Getting around Cambodia: Transportation Tips
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Getting around Cambodia is all part of the adventure. Massive improvements to the national highway network in the past few years have made getting around the country much easier than it once was, with many formerly dirt roads now surfaced and new highways built. Even so, getting from A to B remains time-consuming: roads are still narrow and bumpy, while regular wet-season inundations play havoc with transport (and often wash away large sections of tarmac in their wake).
Note that travel can be difficult over public holidays, especially the Khmer New Year. 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.
Learning how to get around Cambodian towns is generally easy as most of them are laid out on a grid plan. Nearly all towns have street signs; usually a few main streets have names, with the majority being numbered. Despite that, most Cambodians have little idea of street numbers, so to locate a specific address you’re best off heading for a nearby landmark and asking from there.
You cannot fly directly into Cambodia from Europe, North America, Australasia or South Africa, so you will need to get a connecting flight from somewhere else in the Southeast or East Asia. Alternatively, you can cross over into Cambodia from neighbouring countries through its land borders with Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. More information on getting to Cambodia.
Cambodia’s colonial-era railway network was largely destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period but is now being slowly restored and reopened. This means travelling around Cambodia by train isn’t, as of yet, a very practical option. However, the line between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville reopened in 2016, with stops at Takeo and Kampot and comfortable modern carriages. Trains currently run once a day from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville on Fri, Sat and Sun, and on Sat and Sun (twice) in the opposite direction; the full route takes around 7hr and costs around $7. As yet, tickets are only sold at the stations.
The second part of the network, between Phnom Penh and Poipet on the Thai border, is still under renovation. Latest reports suggest that the first section of line from Poipet may open during 2017, connecting with the line in Thailand, although it appears unlikely that this will get further than Sisophon, if it even reaches that far. The reopening of the entire line through to Battambang and Phnom Penh – and, beyond that, the ultimate dream of a railway linking Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City – most likely remains years from completion. In the meantime, if you want to ride the rails in this part of the country your only option is to take a trip on the quirky bamboo railway in Battambang.
Buses (laan tom) are the cheapest – and also usually the most convenient – way of getting around Cambodia, connecting all major cities and towns (although some smaller places aren’t yet on the bus network, and others, such as Banlung, Sen Monorom and Pailin, have only a few services a day). Fares start from around $6 from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville and $8 to Siem Reap, making bus travel one of the cheapest and best ways to get around Cambodia.
All buses are privately run, operated by a growing number of companies. Phnom Penh Sorya is the biggest; others include Rith Mony, GST, Paramount Angkor and Capitol Tours. Most vehicles are well past their best, but perfectly comfortable, although the majority carry on-board videos meaning that most journeys are made to an accompaniment of relentlessly crooning Cambodian pop singers and Chinese gangster flicks. A couple of companies such as Giant Ibis and Mekong Express operate luxury express buses on the most popular routes with modern vehicles, complimentary snacks and even on-board wi-fi.
Buses generally arrive and depart from their respective company offices. Unfortunately, this means that there are no bus stations or suchlike in which to get centralized information about timetables and fares. Some guesthouses or tour operators can provide this information; otherwise, you’ll have to visit all the individual offices until you find the right bus at the right time.
Minibuses, which leave from local transport stops, provide the main alternative to buses, at a similar (or sometimes slightly higher) price. These generally serve the same routes as buses, and also run some routes and go to some destinations not served by bus (between Sen Monorom and Banlung, for example). They also tend to be slightly faster. On the downside, most usually get absolutely packed and can be seriously uncomfortable, especially for taller travellers (there’s little legroom at the best of times, unlike on the buses, which are relatively luxurious in comparison). There are also a few deluxe minibus services on the main intercity and international routes (Mekong Express is the main operator). Fares are relatively high although you should at least be guaranteed a reasonably comfortable seat and a vehicle not stuffed full of people, sacks of rice, used car parts and the occasional chicken.
Cambodia Angkor Air is the nearest thing Cambodia currently has to a national airline, plus international flights to Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai. Further flights are provided by a handful of (even) smaller operators. Cambodia Bayon Airlines also has flights between Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Siem Reap, plus Ho Chi Minh City, while Sky Angkor and Bassaka Air fly between Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. Fares on all airlines are broadly similar, with flights between Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville for around $60–80 one-way.
We do not recommend getting around Cambodia by car. It’s virtually impossible to rent a self-drive car anywhere in Cambodia, and even if you do, driving yourself entails numerous headaches. Problems include finding appropriate documentation (your driving licence from home may or may not be considered sufficient – some companies will ask for a Cambodian driving licence, for which you’ll need to take a driving test), haphazard driving by other road users, and insufficient insurance – any loss or damage to the vehicle is your responsibility. Lack of designated car parks is another real problem. Given all this, it’s far less hassle, and probably cheaper, to hire a car and driver.
Shared taxis are the third main option when it comes to travelling around Cambodia by road. These are generally slightly more expensive but also somewhat faster than buses and minibuses, although the driving can often be hair-raising, especially if you’re sat in the front. They also serve local destinations off the bus and minibus network. On the downside, like minibuses they get absurdly packed: three people on the front passenger seat is the norm (with the driver sharing his seat as well), and four in the back. You can pay double the standard fare to have the whole front seat to yourself, and you can hire the entire taxi for around five or six times the individual fare. Shared taxis usually leave from the local transport stop. There are no fixed schedules, although most run in the morning, leaving when (very) full.
