The men of the village gathered around, white-vested. As we finalised the deal they nodded their approval. I was off on my red second-hand Suzuki 110cc moto.
Driving in Cambodia is sensation similar to being babysat by a lax teenager when you were a kid. You can get away with a lot. It’s a double edged sword though. In three months on the road, I have already seen two fatalities.
I saw one kid being carried off the road – a limp hammock between two friends. As I knelt down beside him on the roadside I feared the worst. Then he opened his eyes and sat up. His helmet lay beside him; the back completely caved in.
It’s a dust-filled world of danger out there so here is my guide to the top five hazards to watch out for.
Packs of semi-wild dogs gamboling like drunken rugby players are a sight common in Cambodia. Despite bringing their scratching and humping activities dangerously close to the road, the dogs do seem to have a sense that the road is not an arena designed for the furry and soft.
Cows are a different story. You are driving along highway no.3, doing 110km/hour. Ahead are some cows grazing by the roadside. It’s OK, you think; they know not to cross the road. You are wrong. Moving with a depth of stupidity only known to the bovine or political legislators, one cow turns and begins to confidently stride across the highway. Lesson: slow the hell down if you see cows.
Dangerous Machinery in Strange Places
After a short time in Cambodia you get used to seeing things that should never be put on the back of a moto …. be put on the back of a moto. Stacks of babies, the elderly, cousins with hospital drips, scaffolding poles as wide as the road… but the absolute prize has to go to two guys I saw the other day.
They both wore the dusty jeans and baseball caps of a workman and were driving a skeletal Daelim bike. The passenger, sat behind the driver, held a chainsaw. It was about four feet long and protruded out the back of the bike like a giant rusty wasp sting. Of all the motos you could crash into, you’d better pray it’s not these two.
Listening to Music
Driving is a good opportunity to listen to music. If you are in a car. Motos are a different story. The most obvious danger is not hearing the beep of murderous minivans which is the only warning you will get before being painted on the roadside.
Other more subtle dangers also exist. Listening to music can ruin your perception of reality because it makes you feel like you are in a computer game. For better or worse, my generation was raised in front a screen driving suicidally fast to pumping tunes fortified with infinite lives.
Now, listening to the sounds of Booka Shade or Bad Religion while driving in real life seems to alter my perception so, instead of seeing a real road with hard tarmac and sharp metal objects traveling very fast, I see level one of “Burnout 2”. It tends to trivialise the dangers traveling 110/kph wearing only a t-shirt and cheap helmet presents. One tends to forget that death means death and not instant respawning. Unless you are Cambodian and believe in reincarnation, which, come to think of it, explains a lot…
Most Cambodians have only been driving cars for 15 years. It appears that traffic laws are made up as they go along. Based mostly on the law of the jungle. Here, the larger vehicles get the lion’s share of the road while smaller vehicles make way or die.
It’s the law of nature. Some of the craziest drivers are ubiquitous Cambodian minivans. They are stuffed with people, babies, bags of rice, furniture and crowned with one grinning dude on the roof with flies in his teeth. The drivers tend to be mild-mannered men and not homicidal maniacs which is surprising because they drive like Hannibal Lecture with a hornet in his pants.
If you’re lucky they will beep to let you know they are about to tear past you at a closeness that will take your breath away. But mostly they just drive at breakneck speed ratting, buzzing and spitting debris in their wake. Mirror check, nothing, mirror check, nothing, mirror check, vroom!
A minivan passes at a hair’s breadth with all the foreboding of that massive starship in the opening sequence of Star Wars. Scary.
I get that there’s not much money available in Cambodia but, dude, will someone please sort out the potholes? When a pothole is as big as a whole car, things are going to get ugly. Potholes are the Cambodian equivalent to sleeping policeman in the West. However, instead of being place strategically to slow traffic down, they have been placed haphazardly to add an extra element of danger to the already terrifying condition of Cambodia’s roads. They lie insidiously waiting for an off-guard driver; the small ones feel like someone has punched you in the stomach and the big ones leave you with no stomach… or legs or arms.
Noticing the hole at the last minute you swerve to the side nearly smashing into a bike packed with monks. Not good. Worse is when you have to reduce your speed suddenly to stop yourself doing a superman over the handlebars and find your bike skidding like you’re driving on ice only to be rewarded by a bone-jarring crunch as your bike hits the bottom of the road-crater. A painful lower back is your reward.
If you are approaching a pothole and it’s too late to avoid it or slow down, the tactic is to grit your teeth and aim straight ahead. If you wobble, you’re in trouble (is the applicable advice-rhyme I just made up).
Top photo: Skip Yetter