When visiting Cambodia, one thing you will notice on the street is the popularity of a Toyota Camry. It seems that if you go anywhere, if you go on a sedan, it’s likely to be a Toyota Camry. Not really sure how that came about, but these days a lot of used Camry, mostly five years old or older, are imported from other countries like the United States and sold in the used car market in Cambodia.

During our visit in Cambodia, when we were in Phnom Penh we had two separate drivers who took us around on the first couple of days there. Both drove Camrys. When we were in Siem Reap, we went around in passenger vans, so those were not Camrys. But we still saw many of them around also in Siem Reap. On the New Year’s Eve night, while waiting for our hotel shuttle to arrive, Kristi and I looked around for the cars passing by to see if indeed Camry was the most popular car in Cambodia, and sure enough, I think more than half of the cars we saw that were not buses or passenger vans were all Camrys. We also noticed another model that was pretty common, Lexus RX300. Knowing that Lexus is made by Toyota mostly for the US market, my guess is that these cars were originally used in the US, but then in its later part of life it was sold and brought into Cambodia.

I asked our tour guide Vanna about this. He said, yes, Camry definitely is the car of choice in Cambodia. He said there are three brand names that are household names in Cambodia: Nokia, Honda, and Toyota. Most people own a cellular phone, and while you might find Blackberrys and Apple iPhones occassionally, the most popular brand of phones was undoubtedly Nokia. Not many people can afford to buy cars, so for personal transportation it’s more common that people would buy a scooter, and the most popular brand for scooters in Cambodia was Honda. And for those who have enough money to purchase a car, the popular choice was a Toyota Camry. Vanna said one day he wished he would have enough money to get one.

I looked for a photo among the collection I took during our trip in Cambodia for one that best used for this post. Below is one that didn’t make it to my photojournal album for the trip, but I think it’s a good example of what you see in Cambodia. This was taken from the back seat of our car (a Camry) during a drive in Phnom Penh after we visited the Killing Fields. The scene that caught my attention was the motorcycle on the left carrying bags full of lime, a key ingredient in Khmer cuisine. But you can also see on this photo in the background on the opposite side of the street several other people in scooters (quite a common sight in Southeast Asian countries), and on the right, another car right in front of us, and you guessed it, it’s a Toyota Camry.

Bags of lime and Camry

Arrival in Siem Reap

The second half of our van ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap seemed to go by quickly. I think by then we just wanted to get to the destination. Some passengers who were asleep during the first half of the trip were now awake after getting refreshed during our short break in Kampong Thom. The Cambodian businessman who was very busy on his cell phone during the first half of the trip was no longer taking or making calls — possibly his phone already ran out of charge.

We stopped a couple of times during this leg of the trip. At the first stop, there was a young lady in her motorcycle waiting at the side of the road. Apparently someone had a package for her from Phnom Penh that was delivered by the van’s driver. It looked like a wrapped gift. The driver and one of the guys in the van said something to the girl as she received the package that made her blush. She went on her way with her package, and we continued our trip. The second stop was about half an hour later — this time the friend of the driver who was sitting in the front row with the driver and the British gentleman got off — that seemed to be his destination.

As we got closer to Siem Reap, we started seeing road signs for Angkor Wat and downtown Siem Reap. It looked similar to the drive entering Phnom Penh — you could see quite a commercialized road with small stores lining the road. At one point, the driver smiled and pointed at a billboard and said to the British gentleman, “Wayne Rooney!” — it was a huge billboard with Wayne Rooney in his Manchester United’s uniform.

