Traffic accidents are the primary cause of accidental deaths in Cambodia and on Saturday morning, August 3rd my friend Jude and I took a passenger van from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh at 7:30 am. A trip in these vans has been likened to riding the Knight Bus from the Harry Potter series: the van seems to inhale to fit through narrow passages, inanimate obstacles jump out of its way, and the speedometer rarely dips below 100kph.
Four hours into our journey I was carsick and had a pounding headache that was almost certainly caused by sitting adjacent to our driver, who had been sitting on his horn more than two-thirds of the way.
Otherwise the trip was uneventful, until an hour outside Phnom Penh when we hit a traffic jam. Jude, much more patient than I am, mentioned that it was the first traffic jam he had seen in over three years before he slipped out of the van for a cigarette.
The main road between Cambodia’s two largest cities is inadequate, with a single lane in either direction. We were stuck in the southbound lane, but impatient cars behind us had pulled into the left lane as far ahead of our van as we could see. Although our lane remained motionless, soon we were watching cars, motorbikes, and buses trickle past the unmoving caravan in the left lane, nudging their way along the dirt shoulder with cheeky grins on their faces.
Observing the traffic flow it’s safe to assume that many Cambodians are unlicensed. Coming from the U.S. I can confirm that we are sticklers about waiting for our turn – mostly because if you fail to do so you run the risk of getting shanked. It rattles me enough when I wait behind someone at a gas station to pay for my sunflower seeds and other Cambodians step in front of me, put their food down on the counter, and wave their money at the cashier.It irks me even more when the cashier inevitably takes their cash.
Our van had only gotten caught about 500 meters behind the mess. So we watched helplessly as, instead of just waiting in the order they’d gotten stuck in, every single car, bus, van, bike, and tuk-tuk pushed as far forward as they could, creating over five lanes of traffic on either side of the two-lane road.
In other countries the pedestrian path next to the road is reserved for walkers needing to stay out of harm’s way. In the middle of Cambodia I watched naked children and food hawkers weave their way between the stagnant vehicles rather than risk being trampled by the eager beavers blazing a trail so close to those houses lining the road that their residents started slipping out their windows to investigate the excitement.
Then, more than two hours in, our driver killed the engine. At this point it was about 2pm and sunny. We had run out of water at about noon and been eclipsed by a big pink Vietnamese tour bus shortly afterwards, so I was not the only cranky person in the van.
I tried rolling down the window, but a blast of steamy air hit me in the face as I watched rows of men pee into the bushes beyond the ditch adjacent to the southbound lane. When they’d zipped their pants they all inevitably skipped down the road to get a closer look at the obstruction, and Jude was no exception.
After more than two hours without budging everyone was curious about what lay ahead, as was were we, so Jude went to investigate. While he was gone I fought briefly with one guy who kept reaching over my shoulder to crank up the radio – he’d flick it up with his coke nail when I was looking away, at which point I would immediately turn it back down and sigh heavily as I sharpened my toothbrush handle into a point. While I was contemplating whether or not my toothbrush could beat his fingernail in a duel, he leaned over and offered me some potato chips before initiating a conversation in his best broken English.
“Everyone watching but no one has an idea to call an ambulance. If an ambulance coming they get the worst one because this guy call the ambulance get commission.”
He smiled warmly and pointed at the car in front of us. Both doors were open on one side and a woman was squatting in between them, pooping in the road.
“When making accident, if someone can speak, they make sure it cannot speak anymore and think how to steal their wallet. Then all run away.”
Naomi Collett Ritz