Cycling Cambodia. The ride, the road, the facts.
to Mr Pumpy's
Cambodia: General Riding Conditions
General: Ah, Cambodia! The roads are rough, the dust is out of control and pretty much everything outside of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is falling apart.
It's the Wild West of Southeast Asia, but, hey! fellow cyclist, there's a little bit of Lee van Cleef in all of us! If you're looking for some good, solid riding off the backpacker track, Cambodia may be the place to go.
A warning: Even along the main highways, Cambodia can get rough and difficult on a bike. Newbies take note.
Bad dirt roads: A lot of the dirt roads are in bad shape, with ruts, potholes, rocks and worst of all, powdery sand (silt).
Bad paved roads: There's also some bad paved roads, with bumps and pot holes. Worst of all, some of the paved roads have had the surface level stripped off and the rocky substrate is exposed. This makes for very difficult riding (Rattle! Rattle!), and you'll need to ride on the shoulder.
Road works - improving roads: There's a lot of road works in progress all over the country, so road conditions are improving rapidly. The only problem is that road works equal dust. A lot of dust.
The monsoon - deteriorating roads: Unfortunately, the monsoon (June & July) tends to beat the crap out of the dirt roads. Besides the mud, which makes them impassable, the rain also tends to wash the roads away. Where do they go? Nobody knows, but suffice to say they deteriorate.
Dust: "There's a lot of dust in Cambodia!" said Mrs Rattha, at the Chaktomuk Guest House in Kra Lanh.
"You're sure right about that, Mrs Rattha!" said Mr Pumpy.
Dust is probably the main problem for the cyclist in Cambodia. Mercifully there isn't a lot of traffic, but when trucks and cars do go by they kick up immense clouds of fine powder that gets in your eyes and mouth.
At it's worst it's a total brownout, but most of the time it's just gritty and annoying. After a day on the road, you'll be looking forward to a shower.
It follows that in the wet season, Mrs Rattha would be saying: "There's a lot of mud in Cambodia!" and she'd be right again! Cambodia would be impossible in the wet.
The main point being is that whilst the dogs may be scungey and full of germs the visiting cyclist isn't going get bitten and end up with rabies.
The bike: Because of the state of the roads, a mountain bike or tourer is best. A racer is definitely out.
Also, because of the dust, you will need to clean your bike every other day to keep it ship shape.
Bike shops: There's a few bike shops in Phnom Penh, but they only stock the basics. It follows that if you're riding the latest Stealth Bike you may be in trouble, but for most of us the bike shops are adequate.
Out in the regional towns there's always something approximating a bike shop, and basic spare parts and repairs are available.
Distance cycled each day: When the road is good you can do your usual 100 to 150 km per day, but this may drop down to about 50 or 60 km when the going gets tough, which is often enough.
Best time to go: Avoid the monsoon (May to October), as Cambodia turns to mud. Best time to go is December through February when there's no rain.
December is the cool season and probably the best time to cycle. Day temperatures sit around 25 Celsius and the nights are pleasantly balmy. By February the day temperature will be hitting 30+ Celsius and beginning to hot up.
Food and water: Cambodian food is spicy and varied and although it may not be up to Vietnamese standards, it's pretty good. In the main tourist centres the food is first class, but out in the small towns the main problem is hygiene (see below).
Out on the road, food, snacks, bottled water, sugar cane juice, Coke, ice and fruit are available in the towns and road side stalls. Every 5 to 10 km. Not a problem!
The only exception to this is the north leg up along the Mekong to Laos. Past Steung Treng things get a little remote, and you will need to carry some supplies. See North to Laos, above, for details.
Also, in the evening, all over Cambodia the tok-o-lok stalls open, and Mr Pumpy had at least two every night. See The Great Drink! on East to Vietnam.
Out on the road, Mr Pumpy stuck to fried vegetables for lunch and dinner, but still had minor stomach trouble five days out of seven. Other than nipping into the bushes every now and then to relieve yourself, this won't impact on the riding to any large degree, but it's a constant annoyance.
The big problem will be if you eat some really dodgey meat. Sticking your head down a Cambodian toilet at three in the morning isn't any fun. Trust me on this!
Bridges: There's a lot of bad bridges, but like the roads, they're being repaired day by day. A lot of them are temporary structures, fitted with metal plates, but perfectly functional.
