By my calculation, since I’ve moved to Phnom Penh I have been in fifty-seven near-accidents in city traffic. This is a conservative estimate.
I am not a stranger to the chaotic roadscapes of Asia. I have waded into the rapids that are the Saigon streets – ten to twelve lanes abreast. I have snaked my way through the busting avenues of downtown Jaipur.
When I first arrived in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand two years ago, I found a general disregard for any variety of traffic regulation. I documented with amusement the varying interpretations of traffic lights and stop signs and the liberal understanding of the purpose of sidewalks. None of this, however, prevented me from hopping on my own motorbike and joining the driving experiment.
Here in Cambodia I am more ambivalent.
Succinctly put, Phnom Penh drivers make those of Chiang Mai appear law-abiding and demure. Drivers here appear to believe they are steering the Knight Bus from Harry Potter, with the magical ability to squeeze through the tightest of spaces. They do not.
And yet still they try. They accelerate and weave James Bond-style through rapidly narrowing gaps between a motley collection of motos, tuk-tuks and SUVs.
Sidewalks are unashamedly employed as extra lanes, and corner gas stations double as access ramps for perpendicular roads without having to wait for a green light.
Besides the cars and bikes and trucks and motos and tuk-tuks, the streets of Phnom Penh are filled with an entire produce markets on wheels. There are flocks of chickens strapped to motos, and bags of rubbery plucked chickens in bags. There are towering bags of cabbage, stacks of eggs, bundles of eggplants and protruding poles of sugar cane. There are large wicker baskets of mangosteens that sink on either side of the bike, extending the width of three motos strapped together.
In the weeks that I have been here, mostly I have ridden on the backs of motos. They are cheaper by half, than the cushioned, canopied and wood carved tuk-tuks. The increased danger of course may not be worth the cost.
As in New York or London, one never needs to search out tuk-tuks or motos. They lounge on every street corner. “Tuk-tuk, madam?” “Moto, moto.” Their profusion on the streets of Phnom Penh is explained two-fold: it is a product of the imbalance between available jobs and city population, as well as the ease of becoming a chauffeur. If you have a moto, you have a job.
The lack of barriers to entering the profession comes with tradeoffs. In London, want-to-be cabbies must first learn “The Knowledge” – memorizing 320 routes, and upwards of 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks, to any of which passengers might request transport. In Phnom Penh an aspiring cabbie need not know any streets or any landmarks. A passing knowledge of the city is desirable, but beyond that it is often up to the passenger to navigate the journey.
I have yet to decide whether I will join the fray. I continue to weigh the relative safety and stupidity of being a passenger versus being a driver. I take motos when I must, and I inevitably clench my teeth the entire time – a fact that some passing moto drivers have noticed and laughed at. If I can, I walk -- although sidewalks are haphazard.
Perhaps, if I decide to get a moto of my own, I can start offering rides as well. In the mean time, I’m practicing up on my Khmer driving vocabulary.