Negotiating with Market Vendors

9 05 2012

Buying things at the market in Cambodia isn’t always like market shopping in other parts of the world. In many countries, you are expected to negotiate. If you don’t, it’s almost like they’re offended. Sometimes they’ll even tell you that you need to negotiate if you try to pay the initial asking price. Not so in Cambodia. Here, some will negotiate while others won’t; you never know what you’re going to get.

When at the market, I always start by trying to negotiate because those vendors that do often mark up the price dramatically. And they’re not ashamed to take you for as much as they possibly can. Other vendors convey a strongly ambivalent attitude. They act like they couldn’t care less if you buy anything or not. They aren’t interested in negotiating and they’re response to typical negotiating tactics is a skeptical look that says, “Look, I told you what the price is. You can either take it or leave it – I don’t care.” The thing is, you often don’t know which kind of vendor you have.

Every once in a while, you’ll get the obnoxiously persistent vendor who shoves something in your face and when you tell them you don’t want that, they’ll immediately shove something else in front of you. This kind of vendor will almost certainly negotiate,  but they’re not in the majority.

So my advice for the next time you’re shopping at a market in Cambodia is to try negotiating and don’t be afraid to start low. There will almost certainly be multiple vendors selling the same thing so you can always go somewhere else. A big exception is if you see something you really want and looks unique. If you’re looking to get a good price you really shouldn’t buy something at the first place you see it because of that reason. Try negotiating with different vendors for the same item and you’ll start to see what the real price is. I’ve even gone back to the same shop on a different day and ended up talking to a different person. I found that the original person actually started with the best price and had the take it or leave it attitude. When I came back, the second person started with a much higher price but was willing to negotiate. Knowing what I could actually get it for (based on the price the other person gave me) was very effective.


Tread Marks on Top of My Shoes

10 04 2012

My shoes, which are normally flip flops, often have tire marks painted in mud or dust across the top of them and it used to drive me nuts. Who would be so rude to drive over my shoes?

As might seem obvious to most, living in a foreign country can require quite a bit of cultural adjustment. Some of these adjustments are quite easy to guess – things like music and food usually top the list. Other things don’t seem quite so obvious and can even be surprising. It may be these less obvious areas that often provide the most challenge to adapting to a new culture. One area that caught me off guard is the difference in attitude towards property and privacy.

In the United States, we have a culture that celebrates the individual. Strongly linked to individualism are the personal rights of property and privacy. Ownership seems to be sacred. It’s wrong to take something that is not yours. To use or (even worse) to abuse something that belongs to someone else without permission can be criminal. Likewise, the right of privacy is something that Americans value very highly. We are offended when others overstep the bounds of proper questioning. Age and weight are personal information, for example, and it’s considered extremely rude to ask about either in most circumstances. Doctors get a pass on that because it’s necessary information for them to provide proper medical treatment.

Unlike the US, Cambodia tends to be a much more community oriented culture. Large low income families and village life often make sharing a necessity. This starts from the earliest ages where even simple things like beds are shared, and it’s not uncommon for several people to have the same bed. Meals are typically family style, a practice that is sometimes true in the US, but more and more on the decline. In community cultures, especially at the village level, it seems that everyone knows about everyone else and any event is worth sharing. Little is left to private knowledge.

Because I am coming from a culture of strong individualism into a culture of strong communal living some adjustments have been necessary when I come across the areas these differences play out.

The tire marks on my shoes are an excellent example of the different attitudes toward property. In Cambodia, as in many Asian cultures, shoes are removed before entering a home and many other buildings and left in front. There’s a lot of dirt that gathers on soles of the shoes, and removing them before entering keeps the dirt out of the house. Even with shoes removed, my house needs to be mopped daily because there is so much dust in the air, so you can imagine how bad it would get if shoes were left on. It’s not uncommon to see 50 pairs of shoes loosely piled up in front of an entrance of a building where a lot of people are. And they’re piled up without an orderly kind of arrangement. They get kicked and jostled around as people come and go. Finding shoes when leaving a place like church can sometimes be quite an experience. I guess that as a result, shoes are seen in a pragmatic light much more than in a stylish one. On top of that add motos to the mix. At least in Poipet, shoes are often very close to where people park their motos (motorbikes). People don’t seem to be concerned at all about riding over someone else’s shoes to get where they want to go. As a result, I sometimes find tire tread marked across the surface of my shoes. As an American, I found myself flabbergasted the first time I experienced this. I had to remind myself that this was their country, and their culture, that I brought my shoes into. It’s part of the price of living here.

