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Women drivers on the move

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Businesswoman Pov Channareth deftly drives the downtown streets of Siem Reap. Photograph: Thik Kaliyann/Phnom Penh Post

Siem Reap’s rapid rise in the wealth stakes is evidenced by the increasing number of cars on the road, and in the last couple of years the number of women drivers has also increased dramatically.

The growing gentrification of Siem Reap’s Khmer population has seen more women joining the ranks of government workers, being recruited into managerial positions, lugging briefcases, and getting behind the steering wheels of cars.

Seth Savuth, the chairman of Dai Thom II driving school in Siem Reap, says that in the last few years the number of women drivers has increased rapidly.

He notes, “Just spend five minutes walking along the streets and you will actually see that most of the drivers are women.

“At my driving school, the number of women who come to learn how to drive a car has increased 20 percent compared to last year.”

He adds that every month more than 30 women register at his school, and the number of women now registered to learn to drive over one year was about 500. He conjectures that one of the reasons for the increase is because women “know a lot about their rights to live in society.”

One woman driver who agrees with this is Sao Sarouen, who learnt to drive about six months ago. She says, “Whatever a man can do, a woman can do better. Driving a car is not difficult if women are confident. The first time, I put my hands on the steering wheel of a car I didn’t feel nervous. I felt confident in myself that I will drive well and that I won’t hurt other people on the road.”

Figures for the number of women who received driving licenses in Siem Reap actually spiked last year, according to Keav Broser, vice chairman of the Provincial Department of Public Works and Transportation.

He says this year the number is down a little, adding, “In a nine month period compared to last year, the figure has decreased. This year, the number of women who received driving licenses from us is 493, but in the same 9-month period last year it was 543.”

Paññ?s?stra University student Khim Socheata has been driving a car for two years and tells Insider that she felt very nervous when learning to drive.

 “At first I knew nothing about how to drive it, because driving a car is more difficult than driving a motorbike. Sometimes I really didn’t know how to stop the car.”

Now she is used to it, although at times feels stressed driving in narrow streets. She says driving a car is safer than driving a moto, and more comfortable in the rain. She adds, “I am the oldest sister in my family and my parents are old now, so I have to make sure that I can drive them wherever they want to go in safety.”

Businesswoman Pov Channareth, who recently owned Siem Reap Night Market, says everyone feels uneasy when first driving a car. She says, “The first time I was so uneasy, but I had to learn because I didn’t want to depend on my husband all the time when I wanted to go somewhere, and it’s easy to transport things by myself in my business.”

But it’s not only Khmer women who are driving cars: foreign women are also getting behind the wheel and many seem to find driving in Temple Town quite easy – once they get the hang of local ways.

Full-time mum Nicole, the wife of a hotel manager, drives a jeep and enjoys driving around town – most of the time.  

“It is never aggressive,” she says, “But it’s often unpredictable. You realise that nobody is in a hurry and even if there are lots of bikes, motos and cars on the road, they seem to flow together in harmony.”

 In her big jeep Nicole says she never feels any discrimination from men,  but that could be due to the size of the car.

But she does find it a little annoying when sleepy security guards sit in the parked open-sided jeep while she is in Angkor Market doing her shopping.  

All in all, Nicole says, the biggest difference between driving in her native Switzerland and here is that, “It is fine to drive on both sides of the road here. Also, stopping at junctions will lead to accidents as no one ever stops. Same goes for pulling out onto a main road. Nobody stops for pedestrians, the car behind will not be expecting it and will drive into you.”

Guest-house manager and mum of two Rachel recently bought a car after living in Siem Reap for seven years. With her children attending school on the other side of town it worked out cheaper than tuk tuks, plus the family enjoys the freedom a car affords. Most importantly, following a tuk tuk accident earlier this year , Rachel no longer wants her children traveling in them regularly.

Rachel drives a lot slower than she would in the UK as she is  “constantly expecting people on motorbikes or bicycles to swerve out in front of me to avoid a water-filled pothole, or pulling out from a side road without looking left.”

She adds, “It’s a completely different environment here that you have to immerse yourself into rather than fight against.”
Rachel also notes the flowing or “merging together,” of road users and says, “I like the way they move over when other vehicles join the same lane. I have taken up several local habits while driving, because without doing so you can be waiting at a cross roads for ages or potentially cause an accident as other road users will not expect you to actually stop at a stop sign.”

Some of the hazards Rachel identifies are badly maintained or unpaved roads which are too narrow for two large vehicles to pass safely, more and more people driving cars and motorbikes rather than sedate bicycles, lack of instruction for driving techniques,  and lack of police enforcement of traffic regulation violations.

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