Motoring mayhem of Cambodia

Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia.
Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia.

It appears there is absolutely nothing that bars what can be possibly carried on a motorbike in Cambodia.

Be it wide, long, too bulky, if they can find a way, it will get carried. That also applies to whether it be animal, vegetable or mineral and of course human too!

It’s sheer madness to Western eyes to see small Honda motorbikes (other well known makes are available too) dashing and weaving around the streets of every City, Town and Village weighed down by what can only be described as everything under the tropical sun.


Fruit and the family transport Cambodian style.
Fruit and the family transport Cambodian style.

But even I needed a double take…on the road from Battambang as I watched a Father, Mother and baby on a bike easing past our queuing car. Not such an unusual view as it happens, as it’s quite normal to see a family of five on one bike!

However what made this so very different was that the young family were seemingly heading home from a visit to the local hospital with mum cradling baby in one hand and deftly holding up a wooden stick with the other and attached to that stick was an intravenous drip feeding liquid into the tiny foot of an obviously very young baby!

Motorbike medicine on the move…an amazing insight into life in Cambodia for sure, leaving you with little other conclusion than you are indeed visiting an astonishing country and its people.


Motor bike medicine in Battambang carrying a drip for her baby.
Motor bike medicine in Battambang carrying a drip for her baby.


A traffic police officer from the West would find this anarchy on the road totally perplexing, car’s, lorries, buses with the tiny motorbikes flitting in and out of them sometimes even in the wrong direction. I did expect to see accidents around every corner but miraculously that was not the case.

Sure there was honking of horns, a constant and relentless cacophony, as the bikes carried on weaving around any slowing vehicle, going for minute gaps between them, as their owners steered them niftily and nimbly through what seemed micro spaces. This practice of course does go on whilst they are often on their mobile phones too!


Confrontations with aggrieved motorists, shaking of fists or even fighting with fellow road users was something I thought I would be witnessing, but somehow in all this noise and chaos a calmness seemed to carry along with the traffic and I never once witnessed any riders road-rage or motorists mouthing off at each other.


Giant faces around Angkor Wat.
Giant faces around Angkor Wat.

The Buddhist backbone to the country seemed to translate to here with the motorist’s moods, getting to their destinations unscathed in the end, but how many traffic laws they broke on the way did not seem matter.

On certain days of the week, the motoring public do get some reminders of what they should be doing on the road. Not from the local traffic police, but of all people…the Scouts.


They stand at junctions displaying traffic control flags and hold up posters to passing motorists telling them to belt up, put on helmets, etc., Lord Baden Powell would be pleased.

How you get from woodcraft skills to teaching your elders the rights and wrongs of the road may not be obvious, but it is certainly extremely public spirited and a worthy thing they carry out, twice every week!

Of course Cambodia is famed for it huge temple complex at Angkor Wat thought not built by public service volunteers, this legacy of one of the biggest projects ever carried out in human history was probably by slave labor. The scale of the monument that is on a par with, the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt and in terms of stone used is of similar size.


Angkor Wat almost as famous as the Pyramids now.
Angkor Wat almost as famous as the Pyramids now.


Not just one temple, but in fact a whole range of temple developments of both Hindu and Buddhist designs covering an area of around 390 square miles.

If you are planning to make a visit to this vast Cambodian complex you should certainly allocate at least three days of your travels to do so. Access is gained via a controlled and centralized entrance where you need to obtain a photo-pass that you have to wear in order to visit the outlying temples.

A pass can last three days and you have to log in every day through the special main entrance gate, but you will also be checked at the individual temple entrance points too! If you just tried to turn up at a random temple you will be directed back to the main tourist access point no pass, no entrance!

However once inside the size, scale and human endeavor is clearly obvious. One could argue that the Pyramids were in effect a pile of large rocks that were once covered with polished limestone. However the Angkor temples are also massive piles of rocks, but in this case nearly every part is covered with very meticulous carvings, great Hindu and Buddhist stories are told in minute detail.

Deities from both religions of the Khmer Empires adorn from the very tiny at what is called the Women’s Temple to the massive faces that are carved and adorn places like the main gates that once allowed access back in the 12th century when these temples were in use.


