One of my most terrifying experiences, on par with jumping off a cliff and being mugged, is riding on the back of a motorbike as it zigzag at breakneck speed through Hanoi’s congested traffic. If you’ve never tried it, then put it in your bucket list.
When travelling in Southeast Asia, you’ll encounter many unconventional transports and that’s part of the charm and experience. As most countries in this part of the world are still developing, their urban transportations aren’t as user-friendly or straight forward as you might be used to. In Cambodia for example, there’s no subway, nor urban buses. So how do you get around? You can choose from the omnipresent tuk-tuk to the classical rickshaw.
Tuk-tuk is a strange vehicle, not unlike a motorbike pulling a roofed chariot along the road. It’s a common sight in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. Sitting in a tuk-tuk as it putt along the congested streets is a unique experience, unlike sitting in a car/bus, you feel closer to your surrounding. Besides experiencing the new country through your eyes, you are also experiencing it through your sense of smell and touch: the sweet smell of curry and jasmine, the pungent smell of rubbish and sewage, the wind caressing your hair and leaves dirt and dust in them. A unique experience you can’t get anywhere else.
“Tuk-tuk sir/madam?” is a common greetings as you leave your guest houses or walking along the streets. So much so that after a while, it becomes a hassle. These tuk-tuk drivers are very good at hustling and let’s be honest, dealing with them is a skill not many of us possess. It’s uncommon for you to win in a bargain but if you bargain too hard, they will make you feel sorry that you’re cheating them out of a few dollar that means nothing to you but a lot to them. Let’s just take a step back and see the bigger picture, if we can find a middle ground where you don’t feel cheated for being a foreigner and you can spare a few dollars to put food on their table. It’s not easy but sometimes we have to see them as another person too.
(Read about my chat with a tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap.)
The street of Phnom Penh is jam-packed with tuk-tuk. It’s the smart choice if you are travelling in groups. A ride from Phnom Penh airport to the city centre on a tuk-tuk will usually cost you about 5USD. And a trip anyway within the city centre should not cost you more than 3USD. In Siem Reap, a tuk-tuk driver will charge you around 12-15USD a day to bring to ruins in the small circuit of Angkor Wat.
These are motorbikes that transport people around. They are the easiest and fastest way to get around a congested city. They can zigzag in and out of traffic, pay no heed to traffic jams as they go on pavements and side roads. It might give you a heart attack though.
Unlike tuk-tuk which is exclusive for public transportation. It’s harder to tell which of the thousands motorbikes on the streets are motor-taxi. It’ll be embarrassing to approach some motorbike riders only to find out that he’s not a motor-taxi. These motor-taxi usually gather at street corners and at the end of block of buildings. They usually sit on their motors scouting for customers. Another clue will be to look at the back seat. Unlike the normal one-piece seat cushion on normal motorbikes, some motor-taxi tweak theirs to have a separate rectangle shaped cushion at the back. This is to facilitate skirt-wearing women to sit sideways rather than astride.
This is a cheaper option if you are travelling alone. A trip from Phnom Penh airport to the city centre cost 3USD but it’s possible to bargain to 2.50USD. A trip around the city centre is between 1USD and 2USD. A motorbike tour around Angkor might not be a good idea. Tuk-tuk gives you protection from the rain but you are exposed to the elements on a motorbike. However if you are still up for it, you can get around 8USD for a day trip around Angkor. And in smaller towns and villages where tuk-tuk is less common, this is the only form of public transportation.
Rickshaw also called Cyclo in Cambodia. Time is changing; this is evident on the streets of Phnom Penh. A decade ago, there were 10,000 rickshaws prowling the streets but today there are less than 1,000. As the city grows the distance grows too, as well as the pace of life; people want to get to their destinations faster.
It still remains the cheapest way to get around and it’s used mostly by housewives to get their groceries home. For travellers and tourists, its slow pace provides the best way to experience the city, observing the lives of the locals as the rider take you on a tour or to your destination. It’s also more stable and safer than a motorbike. So if you are going a short distance and speed is not a concern, rickshaw might be your best option. On top of that, it causes no environmental pollution.
A short distance within Phnom Penh and Siem Reap tourist centres will set you back under 2USD.