All humans are mobile. Whether you grow up in a village where everything you need is within a 10 kilometer radius of your home, or you commute 80 kilometers to work one way on 6 lane highways in a fast car, or you are a nomad herding your livestock over 1000 kilometers a year in search of pasture and water, we are all on the move. We all need to find a way to get where we need to go. Our road could be a dusty worn out path in the grass, a narrow street flanked by market vendors, or a concrete freeway wider than a football field. Our mode could be an animals back, a heavy old single speed bicycle, or a car that reminds us to wear our seatbelts.
Six weeks ago we moved from Canada to Cambodia. Back in Canada, we were no strangers to hitting the road. We love cross country road trips in the car, short rocky climbs around Whitehorse in the truck, and riding our bikes when the roads were finally clear of snow. But here in Cambodia, transportation is different. We’re transitioning to a new way of getting around. We hope this blog post helps you “come along for the ride” with us as we share what transportation is like for us here!
The street is an extension of the home, a place of business, and a parking lot all at once. Driveways don’t exist here, and parking lots are few and far between. Most people park their cars and motos in their living rooms. Let me explain: most houses don’t really have ‘front doors,’ they have gates or fold-away walls that open up the ground floor room of the house in its entire width to the open air of the street just a meter or two away. Sometimes this room is used by a family to eat meals, or to host guests, or it becomes floorspace for the family business (a barber shop, a restaurant, a printing house, you name it!). But many times it becomes a ‘garage’ for a car or two and a handful of motos. The short few meters between the houses and the streets means that the street often becomes an extension of the home. ‘Sidewalks,’ if a street has them, are rarely walked on. They become floorspace for businesses like moto repair pitstops, a home restaurant’s patio, or more parking for cars and motos.
Motos outnumber cars and trucks 100 to 1 it seems. You’d be surprised what a moto can do. They can pull a covered carriage and become a “tuktuk.” Hook a 4′ by 8′ box trailer on one, and voila! You can haul a pickup truck load worth of vegetables. Or how about 16 foot lengths of rebar or i-beams? No problem, a moto can haul that too! Some of these poor motos sound desperately close to blowing an engine. Other motos’ bent frames are evidence they have hauled way too much weight way too many times.
Of the cars that do roam the streets here in Phnom Penh, you’d be surprised how nice most of them are. There is an incredibly high import tax for vehicles, which somehow shrinks the price gap between regular and luxury vehicles (it also means cars are more expensive here than in Canada). We don’t entirely understand how this works, but the result is we see way more Lexus, Mercedes, and Land Rover vehicles here.
The New Normal:
We brought bicycles with us when we moved to Cambodia. Within a few days of landing here, we entered the flow of traffic like an aquarium fish would enter a raging river: scared, timid, but ready to learn. Six weeks in, and we are getting the hang of it. Biking here requires absolute attention. Even at our slow speed, we rarely have the opportunity to take our eyes off the road and see what shops we’re passing by.
Intersections are the most tricky. Traffic lights are only found at the big intersections where multilane roads divided by concrete medians meet. The other 98% of intersections are without traffic lights or stop signs of any kind. It’s really hard to describe how they work… basically when we bike up to an intersection, we slow down a bit and look left, right, straight, and sometimes behind us. We are trying to guess the intentions of other riders. We are looking for an opening, and ideally we try to keep moving so we don’t have to stop and put our foot down. There is a lot of creativity involved, especially in left hand turns!
Although we have front and rear lights, we usually take tuktuks instead of riding our bikes at night. The risk level increases beyond our comfort level once the sun sets. Most streets are lit, but some blocks are left in the dark. Many motos don’t have working headlights or taillights, or the driver simply hasn’t turned them on. Later in the evening the traffic is lighter, which means the speeds are faster. Combine all these factors with the added probability that some people are driving drunk, and you have a recipe for a risky ride home.
I mounted my iPhone to my handlebars and videotaped a bike ride. The quality is not great, but hopefully it gives you an idea of what it’s like, especially the left hand turns!
“In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.” – Proverbs 16:9