Inspired Words

These are the experiences of our volunteers in Cambodia.

July 1: Notes on Money, Tuk-Tuks, Motobikes, Driving, and the Population

Posted in Cambodia on July 1, 2014

I wrote these notes on Sunday trying not to watch as we drove to Kep from Phnom Penh. They're just my personal observations to date:

Money: The Cambodian currency is the Riel ($1 = KR4000), but the standard currency here in practice is the US dollar. It was explained to us that so many NGOs work here that the dollar has become fault because most of the NGO employees (from whatever nation) are paid in dollars. All UN activities are in dollars, too. There are no US coins here, though. Instead, the 1000KR and 2000KR bills take the place of quarters and half-dollars, while there are a few 10,000KR bills floating around, too, worth about $2.50 each.

Tuk-tuk rides to all about $2 or $3 from hotels and they tend to be a little more coming back. The price is the same whether there is one passenger or six, and we’ve seen as many as 12 in and on a tuk-tuk in something that looked like a family challenge. The tuk-tuks are just two-wheeled carts with front- and rear-facing seats and a roof, open-aired, that attaches to the back of the motorcycle. Most of the drivers where helmets, but there are no seatbelts on the tuk-tuks. I think top tuk-tuk speed is about 25 mph, maybe 30 but that’s pushing it. On most tuk-tuks, we could fit three across with our relatively narrow hips (for Americans), with some tuk-tuks being more comfortable and wide than others.

There are a few full-fledged taxis around, but most of the transpo—including 10 km out to the airport is by tuk-tuk. Individuals can catch rides on the back of motorbikes for a cheap price and there are some pedal-powered tuk-tuks as well, but again, not many.

Motobikes pull everything here—from the pig going to market photo I posted to a flat-bed cart with a family of 15 on it, charcoal bags, water jugs, mattresses. You name it ana motorbike pulls it around here. And EVERYONE’s on a motorbike. Families of four routinely were seen on them with mom of dad steering, the other parent in the back, one kid in between them and one standing (for scooters) in front or sitting on the driver’s lap. Many drivers had helmets, but most passengers did not. We saw some kids on motorbikes that could not have been 18 months old and the largest number that we’ve seen (several times) is five.

We noticed another thing along the sides of the roads in little shops. Lots of Coke-style beverage bottles (glass, one liter, and two liter) in racks, filled with a strange looking yellow liquid. I was afraid to ask what it was, but when I did, Sing told us that they were all filled with gasoline for motobikes. We see plenty of gas stations around, but he said that the people don't always trust the metering on the pumps and that it's a pain to pay at them, so when they want to be sure they're getting what they want in the amount that they want, they just guy it liter by liter on the side of the road.

Driving here is just crazy. Signals mean nothing except at the largest intersections and the only governing rule is that the vehicle with the highest overall momentum has the right of way. Minibus and automobile drivers honk constantly to warn motorbikes that they are coming from behind and the motorbike needs to get over to the shoulder or at least make room. Left turns are made at any point in time and are shaved off and shallow so much so that form sometimes 50 or 100 meters, the driving turning left is driving on the wrong side of the road. No one fully stops at uncontrolled intersections—they just slow down and find a gap to merge or cross, no matter how small. When traffic is snarled in one direction, most drivers think nothing of just moving over to the left and commandeering one of the oncoming lanes that may appear to be unoccupied a the time. Once occupied, though, and a face off is set, gridlock ensues.

Driving in the countryside is free form. The only rule is: don’t hit something. All else goes. It doesn’t matter what side of the road you’re on at any point, so long as you’re not about to impact someone else in the next microsecond or two.

Driving through villages is very much like what we experienced in Rwanda about seven years ago. The driver barrels through (as traffic allows), with dogs, children and bicyclists performing a calm but effective Darwinian Dance to avoid and evade. In Cambodia, you’re either aware, or you’re dead. The idea of distracted driving here (cell phones) is terrifying. We’ve seen very little cell phone use by drivers.

Population: According to our Intrepid Travel guide, Kean, Cambodia has about 15 million citizens with 58% of them being 18 years old or younger. Kids are just everywhere here.

 All the Best,

Marty France
USAFA Faculty Chaperone & DWC Volunteer
Kep, Cambodia: July 2014

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