Today one of my friends left for a 3 week vacation to her homeland and has given me her car to use for the next 2 to 3 weeks. This is a good opportunity to develop my driving skills here as Ratanak hopes to get a company car some time in the new year. So today, I had my first experience driving solo. One of the nice things about driving here is having the opportunity to learn the streets and be more familiar with my surroundings. But more than that, it gives a sense of freedom and independence as I do not have to wait on tuk tuks which at times can be a huge time waster.
Now when I first came to Cambodia 11 years ago, there were hardly any cars on the roads. In fact, there were a lot of cyclos --those 3 wheel bicycles,and there were motodops ie: motocyles and there were few SUVs back then. The roads were not crowded, nor really paved, nor where there lines to identify the lanes and the traffic lights were few and far in between. There were also no concrete barriers or dividers in the middle of the road so back in the good old days, people would drive up and down any side of the road they pleased. Driving was an adventure all in of itself as you never knew what to expect. You would even see cars with steering wheels on both the right and left hand side. One would call it organize chaos and even today, I still see some cars with steering wheels on the right hand side. I'm still trying to figure out if they are illegal or not but here in Cambodia, people will drive any thing.
About 6 years ago, tuk tuks became another mode of transportation and as the nation's wealth or those in the upper echelons of society have accumulated wealth, SUVs started appearing---today much has changed and much has also not changed. The roads are jammed with large SUVs---Landrovers, Lexus', Toyota Land Cruisers, then there are the BMWs, Mercedes and I even saw a Ferrari one day. Tuk tuks are the main mode of transportation for tourists and a convenient way to get around the city without danger of being hurt. Motodops are still around and there are many of them. As for the cyclos, you will often see them in the poor areas of the city, in the local market or around the tourist area where they are used by tourists who want to experience the good old days.
Today we have traffic lights, concrete or road dividers in the middle of the road all with the hopes of organizing the traffic flows. But with more vehicles on the road, the traffic at rush hour is still organized chaos. Lane markings don't mean much here as the motorcycles are like ants, they are everywhere weaving in and out. Cars go about 30kms per hour and they all crowd around each other heading in the same direction. Yet despite the close quarters, it is amazing how patient people are in waiting their turn. I have often seen SUVs who are in the far right hand lane decide to drive diagonally across the front of the road because they have suddenly decided they want to make a left turn instead. Its quite remarkable how acceptable a practice that is without anyone honking or getting annoyed. Try doing that in North America---I think not! Road rage does not seem to exist here. So driving here in rush hour is an experience in and of itself. The only saving grace is you cannot go fast and one's car brakes gets good use.
So as I got into the car to head downtown to my home from the suburbs, I do what most people (hopefully) do when they are in a new situation and are not sure what to expect. I prayed and asked the Lord to help me and to put His angels around the car and protect me as I drove home. It was not as bad as I thought. You literally go with the flow and while people are honking all the time, it is more to let you know they are close to you or you are close to them---you don't take it personally---so if you are one of those sensitive people, driving in Phnom Penh is not for you! One advantage of having a lot of motorcycles ahead of you is that they act as a motorcade, they block the oncoming traffic and yet pave the way for you to move forward. It was great....I couldn't help but have an amusing conversation with the Lord as I thanked Him for giving me what seem to be personal moto escorts on the way home. He really does prepare the way and goes ahead of us on so many dimensions! So while I may be driving solo, I really am not, the Lord is with me and helping me to navigate through these unfamiliar but familiar road ways. Tomorrow I'm off to visit our partners at Chab Dai. It will be great to drive there using the landmarks that I have observed. For here in Cambodia, the best directions are not street numbers nor using maps. Landmarks are the key! Thank goodness we also have the privilege of relying on the One who knows the way.