Thursday, October 23, 2008

Phnom Penh to Saigon – Crossing the Bavet-Mocbai Border Again

On the day I was to leave Phnom Penh, I packed early and took a stroll along Sisowath Quay. I looked for the restaurant quite famous among backpackers for their inexpensive but delicious food– the Khmer Saravan Restaurant (pictured above). The place is a small no-frills restaurant, just a few strides north of the Palace. Budget conscious travelers are known to leave handwritten notes endorsing the place to fellow travelers. I took my seat, and noticed a couple of these notes (photo below) unceremoniously taped on the wall, giving the place a bohemian feel. The exteriors looked cozy and the staff was patient. I had chicken rice at $3.50 (13,500 riel or PhP175) which was an inexpensive breakfast compared to the $6 egg-and-toast breakfast at DV8.


I was composing myself for the border crossing. I hate border crossings. Gives me the willies regardless of the numerous times I’ve done it. This will be my second time to cross the Bavet-Mocbai border. In August of 2007, I went from Vietnam to Cambodia. This time, I’m going the opposite way, which felt like coming full circle. I have earned my stripes and gotten my diploma.
By 6:30AM, my baggage was comfortably straddling my shoulder. Tei, my driver/guide was already waiting at the corner of Sisowath. This will be an probono affair for him, says he. As a courtesy and sign of friendship, he offered to take me to the Mekong Bus Station (located beside the Ornussey Market) free of charge. It was a sweet gesture. The night before, I took him to the mall with me while I looked for a pair of shoes to replace the one I had, then we had early dinner at Sorya’s food court. When we got to the terminal, I slipped $5 into Tei’s hand. Not a lot for a gratuity, but he was beaming.

Notes from a stranger

My driver/guide Tei. Email me if you need his email address. He doesn't have a phone (when he does, he will be charging triple the amount we shook hands on. LOL)

Ornussey Market

My Mekong Express bus to Saigon

The bus station had rows of chair beside their small office. There were pre-departure formalities. They gathered all our passports, listed them in a manifesto, then returned them with our pre-arranged seat number. I made a dash to the opposite block where a flurry of early morning activity has begun. I found some sidewalk vendors from where I bought a sandwich and a baguette (2,500 riel or $0.60 and 1,500 riel or $0.37 respectively) for my 6 hour crossing into Vietnam. My bus left at 7:04AM. I was once again worrying about the almost-indecent volume of DVD’s that have accumulated from Vientianne, Savannakhet, Bangkok and Phnom Penh. It’s hard to explain that such a number is strictly for personal use.


My bus had lovely Khmer stewardesses decked like flight attendants. One of them had introductory spiels and tourist-guide annotations, alternating between Khmer and stilted, incomprehensible English, I strained as I tried getting any word from her mumblings. After all, this is an opportunity to learn without reading my Lonely Planet. But it was all for nought. I looked around me. Majority of the passengers were Khmers or Viets. Oops, I think I spotted a Pinoy who doesn’t look like a backpacker (yes, there is a particular look!) – as it turns out, he was indeed a Pinoy who works at a factory in Saigon.

Mekong Express Bus terminal at Ornussey Market, Phnom Penh.

A scene at the peninsular island of Chroung Changwar.

Market scene at Neak Loeung.


At 8:45AM, we reached Neak Loeung, and everything looked familiar. This riverside town facilitates ferry crossings to the Mekong River. This is also the widest expanse of the Mekong that I have seen in all of my Indochina travels. Our bus drove into a ferry and sailed for 35 minutes to get to the other side. I saw the all-too-familiar market. Hundreds of antennas rise above the market roof. And ladies in Khmer straw hats were peeling off mangoes by the road side. Nothing has changed since the last time I was here! Time stood still and this mirage of people and stores never seemed to move from where they were a year ago! As I wrote earlier, it felt like coming full circle! Check out THAT post here to compare:

9:24 – Prey Vieng province
9:45 – Svay Rieng, the main town of the border province with the same name - which also covers the border city of Bavet.
10:17 – Bavet commune

10:30 – We had a lunch stop over where I had a $2 omelette rice and a 3,000 riel coke in can. This was just a 15-minute stop. I remembered standing on the same spot last year thinking, “hmmm… there’s absolutely nothing to photograph.”

In a matter of 8 months, this sleepy, craggy, dusty place has evolved into a bustling border city with gleaming new casinos, shops, massage parlors and hotels patronized mostly by Viets and Khmers who live nearby.
10:50 – We finally reached the border. Crossing the Cambodian border was a painless 6 minutes since I reckon, most of us were just getting our exit passes stamped.


10:57 – This was the crossing I dreaded. As we got off our bus, we were to carry our own baggage for the immigration formalities and baggage check. Ohmygosh! I swore I’ll NEVER buy this much DVDs again. Hahaha! It took quite awhile. I didn’t take anymore photos for fear of calling attention to myself. After all, this particular border crossing had a history of cam-clicking and video-shooting backpackers getting chastised by immigration police. As my baggage slid into the scan, I got my passport stamped. I wasn’t asked anything. Scot-free!!!! Yes! My small ears were flapping I thought they were taking flight! LOL. It will be an easy 90 kilometers from this Mocbai border to Saigon, with an estimated time of arrival within an hour!

