One of the best things about traveling abroad is that I become an instant child. Not only I am looking at one thing and then another with wild amazement, I am forced to learn a whole new set of cultural rules.
For example, I come from southern California where pedestrians have the right away. Almost every intersection has a stop light and walk and don’t walk signals complete with audio for the seeing impaired. “Walk sign is on, Walk sign is on to cross Ocean Avenue.” If there is not a light there is a crosswalk (most of them equipped with blinking yellow lights) and driver beware who does not stop for the fines are frequent and heavy. It’s the equivalent of pedestrian heaven where those of us on foot have the power to command everything from the fuel efficient hybrids to the Mercedes SLs to city buses to stop.
Not so in Phnom Penh. Here everyone (and I do mean everyone) is on a small motor bike, in a Tuk Tuk powered by a small motor bike, or in a vehicle. Whole families ride with a child sandwiched in between mom and dad. Little preschoolers snuggle up against their mom on a motorbike while grey haired grandmas make life threatening U-turns to grab a parking spot
Actual stop lights with walk signs are scarce. On the 2 mile stretch down a modern 8 lane European style roadway there is ONE, I kid you not ONE stop light. Every other major intersection, of which there are many, is a roundabout. Roundabouts are nothing more than a constant stream of traffic moving in all directions with vehicles of all sizes and shapes cutting across lanes to move into position. There is no stopping. There is not even a moment of slowing down.
When crossing, the tradition of looking left and right is futile since at any moment some little motorcycle can cut across traffic or round a corner.
But – aha – I have learned the secret of crossing and in just my first 48 hours.
Here is the formula for success – You must choose the moment of crossing and be fully committed. You must choose your exact trajectory and speed and never deviate lest the traffic bearing down on you gets confused and tries to swerve to avoid you. You must never look up to make eye contact with any driver of any vehicle large or small. An exchange of glances might make you think the driver wants you to speed up or move to the left or right and this will for sure only end in disaster. It’s like being on a sailboat. Claim the right away and do not deviate.
And lastly you must trust that the dozens of tiny motorcycles bearing down on you are being driven by adept experts who have grown up casually moving in and out and avoiding collisions of any kind their entire lives. .
Now I understand why so many people think it is strange that I walk everywhere.
In Phnom Penh the message is clear “learn to cross or take a Tuk Tuk.”
Find more stories from Ardice Farrow’s experiences in ‘Ardice Abroad’.