Courteous Chaos on the Streets
We breakfast at the restaurant/bar that takes up the entire ground floor of the Quay Hotel. The food is an excellent mix of French, Khmer and continental cuisine. During the brief wait for the food, I tell the kids to turn around and look out the front windows. An elephant was strolling by outside.
The food arrives. It is so gorgeous that I photograph the banana pancakes with peanut praline sauce before we eat. My tea comes with a viscous, sweet, fruity flavored syrup in a separate glass. It is honey. I can’t believe it. I’ve had tar-colored honey made from privet, barely amber honey made from clover and many shades in between. I’ve never had a fruity honey before. The chef assures me it has not been doctored up in some divine French way.
A stroll to the west, away from the river, is a walk into the real Phnom Penh. No, the city does not have one defining location or characteristic (besides size). But a four story, modern hotel with an unobstructed river view is built for foreigners who make more than the national average of two dollars a day. A walk west from the river takes you into block after block of open store fronts, and a multitude of wires overhead.
The sidewalks are five yards wide, but you would not notice this right away because the first two and a half yards from the store fronts is claimed by clothes racks, tables and chairs, motorcycle accessories on display, and fruit stands. Every fourth or fifth business appears to be motorcycle-related. Workers squat on the floor with welders, grinders wrenches and cleaning tools. Sparks fly out towards passers by. One stretch of street near the Russian Market appears to be the hardware district. Have you ever wondered what happens to used power tools that rely on extension cords? A fair number are hanging on sale racks in Phnom Penh. I am a garage-sale junkie who believes that tools are forever. It took some focus to keep walking.
The first thing I noticed about intersections in this business district was the wiring scheme, or lack thereof. In the US, wires are going underground. The quaint arrangement of dual wires trailing from pole to pole is increasingly seen as an eyesore. In Phnom Penh they have no such illusions. If there is a single electrical utility in theory, it has been run over in practicality. The intersection of streets is also the intersection of electrical wires by the bundle.
Strung between sturdy cement power and light poles is an indecipherable electrical thicket. Arterial supply and capillary demand somehow meet at these posts and feed the businesses below them. I saw one person working with this overhead chaos. He was barefoot and standing on an aluminum ladder. He had both hands in the wires. His assistant was holding the bottom of the ladder still because only one of the legs was touching the ground. There may be a meter for each user, but getting the juice to it is a freestyle event.
Intersections also feature freestyle traffic. A red light means you should probably wait before proceeding, especially if a cop is watching. A green light means you should still watch out for cross-traffic. A yellow light does not mean much of anything. Larger intersections have countdown timers to let you know how much longer you should wait for your light to turn green. Pedestrian signals have a red hand to suggest waiting, and an animated walking figure in green LEDs to suggest vigilant walking across the street.
Through and around these guidelines flows the traffic. Low speeds and small vehicles make traffic violations about as common and serious as bad grammar. An acceptable left hand turn might start a hundred feet from the intersection. First move to your left, across oncoming traffic, and hug the curb while you continue on the wrong side of the street. At the intersection, turn left when you see an opening (don’t worry about the traffic light, it does not write tickets) make your left and remain on the wrong side of the street. When you can, cross the oncoming traffic and continue on the correct (right) side of the street.
Honking is common on rural roads, where faster drivers tap on the horn when coming up behind a slower vehicle or pedestrian. It’s just a civil way to say you are about to pass. Even dogs understand it. Nobody is offended. If you really screw up in traffic you will know it because you will momentarily be stared down by someone who will then carry on and forget about the whole thing.
If a cop sees you break a traffic law, he may bluff a ticket. He may settle the matter for a small fee on the spot. He may watch it go by. If traffic laws were to be strictly enforced in Phnom Penh, nobody would know what to do. This free-flowing anarchy works for the moment. Faster, larger vehicles and more drivers may doom this cooperative public dance to a less imaginative exercise in the future.
Published on 12/18/10