11:35 – It took 38 minutes to cross the Mocbai border. We reclaimed our seats. And I headed into a blissful contentment. One minute from the border, Viet Telecom roaming sounded off. It is amazing how even telecom signals know their exact borders.

12:00 – We reached the town where the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels are located. I saw a white catholic church with a tall row of spires and a statue.

12:20 – Hoc Mo.

12:25 – Trung My Tay

1:15 – HCMC (Saigon)

Gosh! They are still here!

Ferry crossing at Neak Loeung.

Unmistakably Vietnam.


1:30 – Our bus pulled over at a park in Pham Ngu Lao (Saigon's backpacker area). Hmm. Looked familiar. This will have to be my 4th arrival in Ho Chi Minh City (1. Manila by plane, 2. Siem Reap by plane, 3. Hanoi by plane, 4. Phnom Penh by bus). I didn’t feel like such a lost stranger anymore. I saw New World Hotel to my left. From a distance I saw Ben Thanh. I walked across Pham Ngu Lao, then headed to the side street which directly took me to Bui Vien. And then I saw Phan Lan, where I’ve stayed before. 

Like the crazy person that I can sometimes be, I decided to pick another guesthouse. Just 10 paces from Phan Lan is Madame Cuk’s Guesthouse (#64 Bu Vien), a renowned and respected name in Viet accommodations. I almost backed out from Madame Cuk’s because they have this ridiculous practice of keeping their guest’s passport UNTIL his checkout! I was uncomfortable with that. No guesthouse or hotel in all of Asia has kept my passport with them. Anyway, it was a leap of faith and – I stayed with them after all. My room was spacious and spotless. The sheets were impeccably clean, fresh-smelling and well-pressed. The room smelled new. The bathroom tiles were also new and very clean. The airconditioning unit looked new as well. $15 includes breakfast, an endless supply of tea or coffee at any time of the day. The foyer has several guests from all over the world and if you are into socializing with other backpackers, this might as well be the place to be!

Once rested, I planned for my day. First stop was a quick visit to Saigon Square. My brother had been pestering me - ad nauseam – to buy him a Northface bag which turned out to be extremely expensive items in Bangkok; some items fetch as much as $520. In Vietnam, Northface bags enjoy an excellent supply of overruns – articles which are original but factory surpluses sold in prices 1/10th the price of those sold in luxury shops. Though I am not particularly fond of bags (I have one, I’m a happy man!), I ended up buying FIVE BLOODY PIECES. Ha ha. In Bangkok, I would pay 10x more than what I paid here in Vietnam. Ridiculous! O sige na nga.

This was my very first Mocbai-Bavet Crossing:

Communal dancing at the Quach Thi Trang Park - the name of the park closest to Ben Thanh Market.

Madame Cuk's.


SAPACO Bus Schedule Saigon to Phnom Penh

- their office in Cambodia is in Preah Sihanouk Avenue
- a bus leaves the Saigon’s Pham Ngu Lao area at these hours: 6 AM , 7, 8, 9, 11:30, 1:30PM

Mekong Express Bus Schedule from Phnom Penh to Saigon
- the bus leaves the station at 7AM, then 8AM, and afternoon trips will start very soon.

This is the Eye in the Sky!


Anonymous said...

i recognize the fruit peeling ladies from way way back. lol. theyre still there.

Unknown said...

i like the shade of color at the market scene.and the first photo is really nice. kawawa naman sya. hihi

Twin said...

Reading your post, its like WE were also traveling with you, Eye. Daming bags ha :)

Oman said...

i won't mind goin back and forth there. it is a peaceful mayhem (may phrase ba na ganun???) thanks for sharing and i had a visual feast.

Sidney said...

What an adventure....
Very informative and interesting travel account !

I am a bit jealous of your travel !

eye in the sky said...

@ tristan: oo nga, buti naalala mo pa. ang tagal mo na rin palang pasulput sulpot dito. haha

eye in the sky said...

@ lucy: yes, the guys must have been sleepy pa. it was taken in early morning in phnom penh's orussey market while witing for my bus departure.

eye in the sky said...

@ twin: yeah, some details are well documented in a notebook that only i can read.

eye in the sky said...

@ LS, "peaceful mayhem" is an appropriate term. some people, including lonely planet" also call it "organized chaos" which practically means the same. :->

eye in the sky said...

@ sidney: thanks. these are just results of hours and hours of being alone travling. lots of dead time. i get to scribble some details at a small notebook.

GMG said...

Hi Eye! Quite impressive this post! Detailled, informative and some excellent pics! Great job!!
Blogtrotter just said goodbye to Mykonos 2007!! It shows the famous sunset scene at Little Venice, and the Pelican mascot of the island… ;)
Hope you enjoy, comment and have a great weekend!

eye in the sky said...

@ blogtrotter: thanks. i always enjoy visiting your site.