Nov 242011

One thing we have learned in our travels through Southeast Asia is that you really need you own wheels. That means renting a motorbike.

In Cambodia, everyone and their sister owns a motorbike. They run from 100cc to 125cc in engine size, and lie somewhere between a moped and a dirt bike on the motorcycle spectrum.

The degree to which the motorcycle is part of the country’s character cannot be overstated. Motorbike sales stores are everywhere. Makeshift, roadside tire repair shops are always within an easy stroll. Motorbikes are modified to be everything from tuk-tuk’s to ice cream trucks to mobile food stalls. Sure, there are also cars, trucks, buses, bicycles, horse-drawn carts, ox-drawn carts, human-pushed carts, and tractor-drawn carts on the roads, but motorbikes vastly outnumber the combined total of all these. If the motorbike ever disappeared, national paralysis would ensue.

The motorbike has become part of the genetic makeup of the people of Cambodia, and the region in general. The Darwinian process of natural selection has ensured that the current generation is born to ride. Children are tossed onto their parent’s bikes before they can walk, without the aid of child seats or safety belts. A Cambodian child that can’t ride on the back of a motorbike would be like a seal pup that can’t swim, and would have about the same chance of passing its genes along to the next generation.

We often see near-infants standing on the seats of bikes, in front of the drivers, with their hands holding the instrument panels for balance, while the bikes scream down the road, weaving between potholes, cars, carts, trucks, cows, dogs, bicycles, and other motorbikes. By the time a Cambodian child is a teenager, he or she will be driving a motorbike, carrying four other passengers, a forty-kilogram bag of rice, and two slaughtered pigs in a homemade basket attachment – while simultaneously sending a text message.

The number and type of people and things that a Cambodian can carry on a motorbike is remarkable. A family of five on a single bike – including a couple of sleeping kids – has become a common sight. We have seen, more than once, what seemed like hundreds of empty plastic jugs strapped to a bike, the arrangement looking something like a parade float. All kinds of accessories have been devised for carrying farm animals, produce, and construction materials on the backs and sides of motorbikes. Sometimes, the load extends well into the incoming lane of traffic, adding yet another obstacle to an already crowded roadway.

One of the most impressive loads we have seen was a full-sized washing machine balanced between the driver and a passenger.

To share the road with these masters-of-the-motorbike, you have to know how to flow with Cambodian traffic – how to drive like a Cambodian. While, at first, it may look like there are no rules, that is not really the case. There actually are rules, of a sort.

But first, for all this to make sense, you should know that Cambodians drive on the right side of the road, or at least that’s how they are supposed to drive. That said, on to the rules…

The primary rule is to never stop moving…ever.

“What about intersections?” you might ask. Well, if there is an actual traffic light, then you might have to stop, as traffic lights are an exception to the primary rule. But traffic lights are a rarity in most towns, and I don’t think we ever saw a one in Battambang.

At the other intersections – the 99% or more that don’t have a traffic light – the goal is to just drive on through, shooting through a gap in the cross-traffic. It’s a bit of a leap of faith, but the system works, and we have yet to witness or be involved in an accident at an intersection.

To do otherwise – to drive like an American and come to a stop at an intersection, expecting other drivers to also stop and yield to whoever has the right of way – does not work, and is actually hazardous. That’s because the assumptions are different between Americans and Cambodians when faced with an intersection – you expect a safe system based upon a concept of right of way; Cambodians expect you to just keep moving and push on through.

So, a second rule emerges, an enhancement to the primary rule of “keep moving.” That second rule is that no one has the right of way.

Now, even at an intersection without a traffic light, you might be forced to stop, due to heavy cross-traffic that leaves no gap through which to charge. This is where a third rule comes into play – the rule of mass. Given a little time, a group of motorbikes and cars and such will pile up at the intersection with you, all wanting to get through. When the mob achieves enough mass, it will instinctively start pushing into the cross-traffic, using it’s now-superior numbers to block the road and force its way to the other side. So, if you are forced to stop at an intersection, you have only to wait a a moment or two for the rule of mass to come into play, and then need only go with the mob.

These three rules of Cambodian driving – keep moving, no one has the right of way, and mass – produce something of an orderly system at your typical intersection. There is, however, an impossible intersection in Battambang where the rules don’t work so well. It’s where traffic comes together from seven directions, along multiple roads, at the west end of the Psar Nat, which is the main market in western Battambang. The confluence of traffic produces a free-for-all, in which you must aggressively push on through, following the momentary micro-currents to carry you to the other side.

A fourth rule is that a two-lane roadway actually has five lanes of traffic.

There are the standard two lanes, going in opposite directions. I’ll call these the “main lanes” for the purpose of this discussion. The main lanes are where the bulk of traffic will be found, and are what an American driver would recognize as the traffic lanes.

