Crossing Cambodia

Friday, October 26, 2007

Synopsis of more than a year of postings

After more than a year of putting up posts on the subject of traffic and Cambodia, it’s time to look into more depth into the intentions which formed part of the reason for starting up this blog. The exact idea was as follows. It’s is an exact copy of the sub-head, which came with this site for the past year:
Crossing Cambodia is an exploration of the various methods the Cambodian population uses to get to their destination, be it on a regular basis or irregular such as travelling upcountry. With this exploration Crossing Cambodia hopes to provide more insight in the relation between transport and society. Crossing Cambodia believes that the difference between cultures/traffic habits in various countries is an important aspect in the development process.
Mostly the above has been answered, but fear not, Crossing Cambodia will remain in part to provide visitors with up to date information on Cambodia’s travel infrastructure, the way it’s being used and the most recent developments concerning legality of moving around Cambodia.

During this year long trek along various Cambodian traffic aspects, the following are the most significant:

• current traffic habits and the lack of law enforcement.

• the haphazard method of implementing traffic rules and regulations by both police and government officials.

• the lack of foresight in solving traffic problems.

• the way Cambodia lets the playing field (policies on traffic issues) be dictated by foreign institutes.

These aspects are very much at the forefront of the general overall development process, at least those as perceived by western donor nations: lawless land grabbing, corruption everywhere and the lack of targeting the unprivileged (rural) poor. So, naturally the conclusion must be that traffic situations are very much related to society.

In Crossing Cambodia’s first blog (posted on the sixth of June 2006, we’re at posting no. 275 by now, 24 October 2007), it’s mentioned that the nature of traffic in Cambodia is
‘Chaotic, anarchic, odd’.
Is this true?

  • Chaotic? Yes, not only this site has given ample space to this aspect, it’s backed up by many other opinions ventilated on other websites, so it must be true. In total 10 postings refer to Cambodian traffic being chaotic.
  • Anarchic? Yes, same explanation as for chaotic. But as anarchic refers to a certain political aspect (or lack of it), just the three postings mentioning anarchic.
  • Odd? Hmmm, more peculiar wouldn’t you think? But still the word odd has popped up in 8 postings.

Other distinctions from the very first posting mentioned were: forward looking (in the sense of no looking back), class distinctive (shiny happy people first), risky. All have been proven to be true, more or less.

But would you use these terms to describe Cambodian culture in general? Crossing Cambodia believes so. Especially the on-going saga of traffic law and enforcement (or the failure to enforce) proves the above mentioned points. Everybody agrees with the chaotic and anarchic attitude. Most of this is brought about by the need to attain short term gain over any long term gain. This lack of long term thinking permeates the whole society, Crossing Cambodia can’t explain why, it’s just the way it is. If a new traffic law could ensure a more structured way in which traffic moves in Cambodia, everybody stands to win. However law enforcers are heavily influenced by the need to take class into the equation when apprehending an offender. The offender though counts on this, so the more expensive a car looks, the less he will need to go by the rulebook. Society in Cambodia is very much the same. The more money one has or the higher their function, the less they tend to stay within the limits of the law or, even better, use the law to justify their actions. Who will apprehend them? No one, they are the law or at least the main source of funding of the law. It’s more or less the same.

To anyone who disagrees with this, Crossing Cambodia would like to point to neighbouring countries, where traffic situations are different, partially due to development (Thailand, Malaysia), but more due to culture. Why is law abiding practiced in Lao, but not in Cambodia. Why can Vietnam pursue compulsory helmet use, but Cambodia not?

Probably, relating traffic to culture / society is an easy task, however moving one up, by say how can things get better, is something more complex. It takes some guts to try to improve things. Possibly, that what’s missing in Cambodian culture, guts to take decisions not knowing whether you can get away with them. Plenty of guts are shown by those in command whose sole purpose is to hang on there. Gutsy are also the local breed of businessman in the safe knowledge that political backing ensures success and buying oneself out of trouble is commonplace.

Surprisingly the other morning an article on the KI Media site (originally from UPI) Crossing Cambodia came upon, compares (legal systems) Cambodia with India:
'Why do ordinary people resort to extraordinary means to protect their personal safety? The answer is simple - their perception of the security and safety provided by the government is low. On this count Indians and Cambodians probably share the same feeling. To find out more one need not conduct a yearlong survey or read a few dozen books. One need only observe what is going on in the street.


These acts by law enforcement officers are not just a simple form of corruption. This is how the government portrays itself to ordinary people. Such acts speak volumes about governance to the onlooker. In Cambodia and in India corruption is prohibited by law. But the law does not function.

Yet Cambodia is far different from India. In India a person can at least protest against the government, which a Cambodian cannot, given the total prohibition on public protests there.

The government of Cambodia can suppress its citizens' rights to any extent. This has not been challenged, as there is no space to do so within the legal framework and the way law is practiced in Cambodia as of today'.
So, hardly a high note to end on. While in Cambodia the government is in election gear, not much can be expected from any safety measures implementation, no pain no gain. And if you want a vote inflicting the pain part of the equation is not called for. The crossroads on Sihanouk and Street 63 are a good example. Despite all the hot air about how the traffic police would change, we see the police hanging around on their mopeds, looking to cash in on any hapless soul driving the wrong way down a one-way street. Behind their backs countless mopeds and cars ignore the red lights leading to standstill and danger. Not their concern!
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