More Khmer Style

As with all countries, Cambodia has it’s cultural norms which can sometimes be a bit foreign to the likes of me.  On my first day in the country the Head of Mission in Phnom Penh, introducing me to various colleagues, explained that shaking hands is not the done thing here and to instead use the Sampeah gesture.  This gesture features strongly in Khmer life, from everyday greetings to formal situations and in Apsara cultural dance.  Children are taught the gesture from a very young age and it is not uncommon for a parent to put the hands of their baby together in your direction by way of teaching the baby to say hello.  The level at which you hold your hands when you perform the gesture indicates a level of respect.  When greeting those younger than you, it is normal to hold your hands at chin level, whereas if you greet royalty you hold your hands at forehead level.  There are five separate levels in total.

Prime Minister Hun Sen greets the press with a Sampeah gesture
Prime Minister Hun Sen greets the press with a Sampeah gesture

The Ministry of Tourism have published an excellent, small and brief book which is available for free and covers cultural dos and don’ts for visitors.  They are not particularly taxing and merely request a certain level of respect towards the local population, such as asking before taking photographs, not wearing shoes inside, and other fairly predictable standards.  Not everyone takes notice of these norms, which seems to be particularly European behaviour from my observations.  I had one memorable conflict with a colleague who wanted to visit an Islamic family at their home in an Islamic village over the road from a mosque, wearing tight and skimpy clothes.

One of the brief list of don’ts is that women should never touch a monk, nor hand anything directly to a monk.  This is very reminiscent of Central Australian indigenous culture during the time of Mens Business, when men separate themselves from the community, cover themselves in red ochre and disappear into the bush for periods of time.  This can make interacting daily with male patients quite challenging!  The other day when I boarded the bus to leave Kampong Cham, my allocated seat was beside a monk who was already in his seat, at the front of the bus.  I approached and hesitated.  Without a shared language we stared at each other, then I moved to sit down and he motioned for me to wait.  He then spoke to a father and son sitting across the aisle and the teenage son quietly moved himself to sit beside the monk, allowing me a seat next to Dad.

One very weird practise I observed for months before asking Win what it was about, is that of three policemen working together on the side of the road.  They place themselves in a triangular position opposite the road from each other.  As motorbikes approach them, one blows a whistle to alert another positioned over the road, who also blows a whistle, and a third walks out onto the road to stop the motorbike driver.  The driver then turns around.  When police are in place like this, it is common to see moto drivers move onto the sidewalk to bypass them.  Some drivers who are whistled at drive away from the scene while others approach the middle policeman who is seated at a table and writes something in a book.  Watching this, I really couldn’t work out what was going on.  Were the moto drivers being assessed for their driving test perhaps?

When I asked Win, he said to me “You don’t know how to catch a fish.  Without a net you will never catch the fish”.  He then explained that moto drivers (but not their passengers) are legally required to wear helmets.  Helmets are very rare, but it’s not uncommon to notice them being worn at certain times, in certain places.  Those not wearing a helmet, or with no rear view mirrors or licence plates on their bikes, are stopped by these temporary police posts and fined.  But some drivers don’t stop at the table where the fine is written?  No, because they decide not to pay the fine so they drive away.  What happens if they get caught though?  “Nothing, they just have to pay the fine, the police don’t care, they are used to people running away.  I did it myself once in Phnom Penh when the policeman stopped me and he moved away which gave me the chance to drive off, so I did.  I turned around and smiled at him and he smiled back”.  So evading the police, admittedly for less serious offences, is yet another cultural difference I’ve learned of!

As we sat on the bus waiting to leave Kampong Cham I watched one such police post in motion.  One guy whistled and waved down offending moto drivers while another wrote out the fine receipts.  Some drivers pulled over and obediently paid the fine, with one young man even leaving his passenger at the fine table while he drove away to retrieve the money he needed for the fine.  Others move out onto the other side of the road to evade the policeman waving them down, and yet others pull over, bide their time and then drive away once the policeman’s attention is diverted.  There is absolutely no stress from the police by any of the evasions, they just wave down the next offender!

