Angkor on reflection – traffic and transport

Waking up to a delicious looking sunrise over the forests, we hastened to our breakfast and then went out to see what’s happening in the world outside the hotel. There was a wow moment right on the doorstep – the morning traffic.

The road is packed with bikes, cars, and trucks coming and going in what seems to be a stretch of sheer chaos. The noise, the dusty air… We stood there and watched the currents for some minutes in amazement.

It may sound to those who are familiar with Southeast Asia pretty naive of me, that the road gripped me in fascination, rather like a small child on his first day out in a pram, seeing the outer world for the first time. The road, apparently having two directions of traffic with a few rows in each, has no line drawn on the surface, or traffic lights within view, while individual vehicles, motorcycles, and bicycles are joining the flow from either side, cutting across the on-coming traffic into alleys or roadside shops. And this is a constant carry-on. Amongst the moving objects, people simply do the same, crossing the road walking. You don’t run, but simply keep walking. You don’t stop in the traffic, but simply keep going with the flow. Isn’t it fascinating?

And what a sight to behold, the diversity of travellers in the morning traffic. Presumably, many are on their way to ‘work,’ carrying their commodities piled up on the rickshaws or dangling in plastic bags from the handles of motorcycles. Here came a woman on a bicycle carrying a large tray of rice noodles on the back seat. She was stopped by another woman, approaching from behind on a scooter. They exchanged a few words in front of us, smiling. I thought they were friends or neighbours or some sort of acquaintances. The noodle lady then grabbed a bunch and put it in a plastic bag, and the other woman gave her money. Business begins on transit, already.

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It was also my first time to come across a particular mode of transport, known widely as tuk-tuk, but, according to the copy of Lonely Planet we had, ‘auto’ in Khmer. You can look it up on Wikipedia under the entry “auto rickshaw.”

There were a couple of them parked in front of the hotel, waiting to catch a day-job out of hotel guests.  We were a little anxious but decided to give it a go, and went on one of them. The driver is called Mr. Ravi, and we were delighted to find him very sincere and friendly (we promised to hire him on the following day, and he turned up with his rickshaw dressed up a bit with a lovely seat cover). It seems that auto drivers are registered with some authority or they operate under a large company, which I imagined by the fact that many drivers wore same beige vests with numbers in green printed on the back. Anyhow, it is exciting to try something for the first time in life.

Considering the condition of the road surfaces, they are well comfortable. The seats, soft cushiony two-seater, are leather-bound, and carriage frames are of iron painted over; much better than light-weight and cold aluminium, which saturates our living and working environments these days. I found it particularly nice that travelling on them gives us a sense of raw, unmediated experience of the local place while on the move, feeling the hot, dusty air on the skin and hearing the noises of people’s lives right next to my ears.

On the other hand, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of stagnating uneasiness. Local people use other, presumably cheaper means of transport: motorbikes (like a one-person taxi. Well, I might feel uneasy to have to hold on the driver…) and goods vehicles (travelling in place of goods). Whereas, passengers on autos are almost exclusively tourists. I tend to prefer doing things locals would do, but on this occasion it was most sensible to surrender.

Imagine auto drivers earn far more than school teachers. To this, I will come back some other time. A day-trip on an auto for 15-20 dollars between the two of us, I’d say everyone was happy.


About Dr Kats

a working sociologist/linguist/translator based in Kobe, Japan
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