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).
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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.
Cambodia Angkor Air (cambodiaangkorair.com) is the nearest thing Cambodia currently has to a national airline and operates the country’s only domestic flights, with services between Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville (around $70 return), from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City, and also from Phnom Penh to Hanoi, Saigon and Bangkok. Note that from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap there’s a $6 departure tax for domestic flights.
Buses (laan tom) are the cheapest – and also usually the most convenient and comfortable – way to get around Cambodia, connecting all major cities and towns (although some smaller places aren’t yet on the bus network, and others – Banlung, Sen Monorom and Pailin, for example – have only one or two services a day). Many services start in Phnom Penh, meaning that you’ll most likely have to go through the capital if travelling from one side of the country to the other.
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, while other companies such as Giant Ibis and Mekong Express operate luxury express buses on the most popular routes.
Buses generally arrive and depart from their respective company offices. Unfortunately, this means 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. To guarantee a seat, buy your ticket the day before; no standing passengers are allowed, so if all the seats have been sold you’ll have to wait for the next bus with space.
Fares are very reasonable, starting from just $4 from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville and $6 to Siem Reap, and are generally much of a muchness on all but the most-travelled routes. All buses are reasonably comfortable, while on popular routes you’ll find more expensive deluxe coaches (Giant Ibis is one of the main operators) with modern vehicles, free snacks and even on-board wi-fi.
Minibuses, which leave from local transport stops, provide the main alternative to buses, at a similar price. These generally serve the same routes as buses, and also go to smaller destinations not served by bus. They also tend to be slightly faster. On the downside, most usually get absolutely packed and can be horribly 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 “luxury minibus” services on the main intercity and international routes (Mekong Express’s “limousine bus” services, for example), although these get mixed reviews, and you can never be entirely certain of what you’re getting until it’s possibly too late.
By shared taxi and pick-up
Shared taxis are the third main option when it comes to travelling 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.
Pick-up trucks cover some of the country’s most off-the-beaten-track routes, and also roads that are impassable by buses and minibuses, although they’re gradually becoming obsolete thanks to the improving network. Seats in the cab – four in the rear, two in the front – cost roughly the same as in a shared taxi; and, as in taxis, you can pay for an extra seat if you want more comfort. Sitting on 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.
For years, Cambodia’s appalling roads meant 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. From Sihanoukville in the south regular ferries and fast catamarans depart a few times a day to Koh Rong, with a few continuing on to the neighbouring island of Koh Rong Samloem.
Cambodia’s colonial-era railway network formerly consisted of two lines, one connecting Phnom Penh with Battambang and Poipet, and the other linking the capital with Kampot and Sihanoukville. The tracks were largely destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period, however, and there have been no passenger services since 2009. In the same year, a major railway renovation programme was launched with Australian assistance. The line south to Sihanoukville was reopened to freight services in 2012, although the project subsequently hit major (possibly terminal) delays, and it seems unlikely that any passenger services will be launched for the next two or three years – possibly a lot longer. In the meantime the only way of getting on the rails is to take a ride on Battambang’s quirky “bamboo railway”.
It’s virtually impossible to rent a self-drive car 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.
The lack of designated car parks is another real problem. 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 vehicle 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 few dollars. Given all this, it’s far less hassle, and probably cheaper, to hire a car and driver (see City taxis).
By motorbike or bicycle
Both cycling and renting a motorbike are popular ways to explore Cambodia, though even with the improved road conditions, poor driving by other motorists makes it safer to travel only in daylight hours. 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.
You can rent an off-road 250cc bike 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. Motorcycle helmets are 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.
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 – at night guesthouses will often bring it inside for you.
Foreigners cannot rent motorbikes in Siem Reap. 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 $5–8 per day.
Cycling in Cambodia can be a rewarding experience – the Mekong Discovery Trail, for example, positively invites you to explore on two wheels. Bicycles are available for rent at many guesthouses and rental 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 heavy traffic on the highways – 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. 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.
City and town transport
When travelling around Cambodian towns and cities you will most likely use either a romorque, generally known as a tuk-tuk (a passenger carriage pulled by a motorbike) or a moto or motorbike taxi (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 bicycle rickshaw, though these are less and less common. When travelling by any of these forms of transport, it’s important to always agree the fare beforehand. In Phnom Penh you’ll rarely pay less than $2 for a tuk-tuk (motos and cyclos are cheaper), but elsewhere a short journey around town by moto or tuk-tuk will typically cost $1, or $2 for longer journeys.
Motos and tuk-tuks are also useful for short tours and trips out of many towns (especially around the temples of Angkor, where tuk-tuks are the most commonly used form of transport) – we’ve given estimated costs throughout the Guide. 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.
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 bag-snatchings do occur (see Crime) – so you may feel safer taking a tuk-tuk or taxi. Moto drivers tend to congregate around transport stops, major local landmarks and road junctions within towns, and they may well offer their services as you walk down the street.
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 ride pillion behind the driver – Cambodians typically squeeze on as many passengers as possible (three is common), although it’s best not to follow their example and 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.
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.
Pricier than motos, tuk-tuks were introduced to Cambodia in 2001, when police in Siem Reap banned foreigners riding three-up on a moto. They have since caught on in a big way and are now found in most provincial towns. Pulled by a motorbike, these covered passenger cabs seat up to four people and, with their drop-down side-curtains, have the advantage of affording some protection against the sun and rain. 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.
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, in the capital, on the riverfront. In Phnom Penh you can order one by phone; fares are around $4–8 per journey.
In other towns you’ll need to find a car and driver. These can be hired for both short hops around town and long journeys (expect to pay around $40 per day for running around town, or $40–80 for an out-of-town trip, depending on how far you plan to travel).
If you’re short on time, or simply don’t want to do it yourself, then you might consider an organized tour, which 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 offering a convenient if relatively expensive way of seeing the country – allow upwards of $120 per person per day, excluding food.