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Take the driver's seat for Cambodian jaunt

A road trip in your own car opens up a whole new world when exploring the Kingdom

The classic, American-style road trip is a romantic notion. The name Route 66 alone conjures images of wide open roads alive with freedom, and writers such as Jack Kerouac and Hunter S Thompson canonised the experience in some of the most essential literature of the 20th century. But whether you are undertaking a massive continental expedition or merely driving to Las Vegas with your attorney while blitzed on drugs, there is something enthralling about cruising down the road with only a vague destination and time frame in mind, and there’s hardly a more original place to do it than Cambodia.

We stopped our jalopy wherever we liked, whether to buy cold beer or mingle over chicken porridge."

Though buses and taxis are the key methods of Cambodian inter-provincial travel, going in your own car opens up a side of the country that many of us foreigners never see. Though the countless small towns and dusty provincial capitals may not be teeming with tourist attractions, a road trip in a private car permits travellers to get out and take a look, just on a whim, before moving on to the next destination.
My last holiday out of Phnom Penh was supposed to be a simple weekend in Kep, but once my landlord got wind of our plans, he suggested that we go with him in his car. We stopped our jalopy wherever we liked, whether to buy cold beer or linger over chicken porridge in rural restaurants.

Once we arrived in Kep, my landlord took us to a friend’s seaweed farm on the far side of Koh Tonsay (also known as Rabbit Island). It wasn’t every day that the coastal settlement had half a dozen Westerners stop by for a visit, but my landlord nonetheless facilitated an amiable afternoon with the seaweed farmers, who even allowed us to slaughter one of their chickens for lunch. It was an experience I probably wouldn’t have encountered had I begun the trip by buying a bus ticket at Central Market.

Driving a car in this crazy land, of course, comes with its risks. The precarious road conditions, constant presence of animals and children and the generally chaotic nature of local driving habits ought to give people some pause before getting behind the wheel. Choosing a competent driver experienced in Cambodian driving norms will mitigate this risk.

In some ways, a Cambodian road trip is easier to pull off than one in the West. It’s a rare occasion, for instance, to find oneself in a major traffic jam anywhere outside the major cities, and stopping to refuel is as simple as pulling up to the next roadside stand selling petrol in Pepsi bottles.

If you don’t own a car and can’t borrow one, renting a self-drive car is an option. Be forewarned that the car’s maintenance is likely to be quite poor, and insurance coverage is likely to be zilch.

Alternatively, you can hire a car and driver, but this limits your flexibility. Having your own car allows for lengthier trips, as it’s impractical to hire a driver for more than a day’s drive without shelling out big bucks. Having at least one fluent Khmer speaker in your party is immensely helpful as well, and increases the odds of having spontaneous interactions with amiable locals.

Despite the country’s growing tourism sector, the reality is that most of Cambodia sees very few tourists. Admittedly, most visitors have little reason to venture to places like Kampong Thom or Takeo, as none of them have the same noteworthiness as Phnom Penh, Siem Reap or Sihanoukville. But anyone interested in getting beneath Cambodia’s surface should consider getting into a car and embarking on an old-school road trip.

To pilfer the words of Jack Kerouac: “Wither goest thou, Cambodia, in thy shiny car in the night?”

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