There’s no public transport in Phnom Penh so those who aren’t brave enough to drive themselves or sweat it out on foot are stuck with three main options: motos, taxis and tuk tuks. Most visitors and quite a few expats choose to travel by tuk tuk. It’s a great way to ride in style and see the city while giving, if nothing else, the illusion of safety over riding in a moto.
When I moved to Phnom Penh last year, I spent the first few months dreading getting from one place to another. I’d ask to go somewhere, agree on a price and we’d end up lost for 45 minutes. Then on arrival the driver would insist I pay him double because he had to drive so far — despite him having sworn up and down he knew our destination.
Eventually, I got the hang of it. Here’s what I learned you should do:
Decide when to negotiate
Locals usually don’t negotiate price before the trip, but pay what they think is fair once they arrive. Many expats do this as well, but it requires knowing what’s a fair price. I’ve found that tuk tuk drivers are more likely to argue with foreigners — particularly women — after the fact if a price hasn’t been decided on upfront. I usually negotiate first with drivers that I don’t know, but if I have a relationship with a driver, I decide what to pay when the trip is complete. If you’re not confident about prices, negotiate upfront as this gives you the leverage to walk away if you don’t like the price. Negotiating on a weekly or monthy basis usually costs more than hiring on a daily or per-trip rate.
Know your pagoda
If you think tuk tuk drivers will know the names of the major streets in town, you’re probably wrong. Many of the tuk tuk drivers working in Phnom Penh are from the provinces and have a different frame of reference than you or me. They will almost always know the locations of all of the pagodas or wats, so it’s best to find out the name of the pagoda closest to where you are staying to use as a navigational point. Once you get to the pagoda, give directions from there.
Get a map and learn how to give directions in Khmer
Most tuk tuk drivers don’t know where that really cool bar you heard about is, but they will inevitably say that they do. Generally it comes out that they don’t know once they are hopelessly lost and have wasted $2 of petrol. Many hotels and most of the restaurants on the riverside offer free maps. Pick one up and give your driver turn by turn directions – most drivers are map illiterate. If you can give directions in Khmer, even better. You’ll get there faster and it will end up being less expensive.
Here are a few phrases in Khmer that will help you get started:
Turn left – bot ch’wayng
Turn right – bot s’dum
Go straight – dtou dtrong
Turn back – dtou grao-ee
Stop – chop
Learn to negotiate
Most visitors will at least once pay too much or try to pay too little. You are not a local and you won’t get a local rate. Trying to bully a driver down too far is embarrassing to anyone within earshot — walk by a petrol station and have a look at prices and you’ll see why you’re paying “so much”. Drivers are just trying to make a living. That said, the goal is not to overpay, either. Every foreigner that rocks up and pays whatever is first quoted — often two to three times the actual price — makes the situation harder for the next foreigner who comes along. It also makes Khmer customers less appealing to drivers; they’d rather hold out for the big payout of a dumb backpacker.
Some rules of thumb:
English-speaking drivers charge more. Trips at night cost more. Groups of people cost more, but only once the group gets quite large. If you look blatantly like a tourist, you will pay more.
Tuk tuk drivers can tell if you are a tourist or an expat, and price the trip accordingly. If you learn to negotiate in Khmer, you’ll get a cheaper price. When a high price is quoted, pull your head back as if in shock and exhale loudly, the way the locals do. Say, t’lai nas! or “so expensive!” Usually they will offer a lower price.
To get an idea of how much your trip should cost, try to negotiate. Very short trips of around five minutes are usually $1, and prices never go below $1. 5,000 or 6,000 riel ($1.25 or $1.50) will get you pretty far in the daytime and 8,000 or 10,000 will easily get you from Russian Market to the riverside or one end of the city to the other during the day. If you’re going to a few places, a good rule of thumb is about $2 an hour if the driver is waiting around a lot and $2.50 an hour if he’s driving.
It’s almost unheard of for drivers to reject a fair price, so if you’ve tried two or three times and they won’t take it, you’re not offering enough.
If you’re doing the same trip over and over, ask a long-term expat how much they would pay to get an idea of what the price should be. When I moved here I found the advice I got on forums like Expat Advisory and Khmer440 invaluable for things like this.
Don’t be intimidated. I found myself spending more money than was necessary because I let myself be bullied into feeling guilty or because I was too nervous to negotiate. Learning a few words in Khmer, even for a short visit, makes life exponentially easier.
By Lina Goldberg
Last updated on 17th February, 2011.