Hitting the open road on your own two wheels fills you with a sense of freedom and opens up a place to curious minds like nothing else can. Even a bicycle lets a space reveal itself in a way that two feet never can, affording ground coverage and unrestricted views, albeit with that additional frisson of an imminent ironing underneath a bus. But the most fun is to be had on a motorbike, whether it’s a 125cc scooter or a 250cc dirt bike perfect for Cambodia’s off-road trails or a monster machine that eats up the road like a hungry whale.
And it’s easy to find them in Sihanoukville too. Either your guesthouse will be able to sort you out with a scooter or, failing that, they’re available for hire on virtually every street corner around Ochheuteal, and from the tour operators running up and down Otres 1. Dirt bikes can be hired from a number of operators in town, including the long-running Stray Dog Adventures and Mad Dog Dirt Bike Tours. Those who want to go the whole hog should check out Gas & Surf, which has a selection of bikes all the way up to 1100cc.
And now for a small word of sense: if you don’t know how to ride a scooter or motorbike, Cambodia is not really the place to learn. Not because riding a bike is difficult, but because in between remembering where the brake and the clutch are you also need to learn, very fast, how Cambodian traffic functions or, more properly, doesn’t function.
For that, you need to imagine that you’re sharing the road with a bunch of screaming drunks who have never driven in their lives. This is part of the mental preparation necessary for dealing with the fact that people will overtake you while you’re in the middle of executing a left turn, they’ll undertake you while you’re doing a right one, they’ll drive straight at you even when there is plenty of space to either side of you — we still haven’t worked out what’s going on there — they’ll suddenly swing a left right in front of you without any clear notice whatsoever of their intentions and they’ll sail straight through traffic lights or rocket out of side roads without even a second’s glance at what’s coming. You need full focus to drive out there, and if you’re constantly checking where the indicator is, you’re not going to be able to do that. And by the way, does your insurance cover you for this?
That said, driving in Cambodia is monstrous fun. The kind of fun that comes from achieving the improbable, and from finding places you never otherwise would and doing it by yourself. If you’re going to be staying in and around town, a 100-125cc scooter is more than adequate to the task, and even off-road those things are tough enough. Every long-term rider has stories of punishing slogs to the most remote places on specially adapted dirt bikes only to find themselves overtaking a family of six on a Daelim merrily bumping along the same bone-breaking road.
Scooting around Sihanoukville is pretty easy once you’ve oriented yourself. The main thoroughfare is Ekareach Street, which is fed by numerous side roads which will either take you to the coast or to the back roads behind Sihanoukville. One lovely route is the coast road that threads along from the Golden Lions Traffic Circle all the way to the port. Heading away from there, those back roads that take you away from the sea are pretty quiet, and can get you up to heights with some spectacular views. Some of those hills are unnervingly steep though, and for beginners can be really tough on a hill-start, especially when you may very likely have a bike whose starter engine is a little slow on the uptake. We’d recommend steering clear unless you feel confident, or finding another route. If you take the road that loops out from the road to Otres and takes you around the back of the town, then you’ll be able to approach those highs along a much gentler incline.
And if you’re feeling confident, then now may be the time to think about some serious off-roading. A 250cc Honda XR is a tough but nimble machine that can handle even the worst that the woods and hills around Sihanoukville can come up with.
There you’ll be belting along narrow, leaf-stewn forest trails, careering across fields more rutted than an old sailor’s face, holding it all in over malicious sand that is just dying to whip the bike out from under you, balancing along the edges of narrow ravines while keeping your head down under low-slung branches, threading your way over a rickety bridge no wider than your shoulders and possibly much older, hitting vertical inclines and nailing them, and letting your bike tear loose as it somehow propels you up rock and scree strewn mountainsides, feeling the power and the sheer glee as it bucks beneath you like an enraged bull and you’re constantly scanning forward to see what’s coming next while navigating the immediate obstacles and wondering where the fear went. We reckon it might be the most fun you can have with all your clothes still on.
It’s a philosophical exercise too. This is where you learn never to overstate your boundaries either to yourself or anyone else, because you will be punished hard. But also where you can push them and do things you never thought you could (that vertical incline for one). It’s where you learn that, despite what those irritating do-gooders keep saying, sometimes your instincts are way all wrong. Worried about the sand ripping your wheels away, then drive faster, even though your brain is yelling at you very loudly to do the exact opposite. In fact, in almost every situation where your brain is begging you to slow down, overriding your instincts and going faster is the answer. And shutting down reason, with its dull devotion to self-preservation, can get you all kinds of places and out of them in one piece too, provided you’ve obeyed the first principle of knowing your limits. The dirt bike tour operators are professionals, and can match a route to your abilities. Coming off and breaking your leg into all kinds of uncomfortable pieces because you were too dumb to acknowledge your shortcomings is just going to really bugger up everyone else’s day; and who wants to be that person.
Back to the main roads, we should probably say something about the police. Cambodia may look like a free-for-all compared to home, but there are rules. It’s just that their actual purpose is less concerned with health and safety than about providing an extortion mechanism for a group of people that is grievously underpaid.
They will try to get you for riding without a helmet, for driving through traffic lights — even though everyone else does it — for driving with your lights on during the day, though it is perfectly legal to drive without lights on at night, and anything else that might pop into their head. The usual fine/bribe should be around 3000 riel per infraction — don’t ask us how we know this — though this may go up before and during festivals. Beer is more expensive than tea after all. If you get stopped, just pay up, be polite, make a joke even. If they ask for significantly more than the above, ask for a receipt which should put an end to that, and just gently negotiate your way down. Do not leave the key in the bike; take it out and keep it in your hand.
We also hear that some places still pull that old trick of following tourists and stealing their bikes back, leaving the tourist hung with the cost of replacing it. When you park, do it somewhere safe, preferably with a security guard, especially at night, or where you can keep an eye on the bike. It’s a pain, but forking out $1,300 is a much bigger one.
There’s so much to be gained from striking out around Sihanoukville, we can’t recommend it enough. But be warned, whether you’re dealing with traffic, the police or the wilds, no matter how careful you think you’re being, you probably need to be even more so.
Stray Dog Adventures: Mithona St, Sihaoukville; (017) 810 215; www.straydogasia.com
Mad Dog Dirt Bike Tours Boray Kamakor, Sihanoukville; T: (097) 670 2079, (017) 660 296; www.maddogtours.com
Gas & Surf: Ochheuteal Beach, Sihanoukville; T: (078) 500 664.
By Nicky Sullivan
Last updated on 1st June, 2015.