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readers' submissions


Driving in Cambodia

by Butch

March 3, 2007

Unless you have spent time in a state mental institution or indulged in hallucinogenic drugs there little to prepare you for the rolling catastrophe which is Cambodian traffic. I spent four years as a London motorcycle courier, which I thought was a fairly bonkers occupation but I felt like a boy scout in Baghdad on my first days biking in Phnom Penh. In London drivers are aggressive and impatient, but predictable. In Cambodia drivers are seldom aggressive, occasionally impatient but completely unpredictable.

Basic road rules: Driving on the right is the norm, unless you want to drive on the left in which case that's fine too. Priority is in order of size, big smoke-belching lorries do what they want and everyone else gets out of their way, then in descending order: 4x4s, minibuses, pickup trucks, Toyota Camry (Cambodian national car) then motorbike and trailer combinations, Honda Dreams (national motorbike), ox carts and lastly cyclists pedestrians dogs and chickens.

Exceptions to this rule are: Large Mercedes or Hummers with fancy wheels and blacked out windows, their drivers are always heavily armed and so have extra priority. Convoys of Mercs, Hummers, Land Cruisers etc with flashing lights get extra double priority as they will be taking the prime minister's wife shopping and this is vital to the economy. Cyclo taxis are given way too because people feel sorry for a six stone pensioner pedalling a half-ton tricycle. Monks; easy to spot because of their bright, saffron coloured robes and therefore easy to avoid. It is seriously bad karma to run over a monk, so they have extra triple priority. Cattle: Locals have allowed their cows to range freely for centuries, safe in the knowledge that they will return home at dusk, building a main road through their territory will not alter the cows' daily routine one jot. Small herds wander down the busiest of highways stopping to graze on the verges and sometimes lay down for a nap in the centre of the road. Killing a cow is not as bad as killing a monk, but it will be expensive and can damage your motorcycle.  
 
Safety: This being a Buddhist country, everything is down to fate and luck so making an offering at a shrine is considered more useful than checking if the tyres contain any air. Wearing a helmet or seat belt shows you are a non-believer and also marks you out as a bit of a sissy.  
 
Junctions and traffic lights: Stopping at a junction will cause an accident, no one ever stops, so don’t, or everyone else will crash into the back of you. Ditto pulling out onto a main road, stopping to look out for oncoming traffic is also seen as a sign of weakness / sissydom / lack of faith. Traffic lights are used solely for paying Police wages. Cops will exact fines for ignoring traffic lights and anything else that takes their fancy such as wearing an offensive shirt or not washing behind your ears.  
 
Overloaded vehicles: Except for the aforementioned Hummers and Mercs which need space for assault rifles, bags of cash etc. Cambodian vehicles are always chronically overloaded. Families of five or more squash onto a moped, taxis carry at least six persons in town and around nine on a long journey. Minibuses load up with cargo and small motorbikes then fill the remaining space with passengers, once the van is full a further ten or so climb on the roof. These vans have poor brakes but loud horns and the screaming passengers on the roof will usually alert you to their presence.

Gasoline couriers: These deserve a special mention, filling stations in Cambodia range from the modern forecourt style to little roadside stalls selling petrol in old pop bottles. Supplying these outlets are small motorbikes carrying five or more plastic jerrycans, all lashed to the seat with string.
Riding an incendiary bomb does not make these riders any more careful, and so ranks them in the world’s most dangerous jobs, right up there with Alaskan crab fisherman and Harold Shipman's cleaning lady.

Night driving: All of the above apply except that around a quarter of all vehicles do not have lights and there is no actual offence of drunk driving.

Enjoy your trip!


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