Traffic chaos is not in the eye of this beholder

One busy intersection without lights or signs during the evening rush period.

One busy intersection without lights or signs during the evening rush period.

Chaotic doesn’t begin to describe the traffic in much of the developing world.

One of my earliest memories of it takes place in Mumbai, which I visited in the late 80s.  I was thoroughly intimidated by the convergence of cows, bicycles, motorcycles, cars and pedestrians on the thoroughfares and side streets.  Crossing them seemed undoubtedly was perilous to the extreme.

I since have witnessed similar congestion and danger, usually without the cows, in Asia and Africa.

Here in Phnom Penh, what looks like chaos actually turns out to be more like a mutable form of brinksmanship.  Or chicken. 

Rare are stoplights, even on what amount to avenues such as Monivong, Norodom and Kampuchia Krom.  They are clogged beyond the imagination of most Westerners who haven’t indulged themselves in James Bond films.

Few are such elaborately tricked out tuk-tuks.

Few are such elaborately tricked out tuk-tuks.  The driver relaxes inside.

Contributing to the flood are ubiquitous tuk-tuks; daredevil moto drivers who thread their way on motorcycles or scooters at speeds alternately furious or sluggish; poky pedicabs; a host of pushcarts and what I’ll call pullcarts with improbably onerous burdens propelled by men, women or children, the latter of an age appropriate to elementary school; dump trucks; SUVs, which tend to be symbols of status and evidence of the spoils of corruption; and buses and vans.

The vehicular clutter on the sidewalk outside my bank and otherwise visible everywhere.

The vehicular clutter on the sidewalk outside my bank and otherwise visible everywhere makes it necessary to walk way into the streets.

In Phnom Penh, where sidewalks are few or are made impassable by parked cars and food vendors, even a trek of a few blocks means the need to be alert.  I, for one, have developed a generally well-functioning sixth sense that alerts me to oncoming movement close enough to brush the hairs on an arm and so I gamely hug the gutter closely, barely conscious of a vehicle’s proximity.

Those moto drivers (called motodops) fascinate me.  They slalom and bob like Olympic skiers to avoid accidents, sliding behind whatever was beside them or racing ahead to avoid an impact with a person or passenger car.  They in particular seem extraordinarily skilled at shifting their speeds, able as they are to balance without support while nearly at a standstill and constantly adjusting to the enveloping tide, which swells during normal rush periods.

Although there is barely so much as lip service to conventional laws of the road, somehow the tapestry that the streams of traffic weave seems mostly unflawed. 

Still, intersections seem to be especially dangerous, and they probably are.  They intrigue me because of the country’s broken rules of the road, creating a hierarchy of sorts in that elements of the traffic give way to bigger or faster components even if that means a lumbering mammoth deferring to a diminutive human.  For the pedestrian traversing an intersection, faith in the system is mandatory with life and limb in jeopardy. That’s true whether negotiating crossroads, walking along the streets or trying to get from one side to another.


A woman near my apartment hauls an unforgivingly large load of plastic household items.

Unless a phalanx of cars is in or soon approaching that portion of a street, there is virtually no point in waiting for a clear path.  The answer: Just go and be amazed how the casually choreographed traffic avoids you in its improvisational ballet. It does, indeed, work!

My only close call has involved a bicyclist careering left in front of me from my right side as I crossed from a corner. One of the wheels brushed the side of my right foot, and the man never looked back after completing his turn, much less apologize.

It would be foolish of me to suggest that serious accidents don’t occur in a nation where enforcement of traffic laws is lax or nonexistent and the police are scandalously underpaid. From what I have observed and read, however, many of these tend to occur at night, when alcohol demonstrates its influence, and on the open (a laughable term) road.  Columnist Kenneth Wilson in The Cambodia Daily elaborates on the causes and numbers in a country with a population that doesn’t reach 15 million:

Vehicle accidents are the top cause of accidental death in Cam­bodia where­­in near 2,000 fatalities occur an­nually, or about 5 per day, and most are attributable to poor driving habits and lack of law enforcement. Estimates suggest that 10 percent of the deaths come from car accidents, the rest involving motorcycles (often without helmet). A surprising cost estimate is as much as 3.5 percent of GDP is lost each year due to accidents. . .

A day watching Phnom Penh’s traffic reveals drivers on the wrong side of two-lane roads, cutting corners, speeding, running stop lights, excessive honking, and even going in the wrong direction on one-way streets…all too common traffic offenses. Each of these affects not only the other wheeled vehicles in the immediate vicinity but foot traffic as well.

It doesn’t appear to me that one cause is overloaded vehicles — for example, open trucks piled with merchandise double the height of the the vehicles’ sides and workers perched atop the load.  Nor does it seem that motos lugging outsize wagons that dwarf the machines are a reason for the accident rate or whole families with two or three infants and toddlers squeezed into a space meant for two adults at most.

Family transportation

Add to the foregoing potentially fatal mixture of conditions pervasive cellphone use and perhaps you can understand my amazement at the ease with which the traffic flows.

Withal, I am pleasantly surprised by how infrequently I hear horns blaring in anger, despite Mr. Wilson’s observation.  More common are short bleats as drivers slow at intersections and make a warning sound to establish dominance or do so in the event they will pass close to a pedestrian.

Back in the U.S., I imagine that even hard-bitten denizens of dense urban areas would be horrified at the vehicular situation here.  As for me, I kind of like the energy that it provides.


4 thoughts on “Traffic chaos is not in the eye of this beholder

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s