There’s only one rule of driving on the roads in Cambodia and that’s that there are no rules.
At least that’s what one of my Phnom Penh-based friends told me while we were out driving the other day, but then he corrected himself.
“Actually, there is one rule, the biggest one wins,” he said.
We laughed, but then he explained that this is actually a road rule. Bikes and scooters must give way to cars and four-wheel-drives (4WDs).
What about tuk tuks, I ask? They’re bigger than motorbikes but smaller than cars, so that’s exactly where they seem to fit in the hierarchy.
The exception to this is people. They step out onto the road and keep shuffling forward in a slow and unrelenting way, and somehow the shambolic snarl of traffic manages to move around them and keep going. It’s like traffic ballet, providing all goes well.
For the first few years of living here, my friends didn’t drive themselves, but they took it up last year.
Apart from getting the side mirrors stolen from their four-wheel-drive (probably considered ‘optional extras’ anyway given 4WDs sit at the top of the traffic food chain!), things seem to be going well.
But when we decided to drive from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap rather than fly, we got a local driver. They know the roads and can drive a lot more confidently, so the long drive can be done quicker. It still took us close to five hours.
There are moments when even 80kmh feels really fast as we navigate the chaos of country roads with all their pot holes and whole sections that have simply washed away in the rainy season.
As well as cars, trucks, motorbikes and bicycles, there are cattle, dogs and chickens galore. All of them wander out onto the road like pedestrians in Phnom Penh, expecting the traffic to just flow around them. And it does, for the most part.
Every now and then a herd of cattle brings the whole road to a standstill.
What’s more scary is the constant game of chicken that goes on as people overtake each other. They will attempt to pass even with the smallest break in the oncoming traffic. If you’re in a four-wheel-drive, that can mean forcing the oncoming motorbikes off the road, because you have right of way.
The most amazing thing is that no one blinks an eye at this behaviour. The horn ceases to be an instrument of road rage in a place like this, and a quick toot serves instead as a friendly and helpful heads-up that you’re coming through.
It’s also a case of anything goes when it comes to stacking a load onto your truck, van or even your motorbike. The terms ‘over-width’, ‘over-height’ or ‘overloaded’ appear to have no direct translation.
If there’s a spare piece of horizontal space, even if it’s the roof or boot of a standard car, it’s fair game to have something, or even someone, strapped onto it.
The back of vans get so overloaded with people and produce they leave the back door flap down and load that up too, then use ropes or someone’s hand to stop the top flap from flying open on the open road.
I couldn’t help thinking that ‘boys will be boys’ when I saw the number of mostly young men riding around perched or even standing precariously on top of the loads, on the back of trucks. In some cases they have left seats sitting vacant inside the cabin.
When you see any of this happening, you can’t help hoping they make it home safe from Cambodia’s roads. Sadly there are some who don’t each day.
People riding vehicles in the open air in Cambodia appear to favour two choices of protection from the dust and wind – surgical masks or bandanas tied around their faces wild-west style.
For women, these masks double as sun protection. Some girls will also wear socks with their thongs, to stop their feet from getting tanned.
As we arrive into the outskirts of Siem Reap, we pass three young women sitting one behind the other on the same motorbike. They’re all dressed up for a day out and each of them is holding a box or bags, including the driver.
It’s clearly the aftermath of a successful shopping expedition. Out on the roads of Cambodia, it seems also that ‘girls will be girls.’