Driving in Sihanoukville

For travelers who don't want to be hampered by relying on taxis, renting a motorcycle/motorbike or a car is an option. Whether you're renting something with two wheels or four, it's recommended you acquire a Cambodian driver's license. If you are pulled over and cannot produce a valid license, the fine ranges from 3,000KHR ($0.75) for a motorbike, to 5,000KHR ($1.25) for a car. True, not a hefty fine, but it's always a good idea to obey the law, as fine amounts are always subject to change. Plus, your Cambodian license would be a pretty cool souvenir, right?

Road Rules

Ekareach Street
Ekareach Street - Sihanoukville's main drag
The first impression most people get is that Cambodia has no traffic laws. While this may seem true, there are two laws that are usually always enforced: the helmet law for motorbikes and the seat belt law for cars. In Cambodia, traffic drives on the right, (the same as continental Europe and the US), and cars are left-hand drive. A few right-hand drive cars may be floating around, having come from neighboring Thailand. Most other traffic laws are just common sense - drive on the proper side of the road, maintain a reasonable and prudent driving speed, stop at red traffic signals and heed at level crossings. Most major roads in town are of fairly decent quality, but many smaller roads, although surfaced, may have rough patches and large potholes; be aware, as many of these obstructions are simply not marked. There are also many unsurfaced roads that may succumb to horrible flooding during the rainy season, so be careful before attempting to drive down them.

Dealing with the Traffic Police

As a foreigner driving a rented motorbike, you should expect to be pulled over for what we jokingly refer to as a DWW, or "Driving While White". Traffic police often target foreigners for no other reason than not being Khmer, often citing you for not having a driver's license or helmet. These fines should cost no more than 5,000 Riel per infraction, and can be paid on the spot (one can guess where exactly the money goes). While this can be construed as racism, it's better to think of it as "Living in Paradise Tax", a small fee you must incur for living or staying for a long time in a cheap foreign country with beautiful weather, beaches and people.

The most common traffic violations you're likely to incur are driving without a helmet, driving without a license and driving with your headlights on during the day. Yes, it's actually illegal to drive with your headlights on in the daytime, but not illegal to drive with no headlights on at night. Truly one of the most absurd laws in the world, but it will get you pulled over if you're in violation. The reasoning behind this is that the privilege of driving with headlights is reserved for royalty and high-ranking government officials.

Renting a Motorbike

Motorbikes are ubiquitous in Cambodia - and most guesthouses and tour shops offer rentals, or can arrange rentals. For $5 to $8 per day, you'll be able to rent a 100cc motorbike, perfect for darting about town and to the beaches. More powerful bikes, such as 250cc dirt bikes and real motorcycles cost more per day - up to $10. There is a law requiring a helmet to be worn while driving, so be sure you receive one when renting your bike. Sikhs are exempt from the helmet law. Most rental outfits require a passport as collateral, but we recommend you do not allow them to keep hold of it - offer cash to a credit card instead. Be aware of scams - sometimes, the owner of the bike will "steal" it from you, then charge you the full amount for the bike. The best way to prevent this is to not tell them where you're staying and to buy a heavy-duty bike lock or chain.

Renting a Car

There are two ways to rent a car here: by yourself, or with a driver. There are currently no major car-rental agencies such as Hertz, Avis or Budget operating in Sihanoukville... all rental agencies are privately owned, and do not have fleets large enough to offer a discounted price for long-term rentals. Car rental can be arranged through your hotel or any tour operator, and will usually cost around $25 per day. Obviously, this is not a very cost-effective solution for longer stays. For the same amount of money, you can rent a car with a driver - pretty much a taxi that you own for the day, or just part of it. For short trips around town or to local attractions or parks, this is a good option, especially in the rainy season when going by motorbike can be perilous and wet. Short trips around town will cost you anywhere from $4 to $10, depending on how long the driver needs to wait. A round trip to the Kbal Chhay waterfalls or Ream National Park with plenty of time to stay and explore will cost around $20.

Road Safety & Accidents

The most important thing to remember is that you're pretty much in the wild west of traffic rules. Cambodia is a third-world country, and as such it lacks certain road education and infrastructure that westerners take for granted. Most Cambodians you'll see zipping around on motorbikes do not have licenses, and more often than not, have no formal driving education. With this in mind, do not expect them to yield properly, look when they merge into traffic or obey traffic laws. The driving here may seem chaotic (and it is), but there does exist a strange self-learned symbiosis between drivers... if you can master these driving mannerisms and adapt, your chances of having a crash will decrease.

Do NOT drive drunk. Your life (and others' lives on the road) are not worth the extra $1 to $2 it will cost you to leave your motorbike (or car) where you've been drinking and take a taxi home, and back again when you sober up. If you're worried about having your bike stolen overnight (which can and does happen), you can always hire two motorbike taxis - one for you to ride on, and one to drive your bike home for you. You will need to pay them both of course, but this is a much better option than getting in a painful or fatal accident.

We do encourage tourists and expats who rent motorbikes here to exercise extra caution when driving at night. Cambodians will drive intoxicated, and many fatal accidents occur because of this. Being in a poor third-world country, you, as a foreigner will always be at fault for any accident whether or not you actually were. This is simply a part of staying here, and something most expats and tourists should accept.

Even with all these precautionary suggestions, we are not trying to discourage foreigners from using their own transportation, as it's a great way to experience the area on your own schedule, we only wish to inform travelers and expats of the dangers of driving here, and to use extra caution at all times when driving.

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