Driving in Cambodia. How to describe this unique experience to the western world? When I visited two years ago, I was TERRIFIED at the prospect of having to drive here. It seemed like random chaos to my untrained eye. While there are technically laws on the books, driving around Phnom Penh would suggest they are more like optional recommendations. For instance, you know those movie chase sequences when the hero is forced to drive AGAINST traffic–dodging oncoming cars, narrowly escaping death every few seconds? Hah! Child’s play! We do that every day! Ok, so perhaps not at the same crazy speed, but there seems to always be someone coming at you, going the “wrong” way, on the “wrong” side of the street. One amusing aspect of driving is that, not only will folks often drive on the “wrong” side of the street, but there are several cars on the road that have left-side steering wheels (most have right-side steering). Why is this humorous? I’m sure that one day I’ll get used to it, but there are still so many brief moments of “Aaagh! No one’s driving that car?”
Cambodian driving is like being in the middle of your own personal video game. Objects, people, cars, goats, are coming at you, and you have to dodge everything in your path to keep from losing points…or your life. It can be exhilarating in one moment, and completely frustrating, the next. One nice aspect is that the speeds are comparatively slow. I’d say the average speed is around 25-30 mph. There are definitely the exceptions, however. For instance, driving down a road, you’ll find yourself stuck behind some guy going 10 mph…literally (you’d think it would be faster to walk and you seriously wonder why they spent the money on a car in the first place). You, naturally, cannot continue behind the 10 mph car without going insane, so you check to see if you can safely pass. Just as you think the coast is clear, you look in the rear-view mirror and see a huge Lexus SUV barreling towards you at 50 mph, intending on passing both you and “10 mph Guy”. You wait for “Mr. Run Everyone Over” guy to pass, and then you safely proceed to pass “10 mph Guy” before the cement mixer coming towards you (also going 50 mph) runs you over. Yes, it can be quite exciting.
When I was first learning to drive, Nate described the experience as “flowing water”. You don’t really make a lot of stops and starts (except at traffic lights), and you never do anything too abruptly, unless it’s to avoid hitting someone. To drive safely, you drive SLOWLY. For example, if you want to make a right hand turn, you don’t really stop and look both ways…Mind you, you do check to see the potential hazards, but as you’re analyzing the risk, you’re also gradually making the turn. Most people don’t even look as they’re doing this, because they assume that if they’re going slowly enough, everyone else will move to avoid hitting them. Hey, what can I say? The system works pretty well. It will definitely be interesting when we visit the U.S. on furlough, though. Honestly, the thought of accelerating to 65 mph to enter a freeway, horrifies me.
Another unique aspect of driving in Cambodia is that it’s a mind game. Decisions are often made based on what you assume the other person is thinking. For instance, expensive, large cars get priority over smaller, less expensive ones. Case in point…You’re driving down the street toward an intersection (that lacks a stop sign/traffic light) when you see a big luxury car heading towards the same intersection, perpendicular to your own vehicle. As crashing is not the typical method of choice, who stops for whom? Well, it depends on how nice/big your car is! For instance, if you’re driving a small less expensive sedan, than you’d better yield to the Lexus. Even if you have a large SUV, but it’s old (like ours), you have to yield to the nicer, but smaller cars. The problem, of course, arises when two people have different opinions on what’s deemed “nice”. The funny thing about yielding, is that it can be life-threatening to be a considerate driver. NO ONE is expecting you to yield to the other person. If YOU have the right, and decide to be generous, and stop for them, it can easily cause an accident.
Honking. When Nate and I were first dating, I noticed that he honked more than the average driver. Not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it did annoy me a bit. Now I understand the wisdom in excessive honking! You honk when someone’s going to hit you. You honk when you’re about to hit someone. You honk to let someone know that you’re passing them. You honk when someone is dangerously passing you (and you have your baby in the back seat). You honk to say, “Go ahead!” and you honk to say, “Don’t you dare!” Yes, we are happy honkers, and proud of it. People should really honk more in the States—so many accidents could be avoided!
There is so much more to say about driving in Cambodia, but you’ll have to come experience it for yourself! :)