Crossing Cambodia

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Synopsis II

As Crossing Cambodia starts in it’s 3rd year of reporting on Cambodia’s traffic situation (and over 7,000 visitors), a brief resume is not out of place.

The first year, this site stated that Cambodia’s traffic is pure anarchy / chaos which was backed-up by many similar reports both on Cambodia’s own situation as well as comparisons with neighbouring countries.

If anything this reign of chaos and anarchy has strengthened. The difference being that increased numbers of vehicles have lead to more chaos. Is it disregard to other road users, ignorance or simple evil that fuels this process?

Part of the problem lies in the fact that Cambodia traffic police are reluctant to get involved. Relegated to the sidelines (literally) they have no compulsion to take action; content with the odd campaign to fine the unfortunate few and rely on a steady stream of ‘voluntary’ contributions dished out by trucks, which are barred from the city for a great part of the day.

The past year has seen little change, though many encouraging voices of how the future will change. Though positive, the future itself will tell whether or not this will happen. And based on the past, we may well already know the answer.

With the increase of traffic, death rates have also increased substantially. With over 80% dying from head related injuries, one would expect that authorities are taking helmet wearing compliance as a serious issue. Though much has been noted in the lip-service on this issue, in reality, the past year helmet wearing has come no closer than it was previously. Possibly it is all the more posturing such as to keep NGO’s happy rather than showing any interest in the safety of it’s own citizens. Especially in the light of how neighbouring countries have been able to successfully implement helmet wearing.

Despite a traffic law being accepted absolutely no aspects of the law are being implemented, i.e. it is totally ignored. Which is sort of a symbol of total apathy.
Other traffic aspects are totally disregarded, the last year has seen the vision of Cambodian authorities: more traffic lights. However any future vision is void; wait until total deadlock / mayhem and then react, seems to be the future. Even in Vietiane, Lao they are studying light rail options to assist city movement, recognizing that private options (though suitable/preferable) are in the end, deemed to increase deadlock and thereby contribute to economic damage.

Last year’s synopsis didn’t end on a high note, nor will this years. Pathetic seems to be a best description of traffic in Cambodia. Can it get any worse?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Challenge Nora: Crash Course

Can't withhold CC's readers of this article from last months AsiaLIFE by Nora Lindstrom:
In driving school in Finland you learn how to hit moose and drive on ice, while in Wales instructors keep a strict eye on applying the handbrake when stopping. In Cambodia you learn - well, that's the question really, what do you learn?

As the rain pours and lightning rips from the sky, I sit behind the wheel of a beaten up Toyota Camry with my instructor Seng An for my first Khmer driving lesson. I'm terrified. During my hour's wait for him to turn up, a fellow student has explained how he can drive perfectly well, it's just that passing the test is so difficult, because you need to remember all the rules that you will never use. It's a promising start.

Seng An has been a driving instructor for 13 years and comments upon what a strong woman I am. Apparently most Khmer women prefer automatic cars, as using the clutch is too difficult. I guess it is in high heels, so have opted for trainers. I've been informed the speed limit in Phnom Penh is 40km per hour, rising to 90 as you leave town. Seng An claims it's 25 - perhaps he means miles? Regardless, getting beyond second gear in the rain, darkness and traffic jams during my hour's lesson proves a challenge and whenever I try, I nearly stall.

Five minutes into the lesson I'm hesitantly asked, if I know how to drive, and frankly, I'm starting to doubt that myself. For the next 55 minutes my instructor's main concern is keeping me from hitting the motos that come from left right and centre. It seems most fellow road-users were never told you are meant to drive on the right in Cambodia. Or perhaps it really is on the left? Seng An would surely have mentioned that. With highly limited visibility, I don't know where we're driving most of the time and have severe difficulty spotting anything smaller than an SUV. Maybe that's why they are so popular. Thankfully, my instructor has a second brake, and is swift in turning the wheel when I'm on a collision course, which is worryingly often.

