Bad Ideas in Cambodian Traffic

A picture-heavy post.

This is just a quick post to explain why Cambodian traffic fills me with horror.  You’ll have to imagine the shots that got away — like the teenage girl on a motorbike making a turn against traffic in an intersection with no light while writing a text message on her phone.  Or the woman sitting on the back of a motorbike, facing backwards, holding the handles of a wheelbarrow-style vending carts, of the kind pictured below, so as to pull it along behind them like a trailer.

A food vending cart these two kids (brothers?) are hauling through the middle of heavy traffic.

A pedicab carrying an unspeakable amount of junk.  As you can see, the basic structure of a pedicab is a bicycle with the front wheel sawed off and replaced by a steerable wheelchair.  I’m told that thing behind the driver’s seat, about where you’d have a seatbelt buckle, is a gearshift — you can’t see it well here.

At night, pedicab and tuk-tuk drivers often sleep in their vehicles.  I imagine some are homeless, or only stop around home on occasion.

Making your own lane and driving against traffic is a standard procedure.

These food vending carts are built on to motorbikes like sidecars.  Imagine a hotdog vendor booming down a divided highway, food cooking, scoping for customers.

Major intersection, no traffic lights.  I’ve been told that traffic lights were installed in all the intersections, and the Khmer protested them bitterly.  So now it’s only the really big ones that have them, and about one in ten Khmer run them anyway.

Khmer carry all kinds of badly-considered cargo on motorbikes.  I’ve seen dead hogs; live hogs (squealing); mattresses (widthwise); a refrigerator (carried by the passenger); and a sheet of plate glass (ditto).

Published in: on December 3, 2009 at 10:49 am  Comments (26)  

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26 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Fascinating stuff. Thanks for sharing, I’ve been following along.

  2. Thank you for this. It brings back fond memories about trips through Asia. It brings back a particular memory of being taught how to cross the streets in Vietnam. Here’s a tip:the cars will hit you, but the bikes will go around if they are looking.

  3. Love it! thanks for sharing

  4. Wow now that would be a challenge to negotiate–interesting post.

  5. When I was there I saw a family of six tooling along and another one with a live pig on the back. It was fascinating and astouding all at once.

  6. Amazing.

    It reminds me of Nigeria – cars that were pasked and overflowing with people and boots likewise, tied ‘shut’ with rope.

    The have motorbike taxis they call ‘Ocado’ as well, bloody death traps. I saw one motorbike with 3 kids sitting on the handlebars, and about 4 other son the seat.

    Utter madness.


  7. Don’t be horryfied:it’s the usual stuff in SouthEast Asia:you can see similar things in Thailand,Vietnam,Philipines and Indonesia.Maybe the only place with really safe traffic is Singapore.

  8. Awesome post! I laughed out loud a couple of times so thanks for that. It reminds me of traffic I witnessed in Kandahar, Afghanistan. I think the most horrific future accident I ever saw was a station wagon that seated five with trunk space available actually seating 10 people with an eleventh riding on the roof of the car while hanging onto a cargo strap while the car was doing about 80 mph down their Highway One. Awesome!

  9. Looks a lot like the traffic here in Burkina Faso, except for that there are obviously paved roads in Cambodia. Do you get the dozens of chickens tied over the handlebars of a moto or bike, then several goats on the back, kicking out of a basket? I’ve also seen seven peoples on a single moto – adults and children. That was impressive too.

  10. I lived in phnom penh for 2 months, I know EXACTLY what you are talking about. I do enjoy their timed traffic lights though.

  11. I can’t even imagine being a passenger in a place with such a devestating lack of structure. I’d probably pound me feet on the floor of the car in hopes of breaking it so that we’d be forced to hoof it.

  12. Great pictures. This kind of reminds me of when I went to Costa Rica and drove down backroads in the middle of nowehere, and still had crazy drivers whizzing past me.


  13. Are there any driving laws in countries like that? I’m a little illinformed. If there are, they should enforce them more.

  14. Nothing to be surprised about. Its common in SEA but I never seen anything like vehicles going against traffic in the Philippines. And Ive never seen anything like this traffic in Hongkong and Macau..

  15. That’s pretty hilarious.

  16. the rule is: there are no rules. Driving anywhere in South, South-East Asia is hazardous, if, like me, you beleive that red means stop and green means go.

