Riding in the back seat of a driving instructor’s truck provides a first-hand insight into the rigorous process of gaining a driver’s licence in Cambodia
Today was scary. But I think after a few more classes, driving won't be scary anymore."
Eang Sokden has never done this before, but he is trying to play it cool.
Feigning disinterest, he saunters up to the Hyundai flatbed truck, climbs inside and slides the key into the ignition switch. Everything nonchalant. Everything cool.
That is until Eang Sokden can’t hold back the pent-up truth any longer.
“I’m scared,” the 34-year-old high school physics teacher says.
“I’ve never driven before.”
“Scared?” guffaws the man at Eang Sokden’s side, a portly and loquacious driving instructor named Phoa Sok Khourn.
“No, you’re not scared!”
Phoa Sok Khourn laughs again; Eang Sokden gives a smile, and the Hyundai putters off – out on Eang Sokden’s maiden voyage, his first driving lesson at Day Nimet Driving School.
Taking a back seat, I notice there are no seatbelts. Nor is there a functioning speedometer, so perhaps Eang Sokden’s fear is not misplaced.
Statistically, Cambodia has some of the worst drivers in Southeast Asia. Last year, more than 15 people died per 10,000 registered vehicles – the highest rate of any ASEAN member country, according to the Cambodia Road Crash and Victim Information System.
And the problem is gaining speed. In 1998, Cambodian roads teemed with approximately 280,000 registered vehicles; now they are overrun with well over a million, with an annual growth rate of roughly 20 percent since 2004.
This is the wacky 24-hour race Eang Sokden is about to join. But for now, he is content to finish last, letting the cars and motorbikes scream past in a mad rush to get to wherever they are going. The noise they make is impressive. Horns beep and it is clear mufflers possess little currency in the Kingdom.
“Beep! Beep! Beep!” Teacher Phoa Sok Khourn exclaims. Unwilling to keep his vehicle from the chorus any longer he gestures to Sokden to get on with it and lean on the horn.
“They may not know we’re coming,” he explains.
While a 1,400-kilogram truck is not the most inconspicuous of vehicles, Sokden appreciates the logic of the suggestion and lets out a series of short, almost inquisitive, bursts: honk hnk hnk…honk?
Phoa Sok Khourn sits back with satisfaction. Yes, this honking is good.
The truck accelerates as Eang Sokden gains confidence.
Phoa Sok Khourn prattles on endearingly, like a cheerful uncle, as the truck rumbles along the notoriously dangerous National Highway Number 6.
Every Cambodian applicant for a driver’s licence must take both a written examination and a driving test.
The test is done on a private course administered by the local Ministry of Public Works and Transport. The test costs $28 – and nearly everyone passes.
However, training like Eang Sokden’s is not mandatory.
Though unlikely, it is possible that someone could pass a test and gain a licence in Cambodia without ever having driven before.
Ryan Duly, a road safety technical advisor with Handicap International Belgium, said the inadequacies of the driving tests were due to a lack of resources.
“It’s quite simple: they don’t have the capacity to make anything more technical,” Duly said. “It relies on money, on the instructors’ abilities and insurance systems. If there’s an accident or injury, who’s responsible?”
Later, during a driving class with another instructor, students underwent the equivalent of a corporate trust fall while driving.
The instructor had readjusted the rearview mirror so only he could see behind the car. Or, if vanity stirred, he could admire himself mid-instruction.
Students had to rely on him to describe the action going on behind them.
Translation: Trust comes first. Roadway mastery comes second.
After the day’s classes, Eang Sokden mills around the front of the driving school. He beams.
“Today was scary,” he admits. “But I think after a few more classes, driving won’t be scary anymore.”
Not so scary? Let’s recap. Nearly 26,000 people were killed on Cambodia’s roads in 2008. Almost 100 percent of these accidents were caused by human error. The Kingdom is number one in the fatality stakes per 10,000 registered vehicles in Southeast Asia.
Maybe holding onto a little fear isn’t such a bad idea.