Feb 06 2013

Cycle safety in Siem Reap

Published by at 9:40 am under Transport


The area around Siem Reap is prime cycling country. It’s flat, picturesque, and — if you are lucky — quiet.  However, accident rates on Cambodia’s roads are staggeringly high, and while most of your cycling will probably be on the quieter back-roads, you will have to tackle one or more of Siem Reap’s busier “arterial routes” at some point. In accident terms, prevention is definitely better than cure, so knowing what to expect is the best way to avoid becoming a traffic police statistic. Here are just a few pointers.

Knowing what to expect can be easier said than done

Knowing what to expect can be easier said than done.

Left or right? Right or left? Cambodian attitudes to the side of the road you should drive on are as relaxed as their outlook on life. Officially it’s the right, however, on any road that is wide enough you will find also drivers coming towards you on the wrong side of the road, particularly at busy periods. After all, why would you let something trivial like the risk of a head-on collision stop you?

The best way around this is never to cycle close to the edge of the road. This will prevent you from having to take potentially dangerous evasive action when you see a moto carrying a family of five heading towards you at speed. Or one of those food hand carts with a little pitched roof, the corners of which would have your eye out in a flash.

As in most of Asia, the humble moto doubles as a family saloon

As in most of Asia, the humble moto doubles as a family saloon.

Cycling away from the edge of the road will also stand you in good stead for that other quaint Cambodian habit of pulling out into traffic without actually stopping or looking to see if there is anything coming. Sadly, despite most cars and motos now being fitted with fully functioning rear view and wing mirrors, these  are apparently only to be used for checking one’s hair or squeezing one’s spots.

Bizarrely, the few roundabouts that exist in Siem Reap present little problem for local drivers – other than that age-old dilemma of exactly who has right of way, which is not usually a serious issue provided you are cycling slowly.

One-way streets on the other hand can quite literally be an accident waiting to happen. The “No Entry” sign is universally ignored, so you will meet people coming at you as you go the right way down a one-way street. Pay particular attention when on the two one-way stretches either side of the river, where I have met tuk tuks, motos and  4x4s obliviously coasting against the flow of traffic, and even a couple of tourists on bicycles who smugly told me I was on the wrong side of the road. Ahem. The bridge that carries Road 6 over the river is also one way — in a westerly direction — but no one seems to pay any attention there either.

Left or right? Wherever you can really

Left or right? Wherever you can really.

Negotiating any kind of junction is where you are most likely to come a cropper. In Siem Reap, drivers tend to take the shortest route possible when making a turn.  That’s OK if you are turning right – same principle as turning left in the UK, Australia or New Zealand – but if turning left, (from a right hand road position) drivers here will first move to the wrong side of the road, make their turn whilst staying on the wrong side of the road and continue until there is a suitable gap through which to move to the right side. If there is no gap, then they’ll just stay on the wrong side until they reach their destination (see above).

The same rule applies whether turning into or out of a side road, which means you also stand a good chance of meeting someone head-on every time you negotiate a turning.

Food cart: It'll have your eye out, as my  old mum used to say

Food cart: It’ll have your eye out, as my old mum used to say.

Your fellow road users will undertake and overtake whenever they see the glimpse of an opportunity, and will ignore hand signals almost entirely. I nearly lost my arm to a speeding moto once when indicating my intention to turn left off the notorious Road 6. The best bet is to turn your head through 360 degrees before making any manoeuvre and you should be fine.

Finally, anything bigger than you always has right of way so you should be prepared to stop suddenly at any time. Don’t forget that the practice of flashing one’s headlights does not mean the driver is letting you through, it means “I am coming through no matter what so you’d better get out of my way”. It’s the same principle as the horn, of which you will hear plenty.

The helmet is a good idea - even better if it's on your head

The helmet is a good idea — even better if it’s on your head.

No one needs to copy the inimitable Cambodian driving style in order to enjoy a spot of cycling around Siem Reap, but as long as you are aware of what to expect, you will know why wearing a helmet, cycling slowly, and having the reactions of an Olympic sprinter in the starting blocks are all a good idea. Of course a good travel insurance policy should be a no-brainer if you are considering cycling in any unfamiliar country, and in Cambodia it could be life saver. Given the quality of locally available emergency medical care in Siem Reap, a policy that includes medical evacuation is strongly recommended too. Happy cycling!

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