I am urged to stop at red lights, but whenever I do, I brace myself for a hit from behind. Regardless of Seng An's theoretical rules, I know it's simply not derigeur to pay attention to that little red dot, making doing so more dangerous than not. Staying in lane seems of little consequence - not that the lines in the road are visible anyway. Stop signs are completely ignored. However, I am told to indicate at each turn - a lesson clearly lost on most drivers in Phnom Penh.

"Go, if you can, and if your car is bigger than the other guy's," seems to be the rough rule of thumb for right of way. Following this, many drivers appear to have developed a particular skill of driving right into the middle of a crossing and then stopping if they encounter a vehicle bigger than their own. It makes for beautiful traffic jams in all directions. Note that cars with army plates are by definition bigger than all others - hitting them means serious trouble. Perhaps best to avoid state cars too, but for the rest it's fair play.

All drivers in Cambodia are required to have a valid license, however learning to drive seldom involves more than 10 hours of lessons with all the theoretical knowledge you need compressed into 15-page leaflet. At Safety Driving School, such a course costs US$100 for foreigners and US$73 for Khmers. You can also get your own Khmer license for US$40, provided you have one from your home country already. A single lesson costs US$15.

At the end of my lesson Seng An seems satisfied and maintains I would pass a local driver's test with flying colours. He does nevertheless give me his phone number and tells me to call if I ever have any trouble from the traffic police - just in case. I quietly congratulate myself for not having killed anyone, but am rather annoyed I didn't get to honk my horn, learn how to cut-up moto's and bicycles, or find out how to disperse cows from the road - surely these skills are more essential to Khmer driving than indicating 25m before a turn? It seems what we need is a barang driving school teaching not the actual traffic rules, but the art of Khmer non-rules.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

After the waterfestival: is there more traffic news? a.: Chasing Cars

With the Water festival now behind us, it's might pay to look into the headlines in traffic related news in Cambodia. But ..., nothing has changed. Nothing ever changes, that's the main problem with traffic in Cambodia. It was a chaotic & anarchic. It still is.
What about the smaller changes? What about them:
  • Possibly the biggest headline is the fact that a Cambodian company has been officially recognized by the EU. Siem Reap Airways has been blacklisted! No more flights to Europe for them.
    But what do they care? They only fly between Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Bangkok and Hong Kong. So why worry indeed?
    ' "Siem Reap does not fly to Europe. Probably the [EC] was giving a warning beforehand, in case Siem Reap Airways planned to open service to Europe," said Him Sarun, chief of Cabinet for the Civil Aviation State Secretariat'.
    Probably. What this official forgets is that the EC (of the EU) doesn't draw up the list for the fun of it. Besides using legislation to prevent the companies on the list from entering the EU, it also signals to EU citizens (and to most world citizens) that the companies black-listed are to be avoided. Thanx for the info, EC.
    More worrying is that the EC mentions:
    ' ... the carrier [Siem Reap Airways] "does not operate in compliance" with Cambodian safety regulations'.
    So in spite of the reassurement by Cambodian officials, Cambodia is made a laughing stock. If the only company operating domestic flights can't even meet it's own guidelines! What are the officials going to do? Look into the matter or hand over more dough to CNN to launch another advertising campaign stressing how irresistible Angkor Wat is?
  • The law? A son of a general believed he could cause an accident and flee. For once he was unlucky:
    'However, because the accident he caused led to injuries to other people, the police officers did not worry about his threat, and they proceeded to arrest the driver as well as confiscating his car to send to the police headquarters immediately'.
    Did he pay the victim?
  • Car 'capsizing' during Water festival:
    '11 injured men sent one after another on Tuesday afternoon after their car had capsized on the national route number six A'.
  • What's it like to travel in Phnom Penh during the Water festival. SunSan on Khmer440 forum:
    'I made the mistake of driving into Sothearos from Mao Tse Tung last night... Arrived there at 7pm, left at just after 10pm. Without even passing the Russian embassy. Never again!'
  • The response of Phnom Penh's citizens to avoid this is to 'flee' the city:
    ' "We didn't want to stay in Phnom Penh because it gets so crowded with traffic everywhere," ... '
    is just one comment in this Phnom Penh Post article.
  • Andy Brouwer agrees:
    'We had a taste of the traffic chaos expected during the water festival's 3-day horror-show next week, when the traffic lights failed on the city's main thoroughfares around 5pm tonight and every road including all the side roads around BKK1 were snarled up with traffic jams. It was complete madness and much like what I experienced during last year's water festival period. This year I won't be around as I'm off to the south coast on Saturday for a week's break'.
  • K.K. experiences how traffic is regulated during the Water festival:'
    'While I was thinking highly of the authority, suddenly I spotted a temporary road barrier placed at the side road on my left hand side, where several military police were guarding. Not only this one, but each side road had its own. The message was clear; no motorbikes or cars were allowed in. But I saw a few bikes passing through and I was wondering how they could do. The answer was obvious. Money!
    It was unreasonable to spend one dollar just to travel on a public road the government has to build for their own citizens. And if they really were ordered to keep public order by banning all vehicles inside, several other vehicles that had gone should not have been let in!!! I would listen if they had been doing their job'.
    Will these attitudes ever change?
  • This car also passed the barriers apparently.
  • Rainy season over? Not yet:
    'Nine kilometres of road works from Preah Vihear's Kou village to Ta Moan Thom temple have been postponed due to flooding and rain, officials said Sunday.

