Flashback Cambodia : The capital, Phnom Penh

Getting into Cambodia costs you a 20 dollar visa fee. Well it should. I’d forgotten to bring any of the world's preferred currency, so an eagle-eyed airport official waiting to pounce on newbies and idiots who should have known better by now (my third trip to the capital) disappeared with a wad of baht, and my 20 bucks were obtained for about 30 bucks-worth of the Thai currency. Be warned.

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!?!

Tuk-tuk Mr. Udon takes a much needed rest from the stresses and strains of chauffeuring me around

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.

Pulling pints at the Shanghai, corner of Street 51 and 174, Phnom Penh

add a comment

Stumble Upon Toolbar Add to Technorati Favorites

12 comments:

Martyn said...

I have been inside Cambodia once, about 100 yards inside, that looked far enough. I was on a minibus visa run and everything got sorted for us. The motodop ride you went on sounds like Xbox 360 Road Rage online.

I have heard that Cambodia and Phnom Penh in particular is quite cheap and lively, but assuming you do get there in one piece you've still got to get back. It's a return ticket I can't ever see myself buying. Great story, well written, top blog.

The FrogBlogger said...

Phnom Penh is one of those places I feel irresistibly drawn back to, but good insurance cover is needed. Not so very cheap really compared to Vietnam... definitely next on the list for a long overdue visit.

My son is a Wii fan and I've trouble scoring much below an 18 hole total of 150 or getting into double figures in ten pin bowling, so I'm afraid Road Rage online will be out of my league.

Mountain Dweller said...

I enjoyed reading about your travels - sounds like the drivers in Cambodia are even worse than those in Marseille!

Thai Girl said...

When I first when to Phnom Penh it was a complete mess... roads pot holed and unpaved. Now it's much improved, a lovely city though as a new boom town very much at risk. At least the economic slow down should cool things a bit.

A great blog article!

But what keeps drawing you back to PP? Is it the French connection?

Or is it the beer at the Shanghai bar??

Andrew

Dutchie said...

I think the tuk-tuk is an awesome carriage for motoring around europe in the summer. It's definitely cheaper to run than a hired car ! I suppose it pollutes the air too much n is therefore not allowed in europe ?

I cant seemed to balance on 2 wheel drives (bicycles), so hubby has been thinking of an alternative 3 wheel-drives for me ;-p

Kevin said...

Well, from now on I shall view Parisians and their eccentricities as a mere stroll in the park

Smorg said...

I'm jealous! You're having all the cool adventures! :o)

I've only ever seen Cambodia from across the Mekong River... back in the 90's. One of these days I must make it there to visit... if only to try my luck at dodging the traffic in Phnom Penh! ;o)

Cheerio,
Smorg

Hoo Don said...

Hello Peter - I just wanted to let you know that a lot of us are missing your marvelous wit filled posts. Mike has been asking after you and I know your excellently penned articles are sorely missed by many others. Go on log on and blog on.

The FrogBlogger said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. Sorry about the absence, it was enforced! A few hiccups combining to make for a substantial hiatus. But I hope to back in the swing of things in a day or two...

Martyn said...

Great news Peter, we were beginning to wonder if a Prince had kissed you and you'd turned into stone. The Thai blog scene will be buzzing about your return and will be eagerly awaiting your next post. You've given me a big boost of adrenalin with the news and I know Mike and the rest of the gang will be chuffed (very old word) to bits. Although I'm guessing Mr Lee might be casting a nervous look over his shoulder right now.

Mr. Nighttime said...

KNOCK, KNOCK!!!! You still alive in there???

traveler said...

great info...I'll come there if had time...