Hills: None on any of these routes.
There is, however, some hills south of Phnom Penh around Kampot.
Accommodation: The hotels are about USD $5 to 10 per night, and good enough value.
The Guest Houses are very cheap and excellent value. About USD $2 to 5 per night. There's a surprising number of Guest Houses in the small towns you pass through and you should have no trouble finding a bed every night. If you can't find one, ask around.
There is also quite a few Wats around, and if you can't find a Guest House, the monks will put you up no problem. Mr Pumpy used this option on the ride out along the Mekong to Laos.
Internet cafes: In the major tourist areas there's a heap, but they're a bit thin on then ground out in the boonies. They also tend to be expensive in the little towns, and the connection is slow. Mr Pumpy simply waited and emailed from Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
Cambodian Riel, US dollars and Thai Baht are accepted everywhere.
Money: You can use US dollars and Cambodian Riel throughout Cambodia.
In fact, there is no real need to change US dollars into Riel, as it won't save you any money in the end.
Everybody knows the exchange rate (1 USD = 3,900 Riel) so even in the out of the way towns you can use dollars to buy things and they will give you back change in Riel.
Just make sure you have plenty of USD small notes. Ones, fives and the odd ten dollar note is best. Anything over that may cause a problem. Cambodians don't carry a lot of ready cash.
On a day to day basis, Mr Pumpy usually carried around about 5 dollars in Riel, and about another 20 US dollars in small notes.
Whenever he changed Australian dollars or travelers cheques at the bank or money changer, he asked to be given US dollars in small notes.
Money Change: If you need to change your local money into Riel or US dollars, you can do so in all the midsize towns. There'll be a money changer (usually the Chinese gold shop) in the market. They will change all well known currencies and Travelers Cheques into US dollars, and change big US notes into smaller ones at no charge. Ditto for the banks.
Out on the road the prices are very cheap, but they go up quite a bit in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville.
Visas: You need a visa for Cambodia. They are available in Bangkok and Saigon, hassle free on about a 24 hour turn around. The price is usually about 15 or 20 USD for a one month, single entry visa.
However, you can buy your Cambodian visa at the border post at Aranyapratet/Poipet. A straight forward procedure. You need a photo and 1000 Thai Baht.
border Crossings: Crossing into and out of Cambodia by road
is possible for cyclists at:
See Border Crossings in the ride descriptions for more details.
The people: "I love Cambodians! They're my favourite people in the whole world!" says Mr Pumpy. Another sweeping statement, but he's not the first Westerner to fall in love with this most remarkable of cultures.
Social harmony: Social harmony, saving face and respect for elders are the bench marks of traditional Cambodian culture.
Saving face simply means maintaining your dignity within the social hierarchy. This involves keeping one's social poise and not acting in any way that will ruffle feathers or cause tension, no matter what situation you find yourself in.
Spelt out for us barangs it means this: Getting angry is a sign of weakness. So one can conclude, from the Cambodian perspective, that there's a lot of very rich but very immature foreigners running about the place these days.
However, saving face does not translate as letting every shyster and n'er-do-well between Poipet and Bavat drive a truck over you. Many tourists don't stand up for themselves out of a fear of offending the locals, but being cheated translates equally well into Cambodian and English.
If someone's being a jerk, or taking you down, be firm, but try not to lose your cool. The strong, silent type, is a good thing to aspire towards in Asia. (See The Quiet Cyclist on The Southern Route.)
The Society: 30 years of war and civil unrest has created profound dislocations within the Cambodian social structure. For your average, poor Cambodian, surviving day to day is a struggle.
For the Western cyclist, however, things are pretty OK. The government issued a "be nice to tourists" decree (2001), and the local populace, wherever you go, will be more than pleased to see you ride in.
Khmer Rouge: Out of action these days. Not a problem.
The KR still control the diamond mines down in Pailin, 100 km south of Poipet on the Thai border, but even that area is OK to visit.
If you'd like to meet some murdering, thieving, raping knuckle heads, then Pailin might be the place to go. Mr Pumpy passed on that one.
Safety: "Cambodia is the safest place in Southeast Asia!" says Mr Pumpy. Another sweeping generalisation from the world's cutest cyclist, but again, he's not far wrong.
