Renting small scooters to move around locally is very popular in South East Asia, but to get a real bike to travel long-distance is a whole other story. Serious motorbike riding in South East Asia is for experienced drivers who want to travel independently and adventurously. If you want to enrol in such an adventure you need to be comfortable with riding on different terrains not fearing dust, misadventures and super-fast and life-challenging decision making.
When choosing a destination for a motorbike trip, many will be driven towards the famous and well-travelled routes in Vietnam. But if you want to go down a less travelled path, you can explore Cambodia. Less busy and a little less touristy, Cambodia is a great option for bikers.
Here you will find some tips on how to rent and how to go motorcycling through Cambodia. Plus, I added two of my favorites itineraries to discover the country through dust and jungles.
To drive a motorbike in Cambodia you should have a Cambodian permit. Thus said, it is pretty common to just drive with an international permit. This can give the local police an excuse to fine you, but it is going to be a matter of a few dollars. Make sure that your travel insurance covers motorbike accidents though.
For renting you have two options: you can rent from a local or from an expat business. The first option is cheaper but also a bit riskier. Road insurance is almost never included with local renters, so if the bike breaks down, gets stolen or you are involved in an accident, you will have to pay for it. The second and fancier option is to rent from a foreigner’s business. You will find them mostly in Phnom Penh. They can be twice or trice more expensive than local businesses, but you will actually get insurance and customer service.
Choose the most common motorbike model on the market. Almost everyone in Cambodia (and in South Asia in general) drives some kind of Honda. Choosing a common model is fundamental to be able to find spare parts easily along the journey if the bike breaks down.
Always ask for a helmet. Locals almost never wear helmets, even if driving in Cambodia is crazy dangerous most of the time. Moreover, not wearing a helmet is a popular excuse for police to fine you (even if no one else wears it).
I really don’t recommend riding with your partner behind you. Even if you are used to it back home, in Cambodia it will be a nightmare. The restricted space, the dust, the corrugated or semi paved roads and the hectic traffic will be a little too much. If you’re planning a long trip, rent one bike per person.
It is normal to leave your passport at the shop. They ask this to avoid theft or unpaid damages to their bikes. As scary as it seems, just take a big breath and trust the renter (but carry photocopies on you). If you’re pulled over, the police will just ask for your licence.
In Cambodia they honk a lot. But fear not, there’s always a good reason. With so many vehicles doing whatever on the road, honking means “watch out I’m moving close to you”. So it is usually a life-saver signal used for overtaking, turning, sudden U turns or simply while doing something risky.
So do as the locals and always honk when overtaking or making a turn. In general, choose a path carefully and stick to it trying not to zig zag too much. Everyone else will hopefully go around you.
Always wear a long sleeved T-shirts along with long trousers and a scarf on your mouth. Put sunscreen on your hands and on your face. This is a valid rule for every motorbike trip, but in Cambodia it is especially easy to get beaten up by the strong sun and the dust.
Always carry a rain cover for your backpack and a plastic poncho that is large enough to cover your legs as well. Tropical rain is sudden and strong.
Smartphones don’t always get signal in remote areas. For this reason, it’s always better to carry a good old paper map. If you’re lost, you can ask the locals. They may not be able to read a map but they can point out the direction of your destination.
Be careful not to underestimate distances. What looks like a major state road on a map can turn out to be a super busy, single track road used by oxcart, scooters, huge trucks, SUVs, local bus, etc.
Try to avoid the police. They will try to find any excuse (true or false that it might be) to fine you. In Cambodia it is very common to cross entire families of six on the same scooter, people carrying animals (dead or alive) or transporting massive loads of goods. No matter what, the police will rather stop the foreigners that drive carefully wearing a helmet. That’s because in Cambodia fines are a big part of policemen wages. If the police stop you, it will probably be a matter of a few dollars. In Cambodia road bribes can vary from 1 to 5$. Everything more than this means that they are trying to rip you off. In this case just play it cool, don’t pay attention to empty threats and haggle just like if you were in a market.
Cambodian roads are unpredictable as their drivers. Traffic in Phnom Penh is hectic at best and even paved roads will be extremely dusty and crumbling towards the edges. In cities they can be scattered with potholes and in the countryside dirt roads are usually lacking road signs.
On the main roads you will easily find gas stations, but if you’re driving off-road or far from the bigger centres you can stop along the road to the local mamas that sell gas in old coca cola glass bottles. It’s a bit more expensive but a life-saver in most cases.
If your bike breaks down, you will have to pay for the mechanic even if it’s not your fault and you just rented it. Don’t be afraid, minor fixies that will only cost you a few dollars. Anyway, it’s always a good idea to have the mechanic to call the renter. This way they can agree on the solution for the bike problem and you will get a better deal.
Now that you are all geared up and ready to go, here are two big loops that you can do in a couple of weeks starting from Phnom Penh.
The loop starts from Cambodia’s capital city Phnom Penh and takes you to Kampong Cham as the first stop. An old town that stretches on the banks of the Mekong River. Here you can visit several ancient temples or cross the bamboo bridge that takes to a small island.
The next stop is Sen Monorom. This leg is a great motorbike ride. Sen Monorom is a cool provincial capital, where the night temperature can drop as low as 15 degrees. Here you can visit the Mondulkiri Elephant Valley Project.
Then there’s Ban Lung, the capital of Ratanakiri Province. All around is a maze of red dirt tracks perfect to have fun and explore. Fun fact: it was the inspirational setting for Colonel Kurtz’s compound in the movie Apocalypse Now.
On the way to Siem Reap you can stop in Preah Rumkel, a small village on the Lao border, alongside the Mekong River. Famous for its rapids and waterfalls, its small river islands and the rich bird life, this is one of the Mekong River’s wildest and most beautiful stretches.
Once in Siem Reap you can visit the temples of the Angkor Wat complex, one of the wonders of the modern world.
A swift ride along the highway from Siem Reap to Kampong Thom, will take you to another river town with hidden jungle temples. From the banks of Stung Saen River to Phnom Penh it is going to be a busy ride home.
From the capital, with a dusty three hours ride you reach Kampot, and old river town where the French colonial style is still visible. It is even more so in the small beach town of nearby Kep. On the way there, you can take one of the many side tracks on the hills to look for pepper plantations and buy a little souvenir. Once in Kep, do not miss the local speciality: spicy krab!
From Kampot to Sihanoukville it’s an easy ride. The coast here isn’t amazing, and the city itself it’s a bit dreary. But from here you can get a ferry to the tropical paradise of Koh Rong or, if you don’t have the time, crash on Otres Beach, the only place with a cool vibe in the area.
The stretch from Sihanoukville to Battambang is pretty long and crosses the lush Cardamom Mountains. It’s a good idea to take a side track and stop for the night in a local village to experience the real rural Cambodia! Once in Battambang you can spend a day on Tonle Sap shores or taking a boat ride to the floating villages.
The last stop before going back to Phnom Penh is Siem Reap, where the marvellous Angkor Wat temple complex is situated. Here it is worth spending at least three to four days to relax in this touristy but nice town and enjoy the temples with no rush.