Driving in America is exceedingly simple: Stay in your lane, keep a safe distance, watch for brake lights. Traffic is orderly and highly organized and almost all vehicles are four-wheelers. Road rage often ensues when a motorist gets out of line, breaks the rhythm, even sometimes for a minor infraction.
In contrast to the US where there’s only an occasional bike or motorbike to break the pattern, here two wheelers make up about 80% of all traffic with three-wheelers of all sorts along with cars and such making up the rest. Most 2-wheelers here are 125cc or less, what we’d call scooters in America.
In contrast to the strict orderly nature of American traffic, being out on the road here is like entering a miasma of opposing, sometimes conflicting intentions in a panoply of different kinds of vehicles. There are 3 wheel taxis and delivery vehicles and a variety of trailers pulled by motorbikes or sometimes very slow one cylinder diesel tractors. There are hand carts, bicycles and here in Kampot an occasional pony cart. In a car you feel like a big fish surrounded by little ones scurrying about. When they pass you and return to the lane they sometimes come very close.. used to freak me out, still don’t like it, but now I just blow it off.
They can come at you from all directions and not just by cutting corners as they are wont to do, but you often see 2-wheelers driving near the curb in the wrong direction. For instance, you’re coming to an intersection on a bike and want to make a left turn, but there’s too much traffic to cross so you just drive the wrong direction along the curb until you see an opening in the flow where you can slide over. Sometimes your destination is to the left and would mean crossing traffic twice to reach it so you don’t bother and drive the wrong way, sometimes as much as a few blocks.
There’re also pedestrians to consider since sidewalks are often not available. They’re either usurped for parking or commercial purposes or they’re so poorly designed as to be difficult to use. For instance, property owners have free reign to build the walk in front of their place to their taste with no reference to neighboring sidewalks and no government standards to abide by. As a result some will be higher than the adjacent ones and others built on a serious slant. When not encumbered they’re often so ragged it’s easier to walk on the street, but having people walking on the street is dangerous and disconcerting for both walker and driver. It wasn’t always that way, back in the sixties before the country’s troubles all the sidewalks were built on the same level and kept clear for pedestrian use.
In the states you can zone out while driving, especially plying the same route every day. You don’t have to think, you’re like a drone. Last time I was in Portland, Ore. walking around downtown in rush hour I saw two drivers in quick succession almost cause accidents because they were on their phones and running on autopilot. And the thing is neither was even aware of how close they came to causing an accident.
Here you can’t space out for a second; you never know what might be coming in your direction or cutting you off. You might see a big SUV or pickup truck with it’s ass end blocking half of your lane; it’s a small town and drivers are often quite lackadaisical about how they park. It’s worth noting that there were hardly any cars 20 years ago, so most drivers are new to the skill. Sometimes people drive very slowly (like me at 78) or there’s a vehicle in front that can’t move very fast and some sections of street are more potholes than pavement.
What’s most fascinating about driving in Cambodia is that people rarely get bent out of shape over even blatantly bad or incompetent driving. Every time I’m out I see many instances of clueless motoring that would result in road murder back there. Even when someone crashes a red light and forces others to wait for them to pass do you see more than a grimace, they shrug off the transgression and move on. They sometimes honk their horns to warn you they’re coming or to arrogantly insist you get out of their way, but not in anger when someone else forces a quick braking response.
It’s give and take, ebb and flow: an intricate dance that requires a constant readiness to adjust for unexpected behavior. That’s one reason why I’m more comfortable riding a bicycle here than back in the states: here everyone on the road is on the lookout for every possible contingency. Back there 2-wheelers are often invisible, auto drivers don’t expect odd vehicles to be on the road.
However that magical dance where everything goes smoothly doesn’t always work out and there are lots of accidents. Everybody has their souvenir motorbike scars. And since there’s little enforcement of rules of the road, you can drive as fast as you want here; the only time you’ll get into trouble is if you actually cause an accident and even then lots of people just run. Sometimes it’s fear for their own safety that they run since crowds of locals have been known to deal very harshly and right on the spot with dangerous drivers, though that happened mostly in the past and not so much in Kampot.
The police will never try to stop a moving vehicle or chase an offender down unless the case is especially grievous. They consider it too dangerous. The streets are quite chaotic and most drivers would try to outrun them.
The police rarely are out and about, they don’t really patrol, but they’re always near by. The country is divided into 1760 communes and each one has a police station. For instance, Phnom Penh, a city of 1.5 million, has about 100 communes. They’re akin to American neighborhoods except they also have administrative duties.
I know two people who were seriously hurt by motorbike drivers going way too fast in congested areas. One had a serious break in her leg, the other eventually lost part of his leg below the knee. It must be said, in fairness, that both were also known for driving too fast, though in those individual cases the onus was still mostly on the young Khmer speeders. The second probably would have saved his leg if he hadn’t depended initially on the local medical system which can be very rudimentary at times. When he finally decided to go back to the UK to have it worked on it was too late.
A few years back an arrogant, privileged young expat, part owner of a riverside resort, was driving his big bike very fast on a country road when he hit and killed two local people who had turned right on to the road without looking. They do it all the time. He had already been warned by the police to slow down. The upshot was he had to cough up $35,000 for the families, and very likely a little tea money for the police, and was immediately deported.
In another case the son of a government VIP borrowed his father’s car without asking, got stinking drunk and drove very fast in a congested area. He wound up killing a tuk-tuk (3 wheel taxi) driver leaving a wife and four kids. She settled for $3500, a paltry amount for a life, but the little people are quite stoic about being taken advantage of by the powerful. He wasn’t rich like many who have government jobs here, but he does own a car worth $10,000. Both killers should have spent at least a few years in prison, but like a lot of places in the world, standards are different for the peons and the powerful.
