven passengers (plus the driver) before departing. Offer to pay extra to take the front seat, otherwise you’ll be squeezed in with three or four others in the backseat. The journey takes 5-6 hours.

Boat from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap

The aesthetically unappealing interior of the Phnom Penh boat to Siem Reap.

Boat

Between July and March ferries run between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (they do not run during the dry season when the water levels are low). Travel is generally best during the wet season when water levels are high. The boats do not meet international safety standards, are run down and are known to break down fairly regularly. During high season, there are usually scores more onboard than there are seats for. That said, it’s a nice way to travel, and you can sit on top and watch the countryside go by (but be sure to wear sun protection!) Tickets cost $35 and leave from the Phnom Penh Port on Sisowath Quay near Street 104 at 7:30 a.m. Depending on the season and water levels, the trip can take between four and eight hours.

Review: Kids City, Phnom Penh

Expat kids in Cambodia are sometimes at a loss for what to do, but these days there are more and more activities for kids in Phnom Penh. Enter Kids City. Billing itself as “11 levels of fun” and bedecked with one of the most eye-popping building facades in Phnom Penh, one could be tempted to think that the enormous multiplex of child-friendly activities was modeled on some sort of Danteian vision of the circles of kids’ amusements. However, Kids City is actually surprisingly enjoyable for both kids and adults, and dare I say, pretty cool.

Kids City Phnom Penh

Kids City: It’s big, it’s garish, and it’s filled with fun.

There are ten levels in this giant, multi-storied factory of childhood fun. The pricing structure and times can be a bit confusing — you pay a separate entry fee for each floor, and each has a different schedule.

On the top floor is an ice-skating rink, where adults and children aged 5 and up can skate. “Feel scared? If you look forward, don’t look down,” is the advice they give, and they’ve got several members of staff skating around to encourage you to get onto the ice. Skaters will need to wear gloves and socks, however everything is for rent or for sale there, including skates, knee-pads, coats, helmets, socks, and gloves. If you’d like a trainer to skate with you to help you stay upright, you can pay an additional $2. They also have a Canadian ice-skater (she’s skated in Disney on Ice, among her other credits) offering lessons for a limited time. Price for skating is $10 for adults and $8 for kids. On weekdays, students and kids can skate for $5. The price covers an hour and 15 minutes of skating. There are seven skating sessions each day, starting at 10:00 a.m. and ending at 6:25 p.m. The skating rink can also host birthday parties.

Science Kids City Phnom Penh

Kids can have fun learning about science on the 8th and 9th floors of Kids City.

The 8th and 9th floors are dedicated to science. It’s aimed at the under-12 set, but even slightly older kids will probably deign to find some of the displays interesting. They’ve got experiments, displays, and activities that are remarkably well thought out and fun, including a high-wire bicycle, human gyro, magnet display, electricity table and hot air balloon experiment. The 9th floor is dubbed the Science Gallery, and the exhibits and activities aim to explain how the world works. The 8th floor is called Science Discovery, and is an interactive science lab filled with 60+ science activities and experiments for kids. Most of the equipment has been imported from Europe. Price for the science floors is $10 for adults and $8 for kids. On weekdays, the price is $5 for students and kids. Entry gets you 90 minutes of science fun; there are seven sessions each day starting at 10:00 a.m. with the last one at 7:00 p.m.

On the 7th floor is a laser tag arena, where your kids can learn to kill in this glowing labyrinth designed for team laser tag. It’s not cheap, but it is popular! The Kids City laser tag is appropriate for ages 6 or 7 (the vests don’t usually fit kids younger than that) and up, and adults can play, too. Sessions last 25 minutes, which includes a 5 minute briefing, and the arena can accommodate between 3 and 24 people. Players are asked to wear closed-toe shoes. The price is $10 for adults and $8 for kids. On weekends, you get two sessions for the price of one. On weekdays, the price for kids and students is $5. There are 15 laser tag sessions per day; the first one is at 10:00 a.m. and the last is at 7:20 p.m.

Toddler Town Kids City Phnom Penh

Toddler Town offers safe and sane playtime for kids ages 4 and under.

