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Motorbike rentals in Siem Reap: Yes or No?

One issue that seems to cause a lot of confusion for tourists is whether or not they can rent and operate a motorbike in Siem Reap. Presently the answer is no.

Much of the confusion surrounding the issue of tourists renting motorbikes comes from a law that was instated in 1996, ignored beginning around 1999, brought back in September 2001, rescinded three months later, then reinstated in April 2003.

What follows is an account based on a story I wrote in late September 2001 and then updated with the changes in the law in December 2001 and again in April 2003.

Way back in 1996 when the Khmer Rouge were still a threat, at times holding territory not far from the Angkor temples, the governor of Siem Reap decreed a provincial law forbidding tourists from operating their own transportation - motorbikes, cars, bicycles, and probably roller blades if he thought of it. Foreigners who could prove they were bona fide residents were exempt from the regulation as it was expected that the residents were aware of the risks of venturing into the countryside. At the time it was a sensible law as in theory it eliminated the likelihood that some luckless tourist would grab a motorbike and venture off into Khmer Rouge territory never to be seen again. In 1996 this was a legitimate concern. But in 1998 the Khmer Rouge were eliminated as a threat and in short time the law prohibiting tourists from operating motorbikes and other forms of transportation was forgotten.

In September of 2001 the tourist police resumed enforcement of this law. The decision came in the wake of an accident involving a foreign tourist on a 250cc bike and a local. The police ordered all rental shops to cease leasing bikes to foreigners immediately. A week later the police began stopping foreigners near the temples and around town warning them of the new law if they could not prove residency in Siem Reap.

[Left: A copy of the 1996 law. Dug from the bottom of a desk drawer, dusted off and ready to enforce once again.]

I spoke with the Siem Reap Chief of the Tourist Police, Sam Siyan, on the 19th of September, 2001. He said there was no one specific reason for revitalizing the law. While the aforementioned accident was some motivation, he cited a number of factors. First, was the admission that a lot of Khmers drive like idiots and tourists may not be accustomed to their rather unusual driving habits. I suggested that perhaps there could be better enforcement of existing traffic laws and driver education campaigns. The response from the Tourist Police is that that responsibility lies with the Traffic Police. Second, was the problem of keeping tourists around to resolve disputes in the case of accidents. With many tourists in town for only a couple of days, the risk of a liable tourist fleeing town was too great, and he cited cases where this had occurred. Third, was to protect the tourist from potential rip-offs. Though not a common problem, there have been incidents of unscrupulous rental agencies stealing bikes back from the tourist they rented the bike to and more commonly charging for bike damage that never occurred. Again, this is a legal matter, why not prosecute the businesses engaged in these fraudulent acts? More frequent have been the incidents of vandalism inflicted on rental bikes by motodops angry at the loss of business. Again, get the police involved.

My own spin on all this was that the Tourist Police were taking the easy approach to eliminating a few of their headaches. Why not have a little better communication between the various police agencies? It seemed to me the majority of the problems were not created by the tourists but by the Khmers. Personally, it made no difference to me if tourists were put on the back of a motodop (motorbike taxi). I have always recommended that tourists do this anyway as it's cheaper and there are actually a few decent motodops out there. Unfortunately, there have been a steadily growing number of bad apples in the motodop ranks.

I brought this point up with Sam Siyan, noting that if tourists are forced into using motodops will there be any move from his department to regulate the moto drivers? Yes! Although they expect it to take a few months to fully implement, the department intended to license all motodops who wish to transport tourists in Siem Reap. The motodops would be required to register with the tourist police, wear a uniform and have ID badges on their shirts.

Although announced in September 2001 it took over two years to put this regulation into effect, not commencing until November 2003.

In December 2001, the governor of Siem Reap province once again began permitting motorbike rentals to tourists so long as the rental agencied carried insurance to cover all losses should a lessee be found liable in an accident. The extra insurance costs are of course passed along to the tourist.

And with that we thought the problem had gone away for good. Then in April 2003 we suddenly have once again, a prohibition on tourists renting and operating motorbikes.

We can only speculate as to why the law was brought back. Two rumors abound. The first rumor suggests it was an issue of accidents. It's no secret that tourists have more than their fair share of accidents. Even with insurance, given that more often than not the tourist was at fault, the injuries, inability to perform labor, and other ancillary losses to the locals was more than the insurance could cover and the police were fielding complaints from locals on the issue. A second related problem was when tourists would damage a bike, rather than pay the damages not covered by insurance (if the amount was considerable), the tourist simply went down to Phnom Penh, visited their embassy, got a new passport, and left the country. The rental shops complained to the police, the police can't do anything, they got tired of the complaints, so okay, no more rentals. That's theory number one.

Theory number two is the taxi and moto drivers, who have an organization - the Toursit Transport Association, complained to the police about tourists using their own transportation and accompanied these complaints with the proper pieces of paper one would need to accompany a complaint with and presto! no more tourists on motorbikes.

Whatever the reason then, for the time being, tourists can't operate a motorbike in Siem Reap province. If you do manage to get your hands on one and are caught by the police the problems for you will be small, but for the person you got the bike from, those problems will be large, so if you ask to borrow an ex-pat's motorbike and are told no, that's why. And if you see foreigners driving around Siem Reap on a motorcycle, in all likelihood they live here and are therefore exempt from the prohibition.

Still, if you are operating a motorbike anywhere else in the country please consider this...

Cambodians do not know how to drive. They come from the left, they come from the right, the come at you from the front, from the back, and probably from above if they could figure out how to ignore gravity. While Cambodia is thankfully not one of those places that automatically finds the foreigner at fault in an accident, this does not allow you to assume you can collect any money in the event of a crash, meaning that while you might not have to pay any money for the other personís bike, you can be rest assured that you WILL be paying the rental agency for the damage done to your bike. Accidents are frequent and tourists not familiar with the unusual driving habits of Cambodians are involved in more than their fair share of accidents lately. If you want to explore the countryside, sure, grab a motorcycle and enjoy the ride, but DO BE CAREFUL.






All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.