We finally reached our destination. I was expecting that we would go to a bus terminal of some sort. That wasn’t the case. The end point was just a small office / store front for the van company. Looked like there were many people there waiting for the passengers to arrive, including one gentleman with a sign that said Derleng Tours and my name on it. He introduced himself as Mr. Ko, saying that he would be our driver for the day. And not long after that, a young gentleman showed up in a motorcycle. Mr. Ko introduced us to the young man, his name is Vanna, and he would be our tour guide for the next couple of days as we tour Siem Reap. Vanna said he just wanted to meet and greet us there upon our arrival, but we would start our program later on after we got a chance to check in to our hotel, got some lunch, and relax a little bit. So we planned to meet him at the hotel lobby in a couple of hours, and we went with Mr. Ko in his van to the hotel where we would be staying in Siem Reap.

Our drive to the hotel took us through parts of downtown Siem Reap. We passed the Royal Palace in Siem Reap and the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, which was among the most luxurious places to stay in Siem Reap.

The photo below was taken during our ride to the hotel. As we got closer to downtown Siem Reap, we could tell that this was a city lived on tourism — we saw hotels and restaurants lining the road and foreigners everywhere, including these two on the back of hired motorbikes.

Hired motorbikes

Kampong Thom

Kampong Thom is a city in Cambodia that is the capital of a province with the same name. It is located east of the Tonle Sap Lake. The National Highway 6 passes through Kampong Thom, and its location is roughly halfway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, so it’s great place for travelers between the two cities to stop for a short break before they continue their journey.

We stopped at the Kampong Thom Market area during our van ride to Siem Reap. The driver told us that we had about fifteen minutes to stretch, using the restroom facilities at one of the restaurants, and get snacks and drinks. He also warned us to watch the time and don’t venture too far from where our passenger van was parked, so when it’s time to leave, it’s easy to gather everyone and we could continue our journey without much delay.

After a quick bio-break, Kristi and I hung out outside the restaurant near our passenger van — heeding to our driver’s advice. We still had some food that our hotel packed for us in the morning, and I wasn’t that hungry, but I did purchase a can of Coke Light to drink. It’s nice and refreshing as it was getting warmer outside. I thought it’s interesting that they called it Coke Light there (same in Vietnam) instead of Diet Coke. You don’t see many overweight locals, so I guess the concept of ‘Diet’ was not really that popular there.

Kristi ventured a little bit further and found a fresh fruit cart and bought a plastic bag full of freshly cut pineapples. I had a little bit of that — it was great, fresh and sweet. The American girl in our van went to get a num pang sandwich (similar to the one we had for breakfast the day before).

As we gathered near the van and got ready to leave, our driver tried to make some conversation with the foreigners using his broken English. When he found out that the gentleman who sat on the front seat was from England, he smiled and started mentioning Wayne Rooney, a famous soccer player from Manchester United. I also overheard them chatting with the American girl as well. Where the American girl who was an English teacher in Phnom Penh wanted to go to Siem Reap to celebrate New Year’s Eve, the British gentleman was apparently on a spiritual journey, going from places to places in Thailand and Cambodia to visit Buddhist temples and monasteries. It was quite interesting, as he was doing it as a way to retreat from the fast-paced life in western cities especially around Christmas holidays.

Our Cambodian driver also tried to make conversation with the American girl, and asked her where she would be staying in Siem Reap. He seemed to just wanting to be nice and hospitable to the foreigners, but I could tell the American girl was taken aback with that question (especially since she was traveling alone). She mumbled a place’s name — I wasn’t sure if that’s really where she was staying, but the driver just smiled and the conversation kind of stopped there. Then he continued talking with me and Kristi, asking if we’re a married couple. I told him that we’re actually cousins. I wasn’t sure if he understood what I said; he just smiled, nodded his head, and then moved on and talked with other passengers.

After that short pit stop that was quite welcomed as a break in the middle of the five-hour drive, we continued our trip to Siem Reap.

The photo below was taken just outside the restaurant in the Kampong Thom Market area where we stopped for a break. You could see our van on the left, a couple of passengers from another van walking around checking the area, and the restaurant on the right where we went for bio-break and where I got my Coke Light.

