Cambodia’s 1900km of navigable waterways are a key element in the country’s transportation system, particularly given the state of many roads and the railways. North of Phnom Penh, the Mekong is easily navigable as far as Kratie, but there are no longer regular passenger services on these routes as the roads have taken all the business. There are fast-boat services between Siem Reap and Battambang, and Tonlé Sap Lake is also navigable year-round, although only by smaller boats between March and July.
Traditionally the most popular boat services with foreigners are those that run between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The express services do the trip in as little as five hours, but the boats between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are horrendously overcrowded and foreigners are charged almost twice the price of Khmers for the ‘privilege’ of sitting on the roof. It is not the most interesting boat journey in Cambodia, as Tonlé Sap Lake is like a vast sea, offering little scenery. It’s much smarter to take a bus on the new road instead.
The small boat between Siem Reap and Battambang is more rewarding, as the river scenery is truly memorable, but it can take forever. Whichever fast-boat journey takes your fancy, you may well end up on the roof so remember to use sun block and wear a head covering.
There are now longtail rocket boats operating on northern stretches of the Mekong between Stung Treng and the Lao border. These are super fast, but are super dangerous if overcrowded or travelling after dark. Never risk departing late if it means travelling at night.
The range of road transport is extensive in Cambodia. On sealed roads, large air-conditioned buses are the best choice. Elsewhere in the country, a pick-up truck, share taxi or minibus is the way to go.
Bus services have come on in leaps and bounds in the last few years and the situation is getting even better as more roads are upgraded. The services used most regularly by foreigners are those from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, Battambang, Sihanoukville, Kompong Cham and Kratie, and the tourist buses from Siem Reap to Poipet.
There is a clean and comfortable bus service to towns and villages in the vicinity of Phnom Penh, such as Udong and Phnom Chisor. Operated by Phnom Penh Sorya Transport, these services are very cheap and English-speaking staff can direct you onto the right bus.
Minibuses serve most provincial routes, but are not widely used by Western visitors. They are very cheap, but often uncomfortably overcrowded and driven by maniacs, like the meanest of matatus (minibus taxis) in East Africa. Only really consider them if there is no alternative.
Car and motorcycle rental are comparatively cheap in Cambodia and many visitors rent a car or motorcycle for greater flexibility to visit out-of-the-way places and to stop when and where they choose. Almost all car rental in Cambodia includes a driver, which is good news given the abysmal state of many roads and the prominence of the psychopathic driver gene among many Cambodian road users.
If you are travelling in a tourist vehicle with a driver, then it is usually insured. When it comes to motorcycles, many rental bikes are not insured and you will have to sign a contract agreeing to a valuation for the bike if it is stolen. Make sure you have a strong lock and always leave it in guarded parking where available.
Do not even consider hiring a motorcycle if you are daft enough to be travelling in Cambodia without insurance. The cost of treating serious injuries is bankrupting for budget travellers.
Cambodia’s rail system is, like the old road network, one of the most notorious in Asia. There are no longer passenger services, but it may be possible to negotiate a ride on a freight train if you are feeling really masochistic. The best sections of the network are between Takeo and Kampot and from there to Sihanoukville. Trains travel at an average speed of 20km/h, bridges are not always maintained and the ride is often as bumpy as on some of the roads, as the tracks are so warped.
The railway is about to be completely overhauled to plug it into the Trans-Asian Railway which will eventually link Singapore and China, but this will take a few years. In the meantime, ardent trainspotters should be able to pay their way onto a cargo train, but bear in mind it takes more than 12 hours to Battambang, and that’s if the train doesn’t derail. It’s more fun to take to the rails on the bamboo train around Battambang.
The rail network consists of about 645km of single-track metre-gauge lines. The 382km northwestern line, built before WWII, links Phnom Penh with Pursat (165km), Battambang (274km) and Sisophon (302km). The last stretch to Poipet was pulled up by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. The 263km southwestern line, which was completed in 1969, connects Phnom Penh with Takeo (75km), Kampot (166km) and the port of Sihanoukville (228km).
The civil war during much of the 1980s and 1990s led to some unique developments in the Cambodian rail system. Each train was equipped with a tin-roofed, armoured carriage sporting a huge machine gun and numerous gun ports in its sides. In addition, the first two flat-bed carriages of the train operated as mine sweepers. Travel on the first carriage was free and on the second carriage half-price and, despite the risks, these options were extremely popular with the locals.
