Last updated on September 5th, 2017
About fifteen years ago, there were very few cars in Phnom Penh, the royal capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia. We all had motorbikes already, cycles were too slow and tiring for city folks. We like Japanese made “Dreams”, a brandname by Honda that remains synonymous of reliability and speed, and the cheaper Korean “Daelim”, red workhorses of the working man in Cambodia that can carry whole families. There was hardly any traffic back then, and jam was something we ate with bread from the French colonial days.
About ten years ago, many people were driving second hand Japanese cars imported back from the US and Europe (Cambodians drive on the left side as in America and Europe, not on the right as in Japan). The “Land cruisers” were almost exclusively used by the UN very important people and the big bosses “who make cakes without flour” (that’s a useful Cambodian expression for you). An elephant here and there still ambled for the enjoyment of tourists around Wat Phnom and the riverside.
Five years ago, traffic started worsening. From the outskirts like Tuol Kork or Chrui Changva, it could take a good half hour when you needed only ten minutes. People could not go home for long lunches anymore (they still do but it takes them a couple of hours…).
These days, traffic in Phnom Penh is seriously bad. Anytime after seven in the morning to nine at night, you go nowhere fast in a car. As an esteemed visitor to our capital, I should feel obliged to give you a few tips on getting around in my home city without too much inconvenience.
Let’s review the options. Phnom Penh is one of the few Asian capital cities without public mass transport. No metro, no tram, no subway, no bus, no train, no boat, no atom transporter. Nothing to move the masses of commuters. The Japanese government tried a few years back to promote a shuttle service, and you can still see the rusted bus stops here and there around town. We were eager to use it, but it was already too slow to be viable. And somehow I doubt that if I write to my member of parliament to complain, government would do anything about it.
Cyclos are cycle rickshaws. They’ve been disappearing steadily for the past decade, ever since the appearance of speedy affordable motorbikes. If you’re not in a hurry. Why should you? you’re a visitor, so take is easy. Cyclos are cheap, rarely crash (and even if they crash, it’s at slow motion speed so you have plenty of time to get off), are comfortable (very important for fat people). Cyclos allow you to snuggle and get cozy, as several can share a ride. It’s the romance of days gone by. In Cambodia, the driver sits at the back of passengers at a higher level, a very nice position like a hawk among cars. Ladies should not wear cleavage as not to distract the driver and avoid traffic accidents. Cyclos are great when you need to move houses and transport bulky items (including fat people). Shops and businesses use cyclos for deliveries of sofas, desks, tables, mattresses and other heavy furniture.
Motos are motorbike-taxis. Moto is the Khmer word for motorbike (from the French motocyclette). The driver usually wears a helmet to comply with Cambodian traffic regulations. The passengers or customers need not wear helmets, although it is unlikely that their heads are any stronger than that of the driver. If you think you are going to take a lot of motos, then Gnarfgnarf the Travel Mouse and I would like to humbly suggest you invest ten dollars in a helmet that you can find locally. For thirty dollars, you get the speedway racer helmets, but they might be too hot in Cambodia’s weather.
How do you catch a moto-taxi in Phnom Penh? Interestingly, when you need one, there’s none to be found as far as the horizon. When you don’t need one, they will usually spot you as a visitor to our city and swarm like bees around honey! To signal for a moto, raise your index finger to the sky, left or right hand, the higher the better and yell at the top of your lungs “moto!”. Tell the driver your destination in Khmer. My foreign friends report that drivers will customarily nod and drive off in the wrong direction even if they have no clue about your stated destination. I tell my foreign friends and you, visitors to Phnom Penh: even for the local Khmer passengers, drivers just drive off in the wrong direction even if they have no clue about the destination.
You can negotiate the price before your bottom touches the seat of the moto, especially if you plan on driving to Angkor from Phnom Penh. Otherwise, most trips cost around a dollar for foreigners, and a little less for us locals. Make sure you have small change, especially thousand riel bills! The more people on the moto, and the fatter the passengers, the more it will cost you. Don’t bother haggling prices, we usually don’t. You can save 1000 riels here and there, but that’s just 25 cents!
I advise very fat to obese people against taking motos in Phnom Penh. When I was a student I sometimes worked as a moto driver and from those days I remember that my colleagues and I absolutely did not dare carry so very fat passengers. In the countryside of Cambodia, moto drivers are more skillful and can easily transport pigs, chickens, ducks, barrels of oil and jars of water. The Phnom Penh drivers do not have the experience and the balance to carry heavy human beings, who usually move more than sedated animals.
Remorques are often mistakenly called tuk-tuks, even by the locals. But a tuk-tuk is an auto rickshaw, whereas a remorque is a trailer that is attached to a motorbike. Remorque is the French word for trailer (pronounce “lemorque” with an “L” in Khmer). Remorques can carry whole families in relative comfort, along with suitcases and other personal belongings. They are definitely safer than motos and a good option if you are not comfortable with zipping around cars at high speed. Remorques are more expensive than motos, so you have to bargain prices before you go anywhere. Mainly tourists and visitors take remorques, which makes it more expensive for us locals.
If you chance upon a friendly remorque or moto driver, you should keep his telephone number. I rarely hail a moto off the streets. Instead I call to get picked up and dropped off. It’s cheaper and safer to have a regular driver who knows your habits and your home base or hotel. Many Cambodians commute to work using their regular moto driver.
Taxis provide shelter from the heat, the noise and the air pollution of the traffic in Phnom Penh. Although cyclos, motos and remorques are convenient for short hops and close by destinations, air conditioned cars are of course cooler. But you will get stuck in traffic. There are a few taxi companies around Phnom Penh. Almost all of them have been operating for just a few years. For safe reliable service, I would recommend Taxi Vantha, a small family owned private car service that has been around the longest. All drivers speak English and are dispatched only when you call them. The fares are reasonable, and the service has always been polite. My friends and I have used Taxi Vantha on a number of late nights when we were a little bit too sleepy to drive after too many Angkor beers. The drivers have always made sure we got back home safely and usually wait to see us into our homes before departing into the darkness… Taxi Vantha is an easy Gnarfgnarf pick, and is widely used by the local expatriate population of Phnom Penh as well.
I hope these few tips on transport and getting around Phnom Penh are helpful. I will post again when we get our subway or metro one day far away maybe.