It’s not only the shoes though. There are other areas where this clash of attitudes towards property comes into play. The first time I saw someone sitting on my moto, I was really surprised. Now I’m rather used to it. It’s not uncommon to come out and find that the foot rests on the back of my moto are down because someone has been sitting on it. Sometimes, one of the mirrors is skewed in the wrong direction because someone wanted to admire themselves in it. I laugh sometimes as I imagine some poor Cambodian fellow visiting the United States and sitting on someone’s Hog outside of a biker bar. Can’t imagine that going over too well. The attitude here, however, seems to be that if you’re not using it and I’m not hurting anything then it’s no problem to sit on it.

I’ve never actually heard it said, but this attitude of you’re not using it so I will seems to occur all the time. The one that got me the most was when my next door neighbors started using my back porch for their trash and for hanging their laundry out to dry. I don’t really have much of a backyard, just a covered cement porch about 3 feet wide and another patch of dirt that goes for about another 3 feet. I hadn’t really been using it as there’s not much I can do with it (though I’m thinking that at some point I may get a BBQ) and some weeds were growing in the dirt. One day there were some new posts and a bar across them with the weeds slightly trampled down. By that night, there were clothes hanging on them. I didn’t really care too much for it since I really didn’t want a laundry mat right behind my house, but that wasn’t the only problem.

Maybe it’s because they are so used to everyone know just about everything about everyone else that lives around them that privacy doesn’t really seem to be a concern. Cambodians tend to be very curious about others. It’s not uncommon for someone you don’t know to ask where you are going or what you are going to do. I’ve been told that this is something that’s actually seen as polite. They must see Americans as secretive s we’re not really comfortable sharing things like this with people we don’t know. Nor does it seem to be a problem to ask how old you are or how much you weigh. Weighing a lot considered healthy and they often seem baffled when I say that I’m trying to lose weight.

So it was with my neighbor’s curiosity that I drew the line. One evening not long after they put up their laundry, one of the neighbor girls was standing doing the laundry and just staring into my kitchen. Yeah, I wasn’t real jazzed about that, so I decided that the laundry line had to come to an end. Now I’m not much of a green thumb, but my little patch of dirt now has a little flower garden where the laundry used to be.

My garden, my neighbors' laundry.

I see that it’s been way too long since I last updated the blog. However, I’ve made a list of things I’d like to share over the next several months and am hoping to start regularly posting again. If there’s anything in particular about Cambodia, the culture, the ministry here, or otherwise, please let me know and if it’s something that I can say something interesting about, I will. Thanks! Jeff

Safe Army

29 07 2011

On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to go with Chomno to a small border town for a presentation to the troops on the Safe Army Project. The Safe Army Project is a new project for CHO that has just begun this year. It is designed to train the soldiers that work along the border that their jobs are not just protecting the border, but include the protection of at-risk children. Many children cross the border at these smaller border crossings or between border crossing stations and are often being trafficked. Until now, they largely went ignored by border soldiers who haven’t seen it as part of their job to deal with these kids.

The project is also designed to help these soldiers recognize the need to end domestic violence. Being a soldier in Cambodia is not a lofty position. The troops are generally composed of poor, uneducated men often who cannot read or write. Pay is low for these men, but they have few alternatives. Soldiering here tends to be a career for life. Unfortunately, these men often take what little money they earn and spend it on alcohol and their families are left destitute. Given the alcohol, the hard life, and lack of funds, domestic violence is frequently the unfortunate by product as these men take out their frustration on their wives and children.

That's a lot of corn!

Chomno and I left early and drove the muddy border road for a couple of hours to reach the school where the training was taking place. For those that know the area at all, it is located about an hour past Mallay. This is the first time I’ve travelled along this particular road and past several small border crossings. These are places rarely visited by Westerners and I could tell by the looks I got that the people weren’t used to seeing any in the neighborhood (not unfriendly, just much more curious than usual).

