Cambodian U-Turn

06 Feb 2008

There's a thick concrete median to prevent u-turns, but that's no problem. We simply turn in place.

Reality check. With Lyn, I'm on the back of a small scooter in Phnom Penh. Our rider has a helmet but that's the only armour on the bike. And we're proceeding at speed on the wrong side of the road into Khmer traffic.

Forget food aid. Somebody should airdrop these guys some traffic lights. The major four-way intersection is completely unprotected, and we ride directly in - still on the wrong side of the road, then swing right across the incoming traffic. I jam my knees in to fit them within the profile of the bike's narrow faring. I'm getting close to the locals, all right.

But the funny thing is that I'm not even scared. I broke my fear of bikes in Ko Chang.

It's a bit like the fast run with my hard-driving police-trained Queensland friend. I know this guy's got the skills to make it work. He doesn't have any scars. Nobody here does. So either they never crash or they never survive.


I realise that I've written a lot about transport. Surely the places themselves must be more interesting than the process of getting to them?

It's not always true. Transport is one of the most dangerous things we do, the one that brings us closest to the locals - we mostly use the same means they do - and one of the things that varies most between places. And after all, what we're doing is described as "travelling".

Before I left it on the plane, I was reading a book about massive effects: complex results built from simple systems. Traffic is one of the most obvious examples. It turns out that it exists in three states: free-flowing, synchronized, and jammed. The "synchronized" state is rare because it's unstable, and will collapse without warning into the "jammed" state as soon as someone does anything sudden. From there, it won't return until the traffic density is light enough for the "free-flowing" state. Essentially, synchronized traffic trades safety margins for speed.

I've noticed here that the traffic is always synchronized. It jams in Western countries because people overreact; the car ahead taps the brakes, so they tap the brakes a little harder, so the car behind brakes hard. Over here, if someone does tap the brakes, the guy behind will accelerate, swerve around, and overtake. Combine that with 90% bikes, mostly carrying two people and sometimes up to five, and they achieve incredible efficiency on narrow roads.