How to survive Traffic in Cambodia

9 Jan
Bus driver's universe...

Bus driver's universe...

Yep, something simple and mundane as traffic deserves a chapter on its own in Cambodia. It is inspired by the Darwin principle of ‘Survival of the fittest’ but also by Tao’s ‘live and let live’. Bottom line is that you should forget any traffic rules you ever learnt and start all over again.

The roads in Phnom Penh are a superb example of organized chaos, or of chaotic harmony if you want. Basically everybody goes and drives where they want to. So how come nobody crashes into each other?

  • See also youtube video: I challenge you to find out which side of the road they drive in Cambodia,  and who has priority over whom at this crossing…
Priority for the strongest and loudest

Priority for the strongest and loudest

There are some rules:

  • Size does matter! The bigger your truck, car, moto, tuktuk is, the more priority you have over the others. So cars will move out of their way for trucks, motos will drive off the road when a car needs to pass, etc.
  • Honk your horn, The more noise you make, the more you scare the others away. So trucks have quite effective horns to chase everybody out of their way. Bus and car drivers also invariably use their horns more than they’d use their clutch (as most cars are automatic drive anyway, instead of stick shift).
  • As a pedestrian, crossing the road, the rule is quite simple. You say a prayer and then cross the street without watching. You just walk without hesitation, not blinking an eye. The other vehicles will try to avoid you (which is easier if you have a steady pace and don’t hesitate). And if you are walking towards an oncoming vehicle, just head for the tail of it (as most of the vehicles move forward, so by aiming for the tail, the vehicle will have past by the time you reach it – and you can walk on like Moses through the split sea).
  • An island of freedom in traffic

    An island of freedom in traffic

    The limited speed also contributes to the ‘live and let live’ principle. Because of the bad state of the roads and the organic chaos and twirl wirl on the roads, the vehicles go very slow. Just to give an example, the bus from Kampot to Phnom Penh takes 5 hours to do a 170km stretch.

Driving in Cambodia gives me a sense of freedom: you don’t need to wear a seat belt (even though I snapped it on automatically – brainwashed by the west), when being in a car you are the stronger one anyway (and have air con – which makes you feel like moving about in an oasis within a desert of noise, smoke and smog). I must say though, for the record, that my friend asked me to put on my seat belt on a stretch of good and wide road where we could drive a bit faster.

They might seem surreal ‘third world situations’ but it is not all like that. When walking through Phnom Penh, you can see traffic lights which indicate how many seconds the light will remain red or green (very modern) – a small detail is that nobody obeys them.

  • And I really love the animated pedestrian crossing traffic lightsee youtube film

5 hours with granny and baby on my lap

5 hours with granny and baby on my lap

Traveling by bus is also quite an experience. It is like playing the lottery and lots depends on your luck (or karma). On the bus back from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh I had a lovely granny next to me, with a full back of shopping which filled the legroom in front of her completely – and on top of that she was traveling with her grand daughter – on one seat – of course the one next to me (and a good part of mine). So I was traveling for 5 hours with half a child on my lap and nicely tucked in my seat by grandma’s love-handles… A great way to get in contact with the local population…

As for the boat – I wanted to take a boat from Siem Reap to Battambang but this costs 5 times more than the bus and takes double the time (still, I would like to do this before I leave Asia)

And then there’s only the train left on my list – and there is only one connection from Battambang to Phnom Penh, which goes once a week if you’re lucky. It is not only the slowest train in Asia but also the most dangerous. So that’s something to try…

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