EVIDENTLY being nice may be a considered a weakness to aspiring Cambodian motorists.
The Mittapheap (Friendship) driving school is facing off against new rival academies
Dai Thom II (Big Hand II) and Amatak (Immortality).
The schools all teach the theory of 'Traffic Laws' - which do exist - in their classrooms,
but once on the road the methodology becomes sheer fiction. Anarchy prevails and
the 'Big Dog Eats' school of traffic courtesy applies.
At first glance, it may seem that names like 'Friendship' may not suit the needs
of modern Cambodian drivers. But the 'Big Hand II' academy has actually been in operation
for the past four years.
The name, rather than connoting a school for road hogs, came from the Sangkum Reastr
Niyum period. "My husband's friend learned to drive at the original Big Hand
school during Sihanouk time. Now out of love, we call our school Big Hand II,"
says director Pen Thary. "The boss of the school had one arm much bigger than
the other, so that's why he named his school that way."
Thary maintains that there is a cultural aspect to mastering local traffic dynamics.
"It is easy for Cambodians to learn to drive," she reasons. "It is
only difficult for western people here. The most important thing to know is the traffic
laws and to always look before turning." She boasts more than 100,000 graduates
with branches in Siem Reap, Battambang and Kompong Cham.
'Immortality' director Prak Lem emphasizes survival skills. "We teach students
to learn the traffic laws. But when a car is in a roundabout they have the right
of way, but it depends on respect," he points out. "If a big truck challenges
you, you have to depend on yourself to give mercy."
Lem, the former deputy director of 'Friendship', left six months ago to form 'Immortality'.
"Naming the school was my idea," he laughs. "Graduating from our academy,
however, doesn't guarantee you will not have an accident." He says that about
70 students pass each month.
"When my students first approach an intersection they say: 'I'm very afraid'.
Some don't know the traffic laws. It's a new world for them. At first when I say
'brake' they sometimes push the accelerator. I have my own brake pedal on one of
the cars now. Sometimes I have to hold the wheel for them. The first time they get
into the car, I show them how to turn the steering wheel and use the brake and the
clutch - without turning the engine on."
Mittapheap (Friendship) still appears to be the most visible on the streets. Since
opening in 1994, director Nop Sotha claims that an average of 20-30,000 students
per year have graduated from the school.
"After 1979, a group of us working at the Chey Chumnas (Victory) state-run driving
school decided to set up our own private school when the country changed.
"We emphasize learning traffic laws and how to protect the machine," he
says his office, which bears a fading diagram of a Russian carburetor hangs on the
But why do people pay to go to school, when is well-known that it is possible to
buy a license? "People really want to learn how to drive," says Sotha.
He stresses that the most difficult lessons his students learn is to balance correct
methods with practical exigencies on the road. "They still have to take a test
in a government car and they are afraid they will crash."
The curricula of the academies are fairly standard as are tuition fees - $65 including
license charges. Some guarantee success for an extra $20. "I wanted my cyclo
driver to learn how to drive a car, but I made the mistake of paying extra,"
laments a river-front restaurant manager. "He is very proud of his license,
but after one minute in my car it was shockingly clear that he had no clue of how
All said, despite the proliferation of academies, driving standards do not appear
to be improving. "I cannot confirm it, but I believe vehicle accidents are the
leading cause of death of young adults in Phnom Penh," says the Municipal Health
Service's hygiene and epidemiology director Dr Mom Ky.
A spectacular accident at the Independence Monument claimed the lives of six last
month. "I don't want to make light of this tragedy, but I can assure you that
the driver did not graduate from my school," says 'Immortality' director Lem.