Biking Asia with Mr Pumpy!
Cycling Cambodia. The ride, the road, the facts.

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Cycling Cambodia
The 'Wild West' of Southeast Asia!

• Cambodia: General Riding Conditions

The Routes:
1. The Northern Route
Poipet to Phnom Penh on HWY 6 (461 km)
2. The Southern Route
Poipet to Phnom Penh on HWY 5 (435 km)
3. North to Laos
Phnom Penh to Pakse along the Mekong (428 km)
4. East to Bavat/Moc Bai (Vietnam)
Phnom Penh to Saigon on HWY 1 (237 km)
(Includes a brief description of the second crossing into Vietnam at the Mekong Delta.)

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.

The Roads:

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The Roads: An interesting mix of dirt and paved roads.

Good dirt roads: There's a lot of dirt roads in Cambodia. Some are smooth, firm and easy to ride and you can keep up a cracking pace of 25 km/hr.

Bad dirt roads: A lot of the dirt roads are in bad shape, with ruts, potholes, rocks and worst of all, powdery sand (silt).

The holes are sometimes big enough to swallow a car, but as long as the dirt is firm, and you are don't mind the odd spill, it can be exhilarating.

The silt sections are the worst, and you'll need to ride on the shoulder of the road, or just get off and push the bike for a while.

Good paved roads: There's some very good paved roads, especially the routes leading into and out of Phnom Penh in all directions.

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.

Traffic: Chaotic, but thankfully, not that much of it. It's only when you approach Phnom Penh that it gets busy, but even this is nothing to compare with Thailand or Vietnam.

Besides trucks, cars and pickups, there's a weird assortment of homemade vehicles cobbled together out of spare parts. It's a little like Mad Max (The Road Warrior). Quite a show.

Check out the dust!


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.

Dogs: Not many, and nothing to worry about. The dogs in Cambodia are extremely laid back and pleasant. Mr Pumpy has never been chased by a dog in Cambodia.

"These are my kinda dogs!" he says, whenever we pass one, which can get annoying.

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.

There's also a bunch of roadside repair guys in most towns who can tighten a nut and blow up your tyres if need be. Always cheap and friendly. I love these guys.

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.

Sugar Cane Juice and Tok-o-loks: All along the way during the day, you can drink cane juice, freshly squeezed. It's cheap and very refreshing.

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.

Hygiene: This is a problem, and it's best to avoid eating meat throughout Cambodia, except maybe in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and the other main touristy towns.

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!

Pete Jones - Tracksterman
Cycling Cambodia

Pete is a very experienced cyclist, and has done a lot of Cambodia. The fun bit is to find where his reports differ from Mr Pumpy's, and then to work out who's right. Your life may depend on it!

"I suspect that that Pete guy has never left home!" says Mr Pumpy,

Re the pic, is this Cambodia? You be the judge!

George Moore's
Cambodia - Laos - Vietnam
A gold mine of information.

Andy Brouwer's Cambodia Tales
Another gold mine!

Rich Garella's Cambodia
Rich is a journalist who lived in Cambodia for 4 years. Good information, sober facts and handy tips.

Ron Morris's Angkor Portal
Extensive news, links and travel information. Ron is an expat American living in Bangkok. A great resource.

Voice of Cambodia Radio International.
Daily updates.


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.

When you do come across a bridge that is down, you can still wheel your bike across, along with the locals. Not a problem.

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.

Currency: Cambodian Riel, US dollars and Thai Baht are accepted everywhere.
1 Baht = 100 Riel
1 USD = 4,000 Riel (40 B)

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.

Prices: Cheap!

Out on the road the prices are very cheap, but they go up quite a bit in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville.

Road prices:
Can of Coke, cup of coffee = 1,500 Riel (40c)
Bottle of water = 500 Riel (12c)
A bowl of noodles and vegetables = 1,000 - 4,000 Riel (25c - $1)
Hotel room with a/c = USD 10
Guest House room = USD 1 to 5

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.

Road border Crossings: Crossing into and out of Cambodia by road is possible for cyclists at:
1. Aranyaprathet/Poipet, HWY 5, into/out of Thailand.
2. Bavat/Moc Bai, HWY 1, into/out of Vietnam.
4. Tinh Bien (An Phu), HWY 2, into/out of Vietnam (the Mekong Delta)
3. Mekong River, HWY 7 (13), north of Steung Treng, into/out of Laos (near Don Det).

Note also:
1. You can ride from Sihanoukville to Koh Kong in the south west, but the crossing into Thailand (at Hat Lek in Trat Province) is by boat.
2. There is no road crossing into/out of Thailand at Preah Vihear in the north.

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.

The folks in Cambodia are very much like the folks in Laos: warm, welcoming, laid back, earthy, sensitive and unobtrusive. Not a bad combination.

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.

Now that peace has arrived, slowly, slowly the country staggers to it's feet, but it'll be many years before things approximate some kind of civilised order.

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.

Land mines: Perfectly safe, as long as you stick to the well beaten paths. The mines that are left are invariably in the out of the way places where you wouldn't be cycling anyway.

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?


How to get a
in Phnom Penh,
Pumpy style!

Phnom Penh

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.

You can get your Lao and Vietnam Visas in Phnom Penh at the respective consulates on a 24 hour turn around. No hassle.

The Last Home Guest House
The Last Home Guest House is worth a look. It's in a good position, near Wat Phnom and Sisowath Quay by the river. It's managed valiantly by Miss Poch, a young Cambodian lass who speaks excellent English. The rooms vary in quality, but the big attraction here is the safe environment and the laid back atmosphere in the dining area. They serve good but basic Western food, and Mr Pumpy got stuck in to the spaghetti bolognaise quite a bit.