Exploring Cambodia on the back of a motorbike can be one of life’s great joys. Marissa Carruthers asks the Kingdom’s biking community for advice on the best ways to stay safe on the roads. Photography by Conor Wall.
A sea of gleaming Harley Davidsons and Hondas cruise along National Road 3; the deafening roar of powerful engines ensuring that the hardened bikers don’t go unnoticed.
Wearing red bandanas, kitted out in leather, and all sitting astride giant gleaming metal machines, it’s easy to conjure up images of Hells Angels. But smashing stereotypes is something that the Cambodia Biker Club (CBC) has perfected since its launch two years ago.
Contrary to the tales of criminal biker gangs that often appear in the media, this group of more than 100 local motorbike enthusiasts is on a mission to promote road safety, while raising the profile of Cambodia’s biking opportunities across the region.
“As more bikers come to Cambodia, it is ever-more important that people take care on the roads,” says CBC’s president Khor Woh Hock. “You must know the culture of driving in Cambodia to stay safe. A lot of people when they ride into here are shocked with the way people drive.”
Sadly, fatalities and accidents on Cambodia’s roads are rife. A 2012 study by Handicap International Belgium revealed that a staggering five people die each day on the country’s roads, with a further 40 suffering injuries. Motorbike riders accounted for 70 percent of total fatalities, with the majority suffering from head injuries.
Stepping off his brand new 1300cc Honda Fury, CBC member and avid motorbike fan Fredrik Carlsward remembers two recent serious crashes involving careless drivers and fellow members. “There’s a saying that loud pipes save lives, as in people can hear us coming,” he adds. “I say loud pipes and wearing a helmet saves lives.”
The message is becoming even more key as Cambodia cements its reputation as a bikers’ destination in Southeast Asia. More riders than ever are crossing the border to cruise past paddy fields, forests and coastline on the Kingdom’s winding roads, with multiple parties working together to encourage the trend.
CBC is currently linking up with the Ministry of Tourism to try and attract more bikers into the Kingdom where, despite some roads needing major work, relaxed borders offer few restrictions and visas are easy to attain.
“If you’ve got all of your documents then you can pretty much just ride straight into Cambodia,” Hock explains. Clubs from Vietnam and Thailand often head to Cambodia for road trips, with Sihanoukville and Siem Reap being the most popular destinations.
But riding in the provinces presents a new set of problems for bikers. “Here, there are no rules. If you see another vehicle less than 30 seconds away from you, then be aware. It might suddenly U-turn or cross the road, and that’s when accidents happen,” Hock warns.
This scenario led to Hock’s friend being airlifted to Bangkok two years ago, after he swerved to avoid a car that suddenly crossed the road. Another vehicle smashed into him, causing life-threatening injuries.
Being constantly alert is essential on the country’s “chaotic” roads, Carlsward says. Wearing a helmet and specialist clothing, such as a jacket with elbow, shoulder and spine protection, is also vital, and a measure that CBC advises its members to invest in.
With many Cambodian safety helmets offering little protection, Hock recommends buying a quality helmet from Thailand or Malaysia, which are also better quality than those from Vietnam and China.
Helmets complying with European, Australian and United States standards can be found in Phnom Penh but are expensive. But when buying a helmet, Hock adds it is vital not to sacrifice quality for cost.
Insurance is another essential that many expats ignore. CBC recommends taking out motorbike insurance from Forte Insurance or Lonpac, as well as investing in health insurance that includes medical evacuation to either Bangkok or Singapore.
And, on top of other motorists, there are some natural threats to be aware of, such as cattle roaming the roads. “You have to be really careful, but remember cows will go left or right and buffaloes straight,” Hock says.
“See we’re not gangsters who are here to mark our territory,” adds the Malaysian, mounting his shining Harley Davidson Road King. “We’re here to educate the community and enjoy our biking experience, because there’s no better way to explore Cambodia than on the back of a bike.”
CBC holds weekly short rides and regular long rides for its members along with charity events, including the annual Phnom Penh Bikers’ Week. For more information on the club, visit cambodiabikerclub.org.
National Road 3 runs to Kep and Kampot and is a popular ride that contains great scenery from Kampot to Bokor Mountain, and also Kep beach. It’s CBC’s favourite route, as it has less traffic than National Road 4.
National Road 4, running from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville via Kampong Speu province, is popular, but can be busy with buses, lorries and other traffic. Taking National Road 3 to Veal Renh before cutting onto Route 4 for the final stretch to Sihanoukville means riders can take advantage of lighter road conditions.
National Route 1, which connects the capital with Svay Rieng province bordering Vietnam, is another recommended route. Hock describes it as “smooth” and recommends the Neak Leung ferry, which carries traffic across the Mekong.