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Road Report: Coastal Cambodia

By: Casey Nelson Posted: October-08-2010 in
Southern Cambodia
Casey Nelson

In the last month I've had to make two complete driving loops from Phnom Penh, across southern Cambodia from border to border, using the main roads and passing through Kampong Trach, Kep, Kampot, Sihanoukville and Koh Kong. It's a nice time of year to drive the countryside. The country is pulling toward the monsoon season and rural Cambodia is lush and alive and buzzing with farming activity. The paddies are full of water and the season’s near mature rice stands tall and deep green. In places a checker board of dikes and paddies stretch to the horizon, the still water reflecting the sky and clouds, the rice and the occasional coconut palm. Groups of women in conical hats and kramas work stooped, pain-stakingly thinning the rice. Enormous water buffalo ridden by egrets and small children wade though the shallow paddy waters. Beautiful, exotic, stunning... No matter how many times I see these scenes, it still strikes me NatGeo.

The following is a quick report on the current road conditions down south.

The major roads (including the National Routes and the 'coastal travelers trail' from Thailand to Vietnam through Cambodia,) except National Route #3 (NR#3,) are in good or very good condition.

NR#3 is the most direct route from Phnom Penh to Kampot and Kep but large sections are under currently under construction, and though passable, make for some difficult driving - rough graded dirt road, muddy and slick when wet and blindingly dusty when dry. When traveling from Phnom Penh to Kampot and/or Kep avoid as much of NR#3 as possible. Alternative route:

Follow National Route #2 out of Phnom Penh, through Takhmau and south. The road signs marking the way though Takhmau city should be taken with a grain of salt. While suggestive of the correct route through town, if taken too literally you can find yourself driving circles around the downtown. Best to just follow the stream of heaviest traffic though town, which will ordinarily lead you onto NR#2.

NR #2 is fully paved but narrow, heavily patched and uneven in sections, still much better than NR#3. Stay on NR#2 about 65km-70km to the turnoff at Road #22 in Takeo. You can't miss the wildly overbuilt tangle cement curbs, guides and dividers at the Road #22 intersection. Turn right (west.) Follow #22 about 9km to the market intersection at National Route #3 and turn left. It’s an unmistakable mess of a main intersection, cluttered with market traffic and waiting passenger vans. Turn left (south.)

From there:
If you are going to Kep, the best way is to follow NR#3 7km to the Road #31 fork in the road (look for the gas station and the Vishnu statue) and bear left onto Road #31, which is paved and in excellent condition all the way to Road #33 in Kampong Trach. Take a right on #33 and follow it to the Kep turnoff (look for the sign.) The trip down #31and #33 has a couple of twists and turns but is easy to follow. Just stay on the paved road. In the couple of places you might not be sure which way to go, the dirt toad is the wrong way and the paved road is the right way. Just stay on the paved road.

If you are going to Kampot, you have two options. Either: 1) head to Kep as described above and just follow Road #33 past Kep and all the way to Kampot, or; 2) Follow NR#3 all the way to Kampot. The former is about 25km longer but is good road all the way. The later is shorter but there are long stretches of bad road. Either way it takes about the same amount of time.

Other notes on southern roads:
* Motorcyclists take note: The stretch of Road #33 from the White Horse Monument to Kampot is in deceptively good condition, hiding 5 or 6 almost invisible humps in the road, easily capable of launching a rider off the bike if hit at speed. There has been more than one such accident in the past year. Keep the speeds moderate and your eyes peeled.

* Some very picturesque rural scenery lay along Roads #31 and #33, which passes through rice paddy countryside and small villages both Khmer and, along Road #33, Cham (Muslim.) You may notice the Cham women in the area, easily distinguished from the Khmers by their veils.

* There are daily direct buses (including ferry) from Kampot and Kep to Phu Quoc Island in Vietnam. Depart in the morning and be on the island by mid afternoon.

* Check out the Salt & Pepper Bakery at the White Horse monument on Road #33 between Kep and Kampot. Serving proper western style baked good, cakes, breads, teas and coffees in the middle of nowhere.

* National Route #3 and National Route #4 between Kampot and Sihanoukville are both paved and in excellent condition.

* National Route #4 is paved and in excellent condition from one end to the other (Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville.)

* Road #48 from National Route #4 through the Cardamom Mountains to Koh Kong City and the Thai border is fully paved and in very good condition, save a couple of small patches of pitted pavement. Bridges spanning the five major rivers are all complete and the trip from NR#4 to the border can be done in 3 or 3-1/2 hours. It's a pleasant, occasionally picturesque drive through mountains and jungle. Long stretches of the road, particularly between Bridge 2 and 3, are comparatively desolate, and phone single drops out quite a bit in the mountains. Make sure your vehicle is in good condition.


UPDATE, January 2011 - Three months ago I reported on the state of the roads south from Phnom Penh to Kampot and Kep, recommending at the time taking an alternative route via Nation Route #2 (NR2) in lieu of the on-going road construction on the more direct National Route #3 (NR3.) Over the last few months the conditions on NR3 have improved greatly. Most of the construction on NR3 is now complete and the road is wide, flat and paved. A sure sign that NR3 is now the better route, most Kampot-bound taxis and buses have begun to use NR3 again instead of NR2. There are still comparatively short unfinished sections (a few kilometers) at both ends, near Phnom Penh and near Kampot, and several bridges are also still incomplete, requiring short detours. But the trip down NR3 to Kampot can now be made in about 3 hours, perhaps a bit longer, the same or faster than the alternative routes. As road construction seems to be moving along at a brisk pace and is in its final stages, my guess is that NR3 will 100% complete in the fairly near future.

Most direct route from Phnom Penh to Kampot: NR3 all the way.

Most direct rout from Phnom Penh to Kep: NR3 > R31 > R33 > R33a

Casey Nelson a.k.a. LTO Cambodia


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