So You Wanna Buy a Budget Car in Phnom Penh?

Phnom Penh is one of the most twisted car markets in the world. At first glance it is expensive (for what you get), unreliable, decentralized and full of vehicles that have no means of being properly serviced.

The good news is that most expats get around in sub-$10,000 cars and many of them have been taken to the absolute extremities of this country and back.

How to find a good one? This is my two-cents.

Where to buy:

Khmer 24:

The obvious place to look is on the website Khmer 24. Over the last few years, the website has consolidated its position as the hub of automotive classifieds so much that it barely has competition from online sources anymore. However, as with everything in Cambodia, excessive popularity brings pitfalls.

The site has become overwhelmed by dealers and people acting as middlemen seeking a kickback for selling their brother’s, uncles, niece’s car. Simply put, prices quoted are about as reliable as a 1987 Yugo.

Expat Sources:

I would recommend joining Cambodian Parents Network, a Yahoo group, because there are often bargains to be had. Parents Network tends to be frequented by cashed up development, embassy and INGO types who move a lot. This means they tend to buy newer cars to safeguard the kids, and then hurry to offload them when that new consulting gig in South Sudan suddenly opens up.

There are two problems with Parents Network however; one is that it does not possess the low(er) profile that it used to – every man and his dog signs up these days regardless of whether they need a breast pump urgently.

The other problem is that embassy and UN types often drive vehicles that are tax exempt. This means you will get slugged with the import taxes etc, if you hope to have any chance of selling the vehicle down the track.

Other expats use Khmer 440 forums, “cars and bikes” and “buy and sell” or BongThom for budget automobiles. Certainly, my dealings with expats over such mediums have been pretty successful. It is comforting to know that in such a hostile market, there is something of a code of honour among expats (at least in my experience) who take it upon themselves to point out niggling faults that require attention unprompted.

Expats also grasp the concept of preventative maintenance. Often it is better to buy an older expat owned car with a service history than a newer Khmer sourced one which hasn’t been touched since it emerged from the 40 foot container.

2nd and 3rd Tier Grey Market Dealers :

The grey market (parallel importers) dominate the Cambodian car market. Too frequently, the grey market sells vehicles that were never actually for sale from authorized outlets locally and this includes every Lexus in Cambodia.

These guys are identified by their sprawling lots, encased in galvanized steel sheds.

These dealers often specialize in a particular brand, which is overwhelmingly from the Toyota group Toyota/Lexus/Scion, but there are also grey market dealers that will specialize in super-minis (Kia Vistos) or Mercedes-Benz.

The grey market tends to offer well-presented vehicles (read re-sprayed and re-upholstered) because to Khmers, the colour of the paint job (black or gold cars are “charming”) and the condition of the leather is more popular than the mechanics, electrics and service history.

Expect to pay a premium at a grey market lot. Expect that the dealer won’t leave a lot of room to negotiate on price either.

Outdoor Car “Markets”:

These are the bottom of the pile. A good example is the sprawling display that infuriatingly occupies all the parking spaces surrounding the night market.

Many different brands are represented at this type of market. Vehicles tend to be aging and fairly cheap, but are well presented on the whole (again, read re-sprayed and re-upholstered).

This really counts for nothing though, because at this level all manner of monkey business goes on. Expect cars to have their original engines switched out, or be complete rebuilds of foreign insurance write-offs and you’ll see many of the Oriental Lazy Boyz’ finest exports, straight from the streets of Long Beach.

To make things worse they tend to be stubbornly resistant to negotiating down their unrealistically inflated prices.

Ok, I think I have chosen a car – what next?

You will need:

(x1) A Khmer friend who is streetwise and honourable enough to rebuke the “commission” that will be offered up front by the seller to entice them to play the screw-the-barang game.

(x1) Reliable mechanic (expat or Khmer) who has Khmer staff he/she can dispatch to assist with the pre-sale once over. I don’t want to play favourites with one garage or the other in this article. Suffice to say that in 2013, mercifully, there are quite a few good ones. Visit an expat bar and get chatting to someone who has been here a while. Recommendations are usually pretty spot on.

When settling on a car in Cambodiayou must be patient. Every budget car you buy will have problems. This country is hard on cars, so don’t forget about finding that perfect example.

If the vehicle you are interested in comes from a Khmer source (especially Khmer 24) then to ascertain what represents a fair market price, the rule of thumb is to remove:

~$500-1000 if in the $5000 – $8000 bracket.

~$1000-1200 if in the $8000 – $10,000 bracket.

Next, get your Khmer friend to ring the seller. Have an idea of your best/acceptable/worst case scenarios price wise, and get your mate to lowball them. Don’t feel bad about being brutal in negotiations : you try selling a car to a Khmer, they will lowball the shit out of you.

If the seller is not interested in further negotiations (or offers a stupid counteroffer) walk away. Again, be patient – the market is flooded with aging sub-$10,000 cars.

Once a seller expresses interest in meeting, take the car to your mechanic. Put the car up on a lift. Get under the chassis and poke around.

Find faults.

Check every electrical feature. Check for white smoke from the exhaust upon startup, go over every scratch, ding, scuff, vibration, rust spot and especially, check that aircon.

Assuming the faults are not catastrophic, get your Khmer mate and the mechanic to leverage the bejesus out of the faults. Stay out of the negotiation at this point; grab a cold drink and vacate. You trust them remember? Let them do their thing. If you have chosen the right team, you will get the price down dramatically.

Finally, as seasoned expats point out, perform a VIN check. There is likely to be some more leverage to be found here too.

When all is signed and sealed, make sure to hand over a small gratuity to your Khmer friend and the mechanic for their assistance. You should make a habit of returning to his/her garage for regularly scheduled services.


You can disregard the above if an expat recommends a garage and that garage turns out to be selling the type of vehicle you are looking for. Especially if the vehicle was formerly owned by the mechanic personally. Buy it and if necessary pay a premium. The previous owner of my car actually rang my wife to remind her that I needed to change the oil one week after I bought it. He kept a service history too. And you know what? It has been the best car I have owned in Cambodia.

Ben Siddons

4 thoughts on “So You Wanna Buy a Budget Car in Phnom Penh?

  1. SamdechPrahok Reply

    It looks like my GF’s camry would enjoy a meeting a mechanic, because she’s been drinking a lot lately (the carn not my GF), but I don’t manage to find a reliable-looking place for her… If you have some hints, or better, address to recommend me, that would be very nice (and worth a beer!).

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