Cambodia //

Getting around

Getting around Cambodia is easier than it’s ever been. Improvements to major roads have reduced the travel times between towns and given rise to a plethora of bus and mini bus services, making travel pretty cheap. Though towns lack any form of public transport, you’ll find it simple to get around using the readily available tuk-tuks (a motorbike pulling a passenger carriage) and motos (motorbike taxis).

However, travelling can still be challenging, as many minor roads are no more than cart tracks which deteriorate further during the rainy season (June–Oct). Neither are Cambodian drivers known for their patience or safety-consciousness; though driving lessons and the need for a driving licence were introduced a few years ago, the instructor often has little more clue than the learner. Traffic in Phnom Penh is particularly chaotic and it’s common for drivers to weave through impossibly small gaps in the opposite direction to the traffic flow – bad enough if you’re closeted in the relative security of a Land Cruiser, but absolutely terrifying if you’re perched on the back of a moto. However, there aren’t nearly as many accidents as you might expect, as Cambodian road-users have evolved their own conventions for avoiding collisions.

Buses now run on most routes (including Phnom Penh to Stung Treng, Banlung and Sen Monorom), though be aware that you may still need to go through Phnom Penh to get from one side of the country to the other. Of most interest to travellers: National Route 1 to the Vietnamese border is in great shape, and at Neak Leung the ferry crossing will soon be obsolete when a long-awaited bridge is built over the Mekong; from Poipet (the Thai border) the surfacing of National Route 5 to Siem Reap has reduced the journey time to just three hours. At the time of writing NR63 from NR7 to Banlung is the only major road still in poor condition; though it’s fine from Banlung through to the Vietnamese border.

Note that travel to the provinces and within Phnom Penh can be difficult over public holidays, especially the Khmer New Year (mid-April). On New Year’s Eve everyone heads for their home village and all available transport heads out of town – even more packed than usual. Phnom Penh in particular becomes very quiet, with hardly a moto or tuk-tuk available, and the few that remain make a killing by doubling their fares.

Planes

Cambodia Angkor Air is Cambodia’s semblance of a national airline. A joint venture with Vietnam Airlines, it flies between the capital and Siem Reap (4 daily) and from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City (2 daily). Other than that, flights to the provinces have been the casualty of road improvements and at the time of writing there are no commercial flights to any of the country’s provincial airports; even the airport at Sihanoukville, which re opened briefly in 2007, is now closed. Rumours that a couple of the provincial airstrips have been sold off for development mean it’s improbable that flights will recommence in the foreseeable future.

If you want to fly you’ll need to buy your ticket at least a day before you want to travel, either at one of the airline offices or at a travel agent in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. A single fare costs $95, double that for a return.

Buses

Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s transport hub with up to a dozen companies running air-conditioned buses and 15–20 seat VIP coaches (laan destjow) between the major centres. Phnom Penh Sorya Transport Company has the most extensive transport network serving most provincial and key international destinations, while Mekong Express operates non stop services from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville and Siem Reap. However, there are few links between provincial centres and some journeys will involve a change of bus and quite a bit of hanging around.

Buses (laan tom) run from Phnom Penh to the major towns, including Sihanoukville, Siem Reap, Battambang and Kompong Cham. These timetabled, a/c services offer a clean and pleasant enough way to travel, giving you a good view of the countryside. Fares are very reasonable at $4 to Sihanoukville and $6 to Siem Reap. To guarantee a place, buy your ticket the day before from the bus station; no standing passengers are allowed, and if all the seats have been sold you can’t travel.

There is also a recently introduced “night bus” running between Siem Reap and Sihanoukville leaving around 8pm each evening (via Phnom Penh) for more details.

Small city buses (laan kerong) run regularly between Phnom Penh and the nearby towns of Kompong Speu, Neak Leung and Takeo. These are often packed to capacity, but they do more dropping off than taking on, so they get to be less of a squeeze as the journey progresses. Although slower than a shared taxi, and not as comfortable as the express buses, these are still a reasonable way to make local journeys: services run to a timetable and are cheap (8000 riel to Takeo, for example) and safe.

Buses display their destination in Cambodian and English. At bus stations you’ll need to buy your ticket from the ticket office; if you get on a bus elsewhere, pay the conductor.

A number of private operators now run quite smart minibuses; the fares are about the same as buses and can be quite convenient (if you want to travel from Sen Monorom to Kratie for example). Your guesthouse or hotel can arrange a seat on these but make sure to book the day before you want to travel.

