City Traffic in Phnom Penh: Thrills and Skills

Every weekday morning, at around 08:00 am, Phnom Penh drivers collectively pursue what has been the Holy Grail of scientists for centuries: trying to get  two physical bodies to occupy the same space.

For those with strong nerves, the meshing of traffic in this city is urban ballet.

Peek out the curtains of your tuk-tuk and observe what is going on. 

A skilled driver is sizing up the cubic cylinder’s, the acceleration capacity, and passenger load of all motos and tuk tuks around him. He factors in potholes, unfilled utility cuts in the pavement, piles of garbage, and the stray three-year-old.

Reading the road means gauging rivals in the competition for precious asphalt.

If a tuk-tuk does not have a passenger, he will dilly dally near the curb. If a moto has a large lady riding sidesaddle on the back, don’t expect a jackrabbit start.

The big whales are the gleaming, immaculate SUVs.

But a lot depends on who is behind the wheel. If the driver looks like the rich man’s daughter or young mistress, she will be deferential.  Tuk-tuks can take the risk of zipping around her, or cutting her off.

If the rich man himself is behind the wheel, steer clear!

Double date motos that cruise tandem down Norodom on Saturday nights, with couples chatting gaily,  offer no surprises.

Also totally predictable are the family motos, with 18-month-old junior standing, proudly clinging to the handlebars, watching brighteyed as he drinks in Khmer traffic culture.

Smart drivers know that one way streets are optional. And they brace for the wild card: such as the culturally clueless foreigner who roared down my side street last night in his souped up dirt bike.

All these players  — from all social classes with all sizes of rubber wheels — come together in a big, democratic traffic kermesse at the intersections of Norodom and Sihanouk.

The traffic on Norodom is so intense that a friend here saw it as a wall. Every morning, she hired a tuk-tuk to cross the boulevard, traveling 500 meters from home to work.

Here at Norodom’s central intersection, the battle is constant to place two physical objects  in the same physical space. It is as if drivers around the Independence Monument were striving collectively to win for Cambodia an international science prize.

Why close your eyes and say your prayers as you go through this intersection?

Give yourself a thrill: watch closely.

Science says it could be good for you.

Studies have shown that “a ride on the roller coaster causes a sudden and sustained rise in heart rate and therefore myocardial consumption of oxygen. The heart rate response was similar to that observed during parachute jumping, skiing and games of squash.”

That is a report in the British Medical Journal: “Response of heart rate to a roller coaster ride.”

Why do you think people pay thousands of dollars to travel to Disneyworld to ride such favorites as “Crush ‘n Gusher,” “The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror,” and the number one favorite: “Plummet Summit”?

For only $2, you and your date can get a similar adrenaline surge. This Friday evening, ride in a tuk-tuk around Independence Monument. Hey, big spender, go around twice!

Posted in News.