When we arrived at the school, we were warmly welcomed by the District Supervisor, a civilian politician roughly equivalent to a mayor, and the soldiers. Within minutes of our arrival, a general showed up who is highly respected in the area. We all bowed to one another and shook hands, then were led inside. I hadn’t known exactly what to expect, but it turned out to be a morning of speeches introducing the soldiers. This was the third group the three-day training would be done with. One of the senior CHO educators, a former military officer, had trained one of the military trainers and the training itself is actually performed by the military. CHO monitors the training and provides feedback. This way, the training is given the weight of command rather than just a recommended course of behavior by outside civilian advisors.

It was interesting to be a present for the morning. Even though I was just an observer, as someone attached to CHO I was treated with great honor and seated up front with Chomno, the General and the District Supervisor. The agenda included an initial address by one of the squad leaders, complete with salutes to the General. Then the speeches began. First by the District Supervisor, then Chomno, and then the General. It was all in Khmer, and I don’t know enough yet to know what was said, but it was interesting to watch. After the speeches was a round of photos.

Chomno and I were then invited to an early lunch (10:30 a.m.) with the General and District Supervisor at a local restaurant. During lunch, the General told Chomno that he really believes in the training that is taking place and expressed an interest in further training with more soldiers. He also said that he wants the training to be conducted with the military police and the border police with whom he has significant influence. It’s exciting to see how God is opening the doors for CHO to be involved in much needed training here and it is our hope that through this project there will be many opportunities to introduce these soldiers, officers and politicians to Christ.

We headed back to Poipet after lunch. On the way back, we had a short wait at a narrow spot in the road where a truck loaded with dried corn had tipped over onto its side. A lot of corn is grown in the region and driven in big trucks to a local factory that makes feed for chickens and pigs out of it. The trucks are filled with bags of corn extremely high and are quite a sight to see. Soon we were past the fallen truck and on our way back. It’s amazing how much difference a few hours here makes. The roads that just a few hours before were slippery with mud had dried up and the drive home was much easier going than coming.

Khmer New Year

19 04 2011

(Not a lot of pics in this post until the end – water and cameras don’t play well together).

Last week was Khmer New Year (April 14-16). It’s the third time the new year is celebrated in Cambodia. First is the calendar year, which isn’t a huge celebration. Second is Chinese New Year, which is celebrated, particularly with lots of firecrackers. There is a Chinese legend that says the noise is supposed to drive evil spirits away for the year, but I think they just like lighting them – at least the kids do. Khmer New Year, or Song Kran in Thailand, is celebrated with great enthusiasm. April is supposed to be the hottest time of the year and Khmer New Year involves lots of people throwing water on each other, which kind of makes sense.

As we got closer to the Khmer new year, many people asked where I would go for the holiday. I said I was planning on staying in Poipet and they looked at me like I was crazy. I’d heard a number of horror stories about how aggressive and even violent people here could get. Stories of water balloon being thrown like baseballs and people getting knocked off their motos. I figured that I had to be here at least once, so I could see what it all looks like first hand.

The new year lasts three days, but people start leaving as early as the weekend before taking a couple days off (much like Thanksgiving week in the US) and the amount of people in Poipet was noticeably less early in the week. In the past, everything shuts down on major holidays and Poipet can seem almost like a ghost town. However, when the first day arrived there were plenty of people out and about.

I didn’t know quite what to expect. Unlike Chinese New Year, there were no fireworks, but there was plenty of loud music and the Wats (temples) were in full operation with lots of people visiting them. There’s one on the other side of a field from the back of my house, and it was very active. Fortunately the music, which basically sounds like a jack in the box on a xylophone and is played all day long, would end about 11 o’clock at night.

On Wednesday night, the night before the first day of the holiday, at about 7 p.m. there was a knock on the folding tin security gate that I close at night. The only time anyone knocks on it is to give me a bill, cable and electric, but I had already gotten both bills for the month and so I was curious as I went to check. When I opened the gate, there was a smiling old woman who was missing a few teeth holding a tray of food. She started speaking in Khmer and though I’ve learned enough to have some short conversations, I couldn’t follow what she was saying. She didn’t let that stop her though and continued talking and handed me the tray, smiling the whole time. Turns out that she lives a few doors down and knew I lived alone. I was really touched because usually I either just get stared at or laughed at by my Khmer neighbors.

