1 Bike and Road

National Highway #2 in Cambodia

The pepper Farm in Kirivong, Takeo

The pepper Farm in Kirivong, Takeo

There are lots of traffic laws in Cambodia but the only two that matter are unwritten.  They are: don’t hit anything, and don’t get hit.  Disobeying formal laws can get you extorted by the police for a few dollars.  Disobeying the unwritten laws can get you killed.  Such was the sad story having played out only seconds prior to my arrival on a stretch of National Highway #2 in Cambodia last weekend, where a man lay dead in the middle of the road with a broken neck.  More on that later.

I hadn’t been to the pepper farm in about 6 months and being that it’s only a 3 hour ride I made it my first since acquiring a new (well, used) 600cc dirtbike from my friend.  The power differential from my old 250cc bike is substantial; I’m pretty sure I’d barely gotten it out of 3rd gear driving around the city before this, my first distance ride.  The odometer goes up to 180 km/hr.  I only managed to make it to 120 on the highway before that needling feeling of, you know, your girlfriend pinching your side to broadcast her fear.  Still, it felt good letting ‘er rip for a moment on newly paved Cambodian province road.  National Highway #2 takes you all the way to the Vietnamese border and they’ve done tons of work on the entire 120 km stretch in the last 5 years.  The last remaining portion to be completed is about 10 minutes outside Phnom Penh, past the brand new, immaculate (by Cambodian standards) Steung Meanchey bridge.  It’s a mess.

9 meat market

Cham Muslims butcher much of the beef in Cambodia.  I regularly buy from this road-side stand on the way to Takeo.

It was jarring, seeing what we saw on that piece of under-construction road at that particular moment.  It makes you want to do something about it.  “What do we do next time we see something like that?” I asked my girlfriend when we stopped for coffee, referring to the carnage I delicately maneuvered around only moments prior.  “Cambodia have a number for call when like that.  Everyone know,” she said.  “Great, what’s the number?” I enquired.  “I don’t know,” she said.  That was really how the conversation went.  A member of our party who left after us reported an hour later that the man was still dead when they had gotten to that point, a sheet then covering his head, his remains having been repositioned out of the way of traffic.

My new favorite quote is misattributed to Josef Stalin.  He apparently did not say, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”  The statistics don’t speak well of Cambodia in terms of road-deaths.  They are merely conversation pieces until you see it first-hand.  Now, I don’t want to be sensationalistic.  Believe it or not, traffic flows very well in Cambodia; certainly better than most “road-law advocates” would have you believe.  Laws against reckless driving would do as much to save lives as murder laws do to end murder.  In fact, over 30,000 citizens die every year on the national highway system in the United States of Laws.  Cambodia is undergoing an adjustment period, and the reason for the spike in fatal road incidents is, unsurprisingly, a spike in the construction of roads!  I would be willing to bet there is more than double as much cement covering the surface of this country than there was 10 years ago.  Previously, most roads had potholes large enough to swallow entire cars, a natural deterrent to reckless driving.  Other factors contributing to the fatality rate include a huge spike in car ownership, a boom in economic activity, and the moral hazard implied by no rule of law.  Were you involved in an accident with a Lexus owned by a high-ranking military official?  I hope you can pay for the trouble you caused because laws don’t apply to the rich and privileged here.  Inexplicably, though, demand for more laws, which are inevitably used only against the politically unconnected, ring from every segment of society.

7 mountain on the farm

A view of the mountain next to the pepper farm

3 Smiling Faces

Long pepper and smiling faces are Kirivong’s highest yielding commodities


A building riddled with bullet holes sits on top of a hill in Kirivong District, Takeo

But that’s enough discussion of Cambodian roads.  Let’s talk about something more upbeat like the Khmer Rouge; particularly with respect to the village where I was travelling on that day, Kirivong.  The Cambodian countryside is really something special, and if you talk to Khmers who grew up there, they will often wax romantic on their impoverished youth.  “I loved growing up poor, but I wouldn’t want to go back,” was the review I received from one Khmer friend recalling her childhood.  The village I was visiting was Kirivong in Takeo province, very near the Vietnam border.  I’ve uncovered an interesting piece of forgotten history, a footnote to one of the many horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime, right in the backyard of our pepper farm.  Like most of Cambodia’s ugly recent history, it has since been covered up.  But not before I was able to snap some pictures.  I’ll give you the details plus much more in the follow-up to this piece.