Saturday, October 2, 2010

No lights on Cambodia

As many new drivers, especially foreign drivers discover the hard way, it is illegal in Cambodia to drive with headlights on during the day.* While in many countries governments are encouraging, even mandating that drivers and especially motorcyclists use headlights during the day for greater visibility to other drivers, here in Cambodia it is a privilege reserved for high government officials only. And for some reason the police have taken this law to heart. 

Unlike most Cambodian traffic laws, the no-daytime-headlights law is one of the four or five that the police do actually enforce. Drive a motorcycle one-handed and blind-drunk against traffic on the wrong side of the street with a 25 kilo bag of rice between your legs, a necklace of 30 half-dead ducks dangling from the handlebars and three adults riding pillion with two kids and a baby balancing on their shoulders, and the cops won't blink an eye. But drive with your headlights on during the day and you will be stopped and fined if the police catch sight.

In Sihanoukville I unintentionally violated the no-headlight law. I forgot to flip the light switch off when I parked the bike the night before and didn't notice it was still on when I started it the next morning. I was driving up the main road through town when I got waved over by a group of cops at the roadside. I immediately glanced down to check the switch and seeing it was on I knew what was up. Cambodian police don't give traffic tickets per se. This sort of thing is always settled at the roadside, but it occurred to me that the smallest bill I had in my pocket was a US20, and cops don't give change. This was potentially an expensive traffic stop. 

I pulled over and shut off the engine (and the light switch.) The cop sauntered up. Using his limited English he said, "Lights on. Fine," his Khmer accent slurring the words together. 'Lights on' came out more like 'lice-ons,' very close to 'license.' Now I admit, I understood what he said, but it was a perfect opportunity for a convenient misunderstanding. I said "Oh, I have a license, see..." and showed him a copy of my driver license. He repeated himself, "Lights-on! Fine!" pointing at my headlight (which of course was now off.) Acting as if he is pointing at the bike I said, "Oh, you mean tax license," and lifted the seat to show the bike's tax tag stuck underneath. "See, I have tax license." Scowling a bit now, he responded "No. Lights on!" I looked puzzled and said, "But I have a license. I showed you already, see tax license, driver's license." Stressing 'lights-on' but just as poorly pronounced he said yet again, "No! LIGHTS-ON!!!" slapping at my headlight. I retorted calmly, "No, not there, my license here, under the seat," pointing at my tax stamp. He let out a heavy, frustrated sigh and dismissed me with a brush of his hand and a curt, "OK, you go, go now," which I did straight away.

Beat the ticket, so to speak. Cost me nothing but a couple of minutes of talking in circles. An old ploy but still effective. Sometimes it pays to be clueless.

And it's a dumb law anyway.

(*There is some debate about whether there is actually a law on the books making it illegal or if its just something the police do on their own. But whether really on the books or not, the Cambodian police enforce it as if it is an actual law.)


  1. A friend of mine checked with a lawyer here. Apparently, there is no law on the statutes which says you are not allowed to drive with lights on during the day. Try arguing that on with the cops though. I think your ploy may be better.

    1. I read Cambodian traffic law (new one). There is no article mentioning that you can't drive with light on. I'm ready to argue with the police since my motor originally with light on whenever it starts. There is no switch off stuff. :D

  2. I drive my motorbike all the time in the day in Cambodia with the big front headlights on, because my safety obviously means more to me than the hurt feelings of some loathsome, so-called "VIP"s. The police have never managed to catch me for it, but what surprises me all the time is the genuine horror it seems to elicit from Cambodians I pass on the roadside. People who show casual indifference to infants playing on the edge of a busy highway will jump up and down waving their arms wildly at me to let me know that I'm committing a heinous crime and to try and save me from getting busted by the police. I don't get it.

    PS great blog!

  3. Gee sihanoukville.... You mean we a crook ville? Yeah fuck this town.

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