The area around Siem Reap is prime cycling country. It’s flat, picturesque, and — if you are lucky — quiet. However, accident rates on Cambodia’s roads are staggeringly high, and while most of your cycling will probably be on the quieter back-roads, you will have to tackle one or more of Siem Reap’s busier arterial routes at some point. Knowing what to expect is the best way to avoid becoming a traffic police statistic. Here are just a few pointers.
In common with much of the world, Cambodians technically drive on the right, although this is not considered a hard and fast rule. You will very often see drivers — of cars, as well as motorcycles and bicycles — driving into oncoming traffic before casually swinging off to the right side of the road when they find an accommodating gap in the flow. They do that when turning left on to a road from a side road and don’t want to wait for a gap in the traffic. When you encounter these, you must go around them and not vice versa.
Conversely, when turning left onto a side road, the local habit is to pull off right, and wait for a gap to reveal itself before peeling off and taking the turn. This is opposite to what most Westerners have been trained to do, which is to pull to the middle of the road and wait for a gap in the oncoming rush. When you do this, be very, very prepared for the fact that someone may likely try to overtake you from behind as you start to execute your turn, or are halfway through doing so. This is one of the most challenging, frightening and dangerous things that happen on Cambodian roads, and you need to be alert every time you are turning into a left side road.
At the same time, Cambodia has imported the French system for turning right. In most suburban and urban areas in France, vehicles coming into your traffic flow from the right have priority. If they come into your flow and you hit them, you are responsible. This is a traffic calming and safety measure, which makes its application here beyond ironic.
Here, where responsibility for the wellbeing of oneself, let alone other road users, is a remote, ungovernable concept, vehicles rocket in from the right without so much as a wayward glance in any other direction. Meanwhile no-one stops to admit them, preferring instead to veer around without slowing. If this takes them into oncoming traffic, so be it. Driving in Cambodia may make you question whether the survival instinct is really so universal after all.
One-way streets are another remote concept to which the faintest lip service is paid. Pay particular attention when on the two one-way stretches either side of the river in Siem Reap. The bridge that carries National Route 6 over the river is also officially one-way — in a westerly direction — but once the police have gone home in the late afternoon, this is essentially a free-for-all.
Bizarrely, the few roundabouts that exist in Siem Reap present little problem for local drivers – although right of way will not be accorded in the manner to which you are accustomed, which is not usually a serious issue provided you are cycling slowly.
Although you won’t find it in any highway code, right of way is the only rule that is applied with rigour here, and it is determined by heft and value. Anything bigger and more valuable than you always has right of way, so you should be prepared to stop suddenly at any time. Don’t forget that the practice of flashing one’s headlights does not mean the driver is letting you through, but rather it means, “I am coming through no matter what, so you’d better get out of my way”. It’s the same principle as the horn, of which you will hear plenty.
No one needs to copy the inimitable Cambodian driving style in order to enjoy a spot of cycling around Siem Reap, but as long as you are aware of what to expect, you will know why wearing a helmet, cycling slowly, and having the reactions of an Olympic sprinter in the starting blocks are all a good idea. Of course a good travel insurance policy should be a no-brainer if you are considering cycling in any unfamiliar country, and in Cambodia it could be life saver. Given the quality of locally available emergency medical care in Siem Reap, a policy that includes medical evacuation is strongly recommended too. Happy cycling!
By Simon Hare
Last updated on 28th March, 2015.