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).
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.
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).
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.