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Tut-tutting about tuk-tuk drivers

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Photo by: TRACEY SHELTON
Rainy-day drivers: The recent Norodom Boulevard ban leaves tuk-tuk drivers out in the cold.

During tourist slumps, desperados literally start sprinting at me, eyes bulging and flip-flops flapping, yelping, ‘Tuk tuk!’ over and over.

Most mornings I exit my apartment to an unholy chorus of yelling. I can barely even get out the front gate before it begins, as the nearest gaggle of tuk-tuk drivers start bellowing at me in a bid for my custom.

It generally goes like this: The first driver to spot me screams, "Aaayyy!" as if realising his underwear is on fire.

This alerts his competitors, one of whom exclaims "tuk-tuk!" repeatedly, in an increasingly alarmed bark - as if struck by some farcical attack of Tourette's syndrome.

The stragglers, meanwhile, half-heartedly beckon me to their chariots, like dispirited rejects from a second-rate Mexican wave.
Naturally, I relish spurning their efforts. Not that it discourages most drivers in the slightest.

During tourist slumps the desperados literally start sprinting at me, eyes bulging and flip-flops flapping, gesticulating wildly at their vehicles while yelping, "Tuk-tuk!" over and over like gibbering halfwits.

Witnessing this, you'd think I was offering to pay my fares using Jack's proverbial magic beans as currency.
But it's no fairytale, receiving this intensely unsettling start to the day.

Imagine being greeted by demented, dead-eyed loons charging at you, bellowing blue murder while you're still half-asleep. Every single morning.
Unsurprisingly, I noted with some pleasure that tuk-tuk drivers have recently been banned from parking on Norodom Boulevard, where they traditionally congregated at awkward junctures, obstructing traffic and hassling passers-by.

They'll still roam for custom, stalk pedestrians and lurk on side streets.

But the Norodom crackdown can be read as belated, extended enforcement of a Land Traffic Law passed in 2007, which kick-started fines for motorcyclists without helmets and the confiscation of unlicensed or unsafe vehicles.

Lax policing of the law has contributed to a rising death toll on Cambodia's roads. An average of four people die from road accidents here every day.

This year's total of 1,039 is creeping ever closer to last year's 1,638, and the authorities want to clean up Dodge City.

(Call me cynical but, considering the often-suicidal driving etiquette of the average Cambodian, I actually expected those figures to be higher.)
Of course, deep down I realise tuk-tuks provide a necessary, even valuable service.

After all, I occasionally score an agreeable driver who unexpectedly brightens my day. Sometimes I even get one who actually knows where he's going.

But until my Khmer language skills pass muster I'm resigned to stating my destination, which is met with a smile and reassuring nod from the driver ... then 15 minutes later, seething in the back while the driver obliviously chunters at a snail's pace in the wrong direction, while silently awaiting unbidden directions from yours truly.

Despite their raison d'etre, maps can't always help you out of these metaphorical cul-de-sacs either, especially if the driver is illiterate. Getting directions is likewise no guarantor of success.

If I seem a tad uncharitable, I'll admit that a couple of unsavoury incidents last week have stoked my ire.

In the first scenario, the driver in question rejected my payment by flinging the banknotes melodramatically onto the street.

When I tried to walk away, he leapt out of his cab, obstructed me and started getting pushy.

He was obviously prepared to fight for what he saw as his due.

Given that it was 3am, the street was dark and deserted, and he was possibly tooled-up, plus the fact he was only demanding two dollars anyway, the heavy-handed numbskull got his way and skulked off muttering dark curses.

The next day, a friend and I hopped in another tuk-tuk. As we took our seats, however, a spurned rival driver decided that we were actually his rightful fare - and wouldn't accept otherwise without a struggle.

We realised this when he pursued us a fair way and overtook just before a busy Independence Monument intersection. He then screeched to a halt and blocked our tuk-tuk's path.

Mind-bogglingly, he expected his obstinate, bully-boy tactics to force our hand in his favour.

As he saw it, the barangs would inevitably concede that, after his impromptu masterstroke, he was clearly the right man for the job after all.
So there he sat, holding up traffic, alternately berating the cowering old-timer at the wheel of our tuk-tuk, then demanding that we continue our journey in his vehicle.

Onlookers were gawping, yet he refused to budge for 10 minutes, to our increasing annoyance, only shifting when it became clear that his knuckleheaded plan was doomed to fail.

For me, the Norodom ruling will always be tied to these skirmishes - lingering reminders of the inherent vagaries of tuk-tuks.

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