How To Get Around In Cambodia

By Jane Mountain | April 7, 2014

12,585 km so far.

I am loving Cambodia.

And that’s saying a lot, since all we have done so far is ride two days along the main highway.

(Don’t miss our guide to getting to Cambodia overland)

Unlike the huge transport arteries we encountered in Thailand, the highway from the border to Siem Reap is a small two-lane route with a wide shoulder.

This road’s busy, but not crazily so. Surprising, considering it is the only way to get from the border to Angkor Wat.

Flat, Cambodia.

Flat, Cambodia.

Plus, it’s populated by an assortment of vehicles so fascinating, they provided us with hours of entertainment today.

Two Wheels or Bust

First, there are the scooters and motorbikes.

Scooter fuel by the roadside in Puok.

Scooter fuel by the roadside in Puok.

This seems to be the primary form of transportation for teenagers and twenty-somethings. It is rare to see a scooter with only one person on it and there is often an entire family on one bike.

In China and Vietnam, it wasn’t unusual to see tiny babies squashed between mother, father, and siblings, like a slippery pickle slice in an overstuffed sandwich. Here, babies tend to be dangled over their mother’s arm, their chubby little legs hanging down over the pavement as it whips by. It doesn’t bear thinking about all the ways this could go horribly wrong.

(Don’t miss: Another great way to get around in Cambodia – a zipline course!)

Motorbikes in Cambodia are able to carry virtually anything, no matter how bulky or heavy.

Lightly loaded motorbikes in the Kralahn market.

Lightly loaded motorbikes in the Kralahn market.

It’s not uncommon to see a motorbike go by carrying three hefty live pigs. The pigs are strapped to a rack on the back of the bike, lying on their backs side by side. Their stiff pink legs and their pointy hooves kick in the air as they go by.

Piggies on the highway, near Siem Reap.

Piggies on the highway, near Siem Reap.

For some reason, I couldn’t get The Rockettes out of my mind.

Walking on highway 6, Cambodia.

Walking on highway 6, Cambodia.

Another great two-wheeler is the walking tractor, which, when pulling a small box trailer can carry virutally anything. Today, the primary cargo was people. So many people.

Sometimes it’s three generations of a family, all riding merrily on top of bags of rice, boxes of veggies, farm implements, or whatever else is being hauled. Sometimes it’s a gang of farm workers, sitting knee to knee to knee along the sides of the trailer box.

These little tractors chug along slowly, so I figured that, despite their exposed fan belt and threatening tires spinning just feet away from our own, they are probably one of the safer vehicles on the road.

Then again…

Research undertaken in Cambodia and Laos concluded that two-wheel tractors are involved in around five per cent of fatal accidents. from Wikipedia, Two-Wheel Tractor

…maybe not.

Unsafe At Any Speed

An all-too-common sight on Cambodia’s highway 6 is the 1990s Toyota Camry Sedan. Just like Audi drivers in Europe, Toyota Camry drivers in Cambodia seem obligated to drive way too fast, weaving past scooters, tractors, and trucks. Of course, they constantly honk their horns to warn you they’re coming, so that makes it all OK.

boys swimming in murky water cambodia

Ye olde swimming hole, Siem Reap.

The one type of vehicle that almost gives the Camrys a run for their money in the no-holds-barred hazardous driving stakes are mini vans. No, these aren’t driven by soccer moms feeling the need for speed, and they aren’t used to transport happy little nuclear families.

In Cambodia, mini vans are public transport.

Here’s how it works.

First, you pile in at least 25 men and women, then sprinkle in a few dozen kids to liven things up. Add in every single thing each of these people owns, including but not limited to: bags of rice, floor fans, massive cardboard boxes, full-to-bursting Chinese bags, and various pieces of furniture.

All of this luggage is piled in the back quarter of the van, and out onto a platform under the rear door. It is secured by means of a complex system of twine.

When the interior of the van is full of luggage and people, throw everything else on the roof. Crown it all with a few more people, sitting right on top, just for fun.

These crazily overloaded vans absolutely FLY down the highway, careening around other vehicles, passing into oncoming traffic, and blasting their horns the whole way.

woman trimming fish in a market in cambodia

Fish trimming in Kralahn.

Today, we even saw one van that had managed, alongside all the regular luggage, to squeeze in two scooters. Their front wheels were inside the van, but the back two thirds of the scooters were hanging off the end. And guess what? Upon each scooter seat sat a man, his legs dangling in the air as the highway zoomed by.

Even though we both saw it with our own eyes, it’s still hard to believe it was real.

Teeny Tiny Kids on Big Big Bikes

Our favourite type of vehicle on the roads is the bicycle, of course.

There are very few kids’ bikes here, so all the kids ride around on bikes three sizes too big for them. The bikes are so big and the kids so little that they can’t pedal and sit on the seat at the same time. They teeter and totter as they try to get the big bike going (right along the edge of the highway with all of its madness). Once they get up some momentum, however, they buzz along quickly enough to feel the wind in their hair.

The most memorable bike of the day was being ridden by a kid of about 5 years old. He couldn’t have been three feet tall, and when he pedalled, he had to actually reach up to keep his hands on the handlebars. Kneeling on the back rack, and clinging to the seat with all her might, was a girl so tiny, I’m pretty sure she was no taller than a bike wheel.

The bike so dwarfed these two kids, it looked like they’d been shrunk Alice In Wonderland style. I have no concept of how these two mounted this behemoth, nor do I have a clue how they were going to stop whenever they reached their destination. Crashing and falling seemed the only likely strategy.

With all the oddities on the road today (us included), our hundred kilometres flew by. Before we knew it, we were part of the tourist madness that is Siem Reap, experiencing our first tuk tuk ride, marvelling at the colors and the lights, and sipping on rooftop cocktails.

But more on that tomorrow.

Soundtrack: Neil Finn, Dizzy Heights | The Dandy Warhols, Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia Live At The Wonder | Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabaté, Ali & Toumani | bkng playlist on Spotify  

Want to see the route map? View it on Ride With GPS.

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