The bike ride to work was blissfully predictable this morning. Along the way, I passed older ladies in brightly colored cotton pajamas, girls with long hair and long skirts and long sleeve shirts on their way to school, and the nice motodop who takes me to work on the mornings I want to sleep in. The man pulling the cart of coconuts passed by the pagoda, where the woman selling bananas was surrounded by elderly women in white shirts headed to morning prayers. At the big traffic light, I found the break in the traffic to cross the lanes and make my pivotal left hand turn. Most workday mornings, I apply the peppermint-tingly lipstick, secure the helmet and adjust the skirt. I’m using a beater bike to make the fifteen minute commute and wheel out into Phnom Penh’s ever increasing and notorious traffic.
Saavy, long-time expats will say “PP has improved a lot over the past five years” or “Saigon is worse.” But, for a person used to the relatively orderly nuances of Thai traffic and the positively staid Western driving style, moving around on these chaotic urban streets gets easier with practice.
While you are on the move, a rider has to be completely and totally centered on the present moment, watching in a ranging 180 degree visual sight. You have to trust the small glances over your shoulder, put yourself out there and move into the flow, confident in yourself and observant of the dynamics all around.
On my bike, I make an effort to make myself both happy and receptive yet wary and defensive. The school uniformed kids piled up on the back or stuffed into the front of their parent’s motorbike will sometimes stare at me while we wait in the cluster of the traffic light. I think they are wondering, “Why is that old white lady on the bicycle?” To that, I reply with the biggest smile I can muster. The two year old, standing on his mother’s lap with a unique perspective of unobstructed observation of the world and a ripping road breeze opportunity, looks behind at me as his father pulls ahead of me on the moto and leaves me cruising behind.
There are small ups and downs on every morning commute. There is always a tiny relief when I pull into the front gate of the hospital and the bike corral, receive my claim ticket, toss my helmet into the bike basket and fluff my hair.
The following maneuvers are why I'm happy to be parked:
#1: “Cover me, I’m going through” I use this all the time with tuk tuks and cars. Keep them on the outside of oncoming traffic and you are golden. No one can get you. Unless it’s the person going the wrong way on a one way street.
#2: “Nudge and crawl” Often seen in traffic jams, people will put one foot on the ground to move their bikes (motor and otherwise) forward ever so creepily. You move forward until you can’t go anymore. Then you move forward again. Or cut across the sidewalk.
#3: “Clench and creep” This tactic is used when you approach an intersection with a light that is going to turn green soon and a bunch of traffic piled up waiting. I suck in my abs and try to keep the feet on the pedals for as long as I can, sometimes deploying the “quick reverse pedal pivot” to keep the ever so slow balancing act in play. If I win at this game, I am psyched.
Observed maneuvers that are part of the traffic landscape,but that I generally don’t do:
#1: The short cut. Frequently used anytime going with the traffic flow would take more time or effort. It is common to see oncoming riders hugging the sidewalk. Facing them, a rider with the flow must move to the left. This tactic is routine with bikes and motos, but I also saw a large commercial truck going the wrong way up a one way street. The young men were perched on top of the load were laughing in an “I can’t believe we are doing this” giddy sort of way.
#2: The early cut. When turning onto a street, you cut across the opposite lane far above the turn. This was, incidentally, the maneuver that was used by the guy who hit my shin with his motorcycle when I was walking across Norodom Boulevard.
#4: “Crowd and cut”This technique is a when a group of people need to cross incoming traffic, even against the lights. A variation of # 1,often used when multiple numbers of people want to go in the same direction.
#5 Pass anyway you can. I have people pass me both on the right and the left simultaneously. This can be an issue with drivers doing maneuver #1. Related to this maneuver is the “pass you on the left then cut across right in front of you to make a right turn” and the“pass the traffic stopped for a left turn to make an illegal left U-turn into incoming traffic” tactic.
#7 “Bob and weave, we’re invincible!” One of the more terrifying aspects of street life in Phnom Penh involves three young men (and sometimes girls) in their twenties, laughing and shrieking, speeding and weaving through traffic and across traffic lights. Double trouble when coupled with a customized horn that sounds like a large truck.
#8 “The dispassionate violator” Blasting or creeping your way through traffic lights, crossing double lines, taking up a third lane of incoming traffic to get an early start on a green light, backing out into traffic and pulling a U turn across all four lanes, and speeding down the street honking the Lexus horn every three seconds. These all require a sense of resigned acceptance. Anger is just not healthy.
Yet in the midst of the selfish road behavior escalated through morning, lunchtime and dinnertime rush hours, there are the elegant Cyclos. These stately tricycle taxis are a remnant of times past, powered by thin, dark and often elderly men whose feet sometimes don’t reach the pedals. They carry products and people and are often found napping by the side of the road in the shade. A group of them, organized by an NGO and outfitted in matching bright green T-shirts, move in a slow procession carrying a dozen much larger tourists parading in the heat of the day. In the small patch of grass and trees at the end of the block near my apartment, they hand shower with a water-filled plastic shopping bag. They move slowly in a lumbering RV of the Phnom Penh bicycle world, perched high above the rest of the traffic and maintaining a regal dignified line.
On some mornings, I will ride "draft" behind them to soak in their calm and deliberate patterns like an island a midst a tumultuous sea. I emulate their dignified way through the flat streets, avoiding a sweat, as Phnom Penh begins to start the morning rush hour at 7 am most weekday mornings.
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