If you’ve got toddlers, rejoice in the 6th floor: Toddler Town. Toddler Town is a fantasyland for those 4 and under. There are slides, ball pits, swings, and everything is soft, soft, soft. The floors are made of soft plastic and everything is wiped down and sanitized several times throughout the day. Price is $5 for kids (they must wear socks) and Toddler Town is open all day.

There’s also a playground for kids aged 4-12 that can entertain up to 100 kids at a time. The equipment is all imported from the UK, and features a foam padded playpen with options for climbing, swinging, sliding, and crawling, in addition to a ball pit and soft ball air cannons. All of the safety precautions make the place look a bit like a brightly-colored kiddy jail — there’s no possibility of falling off anything because there are net walls in place to prevent accidents. The playground is open all day and costs $5 on weekdays and $8 on weekends. Socks are required.

Climbing wall clip n climb Kids City Phnom Penh

Kids and adults can learn to climb on the 28 climbing walls at Kids City that are suited for all skill levels.

Clip ‘N Climb, the climbing center, is on the 4th floor, and offers 28 climbing walls for kids and adults of all skill levels. The equipment all comes from New Zealand, including safety harnesses. Price for the the Clip ‘N Climb is $10 for adults and $8 for kids. On weekdays, the price is $5 for students and kids. Participants must wear closed-toe shoes. Shoe rental is $2 and you can buy socks for an additional $1. Sessions are one hour long and start on the hour from 10:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. The Clip ‘N Climb also has regular competitions and you can take lessons from accomplished climbers.

Finally, there’s a Go Kart floor, that features go karts made in Italy that can go up to 20km per hour. The tracks are designed with safety in mind and cars can be driver by adults or kids aged 5 and up. Each cart seats one or two, so parents can experience the horrors of their children’s driving. Each race is 7 minutes long. Price for one seat (the driver) is $5, and for two seats is $7 (driving with a passenger).

Go Karts at Kids City Phnom Penh

The Italian Go Karts at Kids City can go up to 20kmph.

The building also includes several options for eating (and a place for parents to lounge will their kids are playing), a birthday party room, and a children’s clothing boutique. All in all, Kids City offers kids entertainment that is a cut above what one usually finds in Cambodia. Most of the equipment is imported, educational aspects have clearly been considered, and safety precautions have been implemented. If all of that wasn’t too good to be true, kids like it, too!

Kids City

Open Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. Open weekends and holidays from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m.
162A Sihanouk Blvd., Phnom Penh
T: 023 220 088; 023 211 487
kidscityasia.com

2014 Christmas dinners in Siem Reap

Siem Reap is definitely the hub of Christmas activity in Cambodia. All of the hotels have decorations bordering on the outrageous and there are lots of options for Christmas dining. As per usual, many of the major hotels are offering Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinners, and some smaller budget establishments are, too, and their prices are even lower than last year. Here’s the Move to Cambodia round-up of the best 2014 Christmas dinners in Siem Reap. If you know of others, please leave details in the comment section.

Christmas in Siem Reap

Just another sunny Christmas in Siem Reap!

Mie Cafe

With what promises to be the most exciting Christmas Eve dinner in Siem Reap, Mie Cafe is offering a six-course menu for just $33 per person. The menu starts with avocado “cannelloni” with fresh Mekong crab and smoked salmon, duo of carpaccio and tartar, oyster brioche marinated with tapioca, grilled Mekong prawn ravioli served on pumpkin curry puree and emulsion of green peas, apple cider braised pork shank with porcini mushrooms and Swiss gruyere mashed potatoes, and for dessert, chocolate caviar and sticky rice crusted with young coconut. The menu is fantastic (I’ve tried many of the items on it) and is a great deal for the price. They also have a vegetarian option available. Reserve in advance by calling 012 791371 or email chef@miecafe-siemreap.com.

#0085, Phum Treng Khum Slorgram, Siem Reap (On the road to the temples, turn right after the Sofitel Hotel)
T: 012 791 371
miecafe-siemreap.com

Belmiro’s

For the week of December 22nd, Belmiro’s will be offering a classic American Christmas menu of honey-baked ham, scalloped potatoes with Cheddar cheese and cream, maple-glazed carrots, string bean casserole and bacon-wrapped sausages for just $12. They will be serving this alongside their regular menu of pizza and subs, so there’s something for everyone, even the non-ham-eating humbugs in the group.

