Cambodian Transit and Transportation: A Study

I am currently in the middle of a book about idleness that is simultaneously depressing and inspiring me to do better. In it, the author discusses the importance of being idle, or doing nothing. Because in doing nothing, we give ourselves the chance to think, to reflect, and to ponder. Therefore, in this post, I am doing a study- this time of Cambodian transport, both of traffic flow and of public transportation. I promise it will not be as boring as it sounds.

I should begin by saying that Cambodia has just as many traffic signs and rules as we do. However, the Cambodians seem to be significantly less inclined to heed the rules of the road. This means that driving or riding can be a harrowing experience, with motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians whizzing every which way around larger, less nimble and less numerous motor vehicles. It does also mean that traffic flows a lot better. People don’t feel the need to stick to lanes, preferring instead to simply go around impediments to progress. If you are traveling faster than the person ahead of you, you honk and pass. Crossing the road requires collective action on the part of your fellow road crossers. When you are ready, you go, and people will get around you. Of course, it is harder to do that in places with red lights, though Phnom Penh is the only place we have seen with traffic lights so far in Cambodia. But I digress.

Sidewalks are not really a thing here. They exist, but not really for pedestrians. There seem to be two distinct zones: one for traffic, and one for non-traffic (people and stray dogs). Drivers park all over sidewalks with impunity (I would hazard a guess that you could sell cocaine on the street in bags labeled cocaine with impunity, since the government employees don’t really care about anything) so most are impassable. You, the fearless pedestrian, must therefore walk into the street and trust that everyone will navigate around you. Just be prepared to be buzzed by more than your fair share of tuk-tuks and motorbikes.

As far as modes of transit, Cambodians are efficient. Motorbikes, which get the best mileage and take up the least amount of space, are very popular. And they will cram as many people as they can onto or into modes of transit. To date, I have seen at least 10 motorcycles with 5 people on them, hundreds with three to four people. I have never seen more than two people on a motorcycle in the US, and both wear helmets. Here, helmets are used sparingly, and if I see it at all, it is on the driver, not the clinging passengers, and often not on the kids (making me more than a little nervous as an onlooker). Our tuk-tuk driver mentioned that he thought it was crazy that in Japan, only two people ride in tuk-tuks; tin Cambodia, they will cram as many people as will fit, sharing the ride and therefore the price.

Now, the bus. We have been traveling for the most part via bus, which is the cheapest way to get around. And when I say cheap, I mean super cheap. A bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap will cost you under $10. Naturally, each bus is different, so you never know what to expect with every trip. The one thing you can expect is that it will take way longer than your GPS will tell you. We are not quite sure why, though it certainly has something to do with long meal breaks for the driver, bathroom breaks for buses without toilets, and just a lack of interest in timeliness. Also, the roads vary in condition; so far, every trip we have had has involved a combination of rocky dirt roads and nicely paved ones, probably slowing things down a little.

Bus trips are interesting. Some buses have toilets, others don’t, so just be prepared and avoid caffeine and lots of water. Otherwise, you will be forced to use the worst rest stops ever. But if you want the full travel experience, and need practice using a pit toilet as I did, drink what you want. Remember it’s BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper) or you go without. Some rest stops have decent food, so be adventurous if you are up for it and have whatever antacids or medicines you may need on hand. There cannot be anything worse than getting sick on a bus, true no matter where you are in the world.

(Side note about customs: while we traveled across the country, we had the pleasure of mixing with people from all sorts of different cultures. Unfortunately, in Asia, it seems to be less frowned upon to spit up the contents of one’s throat, so we spent hours on transit days listening to the sounds of hacked up phlegm being spit into plastic bags. It’s nasty. Earplugs or movies are recommended. )

The only other mode of transit we have employed is a river boat, from Siem Reap to Battambang. It took a long time, since during the dry season the river is narrow in parts and shallow in others, but it was completely worth it. We had been told to visit the floating villages, where people live on the river in a kind of subsistence lifestyle, but the organized trips sounded like terrible tourist traps. Instead, we took a boat trip and passed right through several floating villages, giving us the idea without the heckling. If you want to see what real poverty looks like, do the boat trip. It will certainly give you perspective on your life.

And that is the overall lesson. Take as many modes of transit as you can. They are all unique and have their advantages and disadvantages. Some are more efficient than others. But each will give you a particular glimpse into life in another country, and that is certainly worth the cost. Happy traveling!

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