You walk out of your hotel onto the street, bags packed, ready for a day of sightseeing. You take a few steps out the front door and immediately you hear it. Faintly at first, like a voice lost on the wind. As you continue to walk it gets louder, many voices now. You approach the street corner and you realize that the voices are addressing you. People, many of them, sitting on motorbikes with fancy covered carriages in tow, and they are speaking to you in English. These are the legendary “Tuk Tuk” drivers of Cambodia. Shouting their singsong call that will later become the most uttered English words you hear in Cambodia.
“Hello, sir! Tuk Tuk?”
Getting around Cambodia is very different from getting around a county like Taiwan. In Taiwan, you can get from Point A to Point B, with almost zero human interaction. Automated ticket machines and mass public transit mean that your seat is secured, your arrival time scheduled. In Cambodia, all transport is personal, every ride a negotiation, and the route to your destination is fluid depending on traffic. A beautiful, semi-functional, chaos.
Modes of Transport
There are many modes of transport to choose from in Cambodia, all of them involve dealing with the driver if you are taking a personal vehicle, or a private company if you are taking a bus. The only time we ever saw a taxi-stand was to get into town from the airport.
1. Tuk Tuk
By far the most common form of transport in Cambodia is the Tuk Tuk. Also referred to as a “Remork-Moto”. The vehicle is characterized by a covered carriage towed behind a motorcycle. They typically seat up to 4 people on cushioned benches. You can find them on nearly every street corner and especially clustered around tourist areas. Their classic call of “Hello sir! Tuk Tuk?” can be heard everywhere you go.
The first step in hailing a ride involves a negotiation. Our experience is that they start the bidding absurdly high in the hopes of catching an uninformed tourist. Usually, they can be talked down to less than half their asking price. Once you’ve been in the country for a few days, you start to get the hang of the $/mile calculation that is going on, as trips between downtown and the main tourist attraction have more-or-less a standard rate.
Rickshaws are small, 3-wheeled vehicles, that are also abundant in Cambodia. They can seat up to 2 comfortably. While you can certainly go up to an idle rickshaw driver and negotiate a price, these little guys are most commonly hailed using a phone app (see next section). Prices tend to be 15-20% cheaper than a Tuk Tuk, and we ended up using Rickshaws for the majority of our getting around.
Moto’s are exactly what they sound like: motorbikes. These are another form of transport that cater to more adventurous, solo-travelers. Prices are dirt cheap and usually faster because you can slice through traffic. You just hop on the back, say a quick prayer, and take off (helmet optional).
Also, used by the average person to get around. For obvious reasons we did not choose this form of transport.
4. Bicycle & E-bike
Bicycles are popular in Siem Reap, the main town outside The Temples of Angkor. Prices run from $3-5 per day for a standard cruiser. There are also electric bikes available for $10/day. During our trip we saw many tourists riding bikes around Angkor Wat. However, I calculated that during a typical day of sightseeing at various temples, we clocked in around 40 kilometers of road distance traveled. When the temperature outside is 95˚F, with the sun blazing and high-humidity, you should make sure you have enough water before taking off for the temples with this mode of transport.
We like to walk! Sadly, we did not enjoy walking in Cambodia. Phnom Penh especially is downright hazardous. For one, there are rarely sidewalks, and the ones that do exist are used as parking lots. You are forced to walk side-by-side with the flow of traffic and the road shoulder is often built up with debris and trash. Siem Reap is much better for walking because there are fewer cars and wider avenues, but still not a super pleasant experience outside of the “Pub Street” where cars are not allowed.
6. Private Bus
To go in between major cities in Cambodia, privately run, air-conditioned, buses are the vehicle of choice. We spent $15 to go from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap with a highly-rated operator and the trip was quite comfortable. They pick you up from your hotel and help you arrange transport when you arrive on the other end. However, buses are slowwww… There isn’t really a highway system in Cambodia and the bus makes frequent stops for snacks and bathroom breaks. Phnom Penh to Siem Reap takes about 7 hours.
Phone apps have taken off in Cambodia as a way to call rides. As someone who detests having to haggle for every single ride this was a life-saver. The prices are cheaper than a typical negotiated ride as well. The two main apps we saw were PassApp and Grab.
PassApp can arrange for taxis, Tuk Tuks, or rickshaws, but in our experience it was most widely used by rickshaws. They even transparently quote you the price up front.
We didn’t use Grab but it seemed to be a better way to hail Tuk Tuks. Prices are about the same as PassApp but because its mostly Tuk Tuks, which are more expensive, we didn’t use this app.
While in Phnom Penh, we mostly used the PassApp to hail rickshaws. Typical prices were $1-2 per ride within town. We tried walking short distances around the neighborhood a few times, but it was not particularly enjoyable.
In Siem Reap (Angkor Wat), we also used the PassApp quite a bit, but we ended up having to take Tuk Tuks a few times between the farther flung temples where cell service is spotty. Typical price on PassApp to get from downtown to Angkor Wat is $3.
In our opinion, if you plan to spend a day sightseeing at various temples, you should arrange a driver for the day. We negotiated $10 to have our driver stick with us all afternoon as we went from temple to temple. The PassApp works well if just going between downtown and Angkor Wat, but once you start to venture out from there the system breaks down because there are few drivers and cell service is unreliable.
At first glance, transport in Cambodia seems really cheap! But in reality it is death by a thousand cuts. Every little ride costs you something and because walking is so unpleasant, you have to call a ride for medium-short distances. It is overall cheaper than in the US, but still more than we were expecting. Fortunately, lodging is extremely cheap here so it all evens out.
As a final note, the drivers we met were all hard-working and honest people. Even though they may haggle over the price of a ride, they don’t push it too far, and will usually agree on a reasonable amount. Also, once the deal is made, they stick to it. We never had anybody try to pull funny-business with the ride once we were underway. They are also very knowledgeable tour guides! It’s worth noting that many people here are quite poor, and an extra dollar may mean little to you, but can mean a lot to them. We always tried to tip a little extra on top of the quoted amount.
By the end of our time in Cambodia, we were enjoying being chauffeured around the temple sites, wind blowing through our hair, as our driver narrowly dodged pedestrians, e-bikes, rickshaws, scooters, and buses. Once you get the hang of things, it’s actually a very fun way to travel!
Stay tuned for more on The Temples of Angkor!