Monday Sara and I traveled into Phnom Penh to meet with Cambodian HQ staff and do a little bit of grocery shopping (to pick up some home essentials and get a few western things – aka pasta and ranch dressing – that they don’t carry out in Kampong Chhnang. It’s not the city you need to watch out for, it’s the drive there.
You see, in Cambodia, most people of means (which is, oddly enough, us) hire professional drivers. And for good reason. Driving here is serious business. There are virtually no stoplights (even in the capitol), no stop signs (not a single one in KC) and no hard and fast traffic laws (let alone police to enforce said traffic laws). Throw into that mix a wide array of cars and trucks, varying moto-bikes with any number of passengers, tractors, ox-carts (no joke, carts pulled by oxen) and bicycles. Passing slower moving traffic is an art form, and our drivers seamlessly straddle the center of the road (and occasionally drive fully in the left lane) to pass slower traffic. And so, this passing-getting over- speeding up-passing dance is a bit unnerving to us Americans who are quite use to our, “stay in your own lane and pass only at the yellow dotted line thak-you-very-much.” Which is when Sara turned to me and said,
“This is like a real-life game of frogger.”
Frogger –the early ‘90s video game of getting your little frog across the busy industrial highway unscathed. Suddenly I saw myself as a little frog, hugging the pavement and fearfully watching the enormous monstrosities of semi-trucks wiz by, unnoticing of my trepidation as some unnamed god-figure moved me across the screen toward what could be my impending death.
As that scene flashed before my eyes I looked through the front window to see a large white truck zooming toward us at break neck speed. We were in the left lane, trying to pass a stubborn blue minivan. The white truck drew nearer and that minivan with about 12 people and two weeks worth of fruit bulging from the windows and back hatch went just fast enough that we couldn’t quite pass it. We were still in the left lane and that white truck was unyielding and absolutely not going to slow down. We inched past that minivan only to discover a slower motorbike had left only a very narrow – and I mean very narrow – gap. The white truck was upon us and I could see the outline of their driver and the dangly thingys around his rearview mirror. It was all so sudden: we were in the left lane, the white truck was in the left lane, the motorbike was blocking our return to the right. There was a narrow gap, and the motorbike and the blue minivan and…
We slide seamlessly into the gap and slowed down just enough to not ram the hell out of the moto and went just fast enough not to be rammed like hell by the blue minivan. I turned to Sara and said,
“I, like my uncle, am praying to make it out of Southeast Asia alive.”
(My uncle served in the Vietnam War)
This is typical Cambodian driving. Flirting with death. Speeding along the highways. Most people don’t wear helmets when they ride motos or bicycles. In fact, last week an IRD staff member was killed in a northern province because he was in a moto accident and wasn’t wearing a helmet. Because there aren’t enough good hospitals in Cambodia – and only ONE brain surgeon in the whole country – he was transported to Vietnam. He died on the border as they tried to get him to the hospital. IRD has since taken a VERY strict policy of requiring all staff to wear helmets whenever they’re on a moto. It was required before – and he died while on a personal trip – but they have taken a very stern stance about employees wearing helmets always, not just at work.
But still, culture remains. And now every time I get into a truck for a long car ride, I will imagine myself as a frightened and helpless frog, clutching the curb and praying a little froggy prayer.