I found myself riding with a monologue in my head that went “Oh, well, this is ok! This isn’t bad. Not bad at all! I could get used to … OH! F*ck F*ck F*ck F*ck!”.
Phnom Penh. Like many south-east asian cities, traffic there is possessed of its own particular logic, at first invisible to western eyes. Given a day or two the apparent chaos resolves and it all starts making sense. The riders salmoning against the traffic aren’t mad, it is in fact safer than trying to cross the road to ride on the ‘right’ side. And no one is giving way to anyone, but they’re not going to run into them either. Much.
There is no aggression, just a slow insistent persistence. Riding there is a matter of letting go of what you know about how traffic should behave and trying to find the sweet spot of local traffic mores. Using the back streets is easy and you may, briefly, think you’ve got it all worked out. But eventually you will need to cross a major road and no matter how much you’ve relaxed and decided to go with the flow, it will test your nerve.
Not that being a pedestrian is any better. This is not a city where as a rider you can resort to the pedestrian infrastructure to help you get around. In fact, pedestrians are often forced to walk on the road amidst heavy traffic.
The congestion in Phnom Penh is phenomenal. Gridlock is achieved at the slightest mishap. If all the motos and bikes you see were replaced by cars no one would be going anywhere. On the other hand, it is still very easy to imagine what a lovely city it must have been when all those motos were bicycles.
Riding in the country, as in most countries, is very different. While motos abound bikes are still prevalent and at least on the small roads between villages, you’ll be able to ride and only rarely come across anything bigger than a moto. We spent days in a village, where the tiny rutted roads were traversed on old battered bikes. Mornings saw streams of white shirted school students riding to local schools. Kids as young as four or five rode, and walked, independently. To schools, the neighbours, the shops, or for no reason at all. The local town had a couple of thriving bike shops.
The road toll in Cambodia is horrific. And 90% of casualties are moto riders, pedestrians and bike riders. Unfortunately, as the standard of living in Cambodia improves, motos and cars will continue to replace the bicycle. With a moto many villagers living outside of Phnom Penh can get there within a few hours, they can’t do that on a bicycle. What is apparent in Cambodia is that there is only minimal spending on infrastructure. Of any kind. Often when you do come across a road with a decent surface it is only to learn that it was funded by aid, or the Chinese, in conjunction with one of their new factories.
And the few projects of this type that you do see never, ever include provision for riders. Roads are surfaced so that cars can travel faster. Riders on those roads are pushed to the margins by the speed of the cars and the ‘safer’ road makes it more dangerous to travel by bike. Kind of sad to see it happening before your eyes. If you’re interested in riding in Cambodia check out The Weekly Cycle. He spent a year living there with his bike.
The Flipster and I are hoping to do some more riding in Cambodia. Next time we’ll take The Dutchman with us. I don’t whether I’ll let Flip ride in Phnom Penh, although young children riding in the traffic there are common, but I think we could all find some riding in the country side that we could enjoy. We’ll be looking forward to it, thats for sure!