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Phnom Penh Traffic 101

By: Carl James Adam Posted: December-02-2011 in
Carl James Adam

For the Western mind, it's fair to say that things work strangely in Cambodia, some would say in reverse. As the cliché goes, Cambodia is a country of stark contradictions and there is no better symbol of this than the traffic of Cambodia's chaotic capital, Phnom Penh.

The stuff of legends, traffic in Phnom Penh can best be described as liberal, at worst, all out anarchy - where vehicular laissez-faire mixes with rigid SUV authoritarianism depending on what side of might you find yourself on in the event of an accident.

Try walking 5 metres in a straight line on any sidewalk without something running into you. Try driving, and following the road rules which are commonly accepted in other countries (such as obeying the traffic lights, or doing a logical U-turn).

Your trajectory will be defiled and your peace of mind destroyed, but it's likely you'll end up more fascinated than angry.

The motodop (local motorcycle taxi driver) will annoy you as he rudely interrupts your mobile phone call whilst you walk, but its recognition that you give him (if not a taxi fare) as you decline his offer with a polite nod.

With the tangle of traffic, it’s likely you’ll reflect on the absence of road rage that is the hallmark of driving in the West. Is the calm fluidity of vehicles resonant of Buddhism in Cambodia, or is it just forced cohabitation?

Either way (as any long-term resident of the city will tell you) the streets and roads and of Phnom Penh are where the action is. If you apply old-school Cambodian rock n roll as soundtrack (Ros Serey Sothea or Sin Sisamouth) it all makes sense.

Exotic and intoxicating, Cambodia and its roads possess a strange rhythm that pulsates with life.

Carl Jung (famous Swiss psychiatrist) described vintage India as the real world, and the white man as living in a fantasy world (in a constructed madhouse). This could easily apply to how Cambodians drive in Phnom Penh, and the ironic way foreigners view it.

Perhaps the roads of Phnom Penh are indicative of a deeper human truth, and the strict and violent roads of the West its opposite.

Phnom Penh is a city where you it's okay to drive your motorbike without headlights at night and get fined by police for having them on during the day, where traffic lights are seen as optional novelties, and where it's normal for young kids to drive motorcycles up the wrong way of a street whilst texting on mobile phones or watching podcasts on their smartphones.

It's also a city where motodops fly out of side streets without acknowledging the behemoth of oncoming traffic, where broken live electrical wires dangle precariously overhead, and where large potholes big enough to swallow half your 250cc trail bike suddenly appear under you, only to have an old lady shove a small leafy branch into it as a warning to other drivers. A week later, the same (wilted) branch will still be there.

For tourists, Phnom Penh's traffic is pure entertainment, more compelling than the latest Hollywood flick. Traffic on Sisawath Quay (the city's iconic riverfront) is more a parade than a busy road.

Goggle-eyed, tourists sit in venerable armchairs at restaurants along the river on Friday nights, taking in the procession of strange vehicles and their payloads and gripping local beers and "happy" (herb) pizzas.

A run-down Toyota mini-van rolls by, the front/left of its carriage weighted with foodstuffs, vegetables and boxes of beer. Stuffed in the back, its back door flipped upward, are 3 Suzuki 150cc motorbikes on their sides, extending 1.5 metres outwards in mid-air, with 6 or so teenagers sitting on top of those. On the van's roof, an entire family is perched, clutching at an old rope tucked under the roof for support. Amazingly, - the coup de grace for tourists - the whole family wears massive, indelible grins.

For the tourists, the spectacle is genuinely titillating, and if you ask them, it's one that can't be bought.

"Damn, this is cool", Hunter S Thompson would have whispered to himself, if he were the one plumped in the rattanan sofa, sculling his beer in amazement (actually he spent time in neighbouring Laos).

Traveling in the other direction - a motodop driver, his weathered expression strained under a dusty baseball cap, a teak double bed frame strapped to his back, his skinny shoulders taking its weight.

Then, an elephant (yes, an elephant named Sambo) strolls by, ignorant of the cars and trucks banked up behind her. Tourists stuff sugar bananas into Sambo's fleshy proboscis. She vacuums them up with glee.

