Sunday, August 29, 2010


I always thought I should not write about the traffic situation in Phnom Penh, or Cambodia in general. This is better left to travel sites; and this is not a travel site. But I am now going to comment on it anyway.

Anybody who has ever been to Cambodia knows how chaotic traffic here is. Bangkok is chaotic too, but in a different way. You just get stuck for hours on end; so much so that some savvy entrepreneurs even offer mobile toilets along the roads. But the big difference is that most Bangkok drivers still adhere to most of the traffic laws and rules; e. g. don’t go down the wrong way in a one-way street; and motorists also usually stay in their lanes.

Ho Chi Minh City is another good comparison. About 20 years back traffic was just as horrendous there as it still is on Phnom Penh. People just went every which way without regard for their own lives, let alone for other participants. This has changed also. At least mopeds and cyclos stay in the right lane whilst cars, buses, and trucks stay in the left lane.

But Cambodia is a different story altogether. I would have thought with more vehicles on the road people would see the necessity for some order in using the roadways as it would definitely increase the flow of traffic, safety, reduce toxic emissions, and lessen stress.

But nothing could be farther from the truth or reality. One must make a great distinction between mopeds and cars. Whereas many of the former are clearly suicidal, the latter surely want to maintain their prized possessions in their pristine condition, never mind that most of them are older models. They do this by driving at the slowest speed possible even if there is no other traffic far and wide.

I guess the majority of the owners of mopeds or motorcycles don’t have any idea that there are traffic laws on the book; and if they do they don’t realize that the laws are there to make life easier, notwithstanding the penalties they proscribe. Mopeds/motorcycles always seem to be in a hurry. Red lights are just seen as a nuisance that keeps them from getting to their destination quickly. Consequently, running red lights is the order of the day. Sometimes they do this at such speeds that if indeed there were cross-traffic it would surely end in a fatal accident. I have yet to see one, but the number of traffic deaths speaks for itself. Another favorite driving style is to cut in in front of oncoming vehicles; don’t ever cross over the intersection behind the oncoming vehicle; goodness, that would be too safe. Better yet, don’t even think there might be another, as yet unseen, vehicle passing the oncoming car on the right, at breakneck speed at that. No, they need the thrill of looking death in the eye.

Of course, coming down the wrong side of the road with a divider, or riding in the middle of the road although there is plenty of room on their right, is minor in comparison. In Phnom Penh you have street lighting so you can at least see mopeds without head or tail lights. Drive at your own peril on country roads at night, though. You drive too fast you might end up rear-ending a moped, a truck, or an oxcart with unwanted but clearly imaginable consequences.

Now cars are a different matter. First of all, everybody just loves a Toyota Camry, the sedan of choice for the less affluent. The more affluent and rich people have developed a clear preference for the Lexus brand. I am sure everybody needs one to go off-road to their land holdings in the countryside. But they are also so much more practical in the city. An 8-cylinder engine driving that LX470 at 15 kph, guzzling about 25 ltr/100km is definitely the most economical way of moving your 120 lb. frame forward. Lately, the new Landrover has come into style. The Mercedes S500 is definitely an understatement in Cambodia. At least the LX470 or Landcruiser have a nice size that can’t be overlooked. Well, I guess people just need status symbols, I can understand that; especially people of smaller size. In the West older man who can afford it like to own a Porsche, which is generally interpreted by most as a way of compensating the decreased virility that accompanies the aging process. In the U. S. I tend to think it’s the pick-up truck, which along with SUVs hardly ever see anything else but city streets and freeways that proves that a man is a man. So here it might just be the LX470 or the Landcruiser. Never mind that these golden calves set you back around $150K if bought new. A shiny SUV beats a nice villa any time, right?

So you have the chaotic moped riders weaving their way through those slow-moving behemoths in Phnom Penh, among them those ultra-sensible trucks that General Motors recently sold to a Chinese company. I even saw a real Hum Vee the other day. Now that sure is an absolute must for the discerning auto enthusiast.

Additionally, you will find that cars are not averse to driving on the wrong side of the street either, or running red lights, especially during lunch hour, on weekends, or at night, when the police are safe at home watching TV, if they are not in a beer garden drinking away their hard-earned traffic fines.

The role of the traffic police is really hard to understand in this country. Once the helmet law was passed they were, and still are, busy stopping moped riders to instruct them of the danger of not wearing one. Of course, the passenger on the pinion is not in as much danger, as the law makes no mention of that. Naturally, any small contribution towards the policeman’s well-being was never scoffed at.

Then came the mirror law; and the police had another reason for stopping all those mopeds. But that has all been some time ago, and I still see the police stopping them, although there was nothing noticeably wrong with them; they wore their helmets and had their mirrors in place.

Car drivers are not immune from being stopped either, though. Another addition to the traffic laws was that seat belts needed to be worn. Although I religiously put them on in the West, I was rather negligent in Cambodia. So I got pulled over twice. They reminded me politely of my negligence and were just standing there smiling. 5,000 riel released me from their smiles.

Running red lights, going against the traffic, though, was not one of their concerns. Gridlocked intersections can’t faze them either. They just look on with uncomprehending eyes, probably wondering how this all happened.

But the lasting impession about all this is the stoicism with which all participants, both car and motocycles, endure this chaos, notwithstanding the almost permanent use of the most cherished part on their vehicles – the horn.

I am pasting a YouTube video by a young man names Daniel which gives a pretty good impression.

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