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Day 52 – The Streets of Phnom Penh (On Driving in Cambodia)

April 24, 2010

Dateline:  Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Saturday, April 24, 2010

A few more thoughts on driving in Cambodia.

Observation #1:  No one will ever complain that you’re going too slow.  Corollary:  You can’t complain that anyone else is going too slow.

It’s not like people are going fast to begin with.  Top reasonable speed in the city is 40 km/h or 25 mph.  Most of the time you’re at around 30 km/h or 19 mph.  That’s for good reason.

Again, no one stops.  If you’re driving down a main road, people will fly into you from the right and left without even glancing over their shoulders.  You have to be prepared to stop quickly.  If you’re at a four-way intersection, no one is going to stop, so you have to be prepared to slow down quickly.  That means going slow.

People also drive slowly because other, non-motorized things are on the road.  Bicycles, for instance, are common despite the heat.  Pedestrians will also inch their way across the road so you must be vigilant for them.  Pedi-cabs are rare, but do make their appearance–they take up a whole lot of room and move very slowly.

I one time even saw a woman push a hotdog stand contraption through a busy intersection, making a sweeping left turn along with the rest of the traffic.  No one even bothered to honk.  She never glanced around to see if she was going to die.  She just wheeled that thing along like she belonged.  The best part is, she did.

Observation #2: A outstretched left arm means: “I want to turn left.”  It also serves the practical purpose of being a mini-road block.

Just like in the U.S., when you hold your hand out to the left, it tells everyone behind you that you intend to turn left.  Here, it also blocks motorbikes from zipping past on your left as you slide left to make your turn.  If they were to go by, they’d get clotheslined and violate the most important Cambodian driving rule:  Don’t hit or get hit.

Observation #3: You cannot let your mind wander unless you want to be impaled by a chicken.

Not just chickens, but metal poles, loads of sugar cane, and oncoming traffic.  Ostensibly, Cambodia drives on the right-hand side of the road.  In reality, you drive wherever there’s not people.  If you need to make a left, for example, and there’s cross traffic coming from the left, you just duck into the left side of oncoming traffic and cruise slowly until there’s a gap so you can zip to the right lane.

Because of this, if you’re driving on the right lane, you have to be aware of people coming right at you. You also have to watch out for pedestrians stopped in the middle of the road as they play Frogger through the streets.  You have to make sure you don’t plow into the back of a slow-moving bicyclist.

Bottom line is, the second you start to daydream, you’ll inevitably almost hit something.  I have a rich inner-life, so this can be a challenge.  I’m forced to constantly scan and look around and try to be entertained by the outside world.

Observation #4: The most dangerous things on the road are all driven by young men.

Young men are idiots.  I was a young man once so I should know. Hell, I’m not so young and I’m still a damn fool.

The reason I bring this up is that the most dangerous thing on the road in Cambodia are fast drivers.  They zip through traffic in cars or bikes going much faster than would allow them to stop quickly.  Fast drivers are, I’m quite sure, the biggest reason for fatalities.  Otherwise, how could anyone die if they were only doing 15 mph or less if they braked?

The fast drivers have, in my experience, all been young men with invincibility complexes.  If I wind up dead on the side of a Cambodian road someday, you’ll know why.  Some damn fool youngin’ plowed into me head-on going the wrong way down a one-way street.

Or I was day dreaming and got impaled on a chicken. One of the two.

Today, I got a haircut.  A bad one, which is remarkable since I only had my head shaved.  The dude didn’t make it all even.  There are tiny spots where the hair isn’t down to the guard, so it looks like tufts of back grass have sprung up on certain parts of my head.  Can’t complain too much though.  Only cost $1.

Afterwards, I chilled at the Foreign Correspondents Club, a Phnom Penh institution. It was also prominently featured on the Amazing Race a season or two ago, so that’s why I’m here.  It’s like you’d imagine.  There are cushy leather seats.  The food’s overpriced.  Happily the drink is cheap between 5-7pm.

I joined the tourist crowd and took a seat by the balcony overlooking the riverside street.  As night fell, traffic got thicker as did the crowd lounging by the riverbank.  The outdoor food culture here is strong.  People brought packed dinners and ate with their friends by the river.  A group of people danced to music on one side.

As I stared out into the street, I saw a man walking back and forth through traffic dragging a garden hose.  He was spraying mud off the asphalt.  No one even bothered to honk at him.

I indulged in a fine Cuban and sipped my drink.  I felt imperialistic despite my $3 fan-room lodgings.  Here I was, in a Western institution looking down on the locals in the street below spending more on food than most people made in two days.

A motorbike whizzed passed.  The driver was standing on his pegs.  His passenger, a little person, had his arms out like Leo in Titanic.  They were both laughing hysterically.

I doused what was left of the cigar, pulled on my pack, and headed downstairs.  The street looked like a lot more fun.

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