Oblivious to the anarchy (they tried to ban Sambo on her riverside Sunday jaunts) the old beast prevails over the anarchy behind her with a swagger that only an elephant can muster in peak hour traffic.

For the tourists, it's impossible to scorn the elephant as she traipses the boulevard, assured of her fanfare. The lucky ones catch her sad eye and glimpse an elephant's dying wisdom. The rest - proud drivers of big, shiny SUVs - blast their car horns in protest of her road burlesque.

Luckily, for now, the love goes to Sambo.

5pm (peak hour) on Monday, corner of Street 63 and Norodom Boulevard (the heart of the city's NGO district):
Driving home after a hard day, office workers thrust their cars forward, impatient for their evening meal in front of the TV. Traffic lights are ignored. Motorbikes weave with lethal dexterity. Traffic in the dominant lane (moving out from the CBD) takes over the opposite lane, testament to the power of the mass. Motorbikes buzz, filling any free spaces. The traffic stops and an SUV driver, indignant, seizes the moment and snatches the remaining space of the opposite lane entirely …

That's Phnom Penh traffic.

For drivers of large vehicles (cars, trucks and SUVs) the rule of the city's intersections may be 80% stubbornness, 20% politeness and a bit of luck. That's what it takes to get home in a reasonable time. Big is best, meaning the meanest and most expensive SUVs get maximum respect.

Few dare to eclipse the path of a Ford Escalade or black Land Rover who has is running a red light (you never know who the driver might be connected to). Nevertheless, attitude does count and exceptions do exist.

A tuk tuk driver (local, 3-wheeled taxi), feeling cocky (maybe because he's carrying a couple of foreigners) runs the intersection and eclipses the path of the black Land Rover which is running a red light. The tuk tuk driver is pushing his luck. The Land Rover, not wishing to tarnish his vehicle, gives way to the tuk tuk driver at the last minute, who is quick to flee the scene.

This time at least, the small guy wins.

6.40pm on Tuesday evening, on a tiny side street of Boeng Keng Kong (the expat area again):
A war rages in the expat district. Two belligerent SUV drivers go head to head in a battle for limited space on a narrow side street. To blame, dozens of cars parked on both sides of the road which has bottle-necked the once-wide thoroughfare. Without caring, motorbikes rush to fill the gaps, as the two SUVs face off. Unbeknownst to them all, up ahead and out of site, is a large Khmer wedding party (a common phenomenon in Summer) situated in the middle of Street 63 (a major street), replete with armed guards and throngs of seated well-wishers dressed in tuxedos and pretty dresses.

Thursday, 12.30pm, corner of Kampuchea Krom and Monivong Boulevard, near Psar Thmei (Central Market):

A careless motodop clips the rear bumper of a Camry sedan, narrowly avoiding spilling onto the road. As is common with road accidents in Cambodia, the road is informally shut down for a heated argument over liability. The aggression escalates as both refuse to admit responsibility. As the tension rises, a massive crowd gathers. People on motorbikes slow down and stare, hypnotized by the activity, then stop suddenly in moving lanes of traffic.

Transfixed, they clog the entire road, risking a repeat of the scene they are watching.

Saturday afternoon around 2pm, intersection of Mao-Tse Tung Boulevard and Russian Boulevard (on the road to Phnom Penh Airport):
A lone motorbike driver (an old guy without helmet) runs a red light and gets hit. The offending car has sped off. The result: his limp body ends up sprawled and lifeless in the middle of the intersection, as an ambulance is called. The victim ran the red light without checking left or right. With a squealing siren, the struggling ambulance runs the gambit of opposite traffic, as hoards of bystanders on motorbikes abruptly stop to check out the action, blocking both lanes at the intersection and causing chaos.

Worryingly, the injured man's legs are twitching, as he lies crippled on the baking road in the afternoon sun. The ambulance comes to a halt. Emergency workers jump out and pile the man's lifeless body onto an old stretcher, slam the door and speed off. The action ended, bystanders hop onto their motorbikes with helmets hanging from their handlebars, instead of wearing them on their heads.

Perhaps they will need them in case of an accident.

That's Phnom Penh traffic.

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