Impressions of Cambodia – 2. Transport

You can walk, of course, but in this heat you’re not going to walk for long.

You need wheels.

There are many types of wheels available for you.

Bicycle is one, and in the heat you would be brave but the good thing is this is a flat city. You might be pedalling a cyclo for the tourists, your calves hard like iron from years of cycling around this city. You might be a middle aged expat wrapped in too-tight lycra, on the expensive carbon fibre bike you brought here from Germany, or England, or Holland. Either way you will have to have strong nerves to hold your fragile bicycle space against bigger and noisier forms of transport.

Motorbike is another way to get around – and in Cambodia, motos are the budget family sedan. It’s not unusual to see a family of five on a bike: Dad driving, child no.1 standing on the footpad between his legs and holding onto the handlebars, Mum sat behind, perhaps holding a babe in arms wedged between herself and Dad, and child no.3 at the back behind Mum. It’s surprising to see how un-tightly people are holding on. I guess if you’ve been travelling by bike since you literally were born, you have a better sense of balance. And the density of traffic means the bikes don’t go very fast. Compared to western countries where bikes are a symbol of rebellion, go-faster attitude, here they are just transport. And if you are going somewhere by bike and can give two friends a lift, then you do. Why rush?

You don’t have to drive yourself though. You can take a Tuk tuk – but note that these exist in several formats – some with doors (“maxima”), some without, and then there are the moto-towing-a-carriage tuk tuks called “remorks” which can carry 4-5 people. Or a family of 8 and their weekly grocery supplies, if needs be. For foreigner who hates to argue with tuk tuk drivers, there are now apps you can use to book your tuk tuk ride. Like Uber but for tuk tuks, so you know upfront what you’re going to pay. And for that reason alone I greatly enjoyed my tuk tuk rides around Phnom Penh. (Also, every driver has a different shortcut route, so every ride was different, even between the same two points.)

There are cars of course. These are the slowest way to get around town because despite the more powerful engine, they take a lot more space, and where there’s a space in the traffic there’s a moto or a tuk tuk or bicycle to fill it. But there is the benefit of aircon in a car, although there is always a breeze when travelling by tuk tuk (except when you get stuck in traffic that is, but that won’t be for long. Tuk tuk drivers are resourceful like that).

Bigger than cars are the buses. Phnom Penh surprisingly has city buses, gifted variously from the People of Japan or from PR China. But who takes a bus? Very few people it seems. Even if it’s perfectly sealed and chillingly airconditioned behind its tinted windows. What city buses I saw were largely empty, with one, two, three passengers maximum. A nice option for those who don’t like crowds, assuming the buses are going where you want to go.

We wanted to go from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, so we took the conveniently-timed and economically-priced bus from the Mey Hong bus company. Except they were not so conveniently timed, as it seems they wait until almost departure time to start loading the luggage. It doesn’t take long if it’s just baggage; but when there are three motos, a bicycle, a 50kg sack of rice, a box of bottled water and 20 small bags belonging to the five girls who are travelling together, it takes a long time to pack the bus.

We also travelled with our expat friends who lived in Phnom Penh. Expats don’t schlep across the city to a bus terminal to take a bus that leaves when the bus company decides. Oh no. They book a mini van and a driver and appoint a time to be collected from their front door. The driver will take you from the front door of where you are to the front door of where you want to be, stopping along the way at any points of interest you have nominated.

It was thanks to this mode of transport that our return trip from Kampot was able to take us via the Kiri Buddha – the mountain of 84,000 Buddhas – something the Mey Hong bus company – competent as they were at getting you from place to place – wouldn’t detour to show you.

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