Shared taxis, minibuses and pick-ups

Shared taxis – normally Toyota Camrys – operate a speedy if not necessarily comfortable service between provincial centres, while crowded, beaten-up minibuses and a few pick-up trucks cover some of the same routes. Pick-ups are rapidly becoming obsolete, victims of the better road conditions, but some continue to bump their way to remoter destinations and a place in the back is still the cheapest way to travel. The minibuses that gather around the transport stops and markets are best avoided; they are cramped, particularly badly maintained and sorely overloaded – accidents are frequent and can be fatal.

All these forms of transport are straightforward enough to use. Turn up at the local transport stop and state your destination, at which point you’ll be swamped by touts trying to get you on their vehicle. Transport only leaves when full, so the fuller the vehicle, the sooner it’s likely to leave. Once you’ve chosen a vehicle, agree the fare with the driver – most are honest, but a few have been known to hike their prices up for foreigners, so if in doubt ask other passengers what they are paying.

Breakdowns do happen, but Cambodian drivers are adept at roadside repairs and Cambodian passengers remain stoic in the face of delays; needless to say the worse the road the more likely there is to be a problem. You aren’t expected to pay until you reach your destination, although occasionally the driver may ask for some money in advance for fuel – let the locals take care of this, and pay what you owe at the end.

Shared taxis

Shared taxis take four passengers in the back, plus two in front, which means that you are not necessarily going to be comfortable. You can improve things by paying for two (or more) places, and if you want to get away in a hurry you can buy up any remaining seats or even hire the whole vehicle. Shared taxis depart from transport stops in all provincial towns (though not to any schedule) throughout the day – the best time to turn up is between 7am and 8am; it’s often more difficult to get away after lunch, as fewer people travel then. For less populous routes such as Phnom Penh to Sen Monorom, you may not have much choice as there may only be one or two taxis leaving per day. It pays to check at the transport stop the day before (mid- to late afternoon is usually good, as drivers are touting for the next day’s fares) to reserve your place.

Shared taxis may not be the cheapest way to travel, but they do allow you a degree of flexibility in terms of departure time and are relatively quick; from Phnom Penh, typical fares are 25,000 riel to Battambang, 12,000 riel to Kampot, 40,000 riel to Sen Monorom. Though less prevalent these days, on some routes the driver shares his seat with a passenger, a practice which is accepted by the Khmers. If this bothers you, you might wish to pay for the place that would have been shared with the driver so it can be kept vacant.

Minibuses

Best avoided are the clapped-out minibuses that run between provincial destinations. The worst of Cambodia’s transport options, they depart only when absolutely packed, with people, goods and livestock piled inside, on the roof and hanging out of the back – not only is this the most uncomfortable way to travel, but it is unsafe. The only thing going for them is their cheapness, with fares a few thousand riel less than the buses. Minibuses do not display their destination, so just ask around at the transport stop.

Pick-up trucks

Although a few Nissan and Toyota pick-up trucks still run, these days it’s unlikely that you’ll need to travel by them unless you’re heading to the remotest of areas (north of Kompong Thom for example). When in the wet season you’ll have no choice but to take a pick-up as it’s the only thing that can take on the mud.

Seats in the cab – four in the rear, two in the front – cost roughly the same as in a shared taxi; as in taxis, you can pay for an extra seat if you want more comfort. The back of a pick-up is the cheapest way to get around, costing around half the price of seats inside, though you’ll have to sit on (or fit around) the goods being transported, and you risk being bounced around with nothing much to grab hold of. Take plenty of water and a sense of humour, and dust-proof your face by wrapping it in a scarf or krama.

Boats

For years, Cambodia’s appalling roads meant travelling by boat was the principal means of getting between the capital and Siem Reap, but these days it’s easier and quicker to travel by bus or taxi. Remarkably, one boat a day (wet season only) still forges up the Tonle Sap to Siem Reap at the thoroughly overpriced foreigners’ fare of $35; it’s not even a scenic trip as the Tonle Sap lake is so vast that it’s more like being at sea.

Boats, seating about thirty people, operate daily between Battambang and Siem Reap taking up to eight hours to complete the trip. Though safer than the speedboats of old, movement is restricted; a cushion, plenty of water, food and a hat will make things more comfortable. In rough weather the Tonle Sap can whip up some fierce waves and travelling can be a little disconcerting.

An express boat service runs daily south along the Mekong between Phnom Penh and the Vietnamese border at Chau Doc ($21 for foreigners, 4hr); but the easiest and cheaper way is to book with the Capitol Hotel or Neak Krohorm Travel in Phnom Penh who can arrange a boat to Chau Doc and onward transport through to Ho Chi Minh City for around $10.

Boats between Sihanoukville for Koh Kong no longer run, though you can get to Koh S’dach.

The most scenic boat trip in Cambodia is up the Mekong from Kompong Cham to Kratie, but the only chance of doing this these days is by private cruise vessel.

