Saturday, September 3, 2011

Sign of the Times

An odd thing happened to me on the way to the coffee shop. Walking from my house to the riverfront, I had to cross Norodom Blvd - a busy 4-lane thoroughfare through the center of Phnom Penh. I made it half way across but got trapped in the middle by traffic. Standing there on the yellow line waiting for a break in the flow, an on-coming car slowed and the Cambodian driver waved me across in front of him. I nodded an acknowledgment and smiled as I crossed the street. He smiled back.

Reaching the other side, I was shocked and confused by what had just happened. I had never experienced such a thing in Cambodia before. A Cambodian driver in Phnom Penh not only yielded to a pedestrian, but did it for no more reason than traffic courtesy and my safety. I was astounded…dumbstruck…I considered the possibility that I had somehow been sucked into a parallel universe. But no. It had really happened. Other expats have reported similar happenings of late leading me to think it may be another indication of a more general transformation that has taken place.

In my observation the character of Phnom Penh's traffic has changed in recent years. Traffic here used to be truly anarchic, and while it may still appear so to the new eye, in fact traffic has gotten considerably more ordered. Amongst other things, traffic police are enforcing a few laws these days, people usually drive on the correct side of the road and something more than half the drivers actually obey traffic lights. It appears to me that a significant portion of the drivers in Phnom Penh are making an effort to obey at least some of the basic rules of traffic. While there are constant and obvious violations of this new order, the fact that there is an order to violate makes today's traffic categorically different from years past.

This is a quantum leap away from where we were a decade ago when there was true anarchy on the road - no rules whatsoever, no enforcement of whatever regulations there were, just a lawless semi-egalitarian free-for-all in which all traffic was something of a slow moving multidirectional merge. But while a portion of the population is coming around to the idea of following some traffic rules, there is another segment that has moved in a completely different direction.

Just yesterday, walking up the riverfront near Wat Ounalom I saw a late model BMW race through the intersection of Sothearos and Sisowath Quay at no less than 90kph. No exaggeration. This is a busy, uncontrolled fork in the road where 20kph is too fast for saftey. This guy blew through at 90kph without a glance or care or touch of the brakes. I don't know how he managed to miss everybody.

In fact, I see fairly regular examples of this behavior - top end luxury vehicles at high speed on the wrong side of the road, brights flashing, passing wildly, blasting up busy streets and through intersections with reckless disregard for the life and limb of others. You can see the remnants of this behavior on occasion, such as the sign in the photo above or smashed traffic barriers at the Independence Monument, and of course the occasional splattered motorcycle driver or mangled car wreck.

And unsurprisingly, though it is common to see traffic police working certain areas in Phnom Penh, stopping vehicles for violations like running traffic lights and driving without a helmet, I have never seen the police stop even one of these wild-driving luxury cars, that is unless it has already crashed into a traffic divider or gotten hung up on a hapless motodup.

As Phnom Penh (and Cambodia) move away from the traffic anarchy of the past, much of the population has taken to the idea of at least some order and even, on occasion, courtesy, as I experienced on Norodom the other day. Whether due to fear or respect for the law, they are making Phnom Penh a better place. While another, much smaller, elite portion of the population is taking the old anarchy to new and previously unheard of extremes, doing whatever strikes their fancy with wanton disregard for the law or the people they may injure or kill. And it seems that the authorities are uninterested, unwilling and/or unable to rein them in.

Not unlike some other areas of abuse by Cambodia's elite.

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