The Cambodian guy in the green Camry was giving it his best shot, ping-ponging back and forth while he tried to shoehorn his car into a 50-foot parking space directly in front of the coffee shop.
The curbside security guard – all of 18 years and 80 pounds – waved his arms like a third base coach windmilling a slow runner to home plate, furiously and with great futility trying to guide the car into a parallel parking space that Ray Charles could have nailed on the first attempt. First one and then another coffee shop employee joined the chorus to help the guy park. And after much jabbering, smiling and waving of arms – and ducking oncoming traffic, which swirled around the hapless parker like a river torrent around a mid-stream boulder – the growing crowd grinned as the guy gave up and headed off to find a bigger parking spot.
I thought to myself: try the airport. Even you could park that sucker on an open runway.
Now there are many wonderful qualities about the Cambodian people. They are are infallibly easy going, reliably fun-loving, good hearted, quick to smile and hard to rattle.
But they hopelessly, permanently and dangerously stink behind the wheel of a car. A Cambodian driver behind the wheel is a 3,000-pound nightmare. One commanding one of Phnom Penh’s countless Lexus SUV’s is a lethal weapon. Watching Cambodian drivers weave, crawl, cross double lines and generally adopt chaos as the rule of the road, one wonders why there aren’t fatalities on every street corner, every day.
There are, in fact, which is why Cambodia has earned its reputation as one of the most dangerous places in the world to drive. It would also probably explain why Cambodia is the only place I’ve ever been where you cannot rent a car and drive it yourself. You have to rent a driver, too. Who will be Cambodian. And who will pay zero attention to the rules of the road.
I have inkling why things are thus.
On the way back from a stirring meeting with the Cambodian National Petroleum Authority yesterday, I asked my friend, colleague and erstwhile driver du jour Sarath what he thought about those two yellow lines painted down the middle of the road. Yes, those two, the pair you crossed over to pass the Lexus SUV, tuk tuk and flock of motorbikes and into oncoming traffic. The ones you crossed again while weaving back onto our side of the road, perilously close to a concrete barrier that had been ostensibly erected to prevent just the sort of behavior in which we were engaging.
“Oh, I know,” he said with a characteristic grin. “It mean do not cross.”
“And???” I probed.
Silence. But a big smile.
“So who taught you how to drive?” I delved.
“I went to driving school,” came the encouraging answer.
“And what did they tell you about those lines?”
“Oh, they say you should not cross. But everybody cross anyway.”
OK. Now I get it. And as we approached an intersection the traffic light turned from green to yellow.
“What about that?” I asked. “What does that light mean?”
“I know it mean you stop so I stop because I don’t want you to criticize me?” he said, smiling broadly.
Cambodia’s roads rank among the worst in the world, and certainly the most dangerous in Southeast Asia, and with good reason.
Here, thousands of unlicensed drivers carom off each other on pockmarked roads during rainy-season deluges, killing each other at an alarming rate along with pedestrians, motorbike drivers and many an unlucky stray cow or dog who happen onto the pavement. The papers are peppered with reports of accidents, mishaps and mind-boggling acts of stupidity that claim lives, clog roads and generally mess with the heads of westerners used to more order on the highways.
Last month a bus sideswiped a truck en route to Vietnam, killing one person, costing another her leg and injuring a bunch of passengers after the driver fell asleep at the wheel.
I saw a Toyota run a red light on one of Phnom Penh’s busiest streets a few weeks ago and t-bone a motorbike driver, bouncing her into the air and destroying her bike. She tried to get up, the poor thing, but slumped into the road while a cop called for help and kicked into action to keep someone else from running her over.
A month or so ago, some drunk veered off Norodom Boulevard late at night and bolted 100 feet up our street and straight into the wall of the Indonesian ambassador’s residence two doors down from our house. By the time we hit the streets the next morning, the carnage had been cleaned up and efforts were underway to replace the small tree the guy had taken out. The bumper marks on the compound’s walls remain, however.
Our Khmer language teacher and friend Dara warns us to stay off the roads after dark. That’s when the unsavory element of Cambodia punches in, he warns, but most importantly it’s when the drunks start to head home, engaging in their special brand of bumper cars and embracing Cambodia’s love affair with alcohol and driving.
It’s a huge, dangerous and visible problem here. And it’s one reason why we’re happy to not own a car. It’s like being asked to join in a friendly game of Russian roulette.
As for the guy at the coffee shop, an apparently sober yet talentless driver, when I last saw him he’d left his car parked on a corner, blocking an intersection as well as the entrance to the convenience store nearby.
On the way out I joked in Khmer to one of the coffee shop staff that I’m going to open a driving school to teach bad drivers how to park. She laughed but added:
“Oh, bong. Komnut láah.”
Yes, sir. A good idea.