Traffic in Phnom Penh is like nothing I’ve ever seen. No exaggeration.  It is something different altogether.  Alive almost, it is like a cross between water moving over rocks and a flock of migrating birds wheeling thru the fall skies.  It adjusts and changes direction just that fast, that effortlessly. Now there are regular looking roads here, with actual lanes and white and yellow stripes painted on them.  And frequently there are police and security guards waving frantically, blowing whistles.  But that’s where all resemblance ends.

It bowled me over Day 1 — the astonishing number and variety of moving objects sharing the road.  An intentionally weird word choice –objects — because here traffic is not just motorized vehicles.   Its everything and everybody all on the road all at once: cement mixers and giant tour buses, thousands and thousands of motos (small motorbikes) balancing improbable piles of goods and people, Tuk Tuks stuffed with people, boxes and sacks of vegetables, people peddling bicycles, shiny new Land Rovers and Camrys, cyclo taxis, street peddlers pushing food carts, and slow moving wagons stacked with coconuts or recycling.  And somehow, there were people walking in between and across …

For the first week I just had to close my eyes.  I was certain I was going to see someone run over. Once I opened my eyes, I realized that not only was there an insane mix of things on the road, but that no normal traffic rules were in effect here.  Now, after 4+ months of study, the best as I can tell is that nothing is out of bounds if you keep moving.   For example, direction is a suggestion at best.  Cars, motos and  tuks routinely make U turns into 6 lanes of traffic, they stream 2 lanes over into oncoming traffic to bypass someone turning left, and at every intersection whole lanes of traffic cut across the middle of every gas station.  Driving the wrong way down the middle of a  street for 100 yards at a time doesn’t cause a stir – aside from my wincing (still).

Plus, there are no edges – no lanes that matter.  If you can fit, you go. Drivers have an uncanny awareness of size – 1-2 inch clearance is typical most days.  And the best part is that vehicles of every kind just casually slide up and over curbs and drive down sidewalks — a daily practice that still cracks me up.

So walking was a bit of a challenge for a while — folks on the street were quite amused by my wild startle-reflex. But then I adjusted, and now I wander without thinking much about the traffic at all — though my head swivels non-stop and I never wear earphones (I do want to come home).

Now I even cross those crazy streets without breaking a sweat.  It helped to realize (about 6weeks in) that I’d not seen a single accident or angry driver. Still true, though looking around me I don’t understand how that can possibly be.



  1. Great post! Sounds just like DRC…took me about six weeks to get used to the traffic, but now crossing the road is a piece of cake. Only difference is that I regularly see accidents (or evidence of accidents) on my way to and from work!

  2. The way I tried to describe traffic in Ghana to people back home is that there actually ARE “rules of the road”, but those rules just don’t happen to line up with the traffic laws on the books. If you observe how a system operates, you can start to understand the unwritten rules that govern it.

    1. Yes! Exactly! Much better words – I struggled with how to convey it. I think thats why it is so fascinating to see, to be in the midst of; why it makes me think of birds and music. It feels like chaos yet it’s clearly not – there is something I can’t explain that lets all move in synchrony.

      I do love a good mystery.


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