Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Driving in Battambang, Cambodia

I try to make a visit back “home” to the UK every year to visit family and friends and this year I had to attend several meetings about Bambu Hotel. The last few times I went I only stayed for a fortnight or so and there was just too much to do and too many people to see in such a short space of time. On this occasion I stayed for around a month so wasn’t in so much of a rush and was able to enjoy it more. When I am back in England I find myself making comparisons between my old home and my new one. They are of course like chalk and cheese in so many ways. Apart from obviously seeing family and friends for me one of the great things about being in the UK is to be able to sample some of the delicacies that just aren’t available here in Battambang. What joy to be able to tuck in to a Sunday roast and to be able to enjoy a proper pint of beer again. Then there are fish and chips, Marmite, cheese......the list is a long one.

A Road in Battambang

One of the first things one notices – and only minutes after leaving Heathrow airport – is the relative order on the roads and how smoothly traffic flows. This might sound odd to someone who has to battle rush hour queues every morning and evening but over here it really is much more chaotic – and it is getting worse. Few road users here seem to display what I would consider to be common sense and this is reflected in Cambodia’s lamentable road safety statistics. When I first came to Battambang six years ago cars were few and far between really but their numbers have multiplied many fold since then. I guess this is a result of the country – or at least certain sections of it – becoming more prosperous. Motorcycles still outnumber cars many times over (and their numbers seem to be on the increase too) but sadly there seems to have been no increase in road sense or driving skills to match this new vehicle ownership. Thankfully most people drive at very low speeds – often as low as 15kph – so when accidents occur the resultant physical damage isn’t as bad as it could have been. The thing that I notice the most is the almost complete disregard for mirrors (when I bought my car the rear view mirror had been replaced by a television!) and the absolute refusal to look out for oncoming traffic when joining a highway or road. It is almost as if the old French “priorite a droite” applies whereby a huge juggernaut on the main highway has to give way to an eight year old on a push bike joining the road from a dirt path on the right. Roundabouts have to be approached with utmost caution. As far as I can see most people assume that traffic on the roundabout gives way to traffic joining it. The result is utter mayhem. I actually had to sit the Cambodian driving test a couple of years ago (more of that experience later) and had to complete a written exam mainly about roundabout etiquette. I answered as I would have done back home and I turned out to be right so goodness only knows where the Khmers got their roundabout lessons from – the French I suppose!

The road user here – apart from having a part of his brain missing – also has to contend with the near total lack of road signs to help him. Here in Battambang the local authority has recently been painting lines on certain roads to mark out the centre although these don’t seem to have withstood the rains very well. Sadly they haven’t got so far as painting “Give Way” markings to give people an idea as to who has priority. It seems to be a case of whomever gets there first goes first. Despite being the second city Battambang still doesn’t have any traffic lights and although the traffic is not anything like as bad as Phnom Penh I am sure we can’t be too many years away from seeing them. Or maybe not! Down in Sihanoukville on the coast they installed lots of them a couple of years ago in an attempt to reduce the number of accidents. Traffic levels down there are light, even in comparison to Battambang, but the new lights proved to be a disaster. The problem was that vehicles approached a red light, saw that there was no traffic coming across them and then simply drove on. This became such a problem that accidents actually increased as in time the lights were simply ignored. Nowadays the authorities try to station policemen or Red Cross personnel at the lights to ensure compliance which kind of defeats the idea of having them in the first place.

Driving in Battambang, Cambodia

As I said earlier I had to take the Cambodian driving test a couple of years ago as any resident foreigner who drives here is supposed to do. There is a special testing station in Phnom Penh for foreigners and one scalding hot afternoon I found myself there along with a dozen or so other hopefuls. We sat the written exam first which I wasn’t expecting so just answered the questions as I thought fit. Some of the questions were bizarre in the extreme. There was a First Aid section and one question asked what I should do if I found someone in a coma – it was multiple choice and one of the answers available was “Bite the patient’s ankle!” Amazingly I was the only person to pass this part of the test – everyone else seemed to be French speakers and the exam was in English. I then found myself alone in a car park with the examiner for the practical part of the test. He disappeared inside to escape the heat while I drove aimlessly around the car park for ten minutes before he reappeared again to say that I had passed. Needless to say I was pleased about this but it does leave one wondering if perhaps the driving test could be improved in a few small ways.

Not only does the driver have to contend with his fellow road users but he or she also has to deal with the often dreadful state of the roads. All over the country, and especially here in Battambang, the state of the roads have improved dramatically over the years but many remain in poor condition and deteriorate further in the rainy season when they often become impassable. One such road runs down the side of Bambu Hotel. It is only a dirt track that leads to the local temple but it is used quite heavily and is now in a terrible state. It also looks unsightly and as the local commune is unlikely to effect any repairs soon I have taken it upon myself to carry out some rudimentary improvements. Tomorrow I have a lorry load of stones arriving and all I need do now is rustle up some willing (or perhaps not so willing) hands to help me.