Crossing Cambodia

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.
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