I’d been invited to spend some time with the kids at the Happy Home, so on Friday, I decided to head out into the mayhem. Now April is supposed to get ridiculously hot; kind of like a thousand dogs panting on you. I’d heard that last year had gotten up to 115F (that a whopping 46.1C for you metric users). This year is weird though, and I’m not complaining, because it’s stayed a relatively cool 90F (32.2C). Anyway, as I rode through town, there were a lot of people standing on the edge of the street with buckets, water guns, water balloons, and hoses. I fully expected to be drenched by the time I got to the Happy Home. I was totally surprised because though lots of people smiled at me, no one threw any water. Later, I heard that the government had gone all through the country last year asking people to tone it down and be nicer. Well, I guess they listened because by the time I got to the home I had only gotten a few stray drops of water on me.

I guess I arrived at the perfect time because only about 15 minutes later I joined a bunch of the kids on the back of one of the trucks, which was loaded up with a big barrel of water, a couple of buckets of water balloons (plastic bags filled with water), and some squirt guns. We started making our way back down the roads and it was a very different experience than my ride in. This time the water was flying. It didn’t take long before I was completely soaked. Nobody was particularly aggressive or mean and it all seemed to be done in good fun. I remember seeing an older grandma type lady that tossed a huge bucket of water at us, smiling the whole time, which is so different than the reserved exterior one usually expects to see from the older women here. The day was warm enough that the water was very refreshing. Of course, every now and then I’d get hit by a bucket full of water that was ice cold, which was still refreshing but with a little more shock value. We all had a really good time.

One thing that is kind of odd is that sometimes someone will run up and try to rub a handful of scented baby powder on your face. You see lots of people with white smears on their cheeks and chins. I got smeared with this a couple of times. I’m not quite sure why they do it, but it’s quite common. Didn’t seem to last too long because there’s so much water and it soon washes off. Then again, there’s so many things they do that I don’t understand, this just seems par for the course.

When we got back to the Happy Home I was invited to stay for a BBQ they were having. The kids at the home are such a blast to hang out with, and I had brought some In-N-Out Burger hats my parents had included in a care package, so it seemed like exactly the right opportunity to hand them out. The kids loved the hats and we all had a great time sharing a meal.

All in all I’m really happy I got to spend Khmer New Year in Poipet.

What a BBQ is all about!

Into the Jungle

4 04 2011

A couple weeks ago, I had the chance to experience a new adventure. I went into the Cambodian jungle to a village far out of town to spend a couple days training church leaders.

In northwestern Cambodia, it seems that calling anything a true jungle is really a misnomer. Much of the land has been denuded through illegal logging and the history of warfare here.

My friends at CHO told me the ride would take about two hours and would mostly be over very bumpy dirt roads. This was going to be interesting. Up until now, the longest ride I’d taken on my moto was out to Safe Haven, which I can make in about 15-20 minutes. So two hours over rough conditions might be really difficult. Well, the CHO guys were only half right. Once we left the main highway, the road was dirt, but I was pleasantly surprised that it was generally very smooth and we were able to make really good time.

The road is about to get a little bumpier

After being on the dirt road for a little over an hour, we stopped to get some bottled water and some refreshments. I could see that the road here was about to change and become much more rough. But I also realized that I had been to this same place about three years before while visiting with a team from my church. The place had changed a lot and the last time we had come the roads had been a lot more difficult. Even though the road ahead looked a little more challenging, I was pretty sure that we wouldn’t have far to go, and the upcoming road looked much better and wider than when I had been here last.

We got back on and rode, and indeed the ride only took another 15 minutes and the road really wasn’t that bad. We stopped right where I remembered. It’s a small village of former Khmer Rouge, but the majority of the people are too young to have been involved. It’s also an area mostly ignored by NGO’s and aid organizations because of the background of the people there.

We stayed with one of the pastors at his home, which is also a small rice mill

We were served lunch and then the pastors began to arrive. It was a joy to recognize a lot of the faces because many of them had come to pastor trainings put on at CHO in the past. One old man that I recognized began to talk to me and told me (through the translator) that he heard I would be teaching in this village. He said it was far for him to come, but because I was the one teaching he wanted to be there. At this point I’m feeling slightly awkward, but happy that he’s appreciated the teaching in the past. But he went on to share that in the past he’d had a chronic cough. He said the people in his village would laugh at him and God because God hadn’t healed him. He then said that he had come to a pastor training that I had taught at and when he left his cough had been healed. He says that now the people in his village don’t laugh at him or at God anymore. I don’t have any recollection of praying for him or his cough, but I was excited to see how God had worked in his life and how his faith and witness had grown.

