Thursday, May 7, 2009

How Many People Can You Fit on One Scooter?

Greeting from Cambodia!
Sean and I arrived in Siem Reap early Sunday morning.  Like most tourists to Cambodia, our primary reason for visiting was to explore the ancient Angkor temples and remains of the Khymer Empire, the largest empire in South East Asia.  The most famous and well-preserved of these sites is Angkor Wat, a temple in the ancient capital city of Angkor, which was the largest pre-industrial urban center in the world, even larger than present-day New York City.
I knew very little about Cambodia before we arrived here and it wasn't really one of the places on my list of countries to visit.  As our time in Africa winded down, we started brainstorming about different places we wanted to visit in South East Asia and Cambodia ended up on the itinerary.  Siem Reap is a town of about 140,000 people and is most known for it's proximity to Angkor Wat, which makes it a big tourist draw.  Most of the people in the area work in tourism in one way or another.  Cambodia is one of the poorest countries we've visited on our trip, but like other poor countries, begging and crime are much less than what you would find in even more developed countries.  People are very friendly and most speak at least a little English, although the accents can be a little difficult to understand at first. 
Tuk Tuk's:  One of the primary ways to get around in Siem Reap is by tuk tuk.  A tuk tuk is basically a small scooter or motorcycle with a two-wheeled, open-air carriage attached to ferry passengers around like a taxi.  They typically only have a 100-125 cc engine so their top speed seems to be somewhere around 30 mph at most.  Tuk tuk's drivers can be hired for short trips like airport pickups, or you can hire one for a whole day, which is what we did when we toured the temples.  If you hire a tuk tuk to go out to dinner or get to the city center, the driver will usually wait for you and take you back to your hotel afterwards.  It's very convenient and very cheap.
Cars and Driving:  Driving is very slow in Cambodia.  You rarely seen anyone going faster than 30 mph, even on main roads.  One of the interesting things about cars is that, although they drive on the right side of the road, as we do in the States, you will see cars with driver seats on either side.  We figured that for such a poor country, there isn't much of a market for new cars, so they probably get whatever they can in the form of used cars from neighboring countries.  There are few traffic signs and even fewer traffic lights in Siem Reap and people seem to ride all over the road.  For instance, when making a left turn, it's not uncommon for a driver to pull all the way into the lane of oncoming traffic to wait for a break to turn.  The oncoming traffic will not necessarily stop, but drive around him.  When making a left turn onto a main road from a side street, scooters especially will just drive in the parking lane or along the shoulder on the wrong side of the road, until they have a break in traffic allowing them to cross to the right side.  Driving is definitely strange and not always safe, but with the slow speeds, everything seems to work just fine. 
Scooters:  While I'm talking about driving, there are two interesting things about scooters in Cambodia that I haven't seen anywhere else.  First, ladies usually ride side-saddle as passengers on a scooter, meaning they sit with both legs on one side of the scooter, usually, but not always, with their legs crossed at the ankles.  At first I thought this was just for ladies wearing skirts, but even ladies with pants on will typically sit side-saddle.  If driving the scooter, the ladies obviously straddle the bike the way a man would, but if the woman driver has a woman passenger, the passenger will typically sit side-saddle.  If there are two women passengers, (yes, that's three people on one scooter), each woman will sit side-saddle, but with their legs on opposite sides of the scooter.  While I look at it as being very considerate and lady-like, it's not a very safe way to ride a bike and I imagine it also makes balance quite difficult for the driver.  The other interesting thing about scooters are the sheer number of people Cambodians seem to fit on one.  I have seen up to four adults on one little 100 cc scooter.  I have also seen three adults and one child on one scooter, as well as whole families (two adults and two kids) on a scooter.  I have seen single parents riding a scooter with one hand on the handle bars and the other holding a baby or toddler between their legs.  These aren't just occasional sightings; this is just what everyone does so you see it all day, everywhere in the city.  Scooters are the way most people get around so I understand fitting as many people as you can on one, especially since most people could never afford the expense of a car.  I'm just surprised the small little scooters can handle such heavy loads as three or four adults.  The weight limit on my Ninja 650 was 400 pounds. 
Money:  Cambodia was the first place on our trip and the only place I've heard of, where US dollars were the standard currency in use.  Yes, Cambodia has it's own currency, the Riel, but only locals and business catering to locals use it.  Most other businesses, including anywhere you're likely to go as a tourist, have prices listed in US dollars and accept US dollars.  Even the ATM machines dispense only US dollars.  The cheapest goods, like a soda or bottle of water, are priced at $1.00 or two for $1.00.  There are no coins in use, so to give change for something less than a dollar, the Riel is used.  And since the rough conversion rate is $1 US dollar to $4,000 Riel, the $1,000 Riel note is basically used as a quarter.  Around the temples, people sell guidebooks, postcards, musical instruments and anything else tourists might want.  And as you can probably guess, almost everything costs $1 US dollar. 
More on the temples next. 


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