The Phnom Penh food chain
Updated: Apr 23
I am a teacher and one of my subjects is geography which I have to teach to adorable 12 year olds. They are absolutely fascinated to hear about cloud formations, the water cycle and how deserts form. We have just finished ‘the sea’ and part of their homework was to describe the “food chain”. Basically huge things, eat big things which eat small things which eat the smallest things.
It occurred to me there is an equivalent to the ocean food chain in Phnom Penh, where I live.
At the very bottom of the menu is the phytoplankton of the roads; cyclists and pedestrians. Only poor people and barong’s (westerners) walk or cycle. Pedestrians are of no value. Children on tricycles will gladly run you down and laugh while they do it. Walking on the pavement will not save you because people drive on what passes as a pavement (see my post “Phnom Penh Road Rules OK”). Your only hope of survival is to constantly swivel your head, looking left, right, forward, backward up, down, everywhere all at once, concentrate all the time and be ready to jump.
The shrimp of the roads are the motorbikes. They zip around, weaving inside outside, on the right side of the road and the wrong side. They exist in vast numbers. Survival for a motorbike is all about speed and not being singled out, stay with the crowd. Always leave yourself a way out of the chaos even if this means going up the kerb on to the pavement and running over a phytoplankton.
The tuna fish of the streets is the tuk tuk. This is a small motorbike with the back seat removed and a carriage connected by some amazing metal bolt contraption. You are supposed to drive on the right but tuk tuk’s go wherever they please. They stop randomly to let phytoplankton off or pick them up. Tuk tuks are everywhere, the drivers are mad. Probably poisoned after long years of breathing lead laden exhaust fumes.
The creature we fear most in the sea is the shark and the great white shark of the Phnom Penh highways is without a doubt the White 4 x 4 Lexus. It glides effortlessly across the most broken roads, it screams danger and menace. Tuna, shrimp and phytoplankton must avoid coming into contact with the shark.
You see the Great White Shark Lexus driver is wealthy. Wealthy people know other wealthy people who know influential people who know powerful people who know policemen. A scratched Lexus will involve you losing money and lots of it. Try and avoid this and if the police get involved you will wish you were somewhere else, somewhere less terrible, like hell.
Yet even the shark runs from the Orca, the Killer Whale of the Phnom Penh transport food chain. This beast is the 7 tonne open back truck filled with broken concrete and reinforced metal bars sticking out in all directions. On this load sits ten or fifteen construction workers, dirty, strong, tough mean boys. This truck will not stop at junctions, it will go through red lights. It will bounce up kerbs and over small things like tuk tuks and motorbikes. Phytoplankton are not even noticed.
No one messes with the Orca not even Lexus drivers whose cars will be scratched and dented and the Orca will not stop, pray it doesn’t stop. If it does the thugs will descend and even money won’t stop them giving you a beating. They might take your money and car.
To get around safely on the crazy streets of Phnom Penh buy a tank.