Thursday, February 3, 2011

Cambodia - Roads without Rules

The Tuk Tuk is the most common Taxi
in Cambodia. Despite the name,
there is nothing "Rolls Royce"
about this one.
Cambodia is a relatively poor country (compared to neighboring Thailand and Vietnam), and this is most obvious when observing their transportation “system”. Most goods are still transported on pushcarts, on motorcycles or on wagons pulled by motorbikes. The motorbike is the new beast of burden replacing the “horned” variety which is still here not as prevalent as in India. Note: these motorbikes do have horns, which we will explain later! Everything is transported here on the trusty motorbike: from chickens, ducks, propane tanks, to huge blocks of ice. Even local transport in rural areas relies only on motorbikes that pull a cart with makeshift seats (instead of the minibuses, bemos, and jeepneys seen in most other parts of Asia).

Road regulations vary from country to country: driving on the left or right hand side, different signage, different rules for turning on red lights, 4-way stops, yield to the vehicle on the right, etc. etc. etc.

In pretty much all the developed world, the rules are similar or easy to adapt to.
We’ve also been to many developing countries, and consider ourselves quite experienced in adjusting fast to the local traffic patterns and rules of the road; be it as a pedestrian, on a bicycle, or on a motorbike. While traffic is not as orderly and organized as in the western world, and the horn is frequently used instead of following the traffic rules, there is always a certain similarity in the rules of the road in the developing world.

• Rule 1: Might is right – if your vehicle is bigger, you got all the rights!
• Rule 2: As a pedestrian you have zero rights – survival is your responsibility

If you are on a vehicle, these rules apply in addition:
• Rule 3:    Always be ready to brake (not just the vehicle, but also the rules).
• Rule 4:    Watch, watch, watch – always closely observe what is going on.
• Rule 5:    Never look back – whatever happens behind you, doesn’t matter.
• Rule 6:    When pulling into the traffic from the side of the street, do it slowly - but don’t
                  look back. Remember it doesn’t matter what happens behind you.
• Rule 7:     Use your horn when passing someone – remember they don’t look back
• Rule 8:    Honk when you think you are not properly noticed by the others
• Rule 9:    Honk as loud as that horn can handle, if you don’t intend to follow any rules.
• Rule 10:  Take it easy, you’re not the only one that has no clue how to drive.
• Rule 11:  Take a taxi, if you are faint hearted.
• Rule 12:  Even if locals break the rules constantly, the police will only pull foreigners over.
                 So, do wear that helmet, even if you are the only one.

These rules above cover pretty much what you need to know about road rules anywhere in the developing nations in Asia, be it: India, Indonesia, China, Philippines, Thailand… That’s what we thought until we entered Cambodia. Here the rule of the game is quite different from what we gotten used to in our traveling career. During the first few days in Poipet and Battambang we didn’t notice too much difference; we even rented a bicycle in Battambang and didn’t really encounter anything unusual. The only thing that Patrick noticed was that the local police was actually enforcing the traffic rules, pulling over motorbikes that were going the wrong way on a one-way street. (He actually was lucky not getting pulled over, when he saw the police control, he immediately steered the bicycle onto the sidewalk – still going the wrong way, of course.)

Ice delivery
Budget Taxi
Food transport Cambodian style:
Live Chickens....
Ducks ...
and Bananas

When we arrived in Siem Reap we soon learned that there are literally no rules here.

Left turns:
The Cambodian traffic flow is on the right hand side (like continental Europe and US). This means that, at an intersection, a vehicle turning right follows closely to the curb side. A vehicle turning left is following the virtual arcing line that is dividing the road in two. Seems logical right? This way it is ensured that the traffic continues smooth and there is enough space for traffic on either side of the road. Forget about this in Siem Reap, here the rule is the following: When turning right follow the curb as close as possible, even if you are at risk of hitting a pedestrian – what are they doing standing immobile anyway?
Public Minibus: slightly overloaded
When approaching an intersection and planning to make a left turn, steer sharp to the left, across the other lane (going against traffic) and follow the curb on the left side as close as possible. Try not hitting the oncoming traffic that is either going straight or turning right. Remember that right turns are as close as possible to the curb, as well. You will have to compete with these oncoming vehicles for that space next to the curb. So now that you just turned left, you are literally on the left (wrong) side of the road, against the oncoming traffic. Now you will either have to stay on the wrong side if you intend to turn left again soon, or then make your way across to the right hand side again. Unfortunately we don’t have any pictures or good videos of this practice, we were simply too surprised to take out the camera. After all, we were still trying to figure out what the heck was going on!

