Monday, October 4, 2010

The Last Night of my Life: Or Why I Will Never Ride a Taxi at Night in Cambodia

As I was heading home from the K4 (Kampuchea group 4) Swear-In ceremony - also known as the “rabies booster and flu shot stick-it-to-em round-up” – I thought I was going to die. Actually, I was very certain of it. For starters, the taxi that was “supposed” to leave at 2pm …didn’t leave until 6pm. Us Peace Corps Volunteers are not allowed to take transportation at night because of a number of things … things which I discovered after my experience; reasons that were and are legitimate grounds as to why a person should not attempt a nighttime jaunt on a Cambodian highway. But I will get to those later.

I, aware (but only blithely so) of the dangers, gave it a shrug and a sigh and texted my friends back in Phnom Penh at how annoying it was that I had been waiting in a taxi van for over three hours to leave. Most taxi vans must wait until it is economically viable before leaving - usually this is a certain number of people and or packages. We, apparently, did not have enough. As soon as we started to move along, a little after 6 pm, the rain started. For the first 20 minutes it was a medium to light rain (a drizzle one might say), but that was only the appetizer. The real party started nearly half an hour into the trip. If I had been driving in the Pacific Northwest even I would’ve considered pulling over (and we PNWers have mad skills at driving in the rain). Well the taxi van DID NOT have functioning windshield wipers AND the driver still chose to drive like the crazy taxi driver he was/is and pass anyone who thought to go below the speed limit. Can’t see the road? No problem for Mr. Taxi Driver.

As the windshield wipers would stick mid swing he would continue to drive (the manual) van and reach ACROSS the windshield to unstick it. I was lucky to have a front seat ticket to this show. Anyone who knows me knows I am fairly nervous passenger and this definitely put me on – if not over- the edge. I started thinking of all the last text messages, emails, and phone calls I had made – the final correspondence in which I would be judged for the rest of my family and friends living memories. Madly I kept hitting the invisible brake with my right foot.

The rain lightened eventually (as did my heart rate) and we came to the ferry crossing. To get to my province or Vietnam for that matter, you must take Highway 1 which “crosses” the Mekong. Or will cross the Mekong within the next few years (they just started to build a bridge). Currently it has a ferry crossing – fine during normal daytime hours that are not holidays- but a complete nightmare at night. You must wait there until there are enough cars to make the ferry trip feasible. And the ferry wasn’t even on our side of the river. The good thing about it raining, and being dark outside, is that there wasn’t the normal amount of sellers hounding us to buy their wares. “Hats?” “Fried grasshoppers?” “The latest Cambodian fashion magazines?” “Coka?”“Beer?” “Wine?” “Cigarettes?” You name it – they got it.

Unfortunately I was a bit hungry at this point – it was nearly 8pm and I would not be able to make it to my house in time for dinner…and so I was kind of missing the drive-up service. I opened the door of the van and looked at the river of water which was flowing above the highway underneath my feet and then into the dark, peering into the surrounding abyss and searching desperately in the direction of something edible. The friend of the taxi driver saw my hungry eyes and volunteered to go get me some hot meaty porridge, or “bohboh”. I gladly accepted and handed him the money.

Usually I am not a bohboh fan, unless I am at a place where I know it will be good, like friends’ houses, or parties, etc. But “side-of-the-street” bohboh? Not so much. Of course it initially tasted delicious, but as soon as I got to the meaty parts I started to have second thoughts. In the catalogue of meats and meat parts I recognized some chicken and… squid? The parts of the chicken I recognized were leg and … stomach? Whereas squid… well it looked like squid.

After nearly 45 minutes we were off again! I was so happy just to be moving I nearly forgot that just an hour or so earlier I was thinking that throwing me out of the car was a safer option then being in the car itself. For an hour the ride went fairly smoothly. He dropped off a couple in Svay Reing but got in a tiff over the fare price (which the customers hadn't negotiated beforehand. After a few coarse words, the couple won out and so we drove away angrily in the direction on Romeas Hek.

We had a few close calls on the way back. The road to Romeas Hek is pretty quiet – although since it has been paved it’s become increasingly busy (hence all the car accidents I’ve come upon while bike riding back to site). There was a cow, a kid on a bicycle, and a few dogs. About a half an hour from my site I breathed a sigh of relief. We had almost made it! I hadn’t died and we hadn’t hit anything!

And then we hit the dog.

I noticed him a quick second before he tumbled underneath the taxi van’s wheels. I was sitting upfront (best seat in the house) next to another woman and the taxi driver. The woman’s reaction mirrored my own… she too had her hand over her mouth and had exclaimed a loud “Oh!”. The men at first were exclaiming how stupid the dog was… and then about 20 meters down the road the taxi driver started to slow down and ask his friends whether he should go back.

Now in the US, to go back after you hit an animal is to find its owner… or move it to the side of the road at least. No, they wanted it to eat. Tere is nothing that goes better with Cambodian rice wine and friends company than some fresh dog curry. We turned around and the taxi driver’s friend quickly jumped out of the vehicle and grabbed the prize. Eating dog has not always been a Cambodian tradition, in fact I have been told by a number of reliable sources that the taste of dog meat was adopted from their neighbors, the Vietnamese. Whether it is true or not, Cambodian men eat dog. Sometimes, as in this case, it is road kill. But sometimes the dog is just a tramp that happened to wander into the wrong place at the wrong time. Rarely, if ever, do I hear of a Cambodian person buying dog meat. I actually asked my host dad’s friends this question as they themselves were settling down around a plate of barbequed dog pieces as to where you could buy dog meat in town. “Dog meat? You never buy dog meat! It is much too expensive!” and that was when I got the answer as to where the dog they were eating came from. “It was wandering around the rubber tree plantation (that my host family owns)”.

So, I was already well aware of what happens to dogs in Cambodia when this event occurred. If I had experienced this before I came to Cambodia, I may have been shocked, felt ill, or even cried ( I was a vegetarian – and plan on being one again once I return to the USA). But now, things like that night have become almost second nature (although I still do recognize the weirdness of it all). That night was just an amalgamation of many different, frightening, and odd occurrences. When I got back to site I almost wept; I had survived!

Now those reasons that were and are legitimate grounds for not traveling at night in Cambodia (and these go for every mode of transportation):

1) The vehicle may or may not have functioning headlights and/or windshield wipers
2) There are rarely, if ever, seatbelts
3) Cambodian people, animals, et al. like to meet up in the night… on the highway
4) There is ONE brain surgeon in the entire country of Cambodia. And the chance the doctor is on vacation when needed? Very likely
5) No one is monitoring the speed of vehicles on the highways at night. People can drive very recklessly unheeded… and they do.
6) If you are in the unfortunate situation of being in a car accident at night, it may be a long while before anyone of authority reaches you. And by the time they do, there is a high likelihood that the driver and all the passengers (who were capable) would’ve left the scene.


I am at site now, and plan on staying here for as much as I can the next 11 months I have. I am aided in this by having an internet phone that can FINALLY (and hopefully will) become a modem when attached to my computed. So, hopefully, I will be able to post many more blog entries from my site before this adventure is over. As for this one, it has been posted in the lovely Provincial town of Svay Reing.


  1. Hi, you have an excellent blog! I just started my own Art blog and noticed you liked art as well, maybe you can check it out =)
    Thank you

  2. Kellee, I am made it back to site safe! That whole eating the poor dog that got hit makes me sad. I really hope that doesn't happen when I come visit! Love you♥