January 26, 2010

Trials and Transportation

It's a true wonder that anyone gets where they are going around here. Tuk tuks and motos are the transportation of choice for Khmers and Boritay (foreigners) alike, but these drivers, who have seemingly one job to do—that is, get you where you want to go—don't have any idea where things are. If you submit to the cat-calling pack of drivers, they ask your destination, you tell them, and they nod enthusiastically as though they know it. If you are smart, you will ask about a price, then halve whatever they say and see if you can get away with it. After the somewhat uncomfortable haggling process, many times, you whiz off in the wrong direction. After being here all of two weeks, even I know enough to know when it's the wrong direction—come on drivers. If you are bold, you might yell at the driver to stop and try to correct him right away. If you are like me, you might wait a few blocks to see if he has chosen an alternate route, then stop the show to redirect things.

Okay, these drivers are at a distinct disadvantage when hauling westerners. One, they don't speak English as a native language (or at all, really). Two, the drivers probably are not frequenting the places that westerners want to visit. I'm thinking the NGO-run cafes and fancy restaurants. Three, it seems that the Khmer people don't use maps. That means, even if you are a well-prepared westerner with your handy map of the city, you could point to destinations and street names all day and it would not help your driver at all. I am confident in my map-using skills, but if someone randomly asked me to take them somewhere in my hometown, I couldn't guarantee that I would know where it was straight off. However, I am not a taxi driver for a living—knowing the city is an important job skill.

So how do you get where you are going? If you walk, be prepared to be addressed by every driver on the street. Hello, madame. Where you go? You want motobike, tuk tuk? I take you. Madame? Madame? It gets old quickly. You can smile and say “otay, akun” or “no thanks,” but there's no harm in completely ignoring them (except that you feel like a bad person). If you take a moto or a tuk tuk, do your best to watch for street signs and local landmarks (good luck, street signs are well-hidden), and don't be afraid to shout directions or stop your driver. Luckily, sometimes, drivers will consult other drivers mid-journey to ask where a particular destination is. On occasion, this proves fruitful, but other times, the other driver will confidently send you in the wrong direction. By the way, no discount is given for a tuk tuk who lost his way. In fact, the driver may demand extra money for the roundabout journey. Try to explain that it isn't your fault he did not know how to get there, and he will certainly pretend not to speak English. I haven't decided yet with whom the direction-knowing responsibility really lies. The luxuries of having my own car (and Mapquest) at home are simply too great.

Even if you know where you are going, getting there is the really scary part. Sitting in the carriage of a tuk tuk, bouncy as it is—they haven't a set of shocks in town—feels relatively safe compared to clinging to the rear handle of a moto to keep from hitting the pavement. I'm a chicken about this stuff anyway, but in Phnom Penh traffic, at much higher than necessary speeds, I'm practically paralyzed with fear. And rightly so, as the possibility of serious injury is huge, and the prospect of dying in a traffic accident looms heavily over every decision to ride a moto. Sitting here now, I'm horrified that I've even ridden on motos—it just seems such a stupid thing to do. When in Cambodia, do as the Cambodians do (and have the same life expectancy as a Khmer).

I bought a helmet—a step up from many a rider, and I'm trying to keep my karma healthy (always tip the driver!).