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March 10, 2019
picture of suzuki nex 110cc scooter

Riding and Surviving a Scooter Hire in Phnom Penh

If you have ever been to Cambodia, you would agree with me that driving a scooter or motorbike is an experience that you would certainly wish to share with your family and friends. The recklessness of these drivers will keep you wondering if these drivers ever attended a driving class, or owned a driver’s license. No wonder many westerners wonder how these drivers are issued a driver’s license. Unfortunately, they don’t! This article will enlighten you on the techniques needed to ride and survive a scooter hire in Phnom Penh.

Irrespective of how careful and trained you are, if you ride a scooter in Cambodia, you are likely to have an accident.  This happens to everyone at some point. With my numerous years of experience as someone who hires motorbikes in Phnom Penh, I have been able to come up with some excellent techniques that will help you survive a scooter ride in this Asian city. Endeavor to make use of these techniques to avoid falling victims to these numerous bike accidents.

Despite what you may have heard, Asian drivers aren’t actually dreadful. After all, they have always managed to survive in cities with weak traffic systems. It would be correct to call them “inconsiderate drivers”; based on the western culture.

Understand the Cambodian Driver’s Mentality

Setting aside your western mentality will help you to understand the Cambodian driver’s mentality. When you realize the fact that you are no longer in your country where you are at liberty of using the auto pilot owing to how safe and organized the road network is, your chances of having an accident will be reduced.  Language and lack of time tenses, also plays a vital role here.

In most  Asian languages (including Khmer), it’s quite tasking to differentiate the past, present or future tense from one another, but this isn’t the case in the English language where everything is stated in an exact frame of time. For instance in Cambodia, the sentence “I am a Teacher” could mean “I used to be a teacher,” “I am studying to become a teacher,” or “I will become a teacher in the nearest future.” When you fail to understand what the speaker is trying to say, you might find it pretty difficult differentiating the present from the past or future.

How Time Constructs affects Cambodia drivers

One of the biggest challenges you will face while driving on the Cambodia roads, is the poor driving techniques adopted by most drivers. Most drivers are reckless and do not look out for oncoming vehicles or scooters before pulling out of a street, turning at a corner or even changing lanes. When these drivers narrowly escape an accident, instead of being more conscious after such incidents, they will gladly exclaim they were lucky and that’s the end of it. Their recklessness continues! Though this isn’t applicable to every Cambodian driver, I would suggest you treat all with great care.

Let’s then proceed to how you can ride a scooter in Cambodia

1) Hire a good Scooter

A good number of places that rent scooters in Cambodia are being managed by unprofessional staff. Most times, these scooters are poorly managed with broken signal lights, non-functional brakes, and lots more. Many of these places do not adjust their scooters to suit those that they are renting it out to. They are quite expensive with the old and smaller scooters costing about 70 USD  a month, whereas you could pay less to get a newer, safer, and bigger bike. We keep costs low by having almost no overhead (no storefront), and relying by word of mouth for customers (no marketing expense).

Be on the lookout for the following features while hiring a scooter:

  • Go for scooters with  at least 110 cc which has the capability of accommodating bigger and heavier people, especially westerners.
  • Go for newer scooters, as older ones consume more gas and most times they do not accelerate properly thereby leading to accidents.
  • Make sure it has extended mirrors on both sides to enable you check for vehicles behind you before swapping lanes.
  • Check the brakes and ensure it is functioning properly because a large number of these rental shops do not comprehend its importance.
  • Check its tires and ensure they are thick. This is one of the main reasons why there are so many road accidents. Most often, these scooters’ tires slip from underneath the bike when riding over sand or gravel on the road, but using a thicker wheel helps in maintaining stability and in preventing this from happening.

