Roads to perdition

January 6, 2015

I used to be a big fan of Cambodian drivers, marvelling at their bravery, their willingness to exploit every inch of the road, and pavement, to get to their destination, their haughty disregard for basic road safety, their devil-may-care attitude to drinking and driving. But I’m beginning to rethink this. I have now decided that Cambodian drivers are lunatics.

I say this after having spent nearly three years negotiating Cambodia’s roads, mainly from a precarious perch in the back of a tuk-tuk. What I initially thought of as ingenious ways of driving cooperatively, turn out, on close inspection, to be merely impossibly selfish ways of trying to screw everyone else out of road space.

I’ve written about road traffic accidents before and how they’re the leading cause of death in Cambodia. They’re not, as it happens: that distinction goes to our old friends influenza, pneumonia and heart disease. RTAs come in at number 15, according to the WHO. But at least seven people die every day in car and motorbike crashes, and scores more are injured. Everyone here has a terrible story about awful accidents, and the lack of enforcement, that means that if you can afford an SUV, you can afford to pay off the police if you kill someone. And everyone also knows that if you’re involved in an accident, not to hang around, as you have a good chance of being beaten to death by angry onlookers.

The son of an acquaintance was nearly sideswiped recently by a huge black SUV at 0300hrs as he crossed a major road in Phnom Penh on foot. He had the temerity to slap the vehicle as it sped by, whereupon the car stopped, a bodyguard got out and chased him into a nearby restaurant and shot him through the buttocks. So don’t do that, either.

Another friend of mine borrowed a Porsche Panamera last weekend. (Porsche is opening a dealership here, because what this country really needs is more 160mph high-status SUVs for a population that doesn’t have to take a driving test) When he got back from a day-trip to the coast, he looked as if he’d just done six rounds with Mike Tyson. Even in a $300,000 car, driving in this country is terrifying. And he got home before dark.

But my annoyance with Cambodian drivers stems currently stems from last Sunday: I had been around the corner having a soothing sundowner at Zeppelin, and was making my way home at dusk, when some idiot on a motorcycle ran into me from behind. I’m guessing he just misjudged a gap. He shunted me several feet into the air, but luckily I managed to remain on my feet, and just have a lot of bruises on one side of my body. The idiot boy racer just managed to stay on his bike, and took off, minus half his bike’s fairing, which was lucky for him, because I had very much wanted to have a quiet word with him.

It’s a useful reminder that you can’t be too careful here, and you can’t take anything for granted. I don’t drive here; I don’t have a motorbike, and I don’t even ride a pushbike. And still, I came within a whisker of being badly hurt on the roads. Ah, what fun!

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2 Responses to “Roads to perdition”

  1. ah, do be careful!
    indeed, whenever i’m on the road in cambodia, i’m always praying hard. the roads are completely terrifying! the drive between big cities like phnom penh to siem reap or battambang is so terrifying, especially at night when drivers pass on the opposite lane, barely missing a head on collision with your car. it’s so scary.

  2. […] From Rupert Winchester’s The Mighty Penh: […]

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