Motorbikes offer a great way of travelling around Cambodia, especially if you want to get off the beaten track, and most roads are relatively empty and make for enjoyable and stress-free riding. Motorbiking in major cities, however, is hazardous, given the unruly and unpredictable traffic, and best avoided, while scams involving the theft of rented motorbikes have also been reported. Motorbikes can be rented from numerous guesthouses and other places, with vehicles ranging from bog-standard automatic scooters (usually around $6–8 per day) up to more serious touring bikes and dirt bikes.
Always 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. Motorbike theft, in Sihanoukville and the south in particular, is a real issue. The bike’s security is your responsibility, so look to rent from a company that provides installed wheel locks and always make sure you leave it somewhere secure when you stop; guesthouses will often bring it inside for you at night. Note also that foreigners aren’t allowed to hire motorbikes in Siem Reap – at least in theory.
Away from the main highways take advice on local road conditions, as often even relatively short distances can take a long time. Motorcycle helmets are compulsory for both driver and any passengers: you risk being stopped by the police and issued with a fine (15,000 riel) if you’re not wearing one – even premier Hun Sen was forced to cough up (to great popular amusement) when nabbed riding helmetless in 2016. Note that road checks are particularly prevalent just before holidays and the weekend.
Cycling in Cambodia can be a rewarding experience, at least away from the big cities - just remember that all motorized traffic takes precedence over bicycles, and you may find that you have to veer onto the verge to get out of the way of speeding cars and trucks. Bicycles are available for rent at many guesthouses and elsewhere. Many are gearless antiques, usually costing $1–2 per day, although some places have good mountain bikes for rent (from around $5 per day and upwards).
For years, Cambodia’s appalling roads meant that travelling by boat was the principal means of getting between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but these days it’s easier and quicker to travel by road. Even so, boats (seating about thirty people) still run daily between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, as well as Siem Reap and Battambang. The trip to or from Phnom Penh isn’t particularly scenic, as the Tonle Sap lake is so vast it’s more like being at sea. The trip to or from Battambang is more interesting, combining a trip across the Tonle Sap with a journey down the Sangker River. Neither journey is particularly comfortable: space and movement are restricted, and a cushion, plenty of water, food and a hat will make things more bearable. Be aware that in rough weather the Tonle Sap can whip up some fierce waves.
Boats run daily south along the Mekong between Phnom Penh and the Vietnamese border at Chau Doc – this can be arranged via local guesthouses, travel agents or directly at the tourist dock. From Sihanoukville in the south, regular ferries and speedboats depart several times a day to Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem.
Getting around towns and cities in Cambodia generally involves the use of either a moto or a tuk-tuk (romorque). With both tuk-tuks and motos make sure you always agree the fare beforehand. Short journeys around town typically cost $1, or $2 and upwards for longer journeys, with fares generally a bit higher in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Longer journeys should be slightly cheaper by moto than by tuk-tuk.
Motos and tuk-tuks are the best way to travel in Cambodia for short tours and trips out of many towns. Tuk-tuks are the most popular form of transport around the temples of Angkor, while motos are sometimes the only way of visiting sites not accessible by sealed roads. Fares for longer hire periods will vary depending on what sort of mileage you’ll be doing and the state of the roads you’ll be travelling along.
City taxis are available in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Uber is not yet available, although a local taxi- booking app, Exnet (for Android phones only), was launched in 2016 for Phnom Penh.
Motorbike taxis, or motos, can be the best way to travel Cambodia for short (and sometimes long) distances, although riding on the back of a moto in the middle of anarchic traffic isn’t everybody’s idea of fun. Passengers ride pillion behind the driver – Cambodians typically squeeze on as many passengers as possible (three is common), although it’s sensible to stick to just one passenger per bike (in Siem Reap, motos are forbidden from taking more than one foreigner at a time). 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 tend to congregate around transport stops, major local landmarks and road junctions – expect to be touted for custom on a fairly regular basis. Note that recently introduced laws now require passengers on a moto to wear a helmet – if your moto driver can’t give you one, don’t get on. 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.
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.
Pricier than motos, tuk-tuks (sometimes referred to by their French name, remorques) were only introduced to Cambodia in 2001 but have since caught on in a big way and are now found in most provincial towns – although in more remote areas they’re still fairly few and far between. A unique local variant on the vehicles found in Thailand and Vietnam, the Cambodia tuk-tuk consists of a covered passenger carriage seating up to four people pulled by a motorbike – a fun and secure way of getting around. The motorbikes that pull them, however, are the same ones used as motos, and so are woefully underpowered, which makes for a slow trip, especially if you’ve got three or four people on board – even with just one or two passengers they can struggle to go much faster than your average bicycle.
A dying breed, found only in Phnom Penh, and decreasingly so there, the cyclo (pronounced see-klo, from the French – cyclopousse) is much slower than a moto or tuk-tuk. They are good for leisurely rides and views of the street but more or less useless for longer journeys or if you want to get anywhere in a hurry. 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.
If you want to cover long distances at a reasonable speed, and without the discomfort of a moto, your only option is to hire a car and driver. Unfortunately, these are often difficult to come by except in major tourist centres and are expensive compared to other means of transport. Count on around $50–100 per day, depending on how far you want to go.