One of the things we expats like about living in a third world country like Cambodia is that there are fewer rules and regulations that govern life and enforcement of those that do exist is often lax and/or fungible.
For instance, Cambodia has a seatbelt law, but I’m too lazy to bother. That’s in spite of a story told to me once by a woman I met on an Amtrak trip. She was headed home after a long drive and stopped at a rest stop about 10 miles from her destination. She always wore her belt but getting back on the freeway she figured it was such a short distance it wasn’t worth the bother and very quickly was involved in a serious accident that laid her up in the hospital for months. There are no rules here about car seats for kids. People routinely drive their motorbikes one handed while holding the kid in the other. They dial and talk on their phones while driving their bikes.
However the police do occasionally set up check points where they fine bike riders for not wearing helmets or having rear view mirrors and car drivers for not using their seatbelts. In Phnom Penh, the capital, they are quite strict and nearly everybody wears a helmet, but here in Kampot it’s only about 25%. So far the helmet law only applies to the driver and it’s common to see bikes with one or two or even three extra passengers so they’re not even required to have them.
Driving age is 15, but here in my small town, about 60,000 population, you see kids as young as nine or ten driving their little scooters. No matter how often I see it, I still can’t get used to it. I can’t imagine my little kid out in that chaotic traffic. Some are cautious drivers, others zip around like little demons. They learned all their bad driving habits from their parents and rarely wear helmets, like the general population. Bicycles are dangerous enough in traffic but at least they don’t go very fast.
I did get ticketed once for not having my seatbelt on; cost me $6.25. They never asked to see my driver’s license or car registration. Though they might’ve asked in Phnom Penh or other cities, in Kampot they are quite relaxed about things like that. It used to be very easy to get a license as long as you had a valid one from another country, just pay an agent $35 or so. Now you have to go through government rigmarole. It’s not that big a deal and a lot cheaper at only $2.50, but the only place it can be done at present is in Phnom Penh, about 100 miles away, so for now I’m driving with one that expired a couple years ago. I haven’t been asked to see my license in years, but if I was it’d probably cost $20 or $30 to continue driving. You can often bargain with them, How about $10?
The above paragraph was written six months ago. They’ve increased traffic fines and are strict about driving licenses, now a $30 fine for driving a bike (greater than 125cc) without one and $200 for a car, lots of people who didn’t think it was worth the bother before are scrambling to get theirs. They’ve also make it easier for us expats to obtain and renew licenses.
I don’t drive very far and mostly at night. It’s strictly bicycle in the daytime even when it’s raining unless I need to cart something around that requires a car. Driving at night has special hazards since many motorbikes don’t have working lights: sometimes they’re lazy to get them fixed, other times they’re really poor and don’t have the little money it takes – and maybe there’s a special problem that does cost a few extra bucks – and sometimes they don’t use them just for fun! Especially for someone my age, with waning eyesight, it is disconcerting to say the least to come across nearly invisible vehicles. I was once trying to cross a busy street where my vision was blocked by a truck. It was night so I could see headlights coming, I waited a bit and started off when the way looked clear and almost hit a bike with no lights… I generally drive very slowly so it was no problem stopping in time.
Many auto drivers don’t get the purpose of using running lights while stopping for a short time so they leave their headlights on, which is a particular problem when they’re on the side of the street directly facing you.
The registration card for my car has the original Khmer owner’s name. Most cars here were imported used from the US about ten years old: sometimes they leave the American license plates on till the new local ones are obtained which causes quite a doubletake the first time you see a California plate here. When I bought the car I obtained an official bill of sale and the paperwork for the past owners and that’s enough.
They are trying to tighten up a bit. I bought my first car in 2007, with it I got a registration card and a form to pay my annual road tax, $25 for a 4-cylinder, ten times as much for 6s and 8s. All went well paying my taxes for the first six years. The following year I took the tax form in and the fellow behind the desk said he needed to see my registration card. That was a first. I returned with the card, he took a good hard look and told me the two didn’t match. What the hell? The form was all in the local language so I had no idea what any of it meant. I went home, checked the paperwork I had and the vehicle ID number and it turned out the ID didn’t match the registration card or tax form. All three were different. My guess is the car was imported without paying taxes and that the importers then got tax paperwork, plates and registration from cars that were junked. It was an illegal alien.
Many of the neighboring countries place hurdles and make you go through hoops to be able to drive there, but it’s as easy as can be here and one of the country’s greatest draws for people like us. Scooters can be rented here in Kampot for about $5 day (bicycles for $1/day) and driver’s licenses aren’t needed for anything 125cc and under. A good running older model scooter can be had for about $300 and repairs are dirt cheap. Talking about dirt, dirt bike enthusiasts are in heaven here with lots of funky roads to test their skills. Per capita income in Cambodia is only about $1500 per year so there’s a tremendous backlog of roads that need upgrading. Those rangy mud pit roads will sorely try your patience in rainy season if you only want to get somewhere rather than horse around in the mud on a big dirt bike.
The emphasis on 2 wheelers not just makes it easy to get around, but also they’re very light on the environment. They’re so common, lots of expats here who could afford a car, still use bikes. I don’t like them, for me it’s either bicycle or car. I even feel a little guilty about driving a car; even though my current one is tiny, its still a guzzler compared to a motorbike.
All in all it’s an exciting time on the roads of Cambodia.
Update: since I wrote this I acquired a solar electric tuk-tuk, but that’s another story… coming soon.
Kiddies on scooters. https://www.facebook.com/100010265837992/videos/989366154748903/