Friday, 12 August 2011

Barangs on Bikes

Moi on me moto! It's name was "Elf"
This post is for any potential moto drivers who want to test their expertise in Phnom Penh.  This is my first-hand experience of driving in a country whose #1 fatality is from moto accidents.
Barang is the word that the Khmer use for foreigner. I am not sure what the literal translation is, but I will try to find out this week. It will be something good I am sure.
So I am going to paint the picture so you can really "get" how to drive here!  The analogy is an under the sea theme (my students made me watch the Little Mermaid this week, and I am guessing that is what prompted this!).

Picture yourself under the sea watching a school of fish swimming with a big fish like, maybe a shark or whale, which at any moment can turn on the helpless school of fish and gobble them down (not sure if whales eat anything other than plankton, but just go with it, marine inaccuracies and all). Above the sea, there is a fisherman doing some illegal dynamite fishing (which isn't technically illegal here if you pay off the right people), the fishermen use the stick of dynamite indiscriminately, but also they have a special net which they cast to catch a particular colour of fish from that school. Namely the white ones, because the white ones are fleshier and have more meat.  Also, this species that consists of the school of fish live in harmony most of the time, and work together to protect each other from their nemesis (anything bigger than them), but occasionally, they can and will turn on each other. Got the visual image??
Well, this is driving in Phnom Penh.  (Moto's are the school of fish, and cars and trucks are the sharks/whales/big fish.  White fleshy fish are Barangs. Fishermen=Police.)
So as I am driving, I tend to stick within a cluster of the motorbikes, of a car makes a sudden movement, you see this group of 30-40 bikes swerve in unison, often with nothing more than 3 inches between them (sometimes less!).  The key to maintaining balance in these situations is NOT TO LOOK DOWN! If I glance down to see how close the bike next to me is, (because sometimes I can feel the drivers breath on me and smell his breath), you wobble, which is detrimental in this group.  Always look into the distance, keeping your eyes peeled for gaps in the group which will allow you to pull ahead.

When it some to crossing a busy intersection with so street lights, you pull into oncoming traffic a little tiny bit.  This has a domino effect as the oncoming traffic starts to swerve around you. Once you get far enough into the oncoming lane, there is a 'Y' of traffic that flows around you, behind you and in front of you. It is a thing of beauty really, that I do this often and am still alive. Obviously at nighttime it is a bit sketchier, but everything is a bit sketchier here at night.  Ideally to cross a busy intersection it is best to wait fro some fellow moto-ers and you all crown close together and bully your way across the street, forcing oncoming traffic to stop and allow you to cross ensemble.

 I hate being on the outside wall for this one as the cars hate stopping. I had one run my moto over partially (it got my foot rests and kick start under it's bumper).  I couldn't move as there were too many moto's close to me, so I imperiously waved my hand at the driver telling him to back up. He also didn't have much room, but the inch or two he gave me allowed to motor on quickly. At least before he could get out of his car and check for damage (which there was, oops!). But it was totally his fault and my foot rest thingy is all gibbled now, so I didn't have the slightest qualm about it!  Ok,, but back to the shield. So we move in unison to get across the street. And Voila! Onwards we go!

Whilst driving, some of the things you have to remain alert for are the following:
-moto's coming in the opposite direction on your side of the road
-moto's with no breaks or breaks that don't work very well
-Drunk moto/tuk-tuk drivers (easily seen by their erratic driving). If seen, either slow waaayyyy down (but if it's night, it's safer to go faster and be slightly erratic yourself to prevent purse snatchers or moto-stealers from doing their thing) or speed up to pass them
-Copious amounts of LARGE potholes in the roads.
-The texting moto driver
-The moto drivers that are driving 2 or 3 abreast having a rollicking conversation amongst themselves......going the opposite direction on your side of the road! (Yup, not an exaggeration, totally seen that!)
- The little kid vendors at the street light who dart in and out of traffic
-The physically challenged beggars at the lights who are slower moving to get out of the way
-At lights, it is a common practice to run the lights and do it fast to avoid the police stationed at every intersection...almost been hit or hit them too many times to count
-Cars with RCAF plates (government plates) as they don't move for you, you move for them. Also they don't stop at lights and police can't stop them
-Large dump trucks, they are ALWAYS spitting dirt
-Moto's with more than 3 people aboard as the swerve a lot after coming to a direct stop in order to get going again
-The driver who hocks up a loogi and the wind is blowing in your direction and it lands on your foot and then you throw up in your mouth.
-The Police-Their like the meanest sharks in the water with authority issues. And they really don't like barangs, well, sorry, not totally true, they love to pull us over:D

So these are just a few of the cautions I can think of off the top of my head. If you think I have been remiss in mentioning anything, please don't hesitate to inform me.

So let's talk law enforcement for a moment or two. If I go on longer than a moment I tend to rant, and that is just plain unattractive.  Speaking of unattractive one police guy that pulled me over had a mole on his cheek that had about 5 hairs sprouting out of it that were at least a foot long. They swayed in the breeze like  Pantene Pro-V Models' hair swirls in front of a fan...only his didn't look so well conditioned.
So, I have only been stopped about 5 times. An average of once a month. Not so bad I suppose. One of the foreign teacher's at my school said he has been stopped no less than 50 times in 2 years. That's a lot of bribes, er, fines to pay. Anyway when they stop you the first thing they do is take your moto and tell you they are taking it to the station. The first time this happened I understood that they were taking me to jail and had a mini-flip out.  But what they do is impound your moto and then you have to wait hours (the average is 6-8) and then pay 30-50$ to get it back. So it's best to just pay them then and there. Once they take your moto out of your hands they have the advantage over you. So the last time I got pulled over, I didn't jump off my moto at their command. I simply sat their asking "Ma-an, Ma-an" over and over again.  They kept motioning for me to get off. But I blankly smiled and sat there sweetly. And, then eventually I got off as if it were my idea all along. My experiment worked, the power had shifted to me.  Muahahhaha. Anyway, I paid them with relatively few complications. So the best way to handle to police in my opinion, is to be firm, and repeat "T'la Na'a" over and over (too expensive). (The worst thing you can do is point out all the others doing whatever "mistake" you did and then ask why they aren't pulling the others over...)
Also use as much Khmer as you know so then they know you have been there awhile and they won't take as much of an advantage of you (usually!).  Ok that's all I am gonna say on that topic. Swine. Ok, and that too.

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