There are many bicycles in Kampong Cham, even moreso in Cambodia, which carry large sacks shaped around frames positioned over the back carrier and suspended beside the back wheels, used for collecting recyclable cans and plastic bottles which generate a small income. This morning on my way to work, an old woman dressed in rags with the traditional red-checked scarf called a Khromar wrapped around the top of her head, had parked her recycle-bike and was crouched down at a pile of black rubbish bags in the street, searching for cans and bottles. I pulled over with two Diet Coke cans to give her and pointed at them in my bicycle basket. She smiled widely showing her two remaining teeth and pointed to the sacks. I made my contribution and cycled off into the slow but busy traffic, musing as I so often do these days about the entitlements that are mine simply due to when and where I happened to be born, compared to the misfortune surrounding me which cripples so many into a slavery-like existence.
The other day on my bicycle I waited at a red light on a busy intersection until the light turned green in my favour. Checking that the traffic on the opposite light was stopped I started up a slight hill across the busy main road. As I reached the centre of the junction a black Landcruiser with tinted windows sped through the red light, around a parked truck which had obscured it’s approach from my vision. I swerved to a halt in the middle of the road, avoiding a serious collision between bicycle and Landcruiser. They (dubbed “20178” for the licence plate number I tried to memorise) continued on their merry way, leaving me incensed and shaken.
On telling my colleagues about my near-miss that night, we came to the conclusion that 20178 was highly likely a military vehicle because they are the only ones who tend to drive so aggressively here, with most road users driving slowly, albeit with limited skill from a western perspective. The military are also usually immune to any punishment in road traffic accidents and part of my briefing to Cambodia was that if I find myself in any sort of situation on the road with such vehicles, to never argue or disagree.
The road rules here are random, with most traffic appearing to rely on civility towards one another combined with slow speeds. Little else is reliable or predictable and you have to keep a close eye at all times on what is going on around you. It is unusual when coming around a corner, to look behind for oncoming traffic. The traffic behind is responsible for moving out of the way or announcing their presence by a honk on the horn. Cutting corners is normal, taking the shortest distance possible from your right lane on one road, across the left lane into the left lane of the road you are turning into, and then across into the right lane where you belong. Often on my bike, when cycling straight over intersections I will be cut off by a moto passing me and then turning in front of me. This also happens with motos and bicycles coming from the opposite direction, who will cut into you head-first to get around the corner. At first this was shocking to me and also highly irritating but I have since come to accept all broken rules as normal. In fact, when I first started cycling the streets of Kampong Cham I had a lot of suppressed road rage, but soon realised that the rules are at best casual, that anything goes, and that courtesy prevails no matter what.
At intersections unless there are traffic lights, the right of way is given according to vehicle size with trucks and cars, who usually honk as they approach the intersection, having right of way. Horn honking is common and always intended as a courteous warning. Motos and bikes hold similar sway on the lower end of the spectrum, so it depends a lot on non-verbal communication as you debate with those crossing your path by eye contact and somehow this seems to work well. The other thing that works well is understanding that when you’re crossing through traffic lanes occupied by two-wheeled vehicles, you can all swerve around each other without anyone needing to stop!
Yesterday evening Bee and I took the first of this week’s three English lessons at the orphanage. As arranged with the two homeless girls I have mentioned, we picked them up from their tree at the arranged time. As we left, grandad drove his moto out of the area at the same time. At first I assumed he had something to do, but when we reached the meeting point to wait for our tuk-tuk driver he pulled over and waited and it became apparent that he was following us. It also became apparent that quite a community of bystanders were vigilant that these small girls were in our care, as grandad apparently explained to a number of different people that it was okay. Soon enough Chom, our tuk-tuk driver, arrived and introductions were made before we climbed aboard and he navigated through the streets with my instructions, grandad following closely behind and pulling up alongside us at the traffic lights.
On arrival at the orphanage grandad came inside the gate to look. I showed him the outdoor classroom area, motioned that the folded desks would be assembled and the girls would sit on stools with the other children who were slowly making their way outside to join us. He said something to the girls who nodded shyly, and we communicated that I would return the girls to him in an hour. At first the girls were extremely shy, but the orphans created space for them and they sat wide-eyed at first, but by the end of class were participating softly as we included them in brief and simple activities.
After a very subdued tuk-tuk drive to the orphanage, when we boarded outside the gate after class, they both chatted animatedly to us in Khmer all the way home, reciting “Hello” to us and listening with huge smiles as we coaxed them (unsuccessfully) to say some other brief English phrases. As we arrived back at the area near their tree, the same crowd of bystanders were there, making comments to the girls who grinned from ear to ear all the way to grandad, who was waiting and watching for their arrival.
Bee said it best when she expressed her heartfelt surprise that these girls, despite having nothing, not even a home, clearly belong to a community of people who protect and care for them. It’s so easy to dehumanise the existence of people who have nothing, to assume that they have nothing because they are not as deserving or that something is lacking in them as a person or a population. But from necessity, it seems to me that the less people have, the more “real” they often are, building structures of community rather than possession, to protect and support each other.