I am discovering that I have a strange fascination with cities. It’s not so much because I’m a city person per se (I have yet to find one that I am absolutely in love with, and besides, I’m too much of a tree-hugger to be eternally content in a cement jungle), but it’s more so the fact that I’m intrigued by big personalities. And boy, do cities have big personalities. What gives them such character? Is it the jarring contradictions of the old, the new, the kitch, the beautiful, the tragic? Is it the streetlamps, the chimneystacks, the dog-walkers, the street vendors?
Whatever it is, there is no doubt in my mind that a city’s choice of transportation is an essential ingredient to the potpourri that makes up its psyche. I mean, think of New York City with its hordes of yellow taxis and San Francisco with its charming, trundling trolleys. Picture Bombay with its rickshaws and China with its swarms of bicycles (though with the exponential increases in cars on the road, Beijing seems quite intent on making LA traffic look like the Indie 500 in comparison.) Would Paris be the same without its metro, or London without the Tube? I doubt Venice would be half as romantic without its gondolas, or Gotham a smidgen as cool without its token Batmobile. And if we’re talking excitement, could one really adventure into a Wild Wild West without stagecoaches or a “far Orient” without flying carpets. I think not!
And so, Phnom Penh would not be Phnom Penh without its mass of motorcycles. And when I say “mass of motorcycles”, do not think of a short line of those charming motorcycle gangs that whizz past you on the highway from time to time. No, motorcycles do not grace the streets here with an occasional appearance. They are everywhere. The streets are absolutely teeming with them. I am quite sure I have seen a grand total of two taxis in my entire time here. Instead, these motorbikes, simply known as motos, are driven by almost everyone and have taken on the role of taxi. So, take that New York and your yellow cabs, we in Phnom Penh have motorcycle taxis! Classy.
My first week, Sopheap (one of the Cambodians I work with), knowing I would be quite overwhelmed by having to completely fend for myself in a new city, was perfectly wonderful and designated himself as my personal guide/Phnom Penh/all-things-Cambodian encyclopedia until I settled in. (I am truly forever grateful for his kindness.)My first night he found a rather tame restaurant for us to eat at. He told me he didn’t quite want to shock my stomach with Cambodian street food just yet… (he decided to wait till the thirdday to do that.)
Then he took me for a brief tour around the city. On his moto.
Goodness gracious. I don’t think he realized it, but I was obscenelyexcited to be riding on the back of a motorcycle. I had never ridden on one before and tried to look as blasé-cool as all the natives carelessly streaking past us. Ah, yes. Motorcycles. Of coooourse, I ride these aaaaalll the time back in the States. No. Big. Deal. Right?
But I was positively thrilled.
(Inside my head: OHMYGOSHOHMYGOSH@^!$#$*@@&WHEEEEE!!!)
I suppose it was a good thing that I was so overwhelmed by excitement; otherwise I would have been a little more than vaguely worried. (Actually, I probably should have been downright terrified for my life.) But, instead, I simply gripped the seat a bit tighter and relished the wind whipping in my face and reveled in the sights and a glorious sunset.
While this picture is quite picturesque and gives the impression that Phnom Penh’s streets are quite calm, do not be deceived! Phnom Penh’s streets are nothing like this. Take this photo’s six motodrivers and maybe squeeze 4-times as many into the frame. Add a couple daring (or just suicidal?) pedestrians trying their luck in crossing, maybe a tuk tuk or too, a couple of shiny Lexuses, and voila.
In addition to the motos serving as public transportation, another popular choice is the tuk tuk, which consists of a motorbike pulling a carriage that is attached from behind. They’re a bit more expensive than motos and are usually used for traveling in groups. Five can fit in comfortably. Six is sometimes a squeeze. And seven? Well, seven only works if the tuk tuk driver is feeling particularly desperate for business and if the seventh person is sprawled awkwardly across your laps. (Not that we did anything of the sort last night. Of course not…)
Along with a number of moto drivers, a rather large group of thesetuk tuk drivers have permanently stationed themselves outside my guesthouse. Actually, these drivers can be found almost everywhere: lounging in front of restaurants, shops, along the street, at street corners, etc, and are always ready to pounce at a possible passenger. This creates a rather interesting phenomenon that I have now dubbed the “Chicken phenomenon.”
