Monday, January 17, 2011

Life in Cambodia - Part One - Transportation

I thought it might be fun for you to know more about Cambodia, not only about what we're doing.  With that in mind, I thought I'd put together some ramblings about different topics.  Here's my first in what I hope will be a series, interspersed with our adventures.

In Cambodia, most locals get around town either on foot, bicycle, or moto.  Many simply cannot afford a car, so if they need to go farther, they go by moto, bus or taxi.  Bus fare is quite inexpensive – a trip from Siem Reap to Battambang (about 175 km) costs $6.00.  There is no limit to the number of passengers they will cram on a bus, so it’s possible to have many people standing or sitting on little footstools in the aisles. 
A moto 'parking lot'

Two high school students on a bicycle.  Female passengers often ride side-saddle.
A food cart in the background.
In Cambodia, you can hire a taxi all for yourself, or by ‘sections’.  A front seat will have a certain price, and the entire back seat another, or an individual seat yet another price.  But beware….although hiring an individual seat is definitely the least expensive way to go, it comes with its drawbacks.  You may be delayed while waiting until the car fills up, and you may end up in the back seat with four or five other people.
Foreigners are not allowed to drive a car or moto in Cambodia.  If you’ve seen the traffic, you understand why.  If it’s your first time here and you’re a nervous sort, you’ll probably want to close your eyes, because it’s enough to give you a heart attack until you get used to it.  Although it’s chaotic, it is at the same time, civilized.  Chaotic, because it’s not uncommon to see vehicles (cars, bikes, motos, buses and tuk-tuks alike) six or eight across on a two lane street, and not necessarily going in the ‘right’ direction or in the ‘right’ lane.  Here the line in the middle of the road is merely a ‘suggestion’.  If a person wishes to turn left, they simply cross over to the opposite lane, and weave through oncoming traffic until they find an opportunity to turn onto the cross street.  Again, when turning onto the side street, they don’t necessarily drive into the ‘correct’ lane, but merely anywhere in the space between the two curbs they can fit in.  Amazingly, all of this chaotic weaving in and out is conducted in an entirely civilized manner, slowing down to let someone in, and giving a quick ‘toot-toot’ on the horn to announce that someone is approaching from behind.  There is no road rage here; nobody seems to be in a big hurry.
Typical traffic.  Bicycles, motos, cars & trucks share the road.
Car & moto on the left 'merging' into traffic.
In the entire city of Siem Reap (population around 200,000), there are probably less than 15 traffic lights.  It doesn’t matter anyway, since nobody obeys them.  Unless you’re a local who has learned to negotiate the hairy traffic on foot or by bicycle, the most reasonable way to get around here without getting killed is to take a tuk-tuk, which is like a surrey attached to a moto.  They will comfortably sit 4 adults, but I’ve seen as many as 10 Cambodians jammed into one.  Generally a tuk-tuk ride to anywhere within the city costs $2.00, no matter how many people are on board.  A tuk-tuk hired for a full day of touring will cost $15 or under, depending on whom you know and how hungry the driver is that day.  There has been a huge increase in the number of tuk-tuks recently…everybody trying to get his share of the tourist action… and we regularly see many idle tuk-tuks and drivers who go days without getting a fare.
Tuk-tuk driver without a fare
Road safety doesn’t seem to be a concern here either.  Cambodians seem to have no fear of accidents and take few safety precautions.  It’s quite common to see a person riding high atop a towering load in the back of a delivery truck, and many cyclists and moto drivers ride after dark with no headlamp or tail lights.  I don’t think seatbelts are mandatory here either.  The belts in the rear of the taxi we took back from Battambang were jammed under the seat, and I had to be content with the idea that Gordon would catch me in mid-air if we had to make a sudden stop.  Helmets are mandatory for moto drivers, but you will see unhelmeted drivers as often as not, most likely because it’s cheaper to pay the fine than buy the helmet.  Oddly enough, passengers on a moto do not require helmets, and I find it disconcerting to see helmeted Dad driving with baby unprotected in front of him, or baby standing up between Dad & Mom.  Three on a moto is quite common, and even seven piled on is not unheard of.
Riding in the back of a 'Security Services' truck.
(How 'secure' is that?)
Are their heads covered because they don't want to be recognized?
Until it was recently pointed out to me, I’d never really noticed that 90% of the cars in this country are Toyotas.  The only other brand of vehicle that seems predominant is Lexus, (mostly SUV’s), and I presume these belong to the rich, often foreigners.  On rare occasions you’ll see other Japanese makes, like Mitsubishi, Daewoo and Nissan, but North American vehicles are almost unheard of here.  I think I’ve seen one Ford, and a Hummer. (What’s a Hummer doing in Cambodia?)
Lexus SUV
Gasoline prices are comparable to Canada, a little over $1.00/litre, which is exorbitant for the typical Cambodian, considering the average wage might be a little over $1.00 per day.  This would explain why there are so many motos and bikes.  Most cars here have been converted to ‘gas’ which is either propane or natural gas, but nobody has been able to tell me for sure.  One sees few gas stations, yet everywhere gasoline is available at roadside stands, where it is sold by the litre, and usually displayed in one litre Johnny Walker bottles or one litre soda bottles.  The square Johnny Walker bottles fit nicely in the stands, and we’ve been told that an empty one will fetch a whopping $2.00 here….  And I’m only getting 20 cents each to return them to the Brewers Retail?  Hah!
Sokimex Gas Station
(notice the spirit house out front)

Price per litre - One US dollar = 4000 riels
Roadside 'gas station'
I’ve already touched on boats and Cambodian ‘park and ride’ in my description of our pick-up to get to the boat ride to Battambang.  To Cambodians, that pick-up ride was probably considered fairly roomy, considering the numbers we’ve seen them jam in.  It’s what we refer to as a Cambodian ‘car pool’.  A common sight here is a large truck with upwards of 25 or 30 in the bed of the truck.  Legs and arms stick out everywhere.  It’s not uncommon to see a person riding high atop a towering load in a delivery truck.  They seem to have no concept of safety and definitely no fear of accidents.
Loaded down...
Motos and bikes are used for transporting just about anything imaginable.  Cambodians have learned to stack and balance loads of unimaginable proportions on the back of a bike. 
How do they keep it from falling off?
50 Kg sack of rice, and other supplies going home. 
Only the driver is required to wear a helmet.

Fill 'er up!
They’ve also devised elaborate trailers for large loads.  We fondly refer to these as ‘delivery tuk-tuks’.  Some of you may recall a picture from last year of Gordon and me, sitting atop a huge load of wood on a trailer pulled by a moto.  What a wild ride that was!
Delivery tuk-tuk

Broom seller with his loaded down bicycle

Bicycle carried on a moto

Yep, this is a table being loaded onto the back of a moto!
Out in the country, we’ve seen a few carts being pulled by oxen or donkeys.  We think they’re so quaint, but to the locals, they’re indispensible.  In more recent years, farmers have been switching to an all-purpose ‘machine’, which is a two-wheeled, gas-powered sort-of ‘tractor’ with very long handles similar to a hand plow.  This machine is used as a plow, water pump and as a tractor to pull large trailers loaded with produce, rice, bamboo or just people.  It’s comical to see the driver hanging onto these long high handles, which remind me somewhat of the extended handlebars of a modified Harley.
All-purpose two-wheeled 'tractor', being used as a plow
When it comes to getting from point A to point B in Cambodia, there are a lot of choices.  Life in Cambodia is just more laid back, and nobody is in a real hurry to get anywhere.  So no matter what mode of transportation you use when you get here, your best bet is to just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. 

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