He drives straight at me, the visor of his helmet open, looking relaxed. For a moment I’m confused. Am I really driving at the right side of the road? The motordriver doesn’t go left or right, just drives on. Then I realise this is normal behaviour in Phnom Penh and I move to the left, a bit further on the road. He passes me without looking twice. Daily business for Cambodians but it does make my first bicycle ride through Phnom Penh a bit of an adventure.
In 1979 Phnom Penh was more or less a ghost town, after the Khmer Rouge had chased the inhabitants out of the city. Since that time some have returned and many more new inhabitants arrived, nowadays about 2 million. Traffic cannot handle that. It is evident especially during rush hours, four times a day because most Cambodians use the two-hour lunch break to go home. Chaotic is an understatement for the situation at those times, for two important reasons.
First, the city doesn’t have public transport. There are regular pilots to set up a city bus system, but they always fail. Not because Cambodians all have their own means of transport, far from that, but they are used to transport from door to door. The city abounds with tuk-tuks (mopeds with small trailers to transport four people, or five or six if you squeeze a bit) and moto-taxis (in principle for one passenger but two fit easily, and three are possible if you’re the size of an average Cambodian). There are enough of them available everywhere at any time, and they take you exactly where you want to go. That is to say, if you know exactly where to go yourself, because the knowledge of the driver most of the times will not take you there. Phnom Penh in essence has a very easy system to find your way around: east-west streets have even numbers, north-south streets have odd numbers, counting up in logical order. The grid is mostly rectangular, so that adds to the ease of the system. What doesn’t help is that streets don’t cross the whole city. So in one part of the city the streets might be numbered 320-322-328, while the streets 324 and 326 can be in a completely different part of town. What makes it even more difficult is that indicators of street names (or numbers) don’t exist. The only way to find out in which street you are is to look at the marquises of the shops, which quite often mention them. You just have to know it… When you’ve found the street, the next problem will be to find the right building. Streets here are usually quite long, so if you don’t know where to go, you can end up walking a few kilometres. The houses here are numbered, and usually the numbers are written on the houses, so with a European mind it seems easy to find the right one. There’s one problem though. The sequence of the numbers on the houses is totally arbitrary and you cannot rule out that one number exists more than once in the same street. That’s why most addresses mention between which crossing streets or at which corner you find the right building. Try and find your way around here when you’re new in town! We were glad to be picked up the first few days, by a tuk-tuk with a driver who new where we had to go and who was able to guide us through the chaotic traffic.
The other reason traffic is such a chaos, is because Cambodians don’t care about traffic rules. It’s not that they don’t exist, they do, but nobody adheres to them. As one of the colleagues said: for Cambodians a red traffic light doesn’t mean you have to stop, it is an invitation to stop here if you intended to stop somewhere anyway. The main “thoroughfares” in Phnom Penh are 6-lane traffic arteries, so in principle able to handle a lot of traffic. Unfortunately both outer lanes are not used for traffic but for parking. Tuk-tuks, motortaxis and handbarrows wait alongside the road for customers. Not on the sidewalks, because those are used for parking the expensive Lexusses, Toyota Priusses of other status improving automobiles. In the other lanes all vehicles swarm around each other, trying to move as fast as they can (not very). In the middle of these roads is a railing that makes crossing of the road impossible, apart from the main intersections. In principle a good means to improve traffic safety, if not for the fact that the Cambodians found their own way of dealing with this. Ghost driving! They just cross to the other side of the road where it’s possible and drive along at the “wrong” side of the road. Like the motordriver at the beginning, he just wanted to take the next turn. It turns crossing the streets into a special experience. Wait until the traffic stops and you have room to cross, will mean that you will still be waiting next day. So you just start to ride (or walk, that’s the same) and continue moving in a straight line with a constant speed and hope and expect the crossing traffic will move around you… of course except for those status improving automobiles, then you better make sure you’re the one moving around. Until now we managed to cross safely.