It’s Friday evening and I am dodging the peak traffic proud of my acquired skills and at the same time I wonder, after such a long time in the Kingdom, how is it possible that my thoughts on the brilliance of Cambodian driving skills never made it as far as written word account of the daily events we often comment on with friends and colleagues.
So here it goes….
Every respectable and Buddha worshiping Cambodian knows that applying brakes while in motion is a sign of weakness, and thus the action of applying the aforementioned brakes rarely happens. Brakes are therefore a secondary item to consider when buying a motorbike or a car, naturally. Horn, on the other hand, is on the top of equipment priority list, the louder the better and if we can get the one that sounds like the circus is coming to town, we are pretty much the king of the road. If you traveled by bus in Cambodia, you know what I am talking about and you own a pair of ear plugs. You also associate the sound of such horn with a near death experience when a large truck is announcing its arrival, from behind, passing you – a mere cyclist – with only a couple of inches to spare between paint / skin graft exchange, your heart skipping out of your chest.
Head on approach, at full speed, horn basting and without the need to turn head left and /or (!?) right, this works miraculously well for most when coming to a junction or turning left. The “left turn weave” is a form of art in itself and should be a part of the road conduct worldwide. Of course, in countries where people mostly drive on the left (read wrong) side of the road, this maneuver would be called the “right turn weave”.
In Cambodia people mostly drive anywhere.
The Cambodian left turn weave consists of scanning the oncoming traffic approximately 1km before the need to turn left. This also coincides with the inability of locals to bring themselves to apply brakes or manage to turn in a right angle fashion. Brakes are for Sissies, remember? So, here we are, scanning the oncoming traffic barely paying attention to what is happening behind. Who knew you could not only squeeze your zits using the rare view mirror, it really can also be used to check what is happening behind you! Behind your rear. Then we are slowly weaving in through the gaps in the oncoming traffic into the other side. Then we ride, on the other side, against the current until we reach our turn… we keep on riding on the wrong side (and it really IS the wrong side here) up to a point when we say to ourselves – ah, what the hell, there is no point trying to cross now, let’s stay on this side and then, voila, we reach our destination. You never knew what it really meant when your mother told you “always look both ways” until you came to Cambodia.
Everybody knows that helmets are evil. Firstly they hardly fit the elaborate hair dos and IF they fit, they mess up the hair do - so helmets are a no no for the kool kats in town. But, there is a twist to the old evil helmet. Some of the smarter riders discovered that to achieve the “hands free” status and still be able to chat to friends about the ever-so-important topic of having eaten rice or not, it is easy to jam the mobile phone under the helmet conveniently and converse about the various topics mainly relating to food. To balance this and to get back the lost status of coolness, one can simply ride one handed, sitting slightly askew and resting the superfluous arm casually in the crotch area. Speed also helps to restore the balance and when you are riding fast, you’d better be doing so in the fast lane which is located in the middle of the road.
More and more people these days are discovering the miraculous properties of a simple helmet and its ability to protect the entire family counting 5 people. One helmet protects all, it’s a bargain! The police force are aware and trying to implement the protection of all citizens travelling on motorbikes – fear a 2000R fine or being hit by a baton if your hair is flying freely. Then you really wish you had been wearing the helmet in question.
I admire the artistic abilities of the Cambodian traffic police. Every accident is a space for somebody to express themselves. Childlike outline of a motorbike colliding with a car. Helmetless head on impact of bike and bike. Pushbike flattened under the wheels of a big shiny Lexus which is now long gone, disappearing into the sunset, leaving clouds of dust behind. Pool of blood and shards of glass to decorate the scene. Curious, vulture-like onlookers appearing from nowhere and everywhere…. staring in silence. Shiver. Although I have never seen this white outline of accident being drawn – or better – sprayed onto the tarmac, reminders of how fragile life really is are popping up just as you cycle along day by day.
Now let’s cross the road.
First look right; that’s for the bikes and motos which have performed the left turn weave. Also look out for cart pushers of all sorts, squeaky sound of empty washing up liquid bottle signifies their arrival. Then look left; that’s for the main stream of traffic coming from the generally expected direction. Then look right again, left, right, left, right …. OK, your neck hurts now, you are starting to be annoyed and feel a little silly as well, not to mention that you really have to be somewhere. So be brave, step out, make eye contact with the oncoming traffic and assume a steady, flowing, confident pace. Keep on walking, do no slow down or stop unexpectedly, nor accelerate – it could cost you your skin. It does take a bit of getting used to and a certain skill but at least, minus the one handed cool drivers, most people travel fairly slowly and their next move can be more or less predicted, i.e. indicator blinking right, you are fairly safe to assume left turn or heading straight.
My friend Hun Sen (the prime minister of Cambodia for those unfamiliar with the name) sent me a message last week (via Metfone, my other good friend in the country): "Do not cause traffic accidents over the next few days… "
Bearing in mind that the Khmer New Year driving extravaganza is approaching fast and he was obviously thinking ahead, I have listened, gave up my “wreckless” cycling, road rage and I even try to swear less. You never know who could be listening. One thing I really can’t give up though is the left turn weave and taking a short cut through the petrol station…
So how is your driving? Not so red hot, Cambodia, my dear friend.
anna bella betts
Never still, always on the move, looking for the perfect capture... Cambodia is currently my home, presenting endless opportunities....
In this blog you will find no profound wisdom.
Just accounts of daily life, sometimes about photography, often about wine, occasionally about travel adventures and sometimes about nothing at all.