4-way traffic
The practice of left-hand turns on the wrong side of the road already implies that occasionally a vehicle may actually be on the wrong side of the road too (same rules apply for him), coming straight at you. I assume that because of this reason, the Cambodian traffic ministry does not actually have a rule on which side of the road to use; there must be a general non-binding recommendation to use the right hand side for longer journeys, but at intersections and cities you can drive on either side. We came to this conclusion after observing on many occasions that all the roads in Siem Reap – big or small – are having 4-way traffic. Imagine a small street with two lanes, on either lane there is traffic going both ways, sounds crazy? Check out our video below,

Never look back
As mentioned above in general rule 5 (never look back), it is common in the developing world not to look back when driving. However the Cambodians have perfected that rule even more, especially in combination with the left turn and 4-way traffic pattern. When preparing to turn left, one must obviously first steer to the center of the road, then focus on the oncoming traffic before being able to zip left with a sharp turn. That leaves no room to look back. Hence, there are two ways to steer to the center of the road, slowly and steadily, giving the drivers behind some time to adjust (this is the usual way).
Bicycle transporter
Or plan B is to simply honk loud and make a sudden swing to the center lane… and because one never looks back you can just hope that you are being trailed by a few motorcycles and not a heavy loaded truck (Rule 1: the dominant one in the food chain). We’ve seen both styles frequently. Don’t ask me why, but we actually never witnessed an accident. When entering the traffic flow, it is very common in Asia to simply start moving slowly on the far side of the road and gradually merge into the flow (don’t forget rule 5 – never look back!). The drivers coming from behind see you and will make way for you to join the traffic. This pattern usually works best for small vehicles (motorcycles and bicycles). Here in Cambodia this pattern is universally used; whether it is a big truck turning into the traffic flow from a small side street, a heavy loaded motorcycle, or an SUV. They all simply START moving – never looking back. The challenge here is that they enter the flow at much faster speed and much higher determination to immediately grab a position on the street. We witnessed that on our bicycles quite a bit. We are very grateful that our bikes had good brakes.

Here our Video, it’s worth a thousand words

The slow one bites the dust
Cambodia is one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia, this shows everywhere. People live in very simple houses, sometimes shacks. Infrastructure is either falling apart or not in place at all. Roads are no exception. Many parts of the country are only accessible by dirt road. We read that many paved roads had been put in place over the past 5 years, but we still encountered enough dirt roads, or paved roads with potholes the size of a Tuk Tuk. These dirt roads mixed with the two distinct seasons – rainy or dry – turn into either carrot soup or into orange dust clouds.
The dry season, in particular, seems to be used to repair bridges, diverting the traffic through the dried-out river basin- which naturally stirs up so much fine dust that even a bright green bus will turn orange.

We are ready for these dusty roads!
Both of us soon adopted the local custom of wearing face masks while traveling. At first, we thought that Cambodians were very considerate people, wearing facemask when they felt ill and not wanting to pass the germs on to their fellow citizens – same as the Japanese. But we soon learned the hard way that this was nothing more than a personal dust shield. At first chance, we headed to a pharmacy and bought or own facemasks. Imagine traveling along a busy dirt road: if there is a vehicle ahead of you, you will be covered in dust from head to toe. We particularly like the way Lonely Planet describes this: “Prepare to do battle with the dust of ‘red earth Ratanakiri’, which will leave you with a fake suntan and orange hair” Not only on the way to Ratanakiri did we encounter these dust clouds. They were everywhere in the country. The driving speed on these roads is frightening, because every driver wants to be ahead of the traffic, not having do drive in a dust cloud. Driving fast on a bumpy dirt road has one bonus feature: Free but massage included. On our 11hour trip from Phnom Penh to Ratanakiri, we not only had bone shaking unpaved roads, but also clouds of smoke from the “slash and burn” farming technique used by the hill tribes. When we finally arrived we felt something like a local salami specialty: Well tenderized, smoked, and dusted. 
See our video of the road trip to Ratanakiri

Snacks for the road-trip
Sticky rice in bamboo
Humans are the same all over the world, we love to munch on snacks on a road-trip. Potato chips, candy, nuts and dried fruit are the usual munchies for us westerns. We also like to stop at bakeries and get any kind of local pastry for the trip. Here in Cambodia, we also enjoy the bamboo sticks filled with coconut sticky rice and beans (a delicious snack) We noticed that the locals also have a liking for fresh fruit and especially for fresh tamarind; a rather unusual snack for our palate, as they eat it straight by cracking the hard shell outer covering to get to the pulpy flesh inside. And then there are the popular protein snacks that are sold at the rest stops. They have the usual dried meats like our beef jerky but usually some unidentifiable animal which we learned could be one of the following: porcupine, anteater, deer, large reptiles, snake, etc. We even saw dried geckos which were still recognizable. In the dry season the price of wild “game” is 10 times higher, we were told.
Roadside snack:
Fried crickets....
... or do you prefer fried beetles?

