Thursday, December 27, 2007

Into the Heart of Darkness: Rampant Road Rage in Phnom Penh

Close your eyes and imagine a city with no traffic laws, where might is right on the road and the bigger vehicle always has the right of way. No wait, you won't be able to read. Maybe just squint your eyes a little and imagine. Or better yet, just come to Phnom Penh and sit on my balcony for a few hours. While not the most exciting point in Phnom Penh, it affords one a pretty good overview of the traffic here.

I'm situated on St. 51, a street best known for the popular Heart of Darkness club, or just Haat to the locals. In the past it was known as a gangster hangout where the offspring of the military brass and other upper crust Khmers came to let off steam and shoot off a few rounds once in a while. When I first came to Phnom Penh the place had been shut for a month after a fatal shooting, but these days it doesn't feel that dangerous, thanks in large part to the thorough weapons search on entry.

It's an average road, not too big and not too small. It's got a lot of traffic in the daytime, but transforms into an eerie ghost street at night, like so much of Phnom Penh. Past 11, no one walks down the road, and the only souls to be found are the ever present security guards, faces buried beneath caps casting ghoulish stares.

It's a huge difference from Bangkok, the Asian city which I'll forever use as a reference point. In Bangkok the only dangers I felt at night were the packs of mangy street dogs which take over the alleys and bully humans after being abused and kicked around during the day.

Here in Cambodia though, there are no street dogs to be found. I was told that's because a healthy dog can fetch upwards of $20 at the market, a handsome sum. For those Khmers who turn their noses up at the idea of eating dog, this is one of the many evils Vietnamese brought to Cambodia during their 10 year occupation of the country.

The Vietnamese are used as the butt of many jokes. While Khmer's have a general disdain for the Thais, they harbor a special kind of distrust for the Vietnamese. When explaining to my students that they had to write a letter inviting a foreign friend to come and experience Cambodia, I offered a few suggestions for the nationality of the friend: French (nod), American (nod), or Vietnamese (laughter). The thought that you'd call a Vietnamese person a friend!

Due to the lack of domestic expertise, infrastructure, investment and whatever else, many manufactured goods in Cambodia come from neighboring Thailand or Vietnam. A few days ago I stopped to chat with my downstairs neighbors as I was coming home with a fresh supply of bottled water. "What's that for?", they enquired. I explained that because of my lack of exposure, I require a certain level of hygiene in my drinking water, while their bodies were accustomed to a higher level of impurities. "My stomach made in Thailand, your stomach made in Vietnam", one quipped. Laughs all around.

The corruption and lawlessness here, however, I'm afraid is home-grown. When I went to Vietnam it looked the picture of a communist-turned-capitalist success story: orderly, modern, and prosperous. The first thing I noticed as my bus sped towards Saigon on a perfectly sealed road was the impressive signage: crosswalks, speed limits, and other warnings. I suppose those things are pretty far down on the Cambodian government's list of improvements for the road from Phnom Penh to the Vietnam border; better to remedy the Mekong river ferry crossing which can back up and make for 5 hour waits at peak times. Therefore, a bridge first, paving the road second, and then perhaps we can think about signs. But wait, there are signs in Phnom Penh, but does anyone notice? I did, until a Lexus SUV almost flattened me while attempting to utilize a "pedestrian crossing". Then the signs became background noise, just another piece of sensory input to mix with the hollers, motorbikes, ice cream truck tunes, bells, crashes, and laughs that litter the air.A Lexus is just an overpriced Toyota, douchebag.


Jacob Thomas said...

Wow Seth! What a Christmas gift- a windfall of postings. Have you considered applying for work at the Cambodian Tourist Bureau? You paint such a pretty picture: throat slitting, near death experiences involving automobiles, canine cuisine, ethnic hatred... Adventure tourism is all the rage, and I think you're sitting on a goldmine.

But really, all sarcasm aside, thanks for going out there and grabbing life by the balls for all of us who might not choose Cambodia for our next vacation. Truly fascinating stuff, a real vicarious thrillride. Stay safe and malaria free, and maybe next year Santa will have an easier time finding you. I ran into him on Christmas Eve and tried to explain where you were, but he sort of rolled his eyes and mumbled something into his beard. I don't think I gave him the most coherent directions.

Kyle said...

Great stuff, Seth. As stated above, the recent postings have been quite the xmas treat! The picture of the giant Lexus sure does resemble America. When do you return to Thailand?

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