SIEM REAP, Cambodia — A colleague who left this busy little city widely known for Angkor Wat the day before we arrived sent us this message about the traffic:
“I always feel,” said journalist Will McGough, “like I'm a few seconds away from seeing the biggest accident of my life.”
Will is right.
Controlled chaos. This being our first visit to Southeast Asia, to board the AmaDara on the new AmaWaterways ship’s maiden voyage south on the Mekong River, we had no real reference point. Maybe all Asian cities are like this, with mostly two-wheeled vehicles going every direction, but Siem Reap seems unique.
Or more unique.
There are few cars, for a city of 175,000. There’s a zillion scooters, or so it seems, many of them called tuk-tuks — a scooter or motorbike pulling the carriage in which you ride. Traffic lights are also rare; in fact we don’t remember seeing one, and it’s understandable. Nobody would pay attention to them anyway.
The biggest accident of Will’s life never happened. Not for him. Not for us. In four days here, nary a crash. And then, on to Saigon…
To use a baseball analogy, Siem Reap was like spring training. Perhaps because of the sheer size of the South Vietnam hub that’s also known as Ho Chi Minh City. It has a population of nine million people…and seven million scooters. No kidding. That was a matter-of-fact statement made by two people we encountered.
If the biggest accident of Will’s life was imminent in Siem Reap, the biggest accident in history was imminent in Saigon. Pictures, even videos, don’t really do it justice. There are more traffic lights in Saigon and people actually stop at them. Sort of. There are even crosswalks for pedestrians, but they’re mostly for decorative purposes.
“Walk at the same pace. Don’t run. Don’t stop, even if you think somebody’s going to hit you. Make eye contact with the driver of any vehicle(s) you think might be of danger. You will get to the other side if you follow these instructions.”
If you watch locals do this, it’s clear that it works. The confident, calm look on their faces tells you they’re not worried. Why should you be?
So we weren’t. One fine day in Saigon, during rush hour (aka, even more chaotic), we walked across a main thoroughfare three times. One of us even felt comfortable doing it, despite the fingernail marks dug into his hand.
And yes, we lived to talk — or write — about it.
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