Tips for driving a motorbike in Cambodia
Note: this post was originally written for the WorldNomands Off the Beaten Path blog, for which I contribute. The post was turned down, since driving a motorbike in Cambodia is illegal without a Cambodian licence.
Even though no one asks for a licence when renting, and lots of travelers do it, the company understandably did not want to endorse an illegal activity.
Adventurous travellers know that Cambodia is more than Angkor Wat and “happy” pizzas. Leave the backpacker trail and you’ll see gorgeous rural landscapes, under-explored temples, vibrant wildlife, and people who care about you beyond your wallet.
And one of the best ways to explore this country is on a motorbike, which you can rent in any city, except Siem Reap.
Driving one is incredibly easy, especially when you rent one with automatic transmission. But Cambodia is a country that demands a certain degree of caution. Scams, police corruption, bad roads and wild traffic mean you have to be sharp with a two-wheeler.
Rent (if possible) from an expat…
It’s a sad reality that can’t be ignored: Cambodia is rife with scams. In a country that has seen so much bloodshed and injustice, people learned that anything is fair game to survive, and that includes cheating earnest tourists out of their money.
Businesses owned by European expats tend to be, in my experience, a little better to deal with. They will be up-front about prices and conditions, like liability for damage. Most large cities will have at least one foreign-owned bike rental shop. Seek them out.
… or be explicit with a national
If you can’t find an expat shop, or you prefer to support local businesses, be sure to discuss all details of the rental with the owner. Do you have to pay for gas? Is the bike insured? How much do you have to pay for minor damages? For total loss?
Also, check for scratches and nicks before setting out and point those out to the owner.
Check the lights
It’s not only for safety at night. Under Cambodian law, motorbikes can’t turn their lights on during the day; this is reserved for officials. Civilians with their lights on during daytime can be stopped and fined by police.
Many bikes are imported from Thailand and China, and may have lights that are permanently on. Make sure you can switch the lights on and off.
Helmets and mirrors
It’s new Cambodian law to wear a helmet and have rearview mirrors on a motorbike. Make sure you have both if you don’t want to be stopped by cops.
Don’t engage the police
Don’t make eye contact with police. Don’t stop to ask them for direction. Don’t even acknowledge their existence.
Some cops will use any excuse to stop you for a bribe. If you just coast on by – especially with a helmet on – they won’t notice you.
If you do get pulled over and accused of something minor, you’ll probably be asked for a “fine” of around $20. Be polite and offer no more than $2. They’ll eventually relent and let you go. It’s less hassle than hauling you to the station.
Use traffic as a shield
Traffic at major cities can be intimidating. On your first few days, observe how locals drive and the tricks they use to negotiate scary intersections.
For example, you’ll see bikers use large vehicles as shields where there are no traffic lights. They wait for a car to do a left turn, which will halt the perpendicular traffic just long enough to let you to proceed.
Traffic in Southeast Asia is chaotic, but it’s organized chaos. Like a school of fish, the flow of motorbikes is an organic, living thing that responds to stimuli. It swerves around pedestrians and allows other members to leave.
If you’re in the middle of a swarm of bikes and want to turn right, start turning early and slowly. Other bikes will give way and let you out.
But make a sharp turn and you’ll cause a grisly pile-up.
Plan fuel for long trips
If you go on a long trip, plan ahead for fuel. It shouldn’t be a problem, since enterprising Cambodians sell gasoline on the side of roads that lack petrol stations. But ask around if these little stops exist where you’re going. And always leave the city with a full tank.
Park with attendants
In places like markets and restaurants, where many people come by bike, there is usually a parking attendant. He will guard your bike for 1000-2000 Cambodian riel. Use them. It takes little time for someone to causally roll your bike onto the back of a pickup.
Where there are no attendants, use the bike’s front-wheel lock and and extra chain for the back wheel. If possible, lock it to something fixed.