2) Wear a Helmet

If you have ever been to Phnom Penh, you will notice that a lot of locals do not wear helmets when riding a scooter. When stopped by the police, all you have to do is to pay a fine of around 1-5 US dollars  which is relatively inexpensive. Surprising right! Well the abundance of freedom can be alluring, but if you gravitate towards experiencing this freedom and proceed to riding without a helmet you would have yourself to blame if anything happens to you along the line. Remember you are riding on a Cambodian road, where accidents are bound to occur.  Just because everyone does it, doesn’t make it right. To avoid having your head broken during such unfortunate accidents, always wear a helmet.

Also note that Cambodians, do not touch internal organs (it is their tradition) therefore their cleanup crew will leave your busted brain and lying all around until it is dried up, rotten, and blown away. If you don’t believe me, try Googling an image search on ‘scooter bike accidents in Cambodia’ to see for yourself. Would advice you wear a helmet to stay save and avoid such unfortunate incidents. In conclusion, we give you a FREE helmet, so just wear one to keep your brain from becoming the soup of the day.

3) Drive at a moderate speed

We all are aware of the fact that speed kills.  It is quite easy to accelerate on scooters in Cambodia in order to get around traffic and get to your destination faster. But what happens when your motorbike crashes owing to your speed? Will you die or live to tell your story? I keep asking myself these questions whenever I see a motorbike accelerating at top speed. You need to remember that life cannot be bought, neither can it be replaced. Therefore always ensure that you drive your scooter at moderate speed limits.

You need to remember that there are great chances of someone driving up to you and pulling out in front of you or trying to switch lanes while accelerating at top speeds. This isn’t your home country, therefore you need to be on the lookout for such reckless drivers and accelerate moderately.

It’s quite easy to swiftly zip in and out between cars in Cambodia owing to the poor traffic rules, but always remember that you are riding between cars and there are chances that some other rider will pull out in front of you. Ride safely; you will definitely get to your destination, and remember Cambodians are usually late, so no need to worry about being exactly on time.

4) Don’t drive all the way to the right

Most countries advise motorists to drive on the right side of a road with two lanes. This is usually to avoid getting your car hit by cars moving at faster rates. In Cambodia as a motobike driver, you should drive on the right, but not the far right. This far right area is reserved for people turning right immediately, or drivers driving the wrong way (crazy I know). When turning right, always make sure to double check know one is driving fast and will try to pass you on your right. When arriving a traffic light, cars usually tend to leave some reasonable amount of space in front and behind their vehicles when stopped in traffic for motorbikes to also zig-zag their way through, so during stopped traffic feel free to be on the left, right, center, etc just be aware if traffic starts to move.

Furthermore, avoid riding the center line when you are on a major road (monivong, moniroth, Mao Tse Tung, etc), as these big roads are made up of cross streets and someone can easily pull out from your left. Also, when you are on a single and narrow road with curves, expect cars and motorbikes from the opposite direction to be in the middle and give yourself room by staying out of their way. 

Other threats to lookout for:

While riding a motorbike in Cambodia, you need to be super-conscious of your environment as it is not a time to relax and enjoy the view. Remember this isn’t your country where there is proper flow of traffic and where motorists are trained. Here, things are done differently, you will need to focus on what happening around you and ahead of you, and anticipate several possibilities.

  • No Media Coverage on Accidents: Cambodians, detest reporting anything that might scare off tourist from visiting their land. Hence, they do not report some vital and sensitive information to the media especially – road accidents. Do not let this misinformation; deceive you as this country happens to be among the top 5 most dangerous places to ride. Let this be known to you.
  • Painted Lines Become Slippery: Whenever it rains in Cambodia, or when a shop owner whose shop is by the road side washes his shop, the painted road markings tend to be slippery. It’s therefore advisable to avoid riding close to such markings, and in crossing the path of a painted road, ride slowly and gradually to avoid crashing.
  • Gravel and sand: Gravels and sands are one of biggest causes of non fatal road accidents in Cambodia. When riders ride too close to the side of the road, their motorbike wheel tends to skid out of control thereby making the bike to skid. Always lookout for the condition of the road while riding, and watch out for sand and gravel especially on the entrance ways to parking lots.

