Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Back in the Penh...

The sun’s coming up over a Phnom Penh skyline and the sounds of the city are starting to stir.  Soon the noise of beeping horns and traffic will become constant background but in the early morning light the air is cool, clean and relatively quiet.  It’s my favourite time of day and somehow restful to gaze out over the skyline from my bedroom window. I scratch and yawn with arms outstretched as I look down on a few passing pushbikes and a scooter crossing the intersection down the street.  Other than a security guard outside a building site and an old woman sweeping in front of her shop, the street is deserted.  That's not uncommon at this time of day but is such a contrast to what I know is coming.

I walked for miles yesterday just exploring some new streets on the way to a couple of coffee shops that friends had recommended.  I like working from coffee shops and luckily for me, Phnom Penh has an abundance to choose from. My local is only 150m from my apartment but peregrinating is my favourite way to traverse this bustling but relatively small Asian city.  The search for great coffee and new places to do some writing is my pretext to explore and get a bit of exercise.  With only 2 million people, the streets of Phnom Penh are busy but unlike Bangkok and Jakarta with 20 million occupants, this place is still pedestrian friendly.  Not that you’d want to take anything for granted here.  The traffic comes at you from all directions and is probably the most chaotic, least organised and self-regulated I've come across anywhere.

Motos, bicycles, cars and rickshaws move in both directions on both sides of the road.  And I mean that literally.  For all intents and purposes there are no road rules. Most traffic drives on the left hand side of the road but by no means all of it.  You drive on whichever side of the road suits your purpose at the time. Stepping off the pavement to cross a road or get around the frequent obstructions requires looking in both direction before you put so much as a single foot into the road.  Failure to do so has a high likelihood of leading directly to a hospital visit.

So far as I can tell after my months in the Penh, there are only two rules for driving or walking in this city.  Rule number one: maintain situational awareness and eternal vigilance whether driving or on foot.  Rule number two is probably the most important rule however: be predictable.   You could (I suspect) walk blindfold in complete safety throughout the streets of this city crossing roads at random so long as you follow rule number two. If you step out in a predictable steady fashion and don’t make any sudden changes in speed or direction, the traffic will adjust and flow around you.  As simple as that.  

Rule number two is what enables traffic to flow in this city, and flow is the operative word.  If you study an intersection for any length of time, you’ll see the vehicles flowing around each other like leaves floating around rocks in a river.  Effortlessly and with rare pause.  Not that this is a silver bullet for survival here. Rule number one is important also.  I’ve seen more than a few accidents, bingles and injuries on the road.  Occasionally scooter vs scooter or scooter vs pedestrian but more typically scooter vs car. Sometimes, as happened to a friend who forgot rule 1 recently, you’ll be unseen by a car driver (who can more safely disregard rules 1 & 2) until they hit you.  In my friends case, the driver was either wealthy or well-connected enough to not feel the need to get out of the car after knocking her off her scooter.  The driver did at least drive around her rather than over her but such is the absence of rules 3 or higher including details such as stopping at the scene of an accident...   

Cambodia isn't all motor traffic accidents and great cafe's though.  Life is pretty easy here for an expat.    In the first 24 hours I caught up with 3 friends, made up for lack of sleep after 27 hours in airports and planes, and revisited some favourite haunts.  Last night was a pleasantly and typically relaxing evening after churning through some emails and taxation matters during the day at Gasolina cafe. 'Hurt Locker' DVD: USD$1.60, vegetable thali delivered to my door: USD$3.50, 2 glasses of Penfolds CabSav: $4.50.  Quiet evening at home: Priceless...  :-)


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