Traffic accidents are one of the leading causes of deaths in Cambodia, with most fatalities involving motorcyclists. In 2015, over 2200 people died in traffic accidents in Cambodia, but this has recently dropped to 1780 people in 2017 (however, this could be because the NGO Handicap International wasn’t involved in the data collection rather than a true decline). Drunkenness, speeding and not wearing helmets are among the main reasons for accidents and fatalities.
I have been in a minor crash myself whilst travelling on a night bus. I can tell you, waking up to a bump and sliding down the wooden bed was a rather unpleasant way to wake up. The driver of the other vehicle was injured, but it seemed like he may have been drunk. I still continue to travel by night bus (The reason is the punchline of that old joke: I’d like to die peacefully in my sleep just like my granddad, and not to die screaming like his passengers.)
There are road laws here, and apparently they’re similar to the UK ones (the translation at least uses words like “zebra crossing” rather than the American “cross walk”). Although it does not seem like there are rules most of the time, I have, so far, safely navigated the Cambodian road system, as a pedestrian, cyclist and motorcyclist. So, here is my brief guide to navigating traffic in Cambodia.
You drive on the right hand side of the road, unless it isn’t convenient or you are overtaking. It is known for motorbikes especially to sneak down the side of the wrong side of the road (especially if they want to make a left turn further up). I have done it and I got caught by the police and fined (whoops!). What is worse is when they fine you, they get you to put your thumb print on your copy and their copy of the receipt. Therefore, you are left with a blue mark of Cain for the rest of the day. So, tip one: don’t do it or at least look out for police (usually marked by a queue of people getting fines).
If there are areas of paving or petrol station forecourts (as they’re usually on corners), these become legitimate roadways during rush hour.
Although the rules say that those going straight on have priority over turning traffic, this is not actually the case. The priority generally goes by the size of vehicle. So motorcycle beats bicycle, car beats motorcycle, truck beats car. There are a few exceptions, such as cow beats everything (not because they’re sacred like in India, but because they’re stupid). The inspiration for this post was my actual thought process whilst cycling home. A lorry was pulling out and I said to myself, “he’s big; he has priority.” Indeed, he pulled out.
If you want to signal that you believe you have the right of way, honk and flash your lights. Flashing lights here does not mean they’re giving way. In fact it’s the opposite: they’re informing you they are coming through.
Crossing the road
There may be times when you need to cross the road as a pedestrian. This can be extremely daunting, especially when you first arrive. I had to learn quickly as, when I was here in 2016, I had to cross a busy, four lane (or six lane if you ignore the road markings) road called Street 271 – which is sort of the circular around Phnom Penh and it follows the old flood dyke. Not only did I have to cross it, but I did this during rush hour. So, here are the steps to do it:
- Look in all directions. As traffic may be coming in the wrong direction up the side of the street, be aware of this. Also, people often park their motorbikes (and sometimes cars) inside their homes. I once experienced someone drive out of the house I was standing in front of. That gave me a shock.
- Wait until it is only motorcycles. Cars can’t swerve as easily. Preferably, there’ll be only one or two motorcycles, but sometimes this ain’t gonna happen.
- Make your intention clear. This can be by raising an arm or by making eye contact with approaching drivers. The latter especially helpful to determine that they have registered you. It’s best to do both.
- Take one confident step out into the road. As you do, the oncoming motorcycles with move to avoid you.
- Keep going slowly but surely. Keep making your intention clear.
- Don’t panic. Motorcycles will start driving behind you too, so you will feel pretty much surrounded by moving traffic. (Don’t worry; that’s because you are.)
- Remember, they want to hit you as much as you want to be hit by them.
- Reach the other side and breathe.
A miss is as good as a mile
The driving mantra seems to be that it doesn’t matter if it’s by a millimetre or a metre, as long as you miss them it’s okay. You’re going to have to get used to this.
The real advice
- Avoid travelling at night when you can, especially as a female. There are more likely to be drunken people on the road, or driving your tuk tuk!
- If you think your driver is drunk, get another one.
- If you’re here for a while try to get a regular, trustworthy driver (ask an expat who has been here for a while if they know any).
- Using PassApp or Grab is often safer as it gives you details of your driver. Grab has some helpful safety features too, although I’m not sure how well they work in Cambodia.
- Buy a portable mobile charger. If you know you’re going to be out late, try to make sure your mobile is fully charged.
- If you do have to be out late, call a friend on your way back home, or keep them up-to-date.
- Always wear a helmet when cycling or riding a motorcycle (either as a driver or passenger). The latter is a legal obligation, and both are just common sense. You may think you’re a safe cyclist or driver, but it’s everyone else you can’t account for.
Here’s your opportunity to learn some Khmer words:
- motorcycle: moto ម៉ូតូ
- bicycle: gong កង់
- car: lan ឡាន
- tuk tuk: tuk tuk (but more like the first syllable of toucan than took like hook, but Khmer people will understand the westernised version) តុកតុក
- stop: chop ! ឈប់!
- turn left: bot chweng បត់ឆ្វេង
- turn right: bot sdam បត់ស្តាំ
- $7?! That’s really expensive! Usually from AEON Mall to my house is $4: Bram bee dollar?! Tlai nah! Tomodah, bee Ee-On Mahl do dol pdair knyom bong tlai bourn dollar. [That’s my butchered attempt at Khmer. I’m not going to write it out wrong in Khmer.]
Last fact: learning Khmer has untaught me how to spell motorcycle. I’m so used to calling it a moto (even when speaking in English), I now will drop the “r” and it becomes motocycle. Thank goodness for spell-checkers, eh?