I approached the desk with ID, my 20 USD receipt, entry form completed with fictitious hotel name (I hadn’t a clue where I would be staying), and a passport-sized photo I had remembered to bring at the last minute. My passport was grabbed by an carnivorous-looking customs officer, possibly a woman but I wouldn’t swear to it. She looked like Hannibal Lector on a bad day, already sizing me up for body parts after my inevitable incarceration. All documents disappeared beneath the counter, and the nervous lengthy wait for them to be examined minutely by a line of some fifteen officials slumped in their chairs. Crew-cut scalps topped by outsized caps bobbed up and down, as each officer in turn stared suspiciously at the edgy white faces, searching for signs of criminal intent. Surprisingly, I was eventually permitted to enter the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Total chaos awaited on the streets outside. At least that’s the first impression to the newly arrived ‘barang’ (Khmer term for farang, white foreigner). Brits will be even more terrified than in Thailand where at least the Thais drive on the ‘right’ side of the road (ie the left). The Khmers however drive on the wrong side, ie the right as in continental Europe, the States etc. Well, sometimes they do. At other times, when it suits them, they drive in the middle, on the left against the flow, or occasionally on the pavement. All sides are the right side to the Cambodian driver.
A motodop (motorcycle taxi) took me from the airport into town for 8,000 riels (a couple of dollars), and as usual my life flashed before my eyes about a hundred times in the first mile. After that, I mostly kept them shut. Thailand is like a demonstration class of road sense by Advanced Driving School instructors in comparison. So be warned.
Still determined to hire a bike for your visit? A few basic rules then.
- On speed...
Tough one. Pretty much as in Thailand – if you’re big, you have right of way. Which is all very well if you’re at the wheel of a truck. Blast your horn, and Khmers will quickly get out of your path. But you’re not driving a truck, because you’re a barang and not allowed to hire anything bigger than a bike. Ok if you drive fast there's less need to have eyes in the back of your head, but that's little consolation when you're being scraped up from the road because you didn't expect that truck to take you out from behind. Besides, in town most Khmers drive slowly, in a kind of intricate traffic weave that's a complete mystery to most Westerners. So just join the flow. It might take you to a totally different place to the one you'd hoped to visit, but at least there's a fair chance you'll get there alive.
- Not hitting anything...
Your status as a barang doesn’t result in the locals giving you a wide berth. On the contrary – with or without suntan you are identifiable as a barang at several hundred metres, and are therefore fair game – skin tax applies. What this means according to Khmer logic is that you’re a foreigner and shouldn’t be on Cambodia’s roads anyway, so if an accident happens it’s unquestionably your fault. Plus you’re rich by definition and therefore good for the extortion of as much money as the ‘victim’ can get away with. Still, they won’t drive into you deliberately, so – just don’t hit anything.
- Crossroads (intersections)...
These have only recently acquired traffic lights, and only a few at that. So negotiating them requires a mix of balls and bluff. Force your way across, everyone does it. It might look as if the 4x4 bearing down on you has no intention of stopping, but that’s part of the game. Plus your white skin might work to your advantage (unless he’s a Vietnam vet of the non-English speaking variety – Cambodia has a sizeable Vietnamese population). Mostly though killing a white man leads to excessive hassle and red tape, so the chances are he’ll reluctantly slam on the anchors at the last possible moment.
- Turning left, crossing the traffic...
This is where the fun starts. You need eyes like a chameleon’s; capable of swivelling in all directions and of looking both forwards and backwards at the same time. Failing this, good peripheral vision will have to do. First of all check the pavement, left and right. Vehicles of all types can suddenly emerge from this without warning. Now take your life in your hands and turn left, but NOT crossing the traffic. Stay as close to the kerb as possible, driving against the flow. Oncoming traffic will happily swerve around you. Wait your chance. When a gap appears, nip out chop chop... your left eye checking that the oncoming traffic is aware of your move, your right eye simultaneously scanning the right lane traffic for a tiny space to zip into. If there isn’t one, shut your now useless swivel eyes, and pray.
So how did I get on driving in Cambodia? Three visits now. And I use tuk-tuks and motodops all the time. Drive in Cambodia, what do you think I am – mad!?!
Still, even with your own personal chauffeur, heart-stopping moments are regular occurrences throughout the day. If you need a relaxing drink to calm the nerves, I recommend the Shanghai – very similar in style and atmosphere to my favourite No. 1 Bar in Chiang Mai. Great food, free pool tables, and a haunt of some streetwise local expats, useful for first-timers who need a quick explanation of the do’s and don’ts around the Khmer capital. And there are plenty of the latter – Cambodia is not for the faint-hearted.