For most of us, it is rather obvious that people in other countries do some things differently from the way we do them in the United States. For example, we think of the Commonwealth countries where cars drive on the left side of the road.
On the other hand, there are some deeply embedded “truths” that many of us carry in our subconscious. We often refer to them with phrases like “Well, everyone knows that” or “That’s just common sense” or “Everybody does it.” We are not always aware of those understandings but they guide us, and occasionally they can really jar us.
I learned that in being part of the driving environment in Cambodia. I could never do some of the things that Cambodian drivers take for granted.
Over time I became aware of the really different social and cultural milieu that produces Cambodian drivers, especially the fact that a really large percentage of Cambodian people have never ridden in a car or van.
In the United States, people are in cars from birth. They get a feel for driving a four-wheel vehicle: how they accelerate; allowing for a wide turn; realizing that you can’t see the wheels when moving; knowing how long and how far it takes to brake; appreciating different reaction times and distances when traveling at different speeds; etc.
Cambodian people don’t have that background. They grow up walking and on motorcycles with a completely different conditioning that influences their driving.
At some point, it dawned on me that Cambodian people drive the way they walk. Walking is their most common means of getting around and affects the way they drive. For example:
- In the U.S., when you are walking and want to turn right or left at the corner, you start slanting across to that side of the sidewalk. You won’t walk to the cross street and then make a sharp right-angle turn in the proper direction. Cambodians drive the same way. If they want to turn left, they don’t go to the intersection and make a 90º left turn. They start slanting left across the street, in the opposing lane, a hundred feet from the intersection. Of course, they meet opposing traffic. No big deal.
- When walking on a sidewalk in the U.S., you might move to the right side of the walk if you are turning right at the corner. But it’s no big deal if, when you get to the corner, you are on the left side of the walk. You just turn right and work your way through the people beside you on your right. Cambodian drivers feel the same way about turning right from the left lane or vice versa.
- When walking you can use any part of the sidewalk, go as fast or as slow as you want, use any open space, stop and back up. Cambodian drivers do the same. If there is an open space in either lane, use it. Driving in the opposing lane is acceptable.
- People don’t signal their turns when walking. Why do it when driving?
- On a sidewalk pedestrians can pass slower people at any time, in any place. Cambodian drivers do it, too.
- When waiting for a “walk” signal to cross the street, pedestrians don’t line up single file in a queue. They all line up side by side at the curb. Cambodian drivers do the same, with their motorcycles and cars side by side at the light, even in the opposing lane, not lined up single file to wait for the green.
More than the famous Temple of Angkor Wat makes this the Kingdom of Wonder.
Father Dittmeier is a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, the co-director of the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh and pastor of the English-speaking parish.