Michael Batson

Travel Writer

Vietnam

Cambodia

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Travelogue

On Deadly Roads - 20 May 2012

Someone once said that nowhere is a good place to have a traffic accident but in Cambodia it can be worse than most other places.

Travel in Cambodia can be wonderful and a real eye opener but it’s a fact that almost four people a day die on roads in Cambodia, and hundreds more are injured in thousands of crashes.

For victims, foreigners and nationals, the nearest available medical help could be miles and hours away increasing the chances of dying from your injuries, or worsening the long term effects. For visitors, motorcycle travel in the countryside should be avoided on your own. Instead, go on an organised tour or with a mate as you don’t want to wind up injured in a ditch by yourself.

Medical facilities in Cambodia have come a long way since the rout of the Khmer Rouge, when facilities were destroyed and the number of doctors left in the country totalled about 40, but aren’t developed enough yet to provide ready access to quality care.

Outside of Phnom Penh facilities are even more restricted. Provincial hospitals are fairly rudimentary, and transport to major facilities in the capital is limited. Once in Phnom Penh the first port of call would likely be Calmette Hospital on Monivong Boulevard where you pay as you go in cash.alt

Branches of private Thai clinics are now springing up in Phnom Penh for the insured and the wealthy but are few in number. Airlift to Thailand is still the likely the option for badly injured foreigners.

Unfortunately, it’s a reality that many victims are also likely to be robbed by passers-by. So while you’re lying there you could lose your money, valuables, your vehicle or motorbike if it can be moved, even your helmet, all while you bleed out.

When Cambodian colleagues of mine asked if this was the case in my country, I replied that passers-by would more than likely stop to help. After pondering this response they replied “Oh, that’s good.”

Accidents in Phnom Penh seem to attract a crowd largely for voyeuristic purposes. Nobody seems to lend a hand, instead they just stop and stare. In provincial Batdambang, following a collision between two motorbikes I did see two men come from a shop house and pick up the victims’ bikes and see them on their way. Miraculously, a pillion passenger, a young school girl, was actually wearing a helmet, a rare sight in Cambodia.

Road travel is dangerous in Cambodia. Each year over 1700 people are killed, 70 percent of them motorcyclists.  Even being near or on a road on foot is dangerous, as 13 percent of all fatalities are pedestrians. In the first half of 2011, 1076 people died in traffic accidents, a 14 percent increase compared to the same period last year.alt

Accidents are often injurious to those involved, a situation worsened by the vast majority of vehicles affording little protection and exacerbated by the lack of ready access to affordable, quality medical care for the overwhelming majority of the population.  Assuming they can afford it, anyone seriously injured or ill leaves for hospitalization in neighbouring states.  The poor largely suffer and die.

With roads in the country continually improving, and the number of vehicles increasing the nation’s roads are likely to see increases in the ever-growing death toll.

According to the Belgian-based NGO, Handicap International, three main factors have contributed to the rapid increase of road crashes and fatalities in the last six years: the improved quality of the road infrastructure which has allowed for significantly higher travel speeds: the tremendous growth of vehicles on the roads and lastly; the number of problematic risk factors such as speeding, drunk-driving, lack of protection in traffic, and disobedience of the traffic rules.

Roads in Cambodia are now largely sealed, and the rivers crossed by bridges. As a result traffic speed is faster and vehicle volumes are higher. Driving habits however, haven’t improved, and the variety of vehicles and associated roadside furniture found in a Third World country, remain. One expat resident summed up Cambodian drivers and their practices as being those of “17th century pig farmers”, a rather brutal assessment.

altOn National Route One to Vietnam from Phnom Penh between the capital and the mighty Mekong the road has been widened and sealed. Yet children still wander the road shoulders and play dangerously near the now faster moving traffic. Houses and shops are within spitting distance of the road, leaving their occupants dangerously exposed and who carry on their daily activities unperturbed by the motorised chaos hurtling by.

Once, travelling this route, I saw a wedding marquee pitched half on the road and half amongst the roadside stalls, buses simply swerved to avoid bowling the guests and moved into the other lane facing the oncoming traffic, an accident waiting to happen. Not only are there still a good many roadside obstacles, overcrowding in passenger vehicles increases the number of fatalities. People still ride on roof tops and hang precariously from the tail of vans off the side of buses and trucks.

Traffic in Cambodia, like most of that in the region is a classic illustration of the sheer energy and wonder of life in Southeast Asia. There is constant buzz of activity, a hum of noise, pierced with the occasional but regular blast of horns, screech of brakes. Generally, it is devoid of road rage, though when this occurs it’s likely to be sudden and can be fatal, often including the use of high-powered weaponry, if members of the country’s elite are involved.

Buses overtake motorcycles, which are in turn overtaking bicycles being chased by dogs. Outside the buses going in the same direction are SUVs driven aggressively, horns blasting, overtaking everything else, often in the face of trucks coming in the opposite direction. Motorcyclists seeing all this are forced off the road or to a complete stop to avoid the mayhem coming in their direction.

National Route Four connects Phnom Penh with the country’s main port of Sihanoukville on the Southeast coast. Economically, it is Cambodia’s most vital roadway, and also transports many tourists to and from the resorts at the Costa del Cambodia. The road is jammed with trucks of all descriptions and in all kinds of serviceable conditions. It is busy and the most dangerous road in Cambodia. Containers are sometimes transported on purpose-built trailers but more often than not they sit on flat bed trucks.