Between the main lanes is an invisible middle lane. It’s mostly used for passing, but it’s also used if the traffic mob in a main lane thinks it needs more space, and starts taking over a swath of the opposing traffic’s main lane. Cars and trucks really like using the middle lane, exercising superior mass to muscle their way through the motorbikes and bicycles.

On the outside of the main lanes, near the curb, are two more lanes – the “shoulder lanes.” These lanes go in the opposite direction of the main lanes. They are used by left-turning traffic (explained below), and by people who are heading just a short distance and don’t want to be bothered with crossing, and then recrossing, main lane traffic.

Even on a narrow, barely-two-lanes-wide roadway, without any shoulders, all five of these lanes are still in play.

Some veterans of Cambodian driving would argue that there are really seven lanes of traffic, the other two being any available sidewalks along the roadway. It is common for motorbikes and bicycles to use sidewalks to bypass slow or stalled traffic in the other lanes.

So, how about using the shoulder lane during a left turn, which I said I would explain…

The Cambodian way to make a left turn at an intersection is to not stop moving, but rather turn against the oncoming lane of cross-traffic, keeping to the left side of the roadway (and inside the invisible shoulder lane) until the oncoming traffic clears enough that you can cut across and merge into the proper main lane. The primary rule – never stop moving – is the governing concept.

There you go, the main concepts for riding a motorbike in Cambodia: never stop moving, no one has the right of way, use the mass of the mob if you do get stuck at an intersection, two lanes really equals five (or seven, depending how you count), and make a left turn at an intersection by heading into oncoming traffic and then cutting across lanes.

Jen says it all reminds her of the school of fish theory that she once heard being applied to bicyclists in major Chinese cities, which holds that the bicyclists act like a school of fish, moving and reacting with apparent synchronization. That makes sense to me, as micro-patterns emerge as you drive in Cambodia, with the “school” reacting to obstacles and changes as a group, all in speechless unison.

With the big concepts and lessons out of the way, here are some smaller points to consider, in no particular order.

Cows are frequently put to graze on the side of the road, tethered by a nose ring and a length of rope. The rope is usually long enough for the cow to eat grass right up to the edge of the road. The problem here is that it is possible for the cow to swing its rear into the roadway, blocking a lane. The same cow might then lie down in the road, still blocking the lane, chewing it’s cud, and completely ignoring the traffic. No one will try to make the cow move. Instead, the traffic will adjust to the cow, with both directions of traffic merging into the one remaining lane. Everyone just keeps moving.

Dogs will do what the cows do, going completely comatose in the middle of the road.

Cambodia requires motorbike drivers to wear a helmet. This does not apply to any of the other people on the bike, even the infants.

For some strange reason, you are not suppose to have your headlights on during the day (we once got pulled over for this). However, driving without headlights at night seems to be acceptable.

One of the biggest risks is getting hit by someone trying to pass you on the left, while you are executing a left-hand turn. So, if you are turning left, you have to get as far to the left side of the lane as possible, turn on the turn signal, give a hand signal for backup, and check and double-check your rear.

You should wear sunglasses while driving during the day, and get clear goggles or glasses for driving at night. The dirt and dust can be bad enough to momentarily blind you. At night, flying insects are added to the mix. Keep your mouth closed while you drive.

In town, motorbikes park on the sidewalk. Cars park at the curb, on the sidewalk, in the middle of the road so as to block traffic, and just about anywhere else they damned well please.

In town, cars and SUVs tend to drive cautiously, to the point that they are painfully slow and become obstacles. This also makes them a hazard, as motorbikes take crazy risks to get past them.

On the highway, it’s another story. Here, cars and SUVs and trucks and buses drive like they are Ricky Bobbi at the Taladega 500. Cambodian operators of vehicles with four or more wheels drive with one hand on the steering, one hand on the horn, and one foot on the gas pedal. I don’t know what the other foot is doing, but I’m pretty sure it’s not on the brake pedal. The best thing a motorbike can do is to stay in the shoulder, keep an eye out for cars and trucks and buses approaching from behind, and watch for oncoming traffic that is attempting to pass in the opposing lane (meaning it’s headed straight at you, in your lane). Oncoming traffic that has ventured into your lane is just going to honk it’s horn at you and keep coming; it’s not going to get out of your way. The risk of becoming roadkill is high.

So, there you go, a crash course on motorbike riding in Cambodia. It’s actually more fun than scary; and if you haven’t given it a shot, you haven’t really experienced all that Cambodia has to offer.

Besides, like Ricky Bobbi said, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

Or was that, “If you don’t chew Big Red, then f*ck you!”

Trust me…Somewhere in there is wisdom about riding a motorbike in Cambodia. You just have to be jacked up on Mountain Dew to see it.

 Posted by at 4:14 pm