Overnight business trips, saving money on hotels and spending more time at the destination are all reasons some Cambodian bus companies have started offering late-night and overnight bus travel.
Just two years ago, buses ran almost strictly in daylight, with a few trips drifting into the post-dusk darkness for the last few dozen kilometers. With improved roads and healthy customer demand, travelers can now catch overnight rides on air-conditioned sleeper buses, large-seat comfort buses and regular coach rides.
Nov Keavirak, manager of Virak-Buntham Express Travel, which began offering night bus service in July 2009, said many of his company’s late-night coaches leave Phnom Penh with the majority of their seats full. Virak-Buntham offers nighttime rides to Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok and Poipet city.
“Usually, we do for the tourists because many Western tourists like to travel by night bus,” Mr Keavirak said.
Paramount Angkor Express General Manager Chhin Sok Heang said his company began offering nighttime buses about five months ago to cater to both tourists and businesspeople.
“We have businessmen, and many companies start working early in the provinces,” he said, explaining that businesspeople might travel at night to avoid hotel fees. “So we provide the service.”
Both men said improved road conditions were a major factor in their companies’ decisions to offer nighttime rides.
Mr Keavirak said that two or three years ago many of Cambodia’s main arterial roads were rough and sometimes dangerous. Now, he said accidents caused by poor road conditions are not a concern.
“Now, the roads are good,” he said.
Vichea Mean, a crewmember with Mekong Express, said his company is contemplating offering overnight service, but has yet to make the move.
“The reason we don’t want to have night buses is because we worry about security,” he said.
With 24 buses in service, Mekong Express is concerned it doesn’t have enough vehicles to reach stranded passengers if a bus were to have a flat tire or breakdown on a rural stretch of road, Mr Mean said.
“From Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, we have no lights on the road,” he said. “If you have a problem on the way-say you have a flat tire-it is difficult to find a repair.”
The US State Department’s travel website warns against traveling at night in Cambodia.
“The safety of road travel outside urban areas varies greatly,” the website states. “Cambodian drivers routinely ignore traffic laws, and vehicles are poorly maintained. Intoxicated drivers are commonplace, particularly during the evening hours…so all travel should be done in daylight between the hours of 7:00 am and 5:00 pm.
Sann Socheata, road safety program manager for Handicap International Belgium, wrote in an e-mail that 45 percent of vehicle crashes in Cambodia occur at night, noting that far fewer vehicles travel at night compared to the day.
“Therefore, (in term of crash rate per trip), day-time travel should be safer,” she wrote.
Ms Socheata said better roads “have of course contributed to safer travel.” Unofficially, she said about $562 million has been spent on road construction and rehabilitation in Cambodia between 2004 and 2009. However, she noted that better-quality roads allow motorists to drive faster, which could be the cause of a 4-percent increase in road-crash fatalities on national roads between 2008 and 2009.
Thong Khon, minister of the Tourism Ministry, could not be reached for comment.