A trip to Phú Quôc from Phnom PenhNovember 30, 2018
Currently there are two main ways to get to Phú Quoc Island from Phnom Penh: fly via Saigon, or go overland through Hà Tiên, and then take a ferry. Over water festival a few friends and I chose to go the latter route, driving down to the border, crossing by foot, grabbing a quick taxi, and then taking the ferry.
The drive to the border is very simple from Phnom Penh, and relatively close from Kampot and Kep. When approaching from Kep you will pass by all of the salt fields, where for centuries locals have farmed salt by diverting sea water into dug out sections of field, and systematically evaporating and raking the salt for collection, providing an important means of income to rice farmers during the dry season. Coming down from Phnom Penh we opted for National Road 2, to avoid the traffic and trucks on National Road 3. The trip to the border takes from 3-4 hours, depending on time of day and traffic conditions.
Approaching the border there is a very small town, with no more than a few hundred inhabitants. The border gate will suddenly appear, with a large casino on the right side. We pulled into the casino and parked our two cars, and then headed to the small beer garden attached to the casino for a well deserved beer. Unfortunately, despite having a brand new kitchen we could see, we were informed that they do not open until 3 PM. Hopefully for future travelers it will be open for lunch.
To cross by foot one must simply start walking down the road. There is then a building on the left, which looks somewhat impressive from the outside, but is pretty sparse on the inside. There are a few counters which process both those going out and those going in, it was all pretty casual, and we were in and out in just a few minutes. The next step is to exit and then start walking, first past a singular guard that checks to ensure all passports have a stamp in them, and then several hundred meters more to the Vietnamese side.
Once in the Vietnamese building things began to get hectic. It was full of backpackers sitting around, with some standing around trying to figure out what was going on, and groups of very pushy Asians. The building does not have A/C and can become quite hot inside. The first step is to approach the health counter, where each person has to fill out a quick health form, pass it over with the passports, and then get a quick laser to the arm. They zapped two out of the five of us, and then collected a dollar per person (they actually accepted 20,000 riel).
The next step is to get to the other side and present the passports through a window. There are two windows, one for entering and one for exiting. The trick here is that only one person should approach with all of the group’s passports, and they really need to elbow their way to the front of the window, and then pass the passports (open and in a stack) through onto the desk. It is then imperative to stay close by, and not hesitate to be pushy about getting your passports attended to. There are agents that will arrive with stacks of 25 passports at a time to process, while their passengers are snacking elsewhere, and as they do this every day they are very friendly with the officers and will get priority. There are desperate foreigners that reappear and ask why it’s taking 45 minutes, and then another bag of 25 passports appear and get in front. It’s possible to be quicker by being a bit pushy, but polite with the officers. Or, have $5 hanging out of your passport when you hand it over for expedited service.
Once completed, there is a bit more walking, another guard to check the stamps, and then you’re through. There are a few private taxis waiting, and a few minivans packing people in. We got a private taxi to take us to the ferry, about 15 minutes away. He originally wanted 500,000 dong, but when I suggested 400,000 he happily obliged. On the drive it was interesting to see a wedding tent going up in the road, Cambodian style.
Once at the ferry, there are many options to choose from and they’re constantly running. Our taxi driver stopped for us to buy tickets on the way, but I had already reserved them and had e-tickets on my phone. A good resource for times and prices can be found here. I had opted for the Phu Quoc Express, purchasing the VIP tickets. These were only a few dollars more than the normal class ticket, but offered a much nicer experience in a private air conditioned room (well, there are 24 seats in the room). The cost of the VIP tickets was 400,000 dong ($17) each way. The ride only took 75 minutes, but the increased comfort was welcome after the hot walk across the border.
On the island things can be a bit hectic getting off the ferry, at the end of a long pier. There are private taxis available, but they didn’t want to take our group of 5, and instead wanted us to take two taxis. We decided to walk down the pier, where we were then able to get one taxi (even though it’s an official taxi system on both ends). He then used a meter, so we didn’t have to negotiate a price.
Our first impressions of the island were favorable. It does appear to have ok roads and not too much traffic, and a lot of greenery. There are two main ferry terminals, both on the east, on the north and the south. Most of the resorts and places to stay are on the west side, and necessitate a short drive. There are a few small towns along the main road, and then smaller roads to gain access to the resorts.
I cannot report too much on the island itself, as we reached our resort and stayed put there. We had two restaurants and a small beach, with plenty of activities to do. However, we stayed at the Mango Bay Resort, which came to $140 a night for a room, and we were pretty surprised at the lack of value for money. As we had other friends there as well, we followed their advice and booked there. In the future, I would do a little more research and look for a better value. We ended up in a private bungalow, but the bathroom was open air, there were open slates into the bungalow, no A/C, and lots of mosquitoes — in short, a very close to nature experience. That in itself is not a bad thing, but for a comparable price there is The One Resort on Koh Rong Samloem, whose bungalows have air conditioning, and there is a great pool to relax at.
The return trip went without a problem, although this time we negotiated the taxi from the ferry to the border for 350,000 dong. Door to door was 7.5 hours, even with returning Sunday evening after water festival. The entire trip was an experience, but probably not one that we will repeat until the ferry from Kampot is up and running next year (or possibly the year after).
All of that being said, the sunset on the beach, with a cold beer in hand, was pretty amazing.