Anth in Phnom Penh

Friday, September 09, 2005

A conversation with a policeman

I was cycling down street 63 heading home for lunch when I was abruptly stopped on the corner of Sihanouk Blvd. After stepping in front of my bike a policeman motioned me out of the chaotic lunch hour traffic and onto the street corner. I asked him in Khmer whether he spoke English and he said “ba”. This unpromising start proved to be misleading as he then proceeded to tell me in perfect English that I was riding down a one-way street the wrong way. I pointed to the countless examples of other vehicles that were also flouting this law and he sternly replied
“They are wrong; you are wrong.”
I remained reticent, silent.
“Because you are wrong you will need to go to police station, and then you will have to do two day course on the road laws of Cambodia.” I blinked once or twice in surprise but bit my tongue. It was tantalizingly tempting to inquire about what was covered in the two-day road rule course. If such a thing actually existed it would almost be worth attending for the comic value. I can see it now, lesson number one would cover the 3 cardinal rules of Cambodian traffic:

1. Honk before you do anything.

2. In all possible circumstances, black, shiny Lexus Prados ALWAYS have right of way.
Or more generally, the vehicle of the highest value has right of way in any given situation.

3. The correct route to your desired location is the most direct one, irrespective of actual roads, traffic islands, roundabouts or other vehicles.

The policeman looked at me sternly as I contemplated my situation. Leaning towards me, he says “Or you have other option, you can not attend driving school and can instead pay me fine.”
Ah-ah, now we are getting to the crux of the matter! I believe that the standard “fine” for such an offence is a few thousand Riel for a Khmer on a moto. I wasn’t sure what the going-rate for a barang was, but decided whatever it was I was not going to pay it. I flashed him a look of sincere concern and then lied.
“But, I have no money on me.”
His brow furrowed at this piece of news.
“Where is your money? You have money, no?”
“Um, well, yes. I work for the Australian government, I am a volunteer. My money is at my home.”
With these two pieces of information, his commanding manner slowly melted.
“Volunteer? No salary! Do they pay for your accommodation?” he asked, interested.
I informed him that they did.
“Are you married?”
“How old are you?”
“How much longer you stay in Cambodia” . . . I cover the well-trodden territory of these questions and then politely ask,
“Can I go?”
At this, I quickly hop on my bike and cycle off down the right side of the two-way Sihanoukville Blvd. As I pedal the policeman recedes into the background, to my right and left vehicles whizz past, effectively turning a two-lane road into a (at minimum) four lane thoroughfare. At the independence monument roundabout I follow usual practice by entering the roundabout with a gang of other vehicles and forcibly drive through, such that the vehicles on the roundabout have to give way to the vehicles entering the roundabout. Once off the roundabout, I prepare to take a left turn by crossing over to the left side of the road at the first gap in traffic and cycling along on the wrong side of the road until I reach my desired street. At all times I am careful to weave around the fruit and baguette food carts that are pushed into on-coming traffic and across the road without any consideration to other vehicles. After wending my way through the narrow alleyways of my neighborhood and stopping to give way to honking 4WDs I make it home. I marvel at how this milieu is now second-nature to me. I think that I might be quite a dangerous proposition when in a car and back in Australia!!