Rest area

Van Ride to Siem Reap

The van ride we decided to take from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap turned out to be an interesting experience. We wanted to see the Cambodian countryside and experience travel like the locals, and the trip didn’t disappoint. It took about five hours to get from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, including a fifteen-minute break in the middle in a town called Kampong Thom. The tour company that arranged our trip was right; taking the passenger van, though it’s about the same price as taking the bus, was actually faster because the passenger van is smaller and can move faster and navigate around slower traffic better than the bus.

During the ride, it was interesting to observe the passengers inside the van. On the front row, next to the driver was a British older gentleman who was traveling alone. Next to him was a Cambodian man who seemed to know the driver as they had talked with each other like friends during the trip. I sat in the middle of the second row. On my left was a Japanese gentleman who carried his Canon DSLR with him. We picked him up at a hotel just after the van picked us up at our hotel. Before he left, we saw him giving a local person a hug — seemed to be someone who had helped him during his travels so far. During our trip, I saw him uploading the photos from his camera to his laptop, then he spent some time reviewing the photos. He had many portraits of local Cambodian in rural areas; beautifully taken and seemed to have one theme: showcasing the people of Cambodia (many if not most were smiling — wonderful to see in a country that many considered as among the poorest in the world). On my right was my cousin Kristi, who spent most of the time during the trip taking a nap.

Behind our row there were two more rows of passengers (5 more people). One of the passengers was the American girl who was a teacher in Phnom Penh (as I gathered from listening to her talking to a couple of other foreigners right after our pick up from the hotel). The rest of the passengers were local Cambodians. The American girl also spent most of the trip taking a nap. One Cambodian gentleman who sat in the back row provided an interesting ‘entertainment’ during our ride. Apparently he was conducting business during the ride. His mobile phone must’ve received calls every 5-10 minutes, and he talked to his colleague over the phone. Some calls were in Khmer, some were in English. Quite interesting to observe…

The scenery varied as we passed towns and rice fields. Once in a while I noticed roadside stands with people selling what looked like glass bottles of drink (brownish in color, looked like alcoholic drink). I wasn’t really sure what that was — later on I found out that it was people selling gasoline for motorcycles (unless you’re in big city like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, you rarely see gas station). As I mentioned in my post about National Highway 6, we passed people with various modes of transportation that are slower (oxcart, bicycle, etc.). Our driver didn’t slow down much, driving between 60-100 kmh and honking his horn to get people to notice that we’re about to pass them.

The photo below was taken when we stopped in Kampong Thom for a break in the middle. Here you can see our passenger van getting refreshed during the trip. It was quite a new Ford Transit, which we saw quite a bit in the Southeast Asian countries we visited (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam). Ford seemed to do quite a good business in the region to supply the vans for intercity travels.

Passenger van

National Highway 6

The National Highway 6 is one of the main highways in Cambodia that connect major locations in the country. Many of the highways connect the capital city of Phnom Penh either with major cities/towns in the country (e.g., Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, Battambang), or with the borders to the neighboring countries (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam). National Highway 6 specifically is one of the busiest highways as it connects two of the largest cities in Cambodia, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

Since we decided to travel overland from Phnom Penh to Cambodia, this was the route that we took. Driving through this highway reminded me of driving through the intercity highways in some regions in Indonesia. The highway is not a divided, high-speed highway like what you find in many countries. It was more a regional, undivided highway that passes through towns and villages, and though it’s paved all the way, there were areas where the road condition was not as good and our passenger van would have to navigate around that. We also shared the road with people using other means of transportation (motorcycle, bicycle, ox cart, pedestrian on foot), so the horn was an important equipment on the passenger van as our driver would simply honk the horn to warn others on the road that we’re about to pass them, and we wouldn’t slow down much. It made the trip somewhat interesting to observe what’s in front of us.

The photo below was taken from my passenger seat just behind the driver. You can see we’re about to pass a bicycle, there is an incoming vehicle coming on the other side of the road, and a little bit in front of us there is an ox cart, pedestrian, and motorcycle.

National Highway 6