Negotiating Phnom Penh’s Traffic
It’s not uncommon to hear foreigners complain that Cambodians are the worst drivers in the world. Clearly this is not true. Most drivers here are reasonably competent. They have to be. The problem is that there are no traffic rules!
This is the first thing to recognise when you come here. There are no road rules as you might understand them. In fact, by following the rules as you understand them, you could well cause an accident! At the same time, it is worth remembering that people would drive as they do here if there were no rules back in the countries we come from.
The next question is why are there no traffic rules? Simple, because there is no effective enforcement. Anyone who drives here soon realises that you can pretty much drive however you like – even right in front of a police checkpoint – and more often than not, nothing will happen to you. Without enforcement, rules lack any power.
Unfortunately there are also few accepted protocols, as becomes clear when entering an intersection and being confronted with dozens of motorbikes trying to cross in front of you like so many wildebeest crossing the Mara River, or turning a corner only to find someone cutting the same corner and coming directly at you!
There are tacit agreements, however, usually made on the spot between individuals about who has right of way for example (generally the car that gets there first – or sometimes which vehicle is bigger) but as for generally accepted rules, most Khmers simply wouldn’t have a clue.
Like many newly urban societies, Cambodia has gone from the oxcart to the automobile in under two decades. Now the streets of the capital, a city of over two million people, is frequently congested as everyone seems to own a motorcycle (at the very least). Consequently, driving here is not for the faint-hearted. Even those who fancy themselves as non-believers can find themselves praying fervently to some benign deity when faced with the exigencies of Cambodian traffic.
Traffic lights are a new phenomenon here, usually operated under the watchful eye of the police, at least during the day. Their job is to ensure that people recognise when the lights change colour. But this doesn’t always work. People on motorbikes often break the rules with impunity, deciding for themselves if it’s safe to cross an intersection. If you’re crossing with a green light, be prepared for a surprise. Oh, and don’t be fooled by zebra crossings, they are purely decorative.
As far as the locals are concerned, road rules are largely optional, frequently mediated by tacit on-the-spot understanding about who has the right of way for example, much as they are when walking on the footpath. It’s not an uncommon sight to see motorbikes serenely driving on the wrong side of the road – adding an extra spice to the challenge of crossing the road.
There are generally accepted principles recognised by the driving public here such as only worry about what’s in front, never what’s behind you. You’ll notice this when someone turns in front of you from a side street without a glance in your direction.
One of the most unnerving experiences is when you’re entering an intersection and a motorbike suddenly appears crossing in front of you with the driver, usually a young woman looking neither left or right. Looking both ways at an intersection is clearly beneath the dignity of most drivers, and she is relying on you to see her first and give way.
Defensive driving is therefore mandatory.
Then there are local eccentricities such as cutting corners at an oblique angle or turning right from the left hand lane across the flow of traffic without indicating. When behind the wheel, decide in haste, regret at leisure is a rule that most people understand instinctively. Fortunately most people are usually not in any real hurry. If this doesn’t work, try sounding your horn or flashing your lights warns other drivers that you’re coming through and they had better watch out.
The exception to this is at night when the traffic police have quit for the day and the Asian binge-drinking culture turns normally courteous drivers into invincible warriors of the road. Then all bets are off.
Other times it almost seems as if the traffic has all been carefully choreographed, as motorbikes glide through gaps between cars and tuk-tuks travelling at right-angles to them with only seconds to spare. You have to admire the blithe confidence of their drivers that fate will get them to the other side in one piece. Fortunately it seems to work more often than not.
However, the anarchic way people drive does inevitably lead to accidents and when things go pear-shaped it can all be rather nasty – especially if you are a foreigner. Whatever you think is the case, accept you will always be in the wrong. Get your insurance agent on the case pronto. Let him sort it out.
Recently I witnessed two motorcycles collide on a round-about. The rider on the inside choose to exit while his neighbour on his immediate outside insisted on continuing around the roundabout. The result was that one didn’t make it. Fortunately no one appeared to be injured. However, the gentlemen whose bike hit the deck assumed the role of the aggrieved party but when this didn’t impress he made a phone call. Faced with the threatened intervention of a higher power, the other driver accepted liability and a settlement was quickly determined. Case closed.
People here are accustomed to this system and many may even prefer it. Infringements can be settled on the spot with a judicious payment of compensation, by-passing the onerous process of going to court or the police station. As in many developing societies, people experience of the law here is that it is usually arbitrary, inconsistent and frequently very unfair. The rich and powerful are generally above it. People understand that if the police stop them for not wearing a helmet or a seatbelt, for example, it is not really about law enforcement. Most probably it will be because the officers are short of funds for lunch or some similar contingency. Here the law is to be feared rather than respected.
Policing here is mainly to do with collecting fees rather than law enforcement as such, which is why police at an intersection will flag down cars without current road tax stickers but completely ignore all the other infringements happening around them.
The four-wheel drive SUV is the real measure of success here, preferably a black Lexus with tinted windows, the ultimate muscle car as far as the emergent middle-class are concerned. Possession confers immediate status on its owner, a tribute to the determination and skill of ordinary Cambodian bureaucrats to scrape and save $70,000, no mean feat on a salary of only a couple of hundred dollars a month. The message: get out of my way, as I’m someone to be reckoned with.
Young maniacs on motorbikes, with their supreme confidence in their own immortality, are another menace (as they are anywhere in the world). I was in a tuk-tuk at an intersection. Just as we moved forward, a young man on a motorbike overtook and turned immediately in front of us, zipping around the corner and giving both my driver and myself a start. When my driver remonstrated with him, the man on the motorbike took exception. It wasn’t a matter of who was in the right or wrong. Honour was at stake. Fortunately he backed off when I leaned out of the back of the tuk-tuk and gave him the evil eye.
The other side of the coin however is that it is rare to experience the type of “road rage” that is not uncommon in the West. People are usually remarkably polite on the road; no doubt because it’s often difficult to know whom you might be dealing with if an altercation develops. It is not unknown for disputes here to be settled at the point of a gun. This decrees that discretion is the better part of valour.
So be careful out there in Phnom Penh’s traffic. And, if all else fails, pray.
Here is a link to “21 tips on driving in the Kingdom”
Photograph by Paul Carson