Avoiding distractions

Avoid Distraction: There are lots of things that can easily distract your attention when riding in Cambodia, especially in Phnom Penh. Temples are beautifully situated everywhere, you will get to see a couple of child monks walking and beautiful women walking along the road, food stalls situated with music to stirrup the environment, and wonderful sights of cows and water buffalos. You need to ignore all these and focus all your attention on what is happening on the road in front of you to avoid accidents.

Chinese Tourists:

  • Always be on the lookout for Chinese tourists. They are easily spotted because their passenger (fellow tourist), will have an open map looking for the site direction. They have the tendency to just stop wherever they want, without looking. When you spot them, kindly avoid them by moving to either the left or the right of the road. Do not follow ride directly behind them.

Use your Mirrors

  • Generally, Cambodians do not make use of their side mirrors while riding on a motorbike. Don’t copy them on this point. Always monitor the vehicles of motorbikes behind you on a regular basis using these mirrors. But also know that the driver in front of you will not. They will not see you coming therefore you need to give them enough space to avoid being knocked down by them as you are passing.

Do not assume green means GO.

  • Generally, the red light means stop, the yellow means get-ready while the green light means go. But in Cambodia, it doesn’t actually work that way. No one obeys traffic lights they just keep going. If you happen to find yourself in front of a cue and the light turns green, just look at both sides of the road and make sure no one is coming before moving.

Lane changing without signal lights

  • It’s very common for motorists to change lanes without turning on their turn-signal lights. Most often owing to the fact their improper ways of swapping lanes, these signal lights remain turned on because the turn was not sufficient to auto switch it off. It’s common to see cars switching lanes and driving recklessly without the use of signal lights. Beware that anyone in front of you or by your side will probably swap lanes without signaling you.

No light on during the day, it is the law

  • Finally, a weird law in Cambodia is not having your lights on during the day. Don’t ask, I don’t know why. I do know if your lights are on during the day, the police will stop you. They will ask for money for this infraction every time. Just remember not to have your lights on during the day.

Motorist and Tuk tuks stopping indiscriminately to pick up pedestrians

Commercial motorists (moto dops and tuk tuks: These set of people will stop just about anywhere to pick up passengers. If you see any of these empty, expect it to stop unexpectedly or slow down every times it sees people by the road side.

Cambodian Police

In Cambodia, the police are poorly paid. Therefore, they have resulted to taking bribes or at checkpoints, to supplement their poor income. Westerners are targeted because they feel we have money and are most likely to break their law. At these checkpoints, a fine of 1-5 USD is levied on motorists without a helmet. $5 US dollars for not having a registration card (we give you one for your motorbike). Lastly one could spend years in jail if found in possession of drugs or weapons. Most times they do ask for more but these are standard figures.

Police check points are just common in this part of the world. Whenever you are being stopped by any, put up a smile and politely admit your wrong doing. Also some check points are only for cars, and will just wave along all scooter drivers, white or Asian (another benefit of motos).

Khmer (or most Southeast Asian) Cultures

Finally the last point is the difference in cultures. In the west, have a culture that protects the rights of its citizens. We get visibly upset when someone has “wronged” on us, especially on the road. Also we naturally tend to defend ourselves, whenever we feel we are being humiliated.

In Cambodia, the reverse is the case. Such attitudes of showing anger could land you into some big mess as they see it as a sign of a distasteful person. Raising your voice, using derogatory statements, arguing, pointing and the likes should be avoided at all costs. These will easily wear away any respect the Cambodians will give you.

They tend to display their contempt with a smile or laugh. Irrespective of who is at fault, their response is always the same, Avoid any form of embarrassment my politely talking to them. When stopped by the police (or an accident) while driving, politely nod your head to younger officers and place your hands up to your head and wai to the older officials and calmly say “Min ey te” which means “No problem”.

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