Trains

Completed in 1932, Cambodia’s rail network had become so decrepit that the trains stopped running in 2007. However, the lines are now being restored and the first train has recently run from Phnom Penh to Kampot. In due course the whole network will be refurbished and possibly extended with a link from Battambang to Poipet. Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future, the only use is going to be for freight.

City and town transport

There is no public transport in any Cambodian town; in Phnom Penh a trial bus service was abandoned due to lack of support. The usual mode of transport is the romorque, generally known as a tuk-tuk, a passenger carriage pulled by a motorbike; and the motorbike taxi, the moto, a small motorbike-cum-moped with a space in front of the driver for baggage. In Phnom Penh you’ll also find cyclos, Cambodia’s version of the pedicab. All these forms of transport are hailed from the side of the road and drop you at your destination. Taxis are available in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but elsewhere you’ll only find cars, with driver, for hire by the day (or longer).

Motos

Motorbike taxis, or motos, are the staple means of travelling short (and sometimes long) distances in Cambodia, although riding on the back of a moto in the middle of anarchic traffic isn’t everybody’s idea of fun, and you may feel safer taking a tuk-tuk or taxi. Motos are identified by their drivers’ baseball caps (although these days they wear a motorcycle helmet when on the move). You’ll seldom need to flag down a moto – just stand by the road and moto drivers will usually come up and offer their services. Moto drivers indicate that they are available for hire by holding up a finger (usually the index one). Drivers come from a variety of backgrounds – you may find you are being driven by an off-duty policeman or a moonlighting government official.

If you have bags, the driver will squeeze them into the space between his knees and the handlebars – moto drivers are adept at balancing baggage, from rice sacks to backpacks, between their legs while negotiating chaotic traffic. Passengers sit behind the driver on a pillion seat – Cambodians typically squeeze as many passengers as possible onto this (three is common), although it’s best not to follow their example and to stick to just one passenger per bike (in Siem Reap the police do not allow motos to take more than one foreigner). Although you’ll see Cambodian women sitting side-saddle, it’s safer if you sit astride and, if necessary, hang onto the driver.

Moto drivers have an image of foreigners as having bottomless pockets, so avoid misunderstandings by agreeing the fare beforehand; a typical journey around the capital will set you back 6000–8000 riel. If you want to hire a driver for longer periods, count on around 8000 riel per hour, or $8–10 per day. Curiosity and the remote chance of a fare will mean that even if you are already negotiating with someone, other moto drivers gather round. Etiquette dictates that you should go with the one you summoned, though in the unlikely event that someone offers you a cheaper fare you’ll probably find “your” driver acquiesces. Fares go up during public holidays (sometimes to double the usual rate) when many drivers head home to their villages, which also makes it difficult to find transport.

Motos can be taken on quite long trips out of town – indeed it’s the only way to get to some places, although it’s not particularly comfortable. You’ll probably have to pay for fuel in addition to the day hire. In the provinces drivers are sometimes irrationally fearful of bandits and can be reluctant to travel in remote areas late in the day, so bear their concerns in mind when planning your excursions.

Tuk-tuks

The introduction of tuk-tuks to Cambodia came about in 2001, when police in Siem Reap banned foreigners riding three-up on a moto (in spite of the fact that Cambodians are allowed to be three, four or even more up). Tuk-tuks have caught on in a big way and are now found in most provincial towns. Pulled by a motorbike, these covered passenger cabs seat four people (six with a squeeze) and have the advantage of affording some protection against the sun and rain as they have drop-down side-curtains. The motorbikes that pull them, however, are the same ones used as motos, and so are woefully underpowered, which makes for a slow trip. However, they are excellent for two or more travelling together and when you have baggage; if you’ve got the time they’re also good for trips up to about 30km out of town. Expect to pay $10–15 for the day or long trips.

Cyclos

A dying breed, found only in Phnom Penh, the cyclo (pronounced see-klo) is Cambodia’s version of the cycle trishaw; the word comes from the French – cyclopousse. Slower and more expensive than a moto, a trip across town by cyclo gives you time to take in the city and street scenes (although traffic fumes can be unpleasant). Cyclos take one passenger (or two at a squash) in a seat at the front, with the driver perched on a seat behind over the rear wheel.

Taxis

Both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap have city taxis (as opposed to shared taxis). These don’t tout for fares on the streets, but instead congregate outside major hotels or on the riverfront in the capital. In Phnom Penh you can order one by phone; fares are around $5 per journey.

In other towns you’ll need to hire a car and driver. These can be hired for both short hops around town and long journeys (expect to pay around $35 per day for running around town, $40 plus for an out-of-town trip).