    "We can't build the road due to the ongoing rain. We have postponed it until the rain stops," said military engineer Kvan Siem'.
    It only exemplifies the logic of starting a road works project at all, if the rainy season is still underway.
  • Petrol prices not dropping in Cambodia. In Lao they're luckier:
    'The price of fuel will drop below 8,000 kip this week in Vientiane in line with lower prices on the global oil market, the Ministry of Industry and Commerce has announced'.
    See what a communist country can do for you!
  • Once out of town Andy brings us up to date with road to Bokor:
    'It was horrendous, well the road was. Yes its been widened but it ain't finished and looks like it'll be years before it is. Maybe the Sokimex company have bitten off more than they can chew with this one. I am black and blue from riding in the back of the pick-up truck as we bounced over every hole, bump and crevice in the unfinished road'.
  • More news from travelling to the provinces on the Khmer 440 site by scoffer:
    'The touts at Battambang are a bit of a rip off
    Got to Siem Reap, most buses stop at a compound several km’s outside of town, upon arrival the bus company I booked with, locked the gate behind the bus to keep the touts out and I was approached by a guy claiming to be a representative of the bus company wanting to know if I had booked accommodation and knew where I was going as he could arrange transport that would take me into town – my initial response was “Piss Off” all you will do is rip me off and sell me to a guest house, he smiled and walked away only to come back after I’d finished my smoke and settled a bit. He again showed me his ID and said he could arrange transport, I was still suspicious but let him talk, end result was I nominated a land mark in town I wanted to be dropped off at, no tour of possible guest houses required. He spoke to a driver outside and I was dropped off at the nominated area without any hassle and for a better price than the touts wanted. All without a tour of guest houses that paid commission to the drivers. Nice Touch !' His final comment: '
    And finally there is a degree of comfort in being able to stand up and move about that you don’t find when you are sardine number 11 in a mini van carrying 16 people, two motor bikes, 3 screaming children, 14 ducks, 170 kilos of rice in assorted bags 7 and an old man that smells as if he has been dead for 3 weeks.'

Friday, November 07, 2008

Chasing Cars, another pre-Water festival edition

More yawns? Apparently so.
  • 'But the peak-time electricity cuts in Russey Keo are upsetting more than local residents - the capital's major ring road runs through the area and power cuts mean traffic lights are out of operation, causing the roads to become nearly unmanageable.

    "Electricity shortages in Phnom Penh are causing major traffic jams," Tin Prasoeur, chief of the Phnom Penh traffic police, told the Post on Thursday.