In the Word!

We spent that afternoon and the next day going through Mark chapter 1 and going over some basic Bible study techniques. Everyone was very attentive, willing to participate, and seemed to do well. The answers they shared from their group exercises showed that they really seem to be getting it.

This Mosquito doesn't bite

While we were there, one pastor’s children was a little girl who was maybe four years old who just watched me and looked at me like she wasn’t too sure if I was OK. I’d smile at her and try to get her to talk but she wouldn’t say anything. Eventually, I was able to get her to share her name, which she said so softly that that I couldn’t quite it make out, but sounded a little like “mo—ee—o”. So naturally, I started calling her Mosquito. At first she stood about 10 feet away and wouldn’t come any closer. My translator Sophy would talk to her and she’d respond. Sophy asked her a question, and then told me that Mosquito said she thought I looked strange. Mosquito had never seen a white person before. She wouldn’t smile but wouldn’t stop looking at me either. Gradually she would get a little closer and a little closer, and eventually was brave enough to quickly touch my arm. I smiled back at her. I guess she figured I wouldn’t bite and so started touching the hair on my arm. That’s something children (and even some adults) here do a lot with westerners because most of the locals don’t have hairy arms or legs. Well, not long after, Mosquito must have thought that despite my strangeness that I was OK because true to the name I had given her, she wouldn’t leave me alone. During the break should grab my little finger in her little hand and lead me around to show me all kinds of things she thought was interesting. And just like any girl, regardless of the fact that I couldn’t really understand what she was saying, she would talk and talk and talk.

It gets dark early when you’re not in a well lit house. A single light powered by a battery dropped off earlier in the afternoon glowed under the eaves of the rice mill/house where we were staying. Other than my translator, nobody spoke English. So I practiced a little Khmer with some of the kids and having recently learned the name for different body parts I would ask them where their arms or noses or toes were. I guess they thought this was quite fun because soon I had a whole troop ranging from even younger than Mosquito to kids in their early teens touching their ears and shoulders and knees. It helped me as well because a couple of times I couldn’t remember a word quite right and they were more than happy to point out that I had just said something that didn’t make sense. So like the pied piper I now had a whole troop of kids, but rather than leading them around they started leading me around.

Even as the night got dark, the moon was bright and fairly full and cast enough light to leave a shadow behind you. In the distance were dense clouds where lightning played and thundered and would occasionally light up with hidden bolts opaquely visible through the foremost clouds. Even though it was dark out, there didn’t seem to be any supervision of the children who were more than happy to organize themselves into two teams to play various group games. I watched them and soon they brought me into their circle to play as well though about half the time I couldn’t quite figure out what it was I was supposed to do. They didn’t seem to care though and just acted happy to have me with them. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, kids are cool. If you don’t think so, then you probably need to realize you’re just too much of an old fogey.

One of the guys was nice enough to have set up my hammock for me at some point in the evening. This particular style of hammock is a fairly neat contraption. It zips up into a little padded briefcase size bag, but opens to a full size hammock with a built in mosquito net. A puppy was sleeping nearby, and as I was checking out the set-up and making some minor alterations to the hammock and trying to get the mosquito net into a position where it wouldn’t be sitting directly on my face, the pastor who lived there quietly rolled a moto up to keep it out of the impeding rain. It wasn’t turned on and he didn’t see the sleeping puppy lying right in his path. I looked over just at the last second and didn’t have a chance to warn him before he rolled the front tire over the little dog. I don’t think he was injured, but it completely scared the poor little dude, and probably didn’t feel too good either. Of course the first thing the little guy saw was me, and he must have thought I was the one who did it because for the next half hour he wouldn’t stop barking at me. Add to that, the noise of the kids who continued to play in the background until quite late and the strangeness of sleeping in a new hammock and… well let’s just say I didn’t sleep much that night.

Our classroom

Tuesday was a full day of teaching, and though we had originally planned to stay through Wednesday morning, Pastor Sorouen said he wanted to take care of some administrative stuff with the pastors on Wednesday morning and that Sophy and I could head back to Poipet if we wanted. Not having gotten much if any sleep and still having a few hours of light left (it was only about 3:30 in the afternoon when we finished), I was all for hitting the road. We said our fairwells and headed out. The forecast had predicted rain, and though the day had been cloudy, the rain hadn’t materialized. Well, about 20 minutes out of Poipet, the skies started getting those dark, heavy clouds that threaten imminent rainfall. We kicked up the speed and raced to get back before the deluge began. Though there were a few light drops, we made it back safely. Once home, I jumped in for a quick shower to wash away the grime and by the time I got out, the sky had ripped open and was dumping water so hard you could barely see across the street. I’m so glad to have a gracious Lord!

