AP-First banned as a bourgeois luxury under the Marxist Khmer Rouge in 1975 and then
limited by private ownership laws and a shortage of foreign currency, cars and motorcycles
are now cruising the pot-holed streets of Phnom Penh with a vengeance.
Once peaceful tree-lined boulevards are now clogged with luxury and four-wheel vehicles
honking their way past motorcycles packed with five and even six people, horse-drawn
carts laden with airconditioners and refrigerators, bicyclists carrying 30-foot planks
of wood, and cyclos stuffed with squealing pigs, mattresses, and beer.
Traffic officer Sor Sam Ang fears for his life when he has to direct the chaos from
a stand in the middle of the main drag, Achar Mean Boulevard. He says he must bend
this way and that to avoid getting hit when rowdy motorcyclists come rushing past.
"I'm afraid, but what should I do?" he said during a much-needed break
along the side of the road. "It's my job."
Sor Sam Ang said there are not enough police in Phnom Penh to arrest all the people
who break traffic laws. As he speaks, an officer speeds past on a motorcycle with
two passengers-one over the legal limit.
Because there are no regularly enforced traffic laws in Phnom Penh, it's every man,
woman and adolescent driver for his or herself. If they plan to turn in one or two
blocks, drivers often cruise on the wrong side of the road, facing oncoming traffic.
There are only six functioning traffic lights in the city.
Capt. Rajeev Sirohi, staff officer in the U.N. Military Information Center, said
the lights,all of which turn from green to red without a warning yellow light, only
make matters worse.
"Green light is go, just go wherever you want," he said. "There's
The traffic problem dates back to 1987, when the government allowed private vehicles
for the first time since the Khmer Rouge banned them in 1975, said Meas Samith, director
of international relations at the Ministry of Transport, Communications and Posts.
Few bothered to go to driving school or get licensed but simply took to the streets,
Most Cambodians say, however, that the traffic didn't get really bad until the peace
agreement was signed last year, authorizing the U.N. peacekeeping operation. In addition
to thousands of UNTAC personnel, hundreds of overseas Cambodians are flooding back
in with foreign investors. Both groups are spreading around enough dollars to dramatically
boost the sale of motorcycles and cars among local residents, most of whom hit the
streets without learning the rules of the road.
"If they buy their car today, they drive it today," said Chhuan Sok Chhea,
32, a motorcycle-taxi driver. "I'm afraid they don't know the traffic laws."
Oum Oeun, a 33-year-old bicyclist, said he gets so afraid trying to navigate intersections
that he usually gets off and walks.
"The motorcycle drivers don't pay attention," he said. "They look
right and left and then they hit me."
The United Nations added to the chaos when its 12,000 vehicles started arriving.
The vehicles, painted white and clearly marked "U.N.", are driven by personnel
from about 40 countries, many of whom follow the traffic laws from their home country.
"Driving [here] is a challenge," said Lt. Col. Dick Palk, a U.N. military
spokesman. "The only thing that you can predict is that the unpredictable is
going to happen."
Two members of the U.N. peacekeeping operation have died in traffic accidents in
Cambodia, but only one in Phnom Penh, said U.N. Spokesman Eric Falt. He added that
dozens more U.N. personnel have been involved in traffic accidents in the city alone.
Since June, traffic accidents involving U.N. vehicles have caused eight deaths of
Cambodians, according to U.N. Spokesman Eric Berman.
U.N. doctors say traffic accidents account for the majority of patients at Phnom
Penh hospitals, although statistics are hard to come by because few accidents are
reported to local police.
Drivers rarely even register their vehicles or bother to get licensed, according
to traffic officials, who say nobody knows how many vehicles or drivers cruise the
streets of Phnom Penh.
U.N. civilian police are hoping to bring order to these anarchistic streets by giving
the Cambodian police on-the-spot training in how to direct traffic and enforce their
laws. And U.N. peacekeepers plan to hire a traffic engineer to straighten out the
"topsy turvy" streets of Phnom Penh, said Peter Fitzgerald, the Irish chief
of operations for the U.N. civilian police.
The engineer is expected to redesign the city's traffic plan, perhaps designating
separate lanes for people and motor-powered vehicles, creating a system of one-way
roads or adding more traffic lights and markings to instruct drivers, he said.
The improvements won't come soon enough for those used to charting more civilized
"The small-town traffic in India, in spite of the cows and buffalo being there,
is better than this," Sirohi said. "Even the buffalos and cows on the road
have more sense than the drivers here."