Phnom Penh: The hazards of riding a bicycle

Ross Peake takes his life, and a borrowed bicycle's handlebars, in his hands on the chaotic streets of the Cambondian capital.

Riding a bicycle on the chaotic streets of Phnom Penh is like running into a school of fish – motorbikes ("motos") and scooters surround you, then rush past, in a blur of colour, noise and fumes.

It's not for the faint hearted.

Instead of pilchards, the streets of Cambodia's capital are jam-packed with tuk-tuks and bikes, usually driven at breakneck speeds.

They weave around cars and trucks, picking the smallest gaps to flow through. They slice between buses and hawkers pushing barrow carts.

But the moto riders' most compelling trick is speeding up a street the wrong way.

If you're brave enough to walk across a main street, you have to keep looking both ways, ready to avoid the rogue rider going against the flow.

And you have to keep going, however slowly, putting one foot in front of another, praying for safe passage. To do otherwise is to be halted forever in a sea of indecision.

I watched an elderly man laboriously push a cart across one of the city's main intersections, a five-lane roundabout on Preah Sihanouk Boulevarde, at the Independence Monument. There were many close shaves but he kept on truckin' and emerged on the other side.

Traffic seems chronic and chaotic in most Asian cities, with the common sight of huge loads carried on motos.

Any Australian who's been to Asia knows the traffic operates under different rules – ones that give the appearance of no rules at all. Some call it organised chaos.

For instance, roundabouts and traffic lights are rare, traffic signs are routinely ignored and inner-city intersections are bedlam.

With no stop signs or give-way signs, how do you navigate through a four-way or five-way intersection? Answer - with difficulty and patience.

This is where the school of fish analogy can be seen most clearly. At a typical suburban intersection in the Cambodian capital, motorbikes and cars flow in from four directions, simultaneously, and often flow almost seamlessly past each other, clearing others by just millimetres, before zooming out the other side, speeding to another meeting with traffic at the next intersection.

However the critical mass of traffic on the streets at peak hour creates instant jams at intersections, that often take quite a while to untangle.

No one is prepared to hold back at any imaginary give-way sign to let their fellow motorist past first. If they showed such timidity, they would be stuck forever - they simply have to force their way forward.

Although Cambodians are a welcoming, respectful people, their attitude to driving is simply take-no-prisoners. But the pressure is relentless and when push comes to shove, the result is often tragic. Speeding and drunk driving are common, and wearing helmets or seat belts is rare.

Nearly 2000 people died in traffic accidents in Cambodia in 2012, a doubling of the death toll over the previous seven years, according to the World Health Organisation. Cambodia's traffic deaths account for nine times the number of deaths than from malaria, dengue fever, HIV and AIDS, and landmines together.

Local TV runs news footage of traffic accidents that is goulish by our standards. Perhaps it is an attempt at shock tactics to slow down drivers. There is little evidence it is working but, night after night, images of smashed bodies float across the TV screens. 

One such news item showed an apparently deceased woman lying on a city street, her mangled bicycle beside her. The camera came in for a close shot on her blood-smeared body. Onlookers were shown surrounding the scene, rubber-necking at the gory spectacle.

Most Australians visiting Phnom Penh for a short time will take a tuk-tuk, with its covered seats hooked up to a small motorbike. For $US4-5 ($4.30-$5.30), you can get to most places in the capital although that is paying the higher rate reserved for Bering (foreigners). If you stay on, working and/or volunteering, your Khmer friends can negotiate the rate down.

Most tourists don't get the chance to ride a bike in an Asian city - or are silly enough to try.

I have a motorcycle license, gained in uni days and not used for two decades so it seemed sensible not to take on the traffic on a moto. Instead I opted to borrow a push bike and, hunched down over a bicycle way too small for me, I made many eventful trips during my two-week visit.

Arriving at a coffee shop, the security guard jams the bicycle in with dozens of others and gives you a ticket.

The standard bike in Phnom Penh has a rear wheel key-lock as well, but who would want to steal an old bike anyway?

Riding to do volunteer work at Conversations with Foreigners or to a coffee shop to access Wi-Fi (and air-conditioning), involved negotiating many chaotic intersections. 

The singular difference to Canberra is the patience of the drivers. But their patience is worn thin by the state of the roads - the bitumen is rutted and pitted and regularly eroded by the monsoons.

One of my friends was thrown from her bicycle when the front wheel irretrievably dug itself into a significant pothole.

My borrowed bike suffered two punctures but I found a man in a shop nearby who specialised in bike repairs.

The first puncture cost US$1 to vulcanise and the second, requiring a new tube, was US$2.50.

Accepting an invitation to lunch at an outlying village meant leaving the bicycle behind and going in a tuk-tuk for an hour's drive along a rutted road.

Following the Asian custom for traffic, tuk-tuks were relegated to the edge of the road and were overtaken by the faster motos but the buses are the captains of the road - they roar down the centreline, horns blasting, clearing the space for themselves and ensuring their superior status is recognised.

This article Phnom Penh: The hazards of riding a bicycle was originally published in Canberra Times.