Fried crickets, spiders, and beetles are available coated with different flavorings. Some sellers poured a gooey looking liquid mixed with chili; others had dried shallots sprinkled on top of the spiders. I guess it’s a bit again like our beef jerky: some like it natural, hickory smoke, black pepper, or teriyaki style. The fried insects are sold by the can-full for only 2500riel (USD 60cent) and were quite popular when our bus stopped in Skuon. Admittedly, Julane and Patrick were not convinced to try the “chicken flavored spiders” and opted for the coconut pastry that we brought from Phom Penh instead.

Lonely Planet has a wonderful explanation to the spider snacks worth quoting:
 Incy Wincy Spider:
Locals in the small Cambodian town of Skuon (otherwise known affectionately as Spiderville) eat eight-legged furry friends for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Most tourist travel through Skuon without ever realizing that they have been there. This is hardly surprising, as it has nothing much to attract visitors, bit it is the center of one of Cambodia's more exotic culinary delights - the deep-fried spider. 
Buses usually make a bathroom stop in Spiderville, so take a careful look at the eight-legged goodies the food sellers are offering. The creatures, decidedly dead, are piled high on platters, but don't get too complacent as there are usually live samples lurking nearby.
The spiders are hunted in holes in the hills to the north of Skuon and are quite an interesting dining experience. They are best treated like a crab and eaten by cracking they body open and pulling the legs off one by one, bringing the juiciest flesh out with them p a cathartic experience indeed for arachnophobes. They taste a bit... mmm chicken. Alternatively, for a memorable photo, just bite the thing in half and hope for the best. Watch out for the abdomen, which seems to be filled with some pretty nasty-tasting brown sludge, which could be anything from eggs to excrement; spider truffles perhaps?
No-one seems to know exactly how this micro-industry developed around Skuon, although some have suggested that the population may have developed a taste for these creatures during the years of the Khmer Rouge rule, when food was in short supply.
Anyone like to taste fried spider?
They are a specialty here...
... tastes like chicken!

Rental bike without a license plate
In Banlung, Ratanakiri Province, we rented a motorbike for a couple days. All the rental bikes were in pretty bad shape: Scratches everywhere, broken speedometer, dysfunctional blinkers, no rearview mirrors (remember rule 5, never look back!). But the one thing that worked on all of them was of course the horn. Our tip to future travelers to Cambodia who like to walk around on foot: Bring a loud Vuvuzela or a hand squeezed horn of the loudest quality! The first thing that Patrick noticed was that none of the rental bikes had license plates. The local shop owner explained with a few words of English, and many hand gestures, that not every bike had (or needed) a license plate. He pointed to the street where locals drove by on their bike, most with plates and occasionally one without. He said “no problem, police no stop tourist”
Even bicycles are often loaded
to full capacity
Patrick had to ask again if he is sure that the police would not stop tourists? This would be a miracle! Everywhere we’ve been in developing Asia, tourists are seen as easy money targets for the local police. We experienced first hand in Bali how much they “like us”.
We even read stories that the Police in Phnom Penh like to pull over tourist on motorbikes giving them a fine for driving with the headlights on during the daytime.

So now he is telling us that it is OK for tourists to drive without license plates in Ratanakiri? Oh well, I guess we have to trust him, none of the bikes at the other rental shops had plates either.

The owner of our hotel explained later that day, that the bikes without the plates had been imported from nearby Vietnam. Since they were imported based on a grey zone in Cambodian import tax regulation (at about half the price) they could not get license plates for these bikes. He said that the police would occasionally fine locals for driving on these, but that the police did not fine foreigners because they didn’t know about the regulation.

This is the first time that we heard that foreigners get preferential treatment by the traffic police! Preferential treatment that does not involve having to pay a fine for some hypothetical traffic violation.

Some of the most impressive memories of our travels are from our observation of watching the road activities: the traffic patterns, people, and just plain and simple day to day life. Admittedly, the bus trips which are often long, frustrating, yet very interesting allowed us to become an captive audience of this wild world.
Cambodia’s Roads without Rules are definitely worth a visit to the country. And we recommend to rent a bicycle and be part of the flow for a while (maybe not on your first day in the country though), you too will have many stories to tell afterward!