Returning to the sidewalk after an unsuccessful attempt to stop a moto driver without helmet (to the left behind him)
Returning to the sidewalk after an unsuccessful attempt to stop a moto driver without helmet (to the left behind him)
Despite many evaders, this guy was kept busy writing receipts and placing loose notes into his bag, paid by those who chose not to evade the fine!
Despite many evaders, this guy was kept busy writing receipts and placing loose notes into his bag, paid by those who chose not to evade the fine!

It’s apparently also quite common for motorists who are pulled over to be told that the fine is one amount if you need a receipt, or a smaller amount if you do not need a receipt.  When I asked Win about this he confirmed.  He said “when I am pulled over, I always ask for a receipt, then when they say it’s cheaper without a receipt I don’t argue and pay the smaller fine”.  It’s difficult to fathom but stems from the higher level corruption in bureaucracies here.  Police earn very low salaries – something like $100 per month – and this is their way of increasing their income.  The same apparently happens in hospitals with doctors and nurses charging small amounts before providing necessary treatment.  You can see why the population do not hold much trust in the systems which in the western world provide us with a minimum level of protection.

Leaving Kampong Cham, we travelled at some speed along the busy highway, our driver honking his horn frequently to warn drivers in front that he was approaching.  Whereas in Australia and other western countries, a horn honk usually indicates annoyance or even rage at other drivers, here it is  used as a warning system.  Drivers very rarely take any notice of the traffic behind them unless they receive a honk to warn them someone is there.  It is very common to see motorbikes exit country laneways onto busy highways without looking or even slowing down, and seems to be the responsibility of traffic driving towards them, to let them know they need to slow down or stop.  From the front seat I looked at the odometer, wondering what speed we were doing.  0km/h the whole way!

Highways here are very busy and chaotic, two lanes often transforming into three and four lanes depending on who is doing what.  After a  year here, I am less shocked these days, but my heart jumped when I glimpsed a crippled man walking on his buttocks on the side of the highway the other day.  He would have been invisible to drivers in higher vehicles and was on the side of the road which often turns into a third or fourth lane.  Children play and cycle on these road sides, cattle and horses travel amongst the traffic, etc.  The only rules in place are to be polite and it is very rare to see any form of irritation from drivers, let alone road rage.  Vehicles drive across to the other side of the road when preparing to turn, expecting oncoming traffic to simply wait for them, and that’s exactly what the oncoming traffic does.  Despite the polite way in which everyone shares the road, it is not surprising that there are a high number of accidents.  Driving away from Kampong Cham the other day we passed the scene of what looked like it could have been a fatal accident which occurred almost directly over the road from a sign in English: “Welcome to Cheung Prey District.  Think of your safety”.

When road accidents involve injury or fatality, an exchange of money occurs.  One of my staff was involved in a fatal traffic accident near the end of last year.  His son was driving a car which was hit by a motorbike and the moto driver was killed.  Despite it being the motorbike’s fault, which drove into the car from a side road, the car driver paid $1000 to the deceased man’s family.  A huge amount of money for someone earning $300 per month!  Dara, my little amputee friend, lost his leg in an accident with a motorbike.  He was apparently on the side of the road when a moto hit him.  The other day a Khmer friend met his family with me and, discussing his leg, asked Dad if they received a payment from the driver?  The answer was no because the driver blamed the parents for letting their 4yo play on the road.  So while it’s common, it seems to be connected in some way to blame, although not in a strict or easily understood way.

It’s always difficult to fully understand another culture as an outside observer.  In his usual wisdom, Win said to me when we were discussing the police fines, “when we don’t know something, we don’t realise what we don’t know.  Before you didn’t even see things but now you are starting to realise how much you don’t see or understand”.


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