    "We get a very bad headache when lamp posts and traffic lights on the major roads in this city are cut off as a result of no electricity," he said.'
    Again the traffic police lay the blame elsewhere. Conveniently. Over the last few months CC has mentioned a few times how once the electricity goes, traffic jams occur. And what do the traffic police posted at that intersection do? At best they try to fine a couple of moto's without mirrors. If not, they just hang out on the shady cornor and wait for an accident to happen.
  • Because accidents are a source of income for the traffic police:
    'Phnom Penh Police Chief Touch Naruth admitted that his force occasionally informed private clinics about traffic accidents, but said that most cases involved witnesses or victims calling them directly.
    "Our police do inform private clinics where traffic accidents are sometimes, but usually people at the scene call private clinics directly because they are faster."'
    But despite that admittance, the govenor of Phnom Penh goes on record:
    'Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema denied at the meeting that his police department had accepted bribes to inform private clinics of accidents'.
    So why do we care?
    'In an bid to promote a public ambulance service, the Health Ministry has made it illegal for private ambulances to retrieve victims in emergency situations - even if they are first on the scene'.
    How long will the ban last? Until the Water festival?
  • Instead the government should start to wake up to the issue of petrol smuggling. Like the Tonle Sap when the flow of water changes, so does the direction of the smuggling change, it appears. Despite being dissatisfied with the petrol companies on lowering petrol prices, the following is now occuring:
    'Now, petrol is being smuggled from Cambodia into Vietnam, instead of the other way around'.
    Is Cambodia now subsidizing Vietnam?
  • But not to worry, vehicle tax income has risen by at least 12,5% above projections. So are there that many vehicles being imported or is the government not so good in 'projecting'? Despite knowing roughly what the inflow of tax would be:
    'Phnom Penh has an estimated 80,000 automobiles and 220,000 motorbikes, according to tax office figures'.
    Then the discussion on corruption:
    'Son Chhay [opposition lawmaker] said that tax officials often demand illegal fees when people pay their tax and that police collect bribes for violations, which also deprives the government of revenue.
    But Om Cham said the law does not force drivers to pay extra fees and that motorists paying bribes were breaking the law'.
    Yeah right, the motorists are breaking the law! Blame the others!
  • Back to the start of today's entry, traffic lights. Vuthasurf surprisingly feels guilt because of a 'blue' light?
    'When approaching in the middle of street, the blue light turned into red.
    At that time, I felt ashamed about myself because of breaking the traffic light law'.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Chasing Cars, before the water festival

Well is there anything new to mention? Not really, a lot of yawns. Laws being enforced maybe / possibly, fuel prices failing to drop, a couple of accidents here and there, so to start off let's focus for once on the not so up-to date:
  • Mr Parish-without-borders travelled upcountry to Kampong Cham:
    'There was a lot of mud but also surprisingly a lot of dust when a road would switch from wet to dry in the space of a few meters--and then switch back again'.
    As always there's a couple of photo's to prove his story.

    He also still continues to photograph the weird world of wacky modes of transport in Phnom Penh. An example from September 5:

