Buying a Car in Cambodia

Buying a car and driving it oneself in Cambodia is akin to entering a minefield.

After I purchased my first car, a Daewoo Tico, after the briefest of test drives, at the start I was afraid to turn onto the main road. It then took me 24 hours to pluck up the courage to actually get out there and into the mayhem!

Now, after several years here in Cambodia, I have owned many cars, driven extensively all over the country and been a partner in a garage where we attempted to repair cars.

As a result of all these experiences, this is my advice on what to do when buying a vehicle, insuring it, maintaining it and how to drive safely.

The first step is to go to a driving school, or Lucky Lucky Motor Cycle Shop, to purchase a Cambodian licence. For this, you need a copy of your passport cover page as well as the visa, a copy of the overseas licence and a couple of photos. For a fee of forty dollars or so, a laminated licence will appear after a  few weeks. In the interim, the receipt suffices as a licence.

For those without a valid foreign licence, paying a fee of $140 will produce the same result.

This is what Khmers pay. Your new licence will be valid for a year or two. It seems to vary.

Next step is to find  car to purchase. Always remember that everything here operates on a commission basis. If your Khmer friends or staff offer to help you buy a car then you will be paying a secret commission of who knows what amount. This is a fact of life here.

Firstly I’d like to dispel one common myth. Many people continue to say that most cars imported from the USA are insurance right-offs which are the rebuilt here. Not true. If one goes to the big dealers on Mao Tse Tung and sees the containers opened then one can see that nearly all the imports arrive in good condition. These cars have varied origins. They may be vehicles seized by State or Federal law enforcement agencies, they may be “suicide cars”, they may have been flood damaged or simply cars that have been auctioned. The best buy is a car that has come straight out of the container!

People frequently buy cars from the Bong Thom website that have been owned by Khmers. Beware! Generally Khmers do not maintain their cars properly: because it costs money. They usually don’t bother to change the oil or fluids or filters – death to cars here without being regularly changed. The old saw “a car runs not on petrol but on oil” (i.e. lubrication) describes this false economy. They don’t change wheel bearings or ball joints or shock absorbers for the same reason: it costs money.

One of the best places to buy a car is from the freelance dealers on streets 108 and 106, between  Norodom and Monivong. One must be a Khmer speaker or have a Khmer friend to accompany you. There are hundreds of cars around there every day, all of them apparently immaculate. This is because the dealers have nothing to do all day except polish their cars and play cards. Most cars here have temporary yellow and black sticker plates and have come from the USA.

Other sources are the many dealers that have sprung up around town over the last couple of years.

If one has more time then the Cambodian Parents Network, a Yahoo group that you can join, often has a few good cars being sold by expats selling up before leaving. It is crucial that any prospective purchase is inspected by a competent mechanic, preferably by putting the car on a hoist and checking the suspension. Roads here are very tough on suspensions, and it is not uncommon for a newly purchased car needing up to $500 spent to rectify suspension problems.

The make of car one buys is critical here, parts can be expensive or impossible to buy. Personally I believe that there is only one brand to buy: Toyota. Toyotas have a well-earned reputation for robustness and reliability. Realise that road conditions, especially potholes, flooding, and poor approaches to bridges in the provinces can make small sedans a liability. I have 1994 Corolla, for instance, that has been all over the country but it has had three sets of wheel bearings in a year and two sets of shock absorbers. Not to mention ball joints and bushes.

Camrys  are tough and reliable; RAV4s the same. Importantly, parts are cheap and readily available. Honda CRVs, while nice cars, are much more expensive to repair, particularly the air conditioning systems. Pajeros and Monteros and tough and reliable but use inordinate amounts of fuel and new parts are hard to come by. Landcruisers, particularly the 80 series up to early 1998, are great cars but thirsty as well. A diesel turbo Land Cruiser is rare but great car. Khmers love the baby Lexis, the 300 and 330 series available from about $12k nowadays.

Hmm, I’d hesitate because of possible gearbox problems and poor fuel consumption.

Now lets say that you have purchased you car of choice and you now want to service or repair the vehicle. Khmer garages are everywhere. There are many in the Boeng Trabeik area south of Mao Tse Tung. Generally the service will be poor, the mechanics uncaring, existing parts may be substituted, fuel may be siphoned off, newly fitted parts are probably not genuine but the cheapest available.

There are a couple of Western-run places that may be better. David Ridge is a long-established garage proprietor with a shop near the Japanese bridge. Then there is “Western Services” in Boeung Trabaik. There is also a Singaporean mechanic in Toul Kork.

I would use a foreign owned garage over any Khmer establishment, as my experience is that Khmers are much more prone to either rip one off or simply providing poor service. An exception may be the Lyna garage in Boeung Trabaik. And you need to be aware that all proprietors, even Westerners, are held hostage by their staff who generally don’t exhibit any professional pride in their work.

If one is a handyman then there are plenty of places to pick up one’s own parts, provided that you speak Khmer. Kampuchea Krom has numerous parts outlets, not far from Monivong, the best being Kun Meng on the south side of KK. For second-hand parts Tep Pan street has hundred of shops between Mao Tse Tung and Psaa Depo. Either on Tep Pan itself or the streets to the north. It is a fascinating area to walk around in just to see the variety of parts available.

Insurance is an absolute must here. The Insurance Company will send a representative to negotiate with the other party in the event of an accident-this is crucial, even if one is a Khmer speaker. Let them sort it out. It will cost you much less money.

There are several companies who all seem to offer a pretty good service: Infinity and Forte being the most popular. Third-party alone may start at about $90 up to comprehensive at $300 plus: well worth the money. And remember that it is the car being insured, not the driver, so anyone with a valid Cambodian licence is covered.

Once you have sorted out your license, purchased the vehicle and paid your insurance, then don’t make the mistake of skimping on maintaining the vehicle properly. Post purchase I would recommend you get a major service. Change the timing belt, all filters, all fluids, any belts and hoses that are not perfect. Check the wheel bearings, repack with grease, check the upper and lower ball joints, tie rod ends, grease any nipples, check brake pad, grease the wheel studs whilst the wheels are off. Khmers always tighten wheel nuts far too tight. A punctured tyre may be impossible to change without a long lever because the nuts are too tight.

If one is driving in the provinces purchase some simple tools, carry tie wire and gaffer tape and a tow rope.

Finally, learn some Khmer terms for car parts.

air k’yol
auto gearbox brahop layk auto
axle slaap
ball joint a wa zay
battery ar-kooey
battery oil breng
broken koick
belt sai pean
brakes brung
car laan
clutch drom pia
differential pong
drive shaft galay
gasket rong
guarantee tia nia
hose toyo
hot gdou
insurance tia nia rap rorng
manual gearbox ga pit ta
motor macin
no parking harm jort
oil breng
oil change bdow breng
parts kreuang bin lah
radiator teung dteuk
radiator cap gomrob teung dteuk
seal fert
spark plug boosee
suspension kreuang graom
tow the car sun dong laan
water pump bom dteuk
wheel alignment klaing gong
wheel gong
wiper joo gon jok

Write these down in a notebook and keep it in the car!

Written by Humphrey Hollins

Photograph by Paul Carson