If someone suggested to you that riding on the back of a stranger's motorbike without a helmet was an acceptable form of transportation in London, New York or Sydney, you would think they were crazy. So why is it considered acceptable in Phnom Penh?
Even if Phnom Penh didn't have one of the highest accident rates in the region; even if there were a head-injury unit in the city (the closest is in Bangkok); riding pillion without a helmet would still not be a sensible choice. The human head is simply too fragile to risk impact with the ground.
Firstly, the driver's trustworthiness and blood-alcohol level are unknown. Then, the motorbike itself is generally too underpowered to take a large foreigner at the speed of the traffic.
Foreigners also have an abiding urge to carry bags: handbags of immense size, daypacks, laptop cases, all manner of encumbrances that seem to be part of our lives. To a potential thief, they identify where all your good stuff is, and you've got lots. Did you ever see a Cambodian lady riding with more than a small clutch purse?
Then there is the helmet issue. The new law enforcing helmets is not being applied to pillion passengers on motorbikes. Why? Is it because there is a genuine lack of alternatives?
Tuk-tuks are safer and although they move slower through the traffic, which means that it's unlikely you'll ever be thrown across the ground in an accident.
In most cities in the region, such chariots are not allowed on the major city streets, as they block the flow of traffic. In Manila, you would cross the city in a jeepney or bus, transferring to motorbike-powered vehicle to get from the main road into your suburb or residential area.
There is also a new taxi company offering air-conditioned, metered service that actually works out cheaper than using a (negotiated) tuk-tuk.
If you call the hotline in English, they send a driver who speaks English. The flag-fall is 3,000 riels (US$0.72), the drivers know their way around, the taxis are spotlessly clean and there's no late-night surcharge. Their call centre is not currently up to taking bookings, so you have to call and wait 10 to 15 minutes, but the system is a great development for the city.
The next development has to be some kind of public transportation system, perhaps like Bangkok's system of buses and minivans on the main boulevards fed by subsystems [moto's! But with helmets.] in the residential and commercial areas.
Dismissing Phnom Penh as somehow different and claiming that the motorbike system is somehow fine because it's in place and it works is symptomatic of the thinking of foreign employees of what is loosely (and perhaps ironically) called the development industry.
Meanwhile, tourists and expats alike continue to take their lives in their hands, or rather put their lives in motorbike taxi-drivers' hands, and crossing their fingers while clutching their over-sized fake-Gucci handbags.
So what does Crossing Cambodia believe is the way to go?
Well, from the start I did try moto's out, but not only did I not feel safe, neither do these guys seem to know where you're going. Possibly by now I would be better able to direct the guys, but alas the safety issue. So I get around by tuk-tuk, it's a bit of drag when going far away or need to navigate Monivong, but take a book.
The taxi service is catching on, but it still requires ordering, you just can't flag them down on the street.
Great piece, let's hope it provokes some reaction. Other than 'the poor moto drivers ...'.