My colleague and friend, Phirum, owns a car. Whenever we go anywhere together she very kindly offers to pick me up and drop me off.
Phirum is a good driver. However, Phnom Penh is not a good place to drive and so every time I’m in the car with her I experience more than a few bum clenching moments as we fight our way through the mele.
Yesterday, our journey took us to a weird area of Phnom Penh called Diamond Island which is basically an entertainment complex cum conference centre and the heart of the multimillion dollar wedding industry here. This weekend it was also the location for the Phnom Penh Annual Careers Fair.
At this juncture I will point out I hadn’t chosen to go here, rather Phirum had requested my company and I had acquiesced.
Anyway, I digress. On the journey to Diamond Island I thought I’d take the opportunity to quiz Phirum on the traffic laws in Cambodia starting with what to do at junctions.
Apparently the law is as follows: If there are traffic lights, obey them. If there are not, then be strong because it’s every man for himself!
Yep, you read that right – when you are taught to drive in Cambodia you are taught to “be strong” and ‘just keep going”, at which point Phirum removed one hand from the wheel to indicate a squiggly weaving in and out of the traffic motion.
I’m not sure whether knowing that this is actually the way people are taught to drive makes me feel better or worse about the chaos I see on the roads but there you have it.
As we made a right turn, Phirum’s phone rang. She deftly grabbed it from her bag, hooked it between her shoulder and ear and carried on around the corner whilst starting her conversation. I didn’t bother to ask her about the law – after finding out about junctions I kind of knew what her answer would be.
We finally arrived at our destination having taken a slight detour performing a figure of eight around an empty carpark at the venue whilst ascertaining, again by phone whilst driving, where exactly we needed to go.
Once in the correct carpark Phirum swiftly pulled up behind a car and turned the engine off. Said car was parallel parked behind a number of cars parked head on in bays, meaning we were too. Having checked to see there was in fact no way the cars could just drive forward to escape, I asked Phirum about the practicality of this action to which she swiftly replied that it was ok as she would put the car in ‘N’ and then they could push it. Apparently, everyone does this and it’s perfectly ok to leave your car not knowing if it’ll be in the same place when you return!
Sure enough the carpark attendant was quickly appeased by Phirum repeating this information to him and off we went, me behaving slightly goldfish like, opening and closing my move as words failed me and Phirum giggling away at my incredulity.
On our return the car was, surprisingly, still in place despite the cars that were parked in the bays having changed and so Phirum then moved on to the next part of operation show Sara what’s involved in Cambodian driving – negotiating with the attendant exactly how you are going to leave the carpark. Apparently, the objective is to achieve this without having to turn the car around even if this means trying to squeeze between two diagonally parked cars, manoeuvering round a post to then drop down a steep kerb which is what said attendant was offering to us as a solution. Thankfully, sense was seen and we opted for the three point turn manoeuver which Phirum handled deftly thanks in part to the hand signals of the attendant for which he was awarded 1000 riel (approx 25 cents). I was assured that this is the going rate, although rich people sometimes give them a whole dollar.
We headed back into the Phnom Penh traffic with Phirum remaining strong, failing to look either way at any junction whilst steadily pulling out into traffic and before we knew it I was back where I needed to be. We randomly parked up somewhere near the kerb, obviously having given no indication of this manoeuver in advance, I alighted and Phirum again ‘strongly’ pulled off more concerned about waving to me than glancing into a her mirrors and headed home.