There are lots of traffic laws in Cambodia but the only two that matter are unwritten. They are: Don't hit anything, and don't get hit. Disobeying formal laws can get you extorted by the police for a few dollars. Disobeying the unwritten laws can get you killed. Such was the sad reality that played out moments before I arrived to the scene on National Highway #2 in Cambodia, where a man was lying dead in the middle of the road.
I hadn't been to the pepper farm in about 6 months and being that it's only a 3 hour ride I made it my first since acquiring a new (actually, well-used) 600cc dirtbike from my friend. I'd barely gotten it out of 3rd gear motoring around Phnom Penh before this, my first long-distance ride, so it was nice to have a bit of fun. The odometer goes up to 180 km/hr. I only managed to make it up to 120 on the highway before that needling feeling of, well, your passenger pinching your side to broadcast her fear.
It felt good letting 'er rip for a moment on newly paved Cambodian highway. National Highway #2 takes you all the way to the Vietnamese border and they've done tons of work on it in the last 5 years. The only remaining portion to be completed is about 5 minutes outside the city, past the immaculate (by Cambodian standards) Steung Meanchey bridge.
It was sad seeing that poor guy shortly after he met his fate. I wanted to do something about it.
"What do we do next time we see something like that?" I asked my girlfriend when we stopped for coffee, referring to the carnage I delicately maneuvered around only moments prior. "Cambodia have a number for call when like that. Everyone know," she said. "Great, what's the number?" I enquired. "I don't know," she said.
A member of our party who left after us reported an hour later that the man was still dead when they had gotten to that point, a sheet covering his head, his remains positioned out of the way of traffic.
Generally speaking, traffic flows well in Cambodia; certainly better than most "Road-safety NGOs" would have you believe. More laws against reckless driving would do as much to end road fatalities as more murder laws would do to end murder. Believe it or not, over 30,000 citizens die every year on the national highway system in the United States of Laws.
Cambodian driving will improve with time in spite of what politicians write on paper.
Cambodia is experiencing an adjustment period and the spike in fatal road incidents shouldn't come as a surprise. I would be willing to bet there is more than double as much cement covering the surface of this country than there was 5 years ago. It used to be that potholes large enough to swallow whole cars would act as a deterrent to reckless driving. But with so much new and smooth pavement people are driving faster and more carelessly. Other factors contributing to the road-fatality rate include hyperbolic car ownership numbers and a general boom in economic activity.
Regardless of the road hazards, the Cambodian countryside is really something special and worth the risk of exploring on a dirt bike. If you talk to any Khmer who grew up in the province they will often romanticize their pre-Phnom Penh days. "I loved growing up poor in the country," they'll say, and usually add something like, "But I wouldn't want to do it again."
The village I was visiting was Kirivong in Takeo province, very near the Vietnam border, home to our long pepper farm. I uncovered an interesting piece of forgotten history, a footnote to Cambodia's Khmer Rouge period, right in the back yard of our pepper farm. Like most of Cambodia's recent ugly past, it has since been "renovated".... but not before I was able to snap some pictures.
To be continued.
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