Crossing Cambodia

Monday, April 02, 2007

Advisory sites: Tourists Impressions II

On the urbanlowdown site ('the travel guide on the inside' (of what?)) a bit of advice on Cambodia, for instance a traffic primer on Phnom Penh:
I am alternately bemused and terrified when I see newcomers to Cambodia tooling around on their rented motos [Honda Dream?] or dirt bikes. At best, they'll wind up breaking some of the bizarre traffic rules that are actually enforced and be conned out of too much money. At worse, they'll have an accident, which unfortunately are common and increasing all the time. It may be too hot and too sweaty, but please wear a helmet.
What a great piece of advice: wear a helmet while on a motorcycle. Are not all traffic rules bizarre? Are Cambodian traffic police con-artists?
Protect Yourself
It goes without saying that a helmet is a necessity. The pace of traffic may seem slow, but you won't be sitting so smugly for long if after falling at 20 kilometers an hour (painful but do-able) your head is promptly run over by a [Toyota] Camry.
The streets of Phnom Penh are extremely dusty, especially during periods of intermittent rains which wash mud onto the paved roads that, when dried, can wreak havok on your eyes. And your nose and lungs for that matter. Buy some cheap clear sunglasses ($2-$3 just about anywhere) and ride tear-free.
Umm, this is slightly outdated: Phnom Penh's roads are not extremely dusty, only a little bit!
Road Rules
It may seem like no one knows what they're doing on the streets of Phnom Penh, and you're probably right. Traffic is chaotic, and while some swear there is a logic to it, at the end of the day it's really just every man for himself.
'Traffic is chaotic', but 'logic'.
The rule of thumb is to keep your eyes everywhere. At the same time. Always. Turning your head to look left or right when crossing traffic wastes valuable time; during the split second that you eyes are averted, a speeding land cruiser could be barreling down on you before you know it, so keep your head straight and make the most of peripheral vision.
It's common to drive along the wrong side of the street, waiting for a break in traffic in order to swing over and continue. Be especially careful of cars and motos that will turn left from side streets directly into your lane from the opposite direction. This is particularly bad at night, when that vague blur suddenly becomes a Honda Dailem with no brakes and a mound of chickens [isn't it a coop of chickens?] tied to the seat.
I try to stay away from the center lane as much as possible, since it's very common for cars and motos to overtake on busy streets by swerving into oncoming traffic, and during rush hour there's not a lot of room to maneuver, even for motos.

If You Get into an Accident
It's your fault. No matter what happened or how, you are at fault and will be asked to pay. This can be a very tricky situation, and you'll have to play it by ear. Obviously, if you are hurt, there's not much you'll be able to do anyway. If you are at fault, you probably should pay something, though it?s best to do that BEFORE the police arrive, as they'll ask for payment too. You can always do it the a la Khmer, which is to get the hell out of there as soon as possible. This may not be morally ideal, but neither is having to pay for having your leg broken. Or worse.

Traffic Police
The traffic police seem to go hot and cold about stopping people, except when it concerns left turns on to streets where it's not allowed and driving with your headlights on (apparently only government officials and military are allowed to do this). Otherwise, it's best to stay towards the middle of the road wherever you see lot's of police idling on the corner - sometimes they'll 'ticket' you simply for stopping. I mean, if you stopped, you MUST have done something wrong, right?

If You Get Caught
The police will sometimes work in two's or three's to create a cordon to stop drivers. If you really can't avoid them, pull off to the side of the road and remove the keys yourself (before they do) and remain sitting on the moto. Official traffic fees are usually 2500 riel and should come with a receipt, but you may be asked for as much as $20. If you have a little patience (don't get angry) you can bargain your way down. A dollar will usually do it, though if you are prepared to make a fuss, they may just wave you on your way. Then again, they may not.
On tuk-tuks:
Now, I'm all for cruising around Phnom Penh on my hoo-ride (100cc Honda Dailem), not only for the pleasure of the cruising, but also the sincere relief I feel at not having to bother with motodops 500 times a day.
For those of you who are passing through (and who rightly fear attempting to force fate's hand and drive yourselves) you will need to sort out some sort of reliable transportation, and my money is on a tuk tuk.
Tuk tuk's are a comfortable and more leisurely way of getting the city around while you chill out for a few days. Sorting out a tuk tuk is a bit more problematic than the ubiquitous moto. Firstly, they are more expensive - how much so depends on your bargaining skills. A short trip that by moto may cost you 2000 riel (50 cents), will cost at least double that on a tuk tuk. Secondly, sorting out reliable transportation over a couple of days is difficult because, well, you don't know anyone.
On moto's, well actually renting a motorcycle:
Before you try your luck on the streets, there are a few things you should look out for first:
* Make sure your moto has a current traffic tax sticker. If it doesn't, ask them to put one on.
* Be sure to check the brakes - the front ones too.
* Motos don't usually come with mirrors, as they usually get swiped fairly quickly, but if you would feel more comfortable, ask if they have any spares.
* A basket is very convenient to have, and Lucky! Lucky! usually has some extras laying around.

Your moto will have exactly 2 drops of gasoline in the tank - the first thing you should do is go to a nearby gas station and fill up. It is best to avoid the roadside gas stands (sold by the liter out of coke bottles), since the gas there is usually diluted with other solvents which won't do your motor any good.
Finally, if you do run into a problem, call them. They are usually very good about sending a mechanic out to see what the problem is. If it can't be fixed very quickly, they will provide you with another moto. BE SURE TO CHECK THE GAS TANK FIRST! The most common call they get for moto trouble is from people (your truly included) who simply ran out of gas.
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