Some vehicles carry loose loads, such as gravel, barely contained with flimsy side gates and often covered only with tarpaulins. Consequently, the vehicles can be tracked like some fairy tale characters, by the trail of their contents strewn along the road to such an extent it’s hard to imagine that they arrive with any of their load remaining.

On the road to Batdambang there is the strange sight of a weigh station, brand new and unused. Perhaps the result of some aid programme gone awry, the thought of placing such a facility in a country ignorant of many safe practices is bizarre. Any vehicle in the Kingdom is loaded beyond any specifications laid down by the manufacturer, some defy reason not to mention gravity, and far in excess of any safe limits that would be imposed in developed countries.

Most tourists in Cambodia travel by bus. Only one of the 30 registered bus companies in Cambodia wasn’t involved in fatal accidents last year. Even this company has problems, as services to Sihanoukville were suspended after two of its fleet were seen racing each other. Bus drivers in Cambodia can work horrendous hours. Some report that after making a 6-hour trip, they are then told to turn around and make the return journey without adequate rest.

The country’s roads are especially dangerous at night.  Night buses are particularly vulnerable. Cambodian drivers sometimes do not adjust their schedule to adjust to night work, rising in the morning as usual, and then expecting to stay awake all night. Some do not make it. The night service from Siem Reap to Saigon of Kampuchea Angkor Express collided with a parked truck carrying corn killing several people and seriously injuring other passengers, including tourists who lost limbs. As is common in the region, the driver was reported to have fled leaving the scene.

Operator’s insurance will be limited. The vehicle in this accident was covered by Cambodia-Vietnam Insurance for the sum of just $25,000 for the vehicle and all the passengers.

Trucks lumber through the dark often without adequate tail lighting or park up without any hazard lights. Water buffalo wander across main highways together with a range of other hazards. My former employer banned staff travelling on the country’s roads after dark fearful for their safety. If you couldn’t get back to Phnom Penh before dark, you stayed put in the provinces.

For Cambodia’s capital in particular, you’re only ever a blink away from disaster. There are roughly 900,000 motorbikes and 230,000 vehicles in the city with an estimated population of 1.2 million, and most of them appear to be on the roads at the same time. According to the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, traffic on Phnom Penh streets increases upwards of 20 percent per annum.

Currently, 460 police enforce traffic laws in the city with a base salary of $50 per month. Groups of the blue uniformed officers stand about under the shade of available trees accosting passing motorists. The only traffic laws that are regularly enforced are ones that involve small fines for petty offences such as improper licences or lack of rear-view mirrors, rather than more serious moving violations like speeding or drunk driving.

Police will fine a motorcyclist or driver for going the wrong way down one of Phnom Penh’s many one-way streets but after extracting the “fine” then allow them to continue on in the wrong direction. Some young riders upon spotting a lurking patrol abruptly do a u-turn and head off back the way they’ve come to avoid any fines.

Police on the other hand complain they get a hard time of things. On the national police hierarchy, traffic police are at the bottom of the pecking order, after the other uniformed arms; the civilian police and the military variety. Pickings are slim from motorists, however many you stop and fleece everyday. Traffic police uniforms are issued but once a year in November, with many an ill-fit, so officers either pay to have them tailored or are forced to exchange them with colleagues. They complain this is not a good look as by the end of the dress cycle many a uniform begins to fray and look scruffy.

In a recent effort to address rampant corruption, traffic police were officially permitted to retain half the “fines” they impose, provided of course, they issue the ticket and hand over the other fifty percent. Whether this actually occurs with any regularity is another matter and in Cambodia, difficult to monitor. Needless to say, the public regularly complains that old habits continue. When I was fined on the eve of the Khmer New Year, farangs being a useful source of additional revenue on the eve of such a notable public holiday, no ticket was forthcoming.

Cambodians barely look when merging into traffic from side streets, which makes them especially vulnerable on motorbikes. Rear view mirrors, compulsory since 2004, are rarely used for their intended purpose. Instead, men use them for plucking facial hair, so when you return to your bike you often find that the mirrors have been bent to accommodate the body maintenance of park attendants and security guards. Some people ride around with the mirrors folded inwards rendering them useless, almost as if to say “what are these for?”

In 2009, a law came in making helmet wearing by riders compulsory, passengers are exempt and riders rarely comply after dark. A common sight is the rider wearing a helmet but the passengers, often school children and babies are not. There is talk of another law soon to make it compulsory for passengers also.

Do not ride around during the day with your lights on as not permitted, and will instantly attract the attention of the police, ready to jump at the chance of some more income.

Travel in Cambodia can be a wonder but you need to be very careful. Here are some tips for visitors planning on heading out – get insured as having insurance is really important, yet many expats living in Cambodia are incredibly without insurance of any kind. For motorcycle riders do not head out of town on your own, go with friends or on an organized tour.

Get prepared because if your accident is serious, you will need to go abroad for treatment, so have some idea of where you will go for good care as most medical treatment in Cambodia is rudimentary.

Have your information organized and accessible for friends, so if you were hit by the proverbial bus someone would know where your insurance information is stored, and who your emergency contact is.

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