I’ve stood on street corners, trying to discern the logic that governs Phnom Penh’s traffic. My conclusion: there is none.
The old travelogues I’ve read call Phnom Penh “La Perle de l’Asie,” a beautiful and quiet city of broad leafy boulevards where rickshaws and bicycles pedal to the languid pace of the wide muddy Mekong.
Those once serene French-built boulevards are jam-packed with exhaust-spitting, engine-growling, horn-honking motorbikes, tuk tuks, and SUVs. The few remaining rickshaws and bicycles hug the sewer-water curbs, their drivers’ eyes wide with fear while their motorized brethren whip past at terrifying speeds. In recent years, the government has re-paved the city’s notoriously pothole-riddled streets and installed traffic lights at every major intersection. Their attempts to impose order on this madness, however, have proven to be entirely in vain. The locals have absolutely no interest in basic driving concepts that westerners take for granted, simple concepts based on collective safety (and sanity), such as our rules of right of way—“you go first,” the Canadian driver waves while at an unmarked intersection. “No, you go first,” the driver to his left insists… Marked or not, Cambodian drivers rush all intersections en masse. Total gridlock.
Even more rudimentary concepts go unheeded. Example: motorbike drivers race and swerve (forget indicating lane changes), then, while talking on cell phones, make one-handed left turns on red lights into the opposing traffic of one way streets. Even on median-divided roads, drivers pay no mind to the flow. Keep right or keep left: it’s up to you. Perhaps some of them were educated in Europe?
The law requires drivers of open-air vehicles to wear helmets. Drivers keep their helmets strapped to their handlebars, then slip them on when they spot the police. This law, however, does not apply to passengers, nor are there any laws prohibiting the balancing of five people or four-hundred pounds of unsecured banana bushels on the back of the little bikes. You see motorbike drivers with their two-year-old child STANDING on the seat in front of them, their eight-year-old wedged behind them, and their wife clinging to the back with a newborn baby in a harness dangling over the rear wheel. My guidebook warns: while on a motorbike, always keep your backpack in front of you. Bag snatching is common… Perhaps this woman is looking to lose another hungry mouth?
Watching it is dizzying. The anxiety of navigating it will turn your hair prematurely grey and take years of off your life, that is if your life doesn’t prematurely end when you’re ploughed over by a racing mammoth of an imported SUV—most of which, interestingly, sport large aftermarket decals on their sides advertising their manufacturer: Lexus, Nissan, Toyota, Land Rover… Status status status. With locked doors, windows up, A/C blasting, and stereos blaring nasal synth pop, SUV drivers, completely oblivious to the world outside, go fast and straight, hand on the horn (if they’re courteous), demanding that everyone conforms to their racing will. Watch out!
In an attempt to harmonize my disorientated soul to this chaos (and, because it’s been costing about $2 a tuk tuk ride to get to faraway downtown Phnom Penh), I have decided to rent a motorbike. Drive slowly, I tell myself, and follow the rules: you’ll be fine.
My little red 125cc Honda is no beauty: one of its mirrors is missing and the front light is cracked. Worst of all, when stopped, the engine stalls. My real estate agent friend who rented it to me for $40 a month said, “Oh, it no problem. You just always keep gas like this: vroom vroom,” he mimed, “and you have no problem.” No problem when it stalled crossing the busy Mao Tse Toung Boulevard. No problem.
I am rear-ended at a red light. Damage assessment: none. Although the man who hit me sped away before we could swap insurance. Insurance? What insurance? Most people don’t even have licenses.
Uneventful. Pounding rain. Thank god. I witness an accident. Oh god.
Following the man in front of me, I make a left turn on a green light onto large Street 63. Within two minutes, I hear a shrill whistle. Looking to the right, a baby-blue clad police officer gesticulates wildly. He leaps into the road, directly in the path of my motorbike, and I slam the brakes: brakes that didn’t work before yesterday’s tune-up.
“One way! One way!” the cop screams, pointing to a sign further down the road, a red circle with a white horizontal line placed on a suspiciously temporary-looking stand.
I look at the sign, then at the cop. I say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” A half-dozen other cops watch me from the corner, lounging on the seats of parked motorbikes. One of them spits. A few other drivers go past, travelling in the same direction as me. Fucking shakedown, I think. Coming from the university with my clean-shaven western face, dress shirt and slacks, I’m a prime target, a secure meal ticket.
“You big trouble now,” the cop in front of me says. “You talk with boss.” He points to a heavy-set white-helmeted man with bars on the epaulettes of his uniform. “You leave bike here and talk to boss.”
“But I didn’t know,” I say. “I didn’t see any sign.”
“You talk boss now,” he says. “Now!”
I sigh. No need to turn off the engine: it had already stalled. I take out the key, unstrap my backpack from between my legs, and rest the bike on its kickstand. The boss waves me over.
With his minions watching, the fat, hard-looking sergeant says, “New law in Cambodia. You drive wrong way, we take moto to station. You want me take moto to station?” His badge glitters in the blinding afternoon sun. He toys the baton strapped to his hip.
“I’m very sorry, officer,” I say. “It’s my first time driving in Phnom Penh. I don’t know the rules yet. It’s so crazy driving here. You know? I’m very sorry.”
“Maybe we take your moto. You like that? You want me to take your moto?”
“No officer,” I say, halfheartedly. “I don’t want that.” Do me the favour, I think. Prolong my life. Take the goddamn thing.
“New law,” he says. “Too bad. We take.”
“Listen,” I say, “let’s not go to the station. We go to the station, it’s big trouble for me and big trouble for you.” Trouble for you to get off your lazy ass, I think. Trouble for me: the more cops around, the bigger the payoff.
“Yes,” the fat sergeant says, grinning. “Much trouble. So, how much you pay?”
He flips open a ledger packed tightly with incomprehensible Khmer curves. “See this?” he says, pointing to a number, “this person pay twenty dollar. How much you pay?”
“Oh Jesus,” I say. “I don’t know. I don’t want to pay anything.”
The sergeant’s round brown face darkens. He flips the ledger to another page. “This person pay forty-five dollar. How much you have? How much you pay?”
“Um,” I say stalling. “Well, I guess I can pay five dollars.”
The sergeant looks me up and down, then smiles. “Five dollar okay.”
I should have said two.
I fish out my wallet and hand him a crisp new bill. The sergeant places it inside an unmarked cash-brimming envelope and says, “You go now.”
“Okay,” I say. “I go now.”
The cops lounging on the parked motorbikes smile and laugh.
Back to my Honda. The first cop is standing in the road. The cop blows his whistle, jumps in front of a speeding Super Cub. The driver swerves, accelerates, and makes a left hand turn, disappearing down the busy bisecting road.
“Hey,” I say. “Aren’t you going to chase him?”
The cop shrugs.
I straddle my bike, reattach my backpack, and start the engine. Two helmetless boys on a scooter zip by. The cops don’t even budge.
“Now,” I say, “if I turn right, will you stop me again?”
“You go. You go.”
I change gears, turn right, and follow a black Mercedes sedan. In the middle of the road, the Mercedes slams its brakes. I stop inches behind it and am rear-ended by a small Suzuki.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” a young girls says. “I’m so sorry. So sorry.”
I look at her pretty worry-lined face, then inspect the back of my bike: no visible damage.
“Don’t worry,” I say, “don’t worry.”
I restart the engine—the damn thing had stalled again—and take off into the mad Phnom Penh bustle.