# 7 Street 7, Siem Reap [map]
T: 095 779 930
belmirospizza.com

Molly Malone’s

Irish pub and restaurant Molly Malone’s is offering a great-value Christmas dinner from 12 p.m. on December 25th for $25. This year’s menu starts off with a glass of mulled wine, then a cream of mushroom soup starter, and then traditional roast turkey with sage and onion stuffing with roasted and mashed potatoes (they’re Irish, after all) cauliflower cheese, steamed seasonal vegetables, gravy and cranberry sauce. For dessert they are offering a chocolate, raspberry and cream yule log. Kids get a two-course menu with a soft drink for $15.75. Reservations are suggested.

Corner of Pub Street and Sivutha Blvd, Siem Reap
T: 063 963 544; 063 674 0999
mollymalonescambodia.com

Nita by Vo

Swish hotel Nita by Vo in the Charming City is having a four-course Christmas Day lunch and dinner this year that will give you the chance to “dine in air-conditioned comfort.” The meal starts with a Champagne cocktail and Khmer appetizers, then pumpkin soup and a choice of three mains served with all of the trimmings: roast turkey in prosciutto and blue cheese sauce, crispy-skin salmon or duck breast. Finish up with a Yule log or chocolate dessert and a swim in their rooftop pool. Cost is $35++ and bookings are required. Call 063 767 788 or email info@nitabyvo.com for reservations.

Nita by Vo
Charming City, Siem Reap
T: 063 767 788
nitabyvo.com

Gigi Brasil

Gigi Brasil offers a Brazilian-style Christmas dinner. This means a churrasco-style dinner that consists of 15 types of grilled meats. The meats will be accompanied by roasted corn and pineapple, skewered vegetables, garlic bread, salad, rice, farofa, farinha, pao de queijo dessert and a glass of wine or bubbly. They’re serving it up on Christmas Eve from 7:30 p.m. until late for $27 per person. Reserve by calling 089 247 030 or 092 308 335.

546 Sala Kanseng Village, Siem Reap
T: 095 812 135
gigibrasil.com

Christmas in Siem Reap

Merry Christmas, Siem Reap. Let’s eat!

FCC Angkor

As usual, the FCC Angkor has some upscale Christmas dining options on December 24th and 25th. Their set menu is $50+* per person and starts with a glass of bubbly. They have not announced the dinner menu for this year, but if it’s anything like last year, it promises to be excellent. Reserve by calling 010 600 123 or email leakhena.s@fcchotels.com.

Pokambor Ave, next to the Royal Residence, Siem Reap
T: 063 760 283
fcccambodia.com/siemreap

Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor

The ever-popular Christmas Day brunch at Raffles Hotel. Due to the mad rush of early arrivals last year to catch Santa, this year the brunch starts at noon and Santa will be arriving at 1 p.m. an hour later with gifts to the kids. They haven’t announced the buffet menu, but it’s likely that it will be similar to last year’s, which featured a sushi and sashimi buffet, pastas, salad bar, a selection of Asian and international hot foods, carvery, cold cuts, cheeses, soups, and desserts (including a yule log). Basically the menu is very long and you’ll leave stuffed. Price is $60++ for adults and includes free-flow beer and wine, or $80++ with champagne or +90++ with pink champagne. The price is $30++ for kids 6-12 and free for kids under 5. Reserve in advance.

If you’re looking for a Christmas Eve celebration, Raffles has another over the top event that includes pre-dinner cocktails, a buffet dinner by the pool which will be filled with thousands of floating candles, a Khmer cultural show, and an appearance by Santa who will bring gifts for the kids. The buffet menu hasn’t been announced, by last year featured no less than a whole suckling pig on a spit. Cost for adults is $115++ and is half price for children ages 6 to 12. Children 5 and under eat for free. It is highly recommended to make a reservation 24hrs prior the event by calling 063 963 888 or emailing dining.siemreap@raffles.com
.
1 Charles de Gaulle Avenue
T: 063 963 888dining.grandhotel@raffles.com

*All of the hotel prices are ++, which means they don’t include various taxes and VAT. Expect to pay an extra 10% above the listed price.