Any time a group of these moto/tuk tuk drivers spot me I hear:
“He-lo Lay-dee!! You want Tuk tuk?”
“Tuk Tuk?” “Tuk?”
“Tuk Tuk? Tuk Tuk?”
This is the inevitable chorus I am serenaded with every time I walk by one of these groups. It sounds very much like a flock of inquisitive chickens, no?
I think it all stems from the basic premise that Cambodian streets aren’t particularly pedestrian friendly. In fact, I think serious pedestrians are an anomaly outside the touristy district. My first week I walked to work everyday, and aside from receiving tempting calls from my Poultry Fan Club, was the recipient of many funny looks as I played the role of perfect pedestrian, wandering on and off the cracking tiles (1), slipping past store fronts, and dodging past rumblymotos.
However, even now that I’m riding my bicycle to work (it took me at least a week to garner enough courage to do this), I am still constantly solicited by an indefatigable chorus of, “He-lo!!” “He-lo Lay-dy!” “HE-LO!!” I have yet to determine whether these moto andtuk tuk drivers are a) being pleasant by calling out a friendly greeting (frankly I doubt this), or b)they are just being cheeky with me, or c)they genuinely believe, despite the fact that I am quite obviously on a bicycle, that I am still a potential passenger. Maybe they want my apparently bicycle-exhausted self to turn to them, jump off that useless piece of transportation, fling it dramatically to the side, and cry, “YES Take me away! Bicycles are for crazy Westerners who think they can best the traffic of Phnom Penh. But oh, I am so mistaken. Please blatantly overcharge me and whisk me to my destination!!!!!”
And now, some notes about Phnom Penh-ians and the driving rules:
Wait, what rules?? There are laws about driving here??
All right, all right. I jest. Well, sort of. As our friendly pirate of the Caribbean, Barbosa, once wisely chortled, “The code is morre what ye’d call “guidlines” than actual rrrules.”
So, Phnom Penh driving “guidelines”:
- Red lights are simply suggestions. If you don’t particularly feel like stopping for long, then don’t bother! Just check for passing traffic, skip waiting for GO, collect 200 dollars, and zoom right on ahead.
- If red lights are suggestions, then the signs that proclaim that U-turns are “not allowed” are actually like rather ugly wall fixtures. Their only purpose is as follows: to be blatantly ignored at all times.
- Going in the direction of traffic is only sometimesrecommended. If you need to make said U-turn, or any other turn, or if you’re a bicyclist with a mission, sure, go ahead, drive head-on into traffic for a while, smile pleasantly at your neighbors and greet each other with “Sohk sabai!” etc. Only after some brake-screeching and close calls should you finally decide to consider going the way you’re supposed to be going.
- Bike lanes don’t exist. Have fun sharing the road with tuktuks,motos, and big cars!
- A note for pedestrians: Unless you’re at a crossroads that actually has pedestrian crossing buttons/lights (a luxury I tell you!), do not be so naïve as to think traffic will stop for you. Instead, bravely charge across the street first chance you get. Be sure to not only look left and right, but forward and backwards as well, and maybe up and down for good measure.
Finally, if you want some really good imagery of the streets of Phnom Penh, just think of a Mario Kart Free-For-All, throw in a couple of clucking hens, and there you go!
- There are no sidewalks here. (Well, maybe in a few places, like the more touristy riverfront, but, in general, they’re nonexistent.) Clearly, whoever was the Phnom Penh city planner thought sidewalks were for pansies. Ah yes, only the stupidly “brave” can wander these streets, but if they are reasonably intelligent they will forget walking altogether and get a trusty moto!
Also, it’s funny the things one ends up missing when abroad. Surprisingly, this has made me pine for the sidewalks of Paris and the lovely afternoons spent strolling along them. I know it’s not the first thing (or even one of the top 100 things) that one would associate with that city of lights, but there you have it. Yes, I admit it, of the myriad of things I could be missing, I miss Parisian sidewalks.