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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Traffic Anarchy

In Vientiane, people drive on the right-hand side of the road.

In Bangkok, people drive on the left-hand side of the road.

In Siem Reap, people drive on both sides of the road.

Okay, so I’m exaggerating slightly, and there are Southeast Asian countries where this is closer to fact (for instance, Myanmar recently switched from left to right on fortuneteller’s advice).

But my point still stands.

Our bicycle ride to Angkor was perfect. At four in the morning, we rode along the empty streets, slicing through the thick Cambodian air, as urban storefronts became rural shanties, which in turn faded into jungle. It was strange to see the area, usually buzzing with tourists, so empty and quiet.

Regarding the sunrise, I frankly didn’t mind that the sky was overcast; Angkor Wat itself was magnificent enough. The faint black outlines of the towers slowly gained detail and precision, followed by the majestic dark grey of the stones. Finally, within a single second (or perhaps two), a third dimension swept across this mother of all temples in a flurry of towers, carvings, and color gradations, ushering in a day of exploration in what was once the greatest metropolis on Earth.

But I digress. Amidst a day of cycling among these awe-inspiring ruins, one thing never occurred to me: I still had to endure the journey back to our guesthouse. You see, Siem Reap has no stop signs, and the few traffic lights lack any sort of turn arrow. Speed limit signs are absent, and just forget about right-of-way. Put a group of fourteen cyclists amidst the chaos, and you’ll envision our late afternoon.

Along the lengthy road from Angkor to Siem Reap, we tried to remain on the far-right edge, circumventing the potholes along it. Each time we swung outward to avoid said potholes, we had to time it so that another vehicle, be it a tuk-tuk or a bus, wouldn’t crash into us. One of the cars that passed us left clouds of thick black smoke, leaving me panicked for my lungs. The most terrifying moment, however, was easily when we were trapped between a bus on our left, traveling parallel to us, and a motorcycle on our right, inexplicably traveling in the opposite direction.

This was litigators’ heaven.

I was thrilled when we arrived in Siem Reap; our troubles, however, were far from over. Due to the heavy traffic, the cars and motorbikes moved quite slowly, leaving us manoeuvring alongside them. When I encountered an obstacle, I couldn’t stop without Gai crashing into me from behind, meaning that I had to find a quick way to circumvent it. Stopping in general seems to be an anomaly here, at least for motorbikes, and crossing the intersections required impeccable timing, allowing me to pass between the lines of cars inching forward for their right turns.

In the end, we all made it back to Smiley’s Guesthouse intact, full of exhilaration from the bicycle ride. I ended the day overwhelmed with gratitude, both for seeing Angkor and for living to Yak about it.