God is My 911

2 03 2011

It was around 3 a.m. on Sunday Morning. I was lying on my back, looking at the ceiling, thinking “these stairs are hard”. Why was I lying on the stairs? It wasn’t intentional.

My bedroom's small shower/bath

I had gotten up to use the restroom and noticed a little water on the bathroom floor. That wasn’t particularly unusual since there is a showerhead and a faucet right next to the toilet, but it did strike me as odd because neither the showerhead nor faucet seemed to be leaking. It was then that I noticed a damp spot in the top corner of my rather small bathroom that wasn’t supposed to be wet. So I opened the door to my room and heard a rapid dripping. Looking to my right I saw water streaming down the wall from the upstairs and dripping onto the bottom of the stairs going into the kitchen. I went up to check things out and the upstairs bedroom was flooded (thankfully everything here is tile!). I started back down to turn off the water to the house when my wet feet hit the stairs. My stairs are made of a finished concrete and are apparently extremely slippery when wet. (Note to self: buy some grip tape.) It’s amazing the number of thoughts you can process in the time it takes to go from standing on your feet to slamming onto your back: “that was stupid of me I should have known I would slip because everything is wet and why aren’t I holding onto the railing I think this is going to hurt…”

Spine meets stairs

The impact zone was the middle of my back. My landing was accompanied by a nice crunching sound as my spine adjusted all the way up and down. The impact was so jarring that my lungs seemed to have seized up and my normal respiratory functions ceased. I tried breathing but nothing happened. So I took a big gasp and finally my lungs seemed to open and start filling with air. It then took another three or four follow-up gasps before normal, automatic breathing resumed.

As I lay there, it hit me that Cambodia doesn’t have a 911 or similar emergency call system. I live alone and my house is bolted up from the inside. It made me wonder how long it would take them to find my body. Maybe the unchecked flooding would tip them off. For the moment though, I was on my own.

I tried wiggling my fingers and toes and both responded nicely, so I figured I didn’t have paralysis yet. Then I slowly stood up hoping that I wouldn’t sever my spinal cord with a broken bone. I slowly went through that self diagnostic process where you move your neck slowly and test basic movement to see if any additional pain comes into play. So far so good.

Now the thing I wanted to do was go straight back into my room and lie down, but the water was still flowing and the constant stream of dripping was continuing unabated. So I headed down the stairs gripping the railing and stepping carefully and entered a kitchen filled with water. Turned on the lights and saw that there was a lot of water, but still a dry area around the fridge. I waded through, unlocked the padlock on the backdoor, went out and turned off the water main. Then I spent the next 2 and a half hours cleaning up water.

My House - when the shutter gate is closed and locked from the inside, there's no good way into the house from outside. Good for protection, bad for rescue.

While cleaning everything up, that natural tendency to ask, “why me?” started creeping in. But then God started reminding me of things:  I wouldn’t have this problem if I didn’t have a nice place to live, I could have woken up a few hours later to a lot more water, or I could have been hurt so much worse (it’s amazing that I didn’t hit my head!). So instead of complaining, I began to thank God for watching out for me, for providing all that I need, and for keeping me safe. It’s amazing how that little change in perspective can radically alter one’s attitude.

The whole experience has made me think about how so many of our safety nets aren’t available here: a 911 system, good medical facilities, emergency workers, even easy access to one’s home for those non-existent emergency workers. God truly is my only reliable 911, there’s little other choice. The thing is, He always has been, and it’s only now that it’s really becoming clear to me.