As in Vietnam and Laos, the samlor or cyclo (pedicab) is a cheap way to get around urban areas. In Phnom Penh cyclo drivers can either be flagged down on main roads or found loitering around markets and major hotels. It is necessary to bargain the fare if taking a cyclo from outside an expensive hotel or popular restaurant or bar. Fares range from 1000r to US$1 (about 4000r). There are few cyclos in the provinces and in Phnom Penh the cyclo is fast losing ground to the moto.
No, not a big truck, but the Cambodian name for a local train made from wood and powered by a motorcycle, quite literally the motorcycle’s rear wheel touching the track and propelling it along. In the Battambang area, they are known as a norry or the ‘bamboo train’ to tourists, and they are powered by an electric motor. Great fun until you meet another train coming the other way – aaaaargh!
Motos, also known as motodups (meaning moto driver), are small motorcycle taxis and their drivers almost universally wear a baseball cap. They are a quick way of making short hops around towns and cities. Prices range from 1000r to US$1 or more, depending on the distance and the town; expect to pay more at night (inflation may also increase prices). It used to be that prices were rarely agreed in advance, but with the increase in visitor numbers a lot of drivers have got into the habit of overcharging. It’s probably best to negotiate up front, particularly in the major tourist centres, outside fancy hotels or at night.
Outboards (pronounced ‘out-boor’) are the equivalent of Venice’s vaporetto, a sort of local river-bus or taxi. Found all over the country, they are small fibreglass boats with 15hp and 40hp engines, and can carry up to six people for local or longer trips. They rarely run to schedules, but locals wait patiently for them to fill up. Those with time on their hands can join the wait, those in a hurry can charter the whole boat and take off. Another variation are the longtail rocket boats imported from Thailand that connect small towns on the upper stretches of the Mekong. Rocket is the definitive word and their safety is questionable.
The remorque-kang is a trailer pulled by a bicycle, effectively a kind of cyclo with the passenger travelling behind. The coming of the moto has led to a dwindling in numbers, but they are still seen in Battambang and Kampot. Fares are about the same as moto rides.
The remorque-moto is a large trailer hitched to a motorcycle and pretty much operates as a low-tech local bus with oh-so-natural air-conditioning. They are used throughout rural Cambodia to transport people and goods, and are often seen on the edge of towns ready to ferry farmers back to the countryside. Fares are very cheap, at around 100r per kilometre.
Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville have their very own tourist versions of the remorque-moto, with a cute little canopied trailer hitched to the back for two people in comfort or as many as you can pile on at night. These make a great way to explore the temples, as you get the breeze of the bike but some protection from the elements. These are often referred to as tuk tuks by foreigners travelling in Cambodia.
Rotei means ‘cart’ or ‘carriage’ and ses is ‘horse’, but the term is used for any cart pulled by an animal. Cambodia’s original 4WD, ox carts are a common form of transport in remote parts of the country, as they are the only things that can get through thick mud in the height of the wet season. They are usually pulled by water buffalo or cows. Horse-and-carts are commonly seen in rural Cambodia, although very few tourists like the idea of being pulled along by one of these pitiful horses. Some local community tourism initiatives now include cart rides.
Domestic flights offer a quick way to travel around the country. The problem is that the airlines themselves seem to come and go pretty quickly. There is currently only one domestic airline fully operational in Cambodia, Siem Reap Airways (FT; 720022; www.siem reapairways.com; hub Phnom Penh), and that is only an offshoot of Bangkok Airways. It serves the Phnom Penh to Siem Reap route with modern ATRs from France. The government plans to relaunch a national carrier in partnership with an Indonesian business consortium.
There are up to five flights a day between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and it is usually possible to get on a flight at short notice. However, tickets for Siem Reap Airways (US$75/115 one way/return) book out fast in peak season.
There are currently no flights to Ratanakiri, although they will likely resume at some stage. There used to be regular services to Battambang, Koh Kong, Mondulkiri and Stung Treng, but no airline has operated these routes for several years now.
The baggage allowance for domestic flights is only 10kg for each passenger, but unless you are way over the limit it is unlikely you will have to pay for excess baggage.
Helicopters Cambodia has offices in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and operates reliable choppers that are available for hire. It mostly operates scenic flights around Angkor, but can be chartered for any journey. Newcomer Sokha Helicopters has also moved into this business.
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