I’d just been hit by a car, and I had the urge to go ballistic, to scream and curse at the idiot behind the wheel while banging dents into his hood. It seemed like a natural and reasonable reaction for me to have given the circumstances. But instead I just looked at him, wide-eyed, and tried to remain calm as I steered my bike towards the side of the road. The driver, who was talking on his cell phone, didn’t even look at me, let alone check that I was alright. Once I was out of his way, he continued driving as if nothing had happened. As if he hadn’t almost run a person over with his car.
Physically, I was totally fine. I was on my bike, and the car had driven very slowly into my front tire. I didn’t even fall off. But not a single person reacted to the incident. Not the driver and not the people sitting on the corner who clearly saw what happened. No one cared.
If this had happened in the US, I could have had my ballistic tantrum and the driver probably would have begged me not to sue him. But it happened in Cambodia. In Cambodia everyone remains calm and collected regardless of how infuriating a situation is. And the rules of the road are more of a set of suggestions, and are not regularly enforced.
On the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, three types of vehicles dominate the roads: motorbikes, cars, and tuk-tuks. Tuk-tuks appear in different forms in various countries, but in Cambodia they are small, two wheeled carts with benches inside, drawn by motorcycles. Though actual taxis exist, their presence is sparse, so tuk-tuks serve as the main mode of public transportation. And for a slightly cheaper price and more exhilarating experience, people can also hop on to the back of motorbikes to get around town.
Motorbikes dart around from lane to lane without much care, weaving through cars and tuk-tuks to get to the front of traffic at stoplights and passing other vehicles whenever they want. Tuk-tuks and cars, although bigger, also don’t generally pay attention to lanes that may or may not be painted on the road, and often drive in two lanes at once or swerve between them (drivers usually don’t make an effort to switch on their blinkers when making turns, and definitely don’t use them when changing lanes). On smaller streets where SUVs can barely fit in one lane, they maneuver however they can around parked cars, motorbikes, bicycles, and pedestrians with complete disregard for driving on the correct side of the street. In the case of my “hit and run,”,the driver made a left turn at an intersection into the left lane where I was riding my bike in the opposite direction. I don’t claim to be a particularly good driver, so I can understand how this type of turn might accidentally happen. When I first started driving in the US, I had a lot of trouble making left turns and ending up in the right lane. I simply could not get the hang of making wide enough turns, and assumed that every left turn I made would result in a crash, which made me consciously try to avoid taking routes that required me to take left turns, out of fear I might die. Yet Cambodian drivers don’t seem to have these same worries, and don’t dwell on making perfect turns. In fact, they often intentionally make very narrow left turns to get ahead of or cut off oncoming traffic.
Though cars occasionally end up on the wrong side of the street, they can’t get away with driving there for extended periods of time. Moto drivers and bicyclists, on the other hand, like to take advantage of their small size and will frequently drive against traffic in the leftmost lane, on both small and main roads. Although this seems annoying to me when I try to cross the street on foot and have to pay attention to even more motorbikes potentially whizzing by, I’ve actually become quite comfortable riding against traffic on my bicycle. The lane is unofficially there for this purpose, so motorbikes and cars flowing with traffic will move over enough for me to get by. It is, however, a bit more disconcerting, at least to a foreigner like me, when tuk-tuks, which are considerably larger than motorbikes, attempt to go against the flow of traffic. But this is by no means a rare occurrence.
Yet what contributed most to my incident in particular, and I’m sure results in several actual accidents, is the incredibly limited number of stoplights and stop signs that dot the city. On my five minute bike ride to work alone, I go through about eight four-way intersections, and only two have stop signs. And while many very busy intersections do have traffic lights, there are many that should have lights and don’t. The result at many four-way intersections is a chaotic mish-mash of cars, motorbikes, and tuk-tuks, especially at rush hour. When there’s little traffic, cars simply speed through the intersections, loudly honking their horn (and simultaneously startling me to the point of what I assume is a very minor heart attack) if they see someone coming from the right or left to let them know they’re there and will not be stopping. At busier times, vehicles going perpendicular to one another all pull into the center of the intersection, edging their way forward in a giant interwoven jumble, only momentarily pausing when necessary to prevent crashing. This can make crossing the street seem like a death trap for pedestrians. On my first day in Phnom Penh, I happened upon one of these busier intersections that has no stop signs or lights on my way to a market. After five minutes of standing on the curb attempting to make my move across the road, I decided I had a much higher chance of getting hit than completing the journey to the other side, and ultimately made a ten minute detour to avoid crossing at that location.
What’s even more troubling than the lack of traffic signs and signals is the disregard for them when they are present. For a while, I didn’t even know stop signs existed on my short route to work because I’ve never seen anyone actually stop at them. While lights are clearly visible, and even have signals that tell pedestrians when it’s safe to walk, they are not necessarily less dangerous. Motorbikes will frequently take off through red lights, without any regard to people trying to cross the street.
Considering everything, I’m surprised that I haven’t seen any serious accidents. But expats tell me they do happen quite often in Phnom Penh. Considering that on a good day I’m almost hit three times, I feel like I legitimately risk my life every time I bike the streets of Phnom Penh.
Though biking can cause me a great deal of stress, the fact that I’ve persisted has earned me some credit at work. My ability and willingness to ride on the streets of Phnom Penh impressed my boss at work who claims she couldn’t work up the nerve to get on a bicycle until after being here for three years. It’s also made me a more aggressive and competent rider. I’ve always tended to be very cautious when I ride my bike, and in the US I always like to ride on sidewalks, even when it’s inappropriate to do so. Here, where that’s not possible, I’ve started to become comfortable biking with traffic and even maneuvering through the insanity that ensues at intersections during rush hour.
Still, when that car hit me, even though it was just a bump, I thought I might give up biking in Phnom Penh completely. I was so completely terrified that a car might actually hit me at full speed. It took some effort to convince myself to keep riding home and get back on my bike the next morning to go to work. Now that the terror has passed, though, I think the fact that a car ever-so-slightly hit me is kind of hilarious, especially since the driver’s attitude to the situation perfectly describes the calm and collected Cambodian attitude to driving in general, something I can’t quite fathom.
In fact, I occasionally really want to blow up at people on the street. Like when a driver who’s stopped at a red light suddenly decides he wants to go and cuts me off as I cross at a green light. Or when a motorbike that’s making a left turn comes straight at me as I wait at a red light on my bicycle on the far right hand side of the street and looks at me like maybe I’m the one who should move over, even though he’s on the wrong side of the road. I’d like to curse and yell and have a tantrum, maybe even push him off his motorcycle. But of course I don’t. I just grit my teeth and hold back my rage, pretending to be calm. Calm like everyone else. Because despite the absolute chaos of the roads, everyone is composed.