Poipet Traffic Survival

16 01 2011

As I ride down the road on my moto, I am amazed at how often my survival takes the same kinds of skills those old stand up games required. As I’m  surrounded by all the craziness, I sometimes get the feeling that I’ve done this before. I remember one game where you played a little pixel dude riding a raft down a river. You had to avoid logs and other debris, waterfalls, crocodiles and snakes, and even other rafters. The roads here are pretty much the same. Debris and the occasional snake can be found on the roads here, but they’re the least of your danger. (After almost riding over a snake for the second time, I told one of my Cambodian friends about it. He said, “You’re so lucky, I’ve never seen a snake in Poipet!” Somehow it didn’t seem so lucky to me. But after thinking about it a while, I decided it makes sense. You see, you don’t walk into a room telling everyone, “Hey, guess what? I saw a snake!” if you’ve been bitten. If you’re bitten, you say, “Help! A snake bit me!” or probably just “AAArrggh!”  So I figure, if you’re only seeing a snake instead of being bitten, you’re lucky. But that’s just me.) No waterfalls in the road either, although there can be some flooding in the rainy season. No, the main problem here is the other drivers.

First of all, there aren’t really any rules of the road here, merely suggestions. For instance, there’s a yellow line that runs down the middle of the street. In the West, that line means traffic going one way stays on one side, and traffic going the other way stays on the other. Most people generally take that suggestion here, but not all. In the minds of many, the oncoming traffic lane here is really just a passing lane. And the bigger and faster the vehicle is, the more likely that vehicle is going to be in the passing lane. I remember on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride-like trip in a taxi driving down to Phnom Penh. The driver would pass someone and then just stay in the oncoming traffic lane because there was another car to pass about a half mile ahead. Sometimes he’d even stay in the lane when there wasn’t another car to pass in sight, but I can’t really figure out why. Busses and trucks are the worst. I guess they figure oncoming motos are really just nothing more than potential speed bumps. Then you have the double pass. I’m not talking about one car passing the two cars in front of it – that’s so common here, it doesn’t even catch my attention anymore. No, I’m talking about the car, truck, or even bus that passes vehicle 1 which is already in the process of passing vehicle 2.

I’m finding that the spatial judgment, hand eye coordination, and reflex skills I honed playing video games in my youth are now helping keep me alive. There are no streetlights and no stop signs in Poipet. So left hand turns are an adventure in themselves. There is no such thing here as the stop and wait for an opening kind of left hand turn. Instead, there are two basic maneuvers I see here commonly.

Maneuver One, I’ll call the Three Doors Turn. The reason I’m calling this the Three Doors Turn is because the turn begins about three buildings (hence doors) before the street the person is trying to get onto. In the turn, the driver merely drifts into oncoming traffic and gradually works his or her way over the desired street (See Figure 1). I’m often faced (literally) with people making Three Door Turns. At first, it was a little shocking, but now I’ve gotten used to it though it still sometimes irks me when they beep me to get out of their way.

Maneuver Two, I’m calling the Extended Juke. A juke is that sports move where you act like you’re going to go one direction but then switch to the other side to get past the other player. The Extended Juke is kind of like that but worse, and usually in slow motion. Unlike the Three Doors Turn, which drivers of all kinds of vehicles make, the Extended Juke is only performed by moto drivers. In the Extended Juke, the moto driver turns on the left hand blinker, but then moves to the right to pretty much the edge of the right lane. But wait, there’s more! Once having moved to the right the Juker then does a sharp turn to the left briefly glancing behind to make sure there isn’t anyone within five feet and then guns it to cross all lanes of traffic to reach the desired left hand turn location (See Figure 2). Though not nearly as popular as the Three Door Turn, I figure they must teach this in Cambodian Driver’s Ed because the Extended Juke happens here with surprising frequency.

Finally, there are the numerous pedestrians crossing the street. Most of the time, they aren’t a problem. But every now and then there are a few who seem to be vying for this year’s Darwin Award. A related challenge is not those crossing the street, but just walking parallel to traffic, but still in the road. At first this just seemed bizarre. However, sidewalks aren’t a concept that have been introduced to the Cambodian mind. Walking along the side of the road, means you’re actually walking along someone’s property. Some people seem to be less comfortable with that idea and would rather risk the traffic. The biggest challenge with pedestrians is when the sun goes down. For some reason, people wearing dark clothing expect you to be able to see them as they mosey out across the street – often at an angle rather than perpendicular.

I’ve now been here over 6 months, and the closest I’ve come to getting into an accident is when I skidded a little avoiding the snake I mentioned earlier. I think that God, in His Divine providence, put a desire to play those video games at a young age knowing that one day they would save my life. My mother can now rest assured that those quarters I begged off her all those years ago, did in fact Not go to waste.