Mr Pumpy never felt threatened in Cambodia, either night or day, wherever he went, and he's a very "went" character.
There is a lingering Western notion of violence and lawlessness associated with Cambodia, but this is not accurate these days. The usual advice is to avoid wandering around the back streets of Phnom Penh after midnight, but Mr Pumpy would often roll back in to the hotel at 2 in the morning, and had no trouble. (Where does he go?)
Still, it pays to careful, but the the days of getting shot in a Phnom Penh alleyway are pretty much gone.
There was never any trouble from pick-pockets, and thievery didn't seem to be as big a problem as say, Vietnam.
However, don't take any risks. Active mine fields are marked with with red sticks and 'skull and cross bones' signs. You will pass a few deactivated mine fields on the way, but along the roads there is absolutely nothing to worry about in the mine department.
As a Western cyclist, travelling on the main routes, you would have to be very unlucky, or very stupid, to get blown up by a mine in Cambodia.
Karaoke: Karaoke is Mr Pumpy's favourite nighttime activity in Asia. "If you haven't tried it, then don't knock it!" he says.
Unfortunately, Prime Minister Hun Sen closed most of the traditional karaoke bars down in 2001, so now you gotta get up and sing along live to a guy with a synthesiser. And it so happens that these guys know every song ever written. It's a classy act, and a lot of fun.
See Mr Pumpy, the Karaoke King! on North to Laos, for details.
Prostitution/HIV-AIDS: Prostitution, like the dust, is out of control in Cambodia, and even if you're a bike riding Mormon evangelist, you're gonna run into it.
Recent estimates (Jan. 02) have put the HIV infection level amongst Cambodian sex workers at somewhere between 30 and 50%. As well as HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea and herpes are having a marvelous time of it down at the back end of town, so if you're gonna indulge, maybe keep your bike shorts on.
Angkor Wat: An absolute must see. In all of Mr Pumpy's travels in Asia, Angkor Wat rates as the most astonishing man-made thing he has seen.
Angkor is scattered over a very large area (about 50 km radius) and it's not so much the buildings themselves, but the sheer size and collective equation of the place that is mind boggling.
It's worth at least two days sight seeing, and riding your bike around the area is the way to go. You can ride your bike down from Siem Reap about 8 km away, and there's no extra charge to take it in.
If it's a full moon, all the better. Stick around and go for a night ride.
See The Northern Route for details.
Other cyclists: Quite a few. It seems 'everyone' is heading to Cambodia these days, so if you wanna beat the rush, and experience the raw, untamed, chaotic wonder of the place, now is the time to start planning.
Backpackers: 99% of the tourist activity is centred in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) and Sihanoukville, down by the beach.
The Capitol Guest House runs tourist buses from Thailand into Siem Reap via Poipet and from Vietnam into Phnom Penh via Moc Bai, and you'll see them bounce past every now and then along the highway.
My! How comfortable, white and well fed they look as they zip past on their big adventure, while the brave international cyclist pedals along the road spitting out the dust. Stopping to shake your fist won't help, so it's best just to ignore them.
There's also a heap of seat warmers coming through from Thailand at Koh Kong, the border crossing in the far south west of Cambodia. The road from Sihanoukville to Koh Kong has just been completed, so this is now an option for cycling.
Out of Phnom Penh, most backpackers take the boat to Siem Reap, and the a/c buses down to Sihanoukville, so there's not that many coming through overland on highways 5 and 6.
Also, from Phnom Penh up to Laos, all of the backpackers are taking the bus and boat, so out on the road, along the Mekong, you won't find any.
You'd have to be insane: If you talk to the backpackers, they will tell you that you'd be certifiable to ride the roads in Cambodia! But as always, little do they know, and how do you tell them?
And why bother?
to get a
Phnom Penh is a pleasant enough town, not too big, not too small, with plenty of restaurants, hotels and Guest Houses and plenty to see and do. It's actually very spread out, so the bike is a great way to get around.
The traffic is chaotic, and motorbikes and cars can come at you from all sorts of unexpected angles, so keep your eyes open. Once you get the hang of it it's OK, but it takes a few days.
As is usual for Cambodia, the dust is a constant irritant, but as capital cities go, Phnom Penh is pretty OK.
Last Home Guest House