Pursued by Police in Phnom Penh
An email from the road
November 25, 2006
We have arrived in SE Asia safely, but with no baggage. Thanks to Air Canada Toronto and their lack of ability to transfer bags between terminals (and Continental canceling our Ott-NYC flight), we had no luggage until an hour ago. We spent our time in Toronto and NYC running between terminals sorting out flights and bags. Most unpleasant. But the first step on board Singapore Airlines’ giant plane relaxed us. Believe it or not, on the 18 hour 40 min flight we never once thought “oh my god how long until i can get off of this airplane?”
Finally arriving in Cambodia via Singapore, we start the bag search process. It takes an hour of paper work at the airport and R needing to go into the back office to read the one computer screen. But, 24 hours after our arrival, we get a call that our bags have arrived, and we get the hotel driver to take us out to the airport, with visions of clothing we haven’t been wearing for 3 days straight dancing in our heads. Phnom Penh is hot. I’d say 35 degrees, plus huge amounts of humidity. We don’t smell so pleasant.
There is lots of traffic here. Not Hanoi levels, but it is a bit nerve-wracking to cross the street. The traffic is bicycles, tuktuks, mopeds, and the occasional car. There are no real rules – people drive mostly on the right (but not exclusively) and weave in and around each other. If a street should be two lanes of traffic, it is really four, with the curb “lane” going the opposite direction to the traffic in the real lane beside it. People honk their intentions, no signal lights. Intersections are a free-for-all – we haven’t quite figured out how they figure out who goes where and when. At the major intersections police are stationed off to the side, in the shade, quite detached from the traffic mayhem playing out. We have seen 2 traffic lights. Total. In a city with a population of almost 2 million.
During our airport ride, the half day Saturday school session has let out and there are teenagers in uniform everywhere doubling (and tripling) younger kids on mopeds and bikes.
We arrive at the airport and our bags are in our hands!
Back we go to the hotel. At an intersection the van in front of us mysteriously stops. A police officer has flagged him down. The driver is talking to the officer, through the closed window. Our driver impatiently honks him forward. The police officer comes over to our window and our driver keeps moving. We drive past and hear the sound of a fist pounding the trunk as we scoot through.
We drive on, and suddenly a (another?) police officer on motorcycle appears beside us. He plays chicken with our driver, clearly egging him on, driving closer and closer to the front wheel, both at slow speed. The motorcycle pulls in front of us, brakes hard a few times, as does our driver. And then the motorcycle stops so quickly that our driver accidentally bumps his rear tire. Not hard, but a bump all the same. Shouting ensues, again through closed windows. We stare wide-eyed.
The police officer dismounts with his bike next to the car, and steps in front of the left bumper. More Cambodian short, terse sentences, accompanied by frantic gesticulation by both parties. The officer reaches inside his vest and unbuttons a pouch, which we fear is a holster. R thinks “should we duck left or right?” But all the officer draws is his radio. We finally hear a word we understand … the driver turns back and looks at us, says “sorrr-eeeee”, and puts pedal to the metal and off we go.
We are thrown back into our seats as the car strikes the police officer square-on. He lands half-way up the hood, rolling into the windshield. He slides off to the left side, landing on his feet next to the driver’s door, as we rocket into the mid-day traffic, horn honking, tires squealing, palms sweating (ours, we assume the driver’s too).
We weave in and out of tuktuks, bikes and mopeds, whipping around corners. The streets are packed with vehicles and pedestrians, not to mention all the school kids on bikes. Our driver tries desperately to evade the pursuing police officer (who has remounted his motorcycle), AND avoid hitting anyone, or anything. Generally in Cambodia, horns tend to work to get people ahead to move out of the way, but not fast enough for us in the noon traffic.
We lurch and screech furiously for several blocks. I clutch the door white-knuckled, and uselessly squeeze my eyes shut at a couple intersections. R watches for oncoming vehicles, bracing himself to pull me over to his side of the car, or jump in my lap, as needed.
Suddenly we screech to a halt in front of our hotel. The police motorcycle pulls up beside us 2 seconds later, and the rather agitated officer dismounts. Our driver hurriedly gets out, opens the trunk and he and the hotel security guard get our luggage out for us. We whisk ourselves away from the scene, as the driver racewalks to the front desk, we assume to get the help of his boss. We run up to our balcony, but the action is all over by the time we get there. We collapse on the floor, shaking and giggling nervously at what we had just been through ….
All to say though, Cambodia is a lovely place. People are very nice, the food is delicious, and we’re having a great time (and we feel 100% safe – traffic adventure aside).
Will check in again soon. Please, no one forward this to our mothers!