  17. Guys, that’s what poor people do. If you had to carry your stuff every single day from one far place to another, and just have a motorcicle, what would you do? I’m sure they would love to drive their stuff in a SUV. But they never had a chance do get there… And they did not choose to be like this. Government, and educated people all over the world have to share this responsability. If they were exploited for so long and haven’t a chance to became a developed country, who’s the fault? Don’t get amused, or shocked, get involved!

  18. It`s a normal in overcrowded cities. If you think that this only exist in Cambodia, you should se what happens in Istambul during summer, especially i fit rains…:-)

  19. Remembers me of a Dutch highway, A50…but with other cars ;-)

  20. “If they were exploited for so long and haven’t a chance to became a developed country, who’s the fault?”

    The Khmer I’ve talked to do not see themselves as exploited. They’re lagging behind other countries primarily because they were involved in a long civil war, and secondarily because the government that came out of that civil war — the previous government — had some bad economic policies.

    The fact that the Vietnam war kept spilling over into Cambodia didn’t help. But I don’t get much resentment toward the U.S. from ex-soldiers here. In fact there’s one crazy guy who stands on a streetcorner in his fatigues screaming drunkenly at passers-by, and him I’ve made friends with.

    The West is doing a lot here in Cambodia. And it’s working. No need to lecture or guilt-trip people. They drive like lunatics because they’re lunatics; not because they’re poor.


  21. Oh man. I’d probably wear a helmet just walking down the sidewalk.

  22. Thomas Maroney:
    In most of the world, it seems that the only driving laws are: If you get into an accident, your vehicle gets wrecked and/or you get maimed and/or killed. The state takes little interest. I think mostly because while nominally socialist, most are just kleptocracies, which don’t really do anything to support those who are disabled. By contrast, in Russia, the traffic laws are pretty well followed, primarily because most the militsia [traffic police] (who, interestingly have jurisdiction over traffic laws and NOTHING else) are little more than poorly paid shake-down artists, and nobody wants to draw the attention of these guys (Russia seems to have reverted to the czarist system in which the bureacracy is unpaid or underpaid, and fully EXPECTED to make a living off of bribes — I’m not sure if our system or the czarist system is better.).

  23. Conrad..

    More specifically, they drive like lunatics, because they’re lunatics with high power/weight ratio vehicles.

    During my year in Saudi Arabia with the army, I noticed that the typical Saudi driver exhibits the same driving styles seen in movies from the 1930’s, except that the 1930’s cars were tended to have terribly low power/weight ratios.
    A society full of first generation drivers all drive crazy, because the society doesn’t yet have an institutional memory/understanding of the catastrophic nature of reckless driving. (The closest you can get to reckless driving with an animal cart isn’t nearly as catastrophic. The cart is rarely ruined, rarely is anybody maimed, let alone killed, and besides, the animal itself is often a moderating factor — just as a horse will throw off it’s rider rather than obey the fool’s intent of charging through an enemy line of bayonets and/or pikes)

    Although, it looks like where you are, the traffic doesn’t travel so fast, so a lot of things that look crazy aren’t quite so crazy if the traffic isn’t as fast (????), but would definitely be absolutely insane if the traffic flowed at higher speeds.

    (*) Engines of the 30’s typically 7:1 compression ratio compared to 12:1 today. This is because octane ratings hadn’t been standardized yet, *and* because they had “L-head” construction — the mushroom-style “overhead valve” hadn’t been invented yet — valves were more like sliding doors opening into an “ante-room” structure next to each cylinder. The whole late-40’s to early 60’s “hot-rod” craze was from a nation of demobilized WW2 vets who the army and navy trained as mechanics getting their hands on these old engines for cheap and rebuilding them with modern overhead valve heads like they saw on their military equipment and typically doubling the horsepower of those old 1930’s-designed auto engines. Combine the low power of those engines with the fact that they were ALL iron, and tended to be overbuilt, and stuck in “chassis on frame” construction..the frame being heavy, over-built iron or steel…and you have truly poor power/weight ratios.

  24. Gracias por compartir esta pagina.

  25. Felices fiestas y que la paz sea primero y que la
    familia sea feliz siempre.

  26. De nada.

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