Monks walking through the rice fields in Cambodia.
Monks walking through the rice fields in Cambodia.


Also an interesting point in terms of effort, much of the stone used at Giza came from the plateau itself, the nearest quarry to Angkor is some 30 kilometers away so as you walk around and see that every block and some are the size of small cars had to come that distance and there were no motor bikes around then and even they would have struggled. The transport of choice would have been elephant, ox or human!


Please continue reading below


A struggle for both human and animal, but a trip to Cambodia cannot really be made without making reference to the huge human struggle that the country was put through during the mid to late 1970’s.

The Killing Fields…the political dogma that the population was subjected to when the whole country was put into rural enslavement under the ‘Khmer Rouge’.


S21 the school that became a center for torture.
S21 the school that became a center for torture.


If you did not agree in the slightest way with the brutal Maoist communist philosophy, or were from the city or perhaps a lawyer or teacher, the chances were that under the direction of its leader Pol Pot you would have been likely to end up at S-21 or what was a former high school turned euphemistically into a re-education centre or in other words this was one of Cambodia’s torture and often death chamber.

Education, if any here, was of pure torture, if people did not die as a direct action of its indoctrinated staff, made up mainly of young people around the age of 18 to 25, then it was to the ‘Killing Fields’ men, women children and babies were taken to have their heads caved in by any means.

If the Khmer Rouge thought you were from the wrong part of society and if you passed through such places as S-21 alive then death would follow pretty much without fail in the rural rice fields of Cambodia.


The haunting photographs and displays show just a fraction of what is believed to be some 3 million people who were brutally killed in this period. This wartime relic is where the Genocide Museum is now based in Phomn Penh, and it tells very graphically how life and a great deal of death was like in this former school.

Even the possibility of ending your own life, to terminate the living hell of the place was denied…they had thought of everything.

Some in the end did survive and two survivors have written books about that. After the Vietnamese forces marched in and with a little bit of luck they had managed a miracle and stayed alive, but one wonders what nightmares that must still flash into their dreams even now some 40 plus years on?


Today Cambodia is a growing and expanding tourist destination, although not sophisticated and that really makes it a contrast from its very touristy neighbor, Thailand.

I rate this as a really fun to do The Bamboo Railway in Battambang.
I rate this as a really fun to do The Bamboo Railway in Battambang.


With must do items such as the ‘Bamboo Train’ for instance, in the small town of Battambang is a train ride with a real difference with great ingenuity a group of locals have put back into use a 3 mile stretch of a railway line.

The unique cobbled together carts that run along the track on a pair of axles powered by what amounts to a lawn mower engine. What a fun thing to do. A bamboo bed helps form the cart and sitting on it, away you go along the sometimes very bumpy track, taking in the sights and smells of the Cambodian countryside.

Being a single track means you have to make way for the carts coming the other way, so they are taken apart, placed by the track-side to allow the others to pass, this also gives a chance to chat with other riders as they go through this process.

The simplicity of it all just makes it so enjoyable, but it could well end if the rail company’s expansion continues and the tracks get brought back into full commercial passenger and freight use, which is being planned.

Whilst in Battambang you could well try to find the only public posting box in the whole town, now there’s a challenge! On the culinary front, you could see how Cambodian noodles are made, rice paper too and even sun dried rats! The floating villages around the giant lake of Tonle Sap, its silk making, its wildlife or even see a man round up 1,200 ducks, they all stuck in my mind.


Rats caught in the rice fields out to dry and a snack now!
Rats caught in the rice fields out to dry and a snack now!


I found Cambodia a little behind in terms of tourism development but never the less I thought this a real plus point. I liken it to Thailand maybe 15 years years ago. It has an amazing cultural history, a people whose power to adapt is second to none. Its temple complex at Angkor Wat is right up there as a wonder of the world.

I would certainly highly recommend a visit before it becomes perhaps too perfect; its roughness around edges in my estimation just makes it!

Official Cambodia Tourism Site


Original Article – Thanks to Geoff Moore :: Travel photographer, writer and blogger Geoff Moore has been a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers for 10 years and has traveled the world for over 30 years.

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