..umm, there *may* be some in Cambodia, but if so I haven’t noticed them yet.
Today, after five hours in an Internet cafe uploading my Website (I said it had a *faster* connection…I didn’t say it was *fast*!), I decided to go see the Royal Palace, in hopes of getting a glimpse of the Silver Pagoda.
So I walked out of the hotel and summoned one of the circling buzzards, er, I mean moto drivers. I did avoid the ones directly in front of the hotel (six or seven of them perch nonchalantly on a sidewalk over the savannah, waiting for the kites that indicate a dying, no, I mean emerging tourist), on the general principle that someone who’s been waiting an hour or so to pounce on you is going to want to extract extra blood for their trouble. In other words, as in Bangkok, never get into an idle taxi.
But, as it turns out, this did me no good at all. The fellow I flagged down and paid $1 to take me to the Royal Palace actually dropped me off on a completely gratuitous street somewhere in Phnom Penh, nowhere near the Royal Palace and, in fact, near absolutely nothing at all (as far as I could tell). Since he apparently didn’t speak a word of English, I never did work out whether he knew where the Royal Palace was and simply dropped me there for the hell of it, whether he thought he was taking me somewhere else, or whether he had no idea what I was saying in the first place and just took me somewhere random. Traveling is kind of like that in Cambodia.
So anywhere, there I was on some completely unrecognizable street in Phnom Penh, with absolutely no idea where I was, thinking vaguely that I should have have brought my map. Fortunately, the *second* motorcycle I flagged down turned out to be driven by a much better driver, who not only charged me only half the first rate (2000 riel–50 cents), but actually took me to my destination (!). Cambodia is like that, too.
At the Royal Palace, the palace gates were closed and locked–since King Sikanoukh returned from exile the Palace has been off-limits to visitors. Well, I knew that, but I also wanted to find the Silver Pagoda, so I started walking around the Royal Palace grounds. Unfortunately the little episode with the random delivery motorcycle had cost me a good bit of time, so the sun was setting…I stumbled across the National Museum, realized I wasn’t going to see the Silver Pagoda before sunset, and (in my ongoing quest to try every form of transportation ever invented) flagged down a cyclo.
What is a cyclo?, you ask? As far as I know, it’s a uniquely Cambodian invention, and is (if you think about it) rather grisly. Cambodia, as you know, has an oversupply of land mines. As a result, it also has a large oversupply of amputees (about 1 in 250 Cambodians has lost a limb to landmines), and because the amputees do eventually get fitted with replacement limbs and crutches, it also has a large oversupply of wheelchairs. So what does one do with the excess wheelchairs? Well, if it’s Cambodia, you cut the front end off a bike, weld the wheelchair to the bike, and presto! you have a cyclo. The rider sits in the wheelchair up front, the cyclo driver mounts the bike in back, and off you go, through the traffic.
(I should say that these are not the small wheelchairs you see in the U.S. These are high-backed wheelchairs. The upholstery is plastic and generally quite ratty, although many of them cover the cushions in fabric to make them look a trifle better.)
I should pause here to mention that I did finally learn the trick of crossing a street in Asia. Douglas Adams mentions (in his wonderful book _Last Chance to See_) that streets in China are remarkable–full of drivers passing through intersections with no apparent awareness of traffic laws–or, it would seem, the laws of physics.
“Just as you’d swear they were going to hit one another, the cars seem to pass through each other like beams of light, missing each other by no more than six inches” he wrote. And in fact crossing the street is just like that.
You don’t wait for a break in traffic, because there won’t be one. Instead, you wait for a slight break, not enough to cross the street but enough for drivers in the first lane of traffic to see (and presumably avoid) you as you step into the street. Now you’re in the middle of the first lane, with cars and motorcycles whizzing by on either side. You inch slowly further into the road, always making sure that you’re far enough from nearby traffic for drivers to react before hitting you.
But, they won’t *always* swerve for you–that’s the hard part. You have to look into the eyes of oncoming drivers and judge whether you or they will give way. If you judge wrong, you get to leap backwards at the last moment, which can be problematic since another car is probably swerving to fill the gap you left in traffic. All this makes it a rather nervewracking process for the hapless Westerner, who’s used to more orderly things like crosswalks and stoplights. I still have to suppress the conviction that I’m about to die.
(Phnom Penh *does* actually have street-lights, unlike the rest of Cambodia. Some drivers even take notice of them… 😉 )
Anyway, that’s crossing the street in Cambodia. Traffic in Cambodia works quite similarly. Nominally, traffic runs on the right-hand side of the road. But, since crossing traffic is complicated on foot and nearly impossible otherwise (no traffic lights), the Cambodians have discovered a “better” way of making a left turn.
One starts out driving on the left-hand side of the road (against traffic, but on the shoulder). Then,upon spotting a small gap, one starts driving head-on into traffic, but angled slightly, so that eventually one pops out on the other side of the lane and can join traffic in the right direction. If you imagine a fish swimming head-on into a school of other fish, at a slight angle, and emerging on the other side, you’ll get a good idea of how this maneuver works.
However, this is not the sea and these are not fish: this is a motorcycle headed straight against traffic, with you behind the driver staring at three lanes of oncoming traffic and wishing you had a deity to say your prayers to. Imagine driving the wrong way down the 101 at rush hour in a motorcycle, trying to get to the other side, and you get a rough idea.
Amazingly enough, none of these people hit you.
Okay, that’s the experience on a motorcycle. That’s easy. Now, repeat it in a cyclo: you up front in a wheelchair (sitting there peacefully reclined, with an absolutely wide-open view of four lanes of impending doom) with an overgrown bicycle behind you, pedaling nonchalantly against traffic. It’s a whole new vision into terror, especially if your cyclo driver is nonchalantly running a red light at the same time. As I said, there may be traffic laws in Cambodia, but if so, I haven’t discovered them.
The amazing part about this is that the entire time we were nearly being crushed, almost hit, sliding narrowly through oncoming traffic, etc. my cyclo driver was chattering happily along, telling me about all the wonderful sights in Phnom Penh and trying to convince me to hire him tomorrow for extortionate amounts of money. He seemed blissfully aware of our imminently impending doom.
(Okay…after about three days on AIDS Lifecycle I was kind of like that too…but at least *I* didn’t have passengers!)
Nonetheless, I have to admit I was grinning like a maniac for most of the cyclo ride. It’s fun! You get to see traffic from out front! instead of behind the wheel, driver, hood, etc. of an automobile. Sort of like sitting in the middle of the street, watching the traffic pass by, except that you’re moving, too!
Cyclos are way cool. If you ever go to Cambodia, I suggest you try one, at least once. (Skip it if you’ve got a heart condition.) After one cyclo ride, though, roller coasters will be blasÃ© for the rest of your life.
Anyway, that was my exciting day today. Tomorrow I’m going to do a lightning tour, including the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, and National Museum in the morning, Tuol Sleng in the afternoon, the shooting range at night (?), and then take a plane to Saigon sometime Monday. At least, that’s the plan. I have no idea what will actually happen…this is, after all, Cambodia. 😉