    "It's not too bad, as long as I don't breathe...."
  • Helmet laws to enforced? Have we heard that before? I believe so. But as of 'early 2009' the law will be enforced. Which differs slightly from the last announcement which said January 1, 2009. But as always there's a catch:
    'But the new laws have only been haphazardly enforced, and motorists complain that they are just another chance for police to extort money from them, saying that the amount they are fined for minor offences is often more than the legal limit'.
    The head of traffic police concedes:
    'Tin Prasoeur admitted that among the 500 traffic police in Phnom Penh there are some who fine people too much.
    "We have suspended many of them from work for taking extra money from people," he said.
    Traffic officers often say they take extra money to supplement their meagre incomes.'
  • 'NGO Worker Dies in necklace robbery' reads the cation above Phnom Penh's Post Police Blotter of November 5. However unfortunate, had she been wearing a helmet the result could have been different.
    'Thun Yany, 50, was riding a moto-taxi when two gangsters snatched her necklace causing her to fall off and her head to hit the street. She was seriously injured and had a lot of bloodshed on the head'.
  • The new laws on keeping street vendors off the street? The Cambodia Travel Guide (which actually is a blog):
    'police ARE implementing the new rule by removing vendors from around the Russian Market (Psah Toul Tom Poung) and some other streets'.
    However, it seems that the police are acting to get the vendors to sign up a market position in a new local market building. Who would have thought of that?
  • Mondulkiri province has yet to profit from the halving of the world oil price:
    'Prices in Modolkiri have reached 7,000 riel (Us$ 1,75) per liter, about 2,000 riel higher than in Phnom Penh. Many here blame it on a fuel monopoly in the province’s capital, and even roadside fuel vendors say they cannot lower it further'.
    'Khun Samnang said she’d been importing fuel for the past two years from the only dealer in the province, a man named Leng Hour, who, other villagers say, seems to adjust the fuel price arbitrarily'.
  • More arbitration? The government has petrol companies within it's aim:
    'The government has lashed out at Cambodian petroleum companies, accusing them of price gouging as a Monday deadline for petrol prices at the pump to drop to 4,000 riels (US$1) a litre passed unmet'.
    '[Caltex] said the timing of pump price adjustments depends on a combination of factors, including currency exchange rates, inventory levels, freight rates, product quality premiums, refined product prices, market demand and competitors' reactions to market forces'.
    So not to government pressure. Could the Cambodian government do something about the strengthening dollar? Hmmm, though so.
  • Careful now, police actually are acting to quell an accident dispute:
    '... the tension then rose between the car driver who was slightly injured and the drunk motorcycle driver who had a gun on his waist. Warned by the car driver, the police intervened and one of the cops shot a bullet in the air to calm down the situation'.
  • Finally what 's the latest on the Poipet-Siem Reap road I hear you say. Daryn and Hayden on bring you up to date:
    'The road between Poipet (the Cambodian border town) and Siem Reap is obviously a major tourist route, but is still unsealed and hugely potholed and in disrepair'.
    The actual experience:
    'So the roads are terrible, it's getting dark, and we stop for dinner. The previously charming and smiling tour guide then comes to all our tables and tells us that the bus will be stopping at the guesthouse he works for, so we can stay there otherwise we can get a tuk tuk into town. No biggie. He then, however tells us that if we do not stay at his guesthouse it is likely that we will get mugged, and he will not help us if this happens. Charming.
    So we get back on the road. About half an hour in, we're stopped by two huge trucks who have become stuck in the huge piles of mud on the ridiculously bad road. The engine stops, and it appears we may have to spend a night in the bus - no great drama, there's a good crowd, a bottle of vodka gets passed around, the guitar comes out, it's all rather school-camp like. The guide then comes on and tells us that he's going home, and that he can maybe call some tuk tuk driver friends of his to come and get us, if we will pay them handsomely. The idea that a tuk tuk could make it through these roads, and the thought of being stranded in an open sided tuk tuk minus the security of being in a group is not an attractive option. We ask what will happen to the bus tomorrow and the guide tells us that maybe it will go, maybe it won't, but if we don't help him he doesn't care and that he's off to bed. The whole episode is such a farce at this point that everyone actually in very jovial moods - despite the borderline threatening behaviour of the innocent faced guide.
    Eventually, a tow truck arrives and pulls the trucks out, and we're able to get through. We arrive at Mr tour guides aforementioned guesthouse about 11pm - 15 hours after we left, the last 7 spent covering the tiny distance of about 120km'.
    Ah well, could be worse. They also go on to explain how they were overcharged for the Cambodian visa and
    '... changed the money he just assumed he was getting a fair rate. Needless to say, we realised later on we had been well and truly had - for about a third of the value of the money'.
    Welcome to Cambodia!
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