Self-drive car rental

Although Cambodia’s roads and its signposting have improved, it’s virtually impossible to rent a self-drive car in Cambodia. However, should you manage to do so, then you need to be aware of the headaches that driving yourself entails. Problems include finding appropriate documentation: a passport is required by the hire company and (oddly) a Cambodian licence by the police – although an international driving licence may now be accepted. Other problems are the lack of designated car parks (though there are now a few in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap); haphazard driving by other road users; and cursory insurance – any loss or damage to the vehicle is your responsibility. Whenever you park you should get someone to look after the vehicle; in town you’ll usually find a parking attendant near markets and restaurants who will keep an eye on the vehicle for 1000 riel. It’s normal to park as directed and leave the handbrake disengaged so that the car can be pushed out of the way to let other cars in or out. To prevent theft and damage when leaving the car overnight, you’ll need to look for a hotel with parking or find a local with off-road space where they’ll let you park for a nominal charge of $2–3. Given all this, it’s far less hassle, and probably cheaper, to hire a car and driver.

Motorbikes and bicycles

Whether you ride a motorbike or bicycle, it’s worth wearing sunglasses, long trousers and a long-sleeved shirt to protect you not only from the sun but also from the grit and gravel thrown up on the dusty roads.

When heading off into the countryside, remember that Cambodia (in spite of clearance programmes) has a huge problem with land mines, and no matter how tempting it may be to go cross-country, stick to well-used tracks and paths.

Motorbike hire

Renting a motorbike is a popular way to see Cambodia. Its security is your responsibility, so make sure you leave your motorbike somewhere secure when you stop – at night guesthouses will often bring it inside for you. Motorcycle helmets are now compulsory (for the driver only) and you risk being stopped by the police and issued with a spot fine ($5) if you’re not wearing one. Note that road checks are particularly prevalent just before holidays and the weekend.

You can rent an off-road 250cc bike for around $10 per day or $60 a week from a number of companies, particularly in Phnom Penh, although you’ll have to leave your passport as security. Check the condition of the bike before heading off on a long trip – if it breaks down, it’s your responsibility to get it repaired or returned to the owner. Away from the main highways take advice on local road conditions, as often even relatively short distances can take a long time.

Foreigners cannot rent motorbikes in either Siem Reap or Sihanoukville. Originally safety was given as the reason for the ban, but it’s more likely to be a protectionist move to keep the moto “mafias” in business. In other towns it’s easiest to use the 110cc run-arounds available for rent from guesthouses and hire shops; rates are around $5 per day.

Even with the improvements in the road conditions, poor driving by other motorists makes it safer to travel only in daylight hours.

Cycling

Cycling in Cambodia can be a rewarding experience. In fact the Mekong Discovery Trail from Kratie to Stung Treng positively invites you to explore on two wheels. Bicycles are available for hire at many guesthouses and hire shops in towns for around $1.50–3 per day, although what you get varies considerably, from swish mountain bikes to sturdy but gearless affairs.

The main hazard is the manic traffic on the highways and you’d be advised to try to get to your destination by late afternoon since many Cambodian vehicles travel without lights and so won’t see you as darkness falls. There are plenty of refreshment stalls along major roads, so you’ll seldom go hungry, and the Cambodians will do their best if you’re in need of help. If you get stuck between guesthouses you’ll need to stop at a village (camping is technically illegal and potentially dangerous because of the risk of land mines), where someone will give you space on their floor for a small consideration. It’s essential to note that all motorized traffic takes precedence over bicycles, and you may find you have to veer onto the verge to get out of the way of speeding cars and trucks.

In Siem Reap and Sihanoukville a couple of places rent out electric bicycles, which can be a fun – if not necessarily faster – way to get around.

Organized tours

If you’re short on time, or simply don’t want to do it yourself, then taking an organized tour can get you around the country to the major sights with minimum effort. An increasing number of travel agencies and tour operators in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap arrange individual tours, so you don’t need to conform to a fixed departure date or worry that a trip won’t run if the group isn’t large enough. Costs vary according to the type of accommodation you choose, where you go and what you do; allow upwards of $120 per person per day excluding food. Travel is by a/c vehicle, with guide, and includes accommodation and usually breakfast.

A cheaper alternative to such tours are the transport and accommodation deals arranged by some of the established guesthouses in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. On these trips, a private bus takes a group of tourists between the capital and Siem Reap (or vice versa) or Sihanoukville, with accommodation and day-trips to major sights arranged through partner guesthouses in these towns (expect to pay up to $25–30 per person per day). Heading from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, for example, you may get the option to stop at the temples of Sambor Preah Kuk en route.