Transport Safety in Cambodia - Know Before You Go

Cambodia is a beautiful and ancient country however local transport is still catching up with the tourism boom. World Nomads contributor Patrick Leone looks at how you can get around the Kingdom safely.

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Photo © GettyImages/Ashit Desai

Cambodia is a beautiful country emerging from a troubled past. Angkor Wat reminds us of the former great civilization, and Siem Reap and Koh Rong give us a glimpse of the future. Local transportation is still catching up with Cambodia's tourism boom, but there are many ways travelers can get around and do it safely.

Border Scams

You can apply for visas online or in person on arrival. Some locals will offer, for a fee, to take you to an office to fill out the application, but it's easy to do it yourself.

The border officers take their position very seriously and will turn people away for misbehaving, so be polite. Despite the seriousness of the legitimate officers, there are myriad scams being carried out by fake officers. A popular scam is the “immunization check,” where a uniformed person will request to see your immunization card. After showing you a tattered example, he will ask you to pay a dollar. It’s best to smile and cheerfully say "no, thank you". He may call after you but he won’t pursue it. If things do get heated, it's better to pay a dollar than get turned away at the border.

Getting Around

Tuk Tuks

Like most southeast Asian countries, the motorbike is the preferred mode of transportation for locals in Cambodia. Tuk Tuks, or carts pulled by motorbikes, are relatively cheap and a quick way to get around. Prices vary, be sure to haggle for the best deal.

Tuk Tuks in Phnom Penh are often enclosed with chicken wire. This isn’t to keep you from falling out, but to prevent people from reaching in. Snatch and dash crimes are an issue in the capital but the risk in smaller cities like Kampot and Battambang is much lower. Always try to travel in one of these protected Tuk Tuks, and if that's not possible, make sure your bag is stowed in a safe place. Good drivers will remind you of this.

Motorbikes

Traveling by motorbike can be a great way to get out of Cambodia's urban centers to see the hidden gems the countryside has to offer.

Helmets are not required by law, but insist on one as you will need it to for your travel insurance to be valid. Some rental places will try to scam tourists into paying for the damage they are not responsible for so take photos of any existing damage before riding off.

Buses

Minibusses and tour buses are the best way to travel between cities in Cambodia. Train services are limited despite the government's ambition to have a nationwide rail network, which is moving at a snail's pace. Minibus services and quality vary wildly so be sure to check online reviews. When booking a minibus tour ask how many passengers have booked. Minibus companies will cancel trips if they don't have enough passengers claiming some other trivial mechanical failure. Try to avoid night tips on minibusses as they are more prone to getting into accidents due to poor road conditions, lack of street lights and drunk drivers.

Hire Cars

Foreigners wishing to drive in Cambodia must hold a Cambodian driver license. If you don't have one, private cars with a driver are available but can be expensive. The best way to find a reliable ride is to ask travelers or expats, as locals will ask a very high rate. Beware that if booking a ride in advance the nice car you are shown when booking might not be the one you are picked in. Agree on the rate before getting in the car to avoid an argument with the driver at the end of the ride.

Boats

Boat travel in Cambodia has seen a decline with road conditions improving across the country. There are some tours between cities but they can be subject to water levels and weather.

Koh Rong and the surrounding islands are a great alternative beach destination to those in other southeast Asian countries. Speed ferries run throughout the day. There are a few operators with boats of varying sizes. The larger boats are more stable but many of the piers on the island are too small for them to dock in windy conditions and smaller boats may be used instead without prior notice. When the weather is good and the sea calm, it’s a great ride. When the weather is ugly, it can be a harrowing experience.

Bear in mind, safety standards in Cambodia may not be what you are used to at home. If the boat is overcrowded, don't get on it. If the boat captain and crew appear drunk, find another boat which has a sober crew. Avoid traveling by boat at night and in bad weather.

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