Sunday, September 17, 2017


I bought a bicycle last year so that I wouldn’t have to rely on tuk tuk drivers to take me everywhere. I hoped to have more independence, and it did indeed feel good to get myself where I needed to go. But there was another benefit of riding a bike that I didn’t expect. From the perspective of my bike, I got insight into Khmer culture that I never could have gotten from any other perspective.

So what did I learn about Cambodia from atop my mighty metal steed?

Traffic laws in the US more closely resemble the laws of mechanics, as with a clock. Traffic has many different parts that must work together. Drivers must know a complex set of formal rules before entering the realm of driving. When everybody follows the rules, they are usually able to efficiently turn in and out of each other like interlocking cogs. However, if one part gets out of place, it can bring the rest of the machine to a grinding halt.

Traffic laws in Cambodia (not the official laws but rather the laws that people actually follow) resemble the laws of hydrodynamics, as with a river. Rules dict
ate the flow of the river, but not the same rules that dictate the work of a machine. Traffic’s goal is to continue moving forward, and when obstacles attempt to impede its progress, it flows around the obstacle in whatever way it can. This is not as fast or efficient as US traffic at its best, but it is more adaptable to changing conditions.

In the US, people rely on the rules to know what to do. Who has right-of-way, when do I come to a complete stop, what is the speed limit, when can I cross the lines on the road, when can I pass other cars? Don’t worry, there’s a rule for each of those situations. When people break the rules, other drivers get upset because it endangers not only safety but the entire flow of traffic.

In Cambodia, the official rules are often little more than suggestions. So how do you navigate right-of way, passing, intersections and other interactions with your fellow road warriors? The way you navigate most things in Cambodia: you negotiate. I started to notice the subtle ways people watched each other, silently communicating, “It’s my turn,” “You’re too big to fit quickly, so I’ll go ahead,” or “I’ll leave a space here or slow down so you can go.” Like other negotiations, if you’re not confident, others will take advantage of you. If you are, you’re invited to play the game.

Because Cambodian rules are so flexible, there is almost no road rage. That alone makes Cambodian traffic worth paying attention to.

To get home, I usually have to turn left onto a busy street for a block, and then make another left turn into our apartment building. The first few times, I waited for the traffic to clear just enough for me to cross to the other side of the street, turn left, go one block, then cross back over traffic to get to my apartment. Those final maneuvers took as long as the rest of the trip to that point.

Then I realized that no Cambodian would ever do that. They would stay on the left side of the street, driving straight into oncoming traffic, especially if it’s just for one block. The first time I tried biking into oncoming traffic, I was nervous, but I no more disturbed traffic than a salmon disturbs a river by swimming upstream. People flowed around me without the slightest hint of annoyance.

Americans usually value efficiency, speed and clear-cut rules, and they avoid ambiguity. They are usually willing to sacrifice personal interaction and adaptability to achieve this. Cambodians usually value the ability to negotiate so that everybody gets to walk away with something. They value the ability to adapt to situations because you never know what will come up. They are willing to sacrifice speed, efficiency, and black-and-white rules to achieve this.

When I first saw the traffic in Cambodia, I thought it was chaotic. But appearances can be deceiving. There is more order to it than meets the eye, but its order reflects Cambodian culture more than American culture. By getting on a bike and entering the flow of traffic, I have been able to enter the flow of the culture. By getting out there and living my life in Cambodia, I have been able to enter the culture in other ways as well.

Of course, some days the culture kicks your butt, like the day that my bike got stolen. Some days, entering the culture is less of a rewarding process. All you can do is buy a new bike (and a bike lock) and get back into the flow.