It was probably the most dangerous road I’ve ever been on. This wasn’t because it was particularly bad or traversed treacherous terrain or was in a place that’s prone to severe weather conditions, but simply because people drove on it as though car-blind and heavily dosed with mortal impunity.
National Highway 4 is often the recipient of two titles: Cambodia’s best road and Cambodia’s most dangerous road. The two are directly related. Apparently, the road being paved is one of the reasons for it being so dangerous — vehicles can physically go faster, so they do:
Officials say the road, along with many others partially funded by foreign governments, is hazardous because it’s wide, paved and thus allows for reckless speeding in a country where safe driving is rarely practiced. As Cambodia and other poor nations pump up their economies, they’re building more dangerous highways like this one, often without the policing and road safety education that should come with them.
This road is notorious. It stretches for 230 kilometers from Phnom Penh to the deep sea port at Sihanoukville on the western coast and was built for the transport of products and materials between the two. It passes by a plethora of foreign owned and operated factories — especially those with Chinese characters stuck to their exteriors.
Throughout my New Silk Road research travels I am looking at the state of each country’s current infrastructure as well as projects that are underway to upgrade it. While I wasn’t necessarily expecting Cambodia’s Highway 4 to be a roaring, smooth and wide divided expressway, it still came as a surprise to find it a little more than a pot hole riddled, extremely narrow, shoulder-less, blacktopped donkey path. Although cars drove on it as though it were some kind of Autobahn — but in a country where only something like 20% of roads are even paved this is perhaps to be expected.
With increased development in Cambodia comes a proportional increase in cars and paved roads for them to be driven quickly on. Cambodia has seen its traffic fatalities rise more than fourfold since 2000.
While I’ve been on plenty of “notorious” highways in my 16 years of travel, I’ve never been on one that deserved the title so fully. What’s striking is that I can’t quite figure out why Cambodia’s National Highway 4 was so bad. It doesn’t go over any mountains, where tight switchbacks and landslides are a deadly combination. It doesn’t have hair-pin turns. In fact, the road is almost perfectly straight — you get on it and go forward and that’s about it. The highway isn’t even that busy outside of Phnom Penh. Although it does go through small villages, where cars turn into and out of speeding traffic, many other highways around the world (including the one that I grew up on) do the same.
It’s just the drivers.
I understand that almost everybody drives poorly everywhere and that this cultural trait is especially pronounced in developing countries undergoing their first generation of mass driver-ship. I understand that countries with lax to non-existent traffic enforcement generally have drivers breaking all manner of road rules regularly. I do understand that countries where personal automobiles are the new thing generally don’t realize how dangerous they are until a decade of stats begin rolling in. I do know that modern infrastructure placed in non-modern contexts often causes conflicts and calamities.
What I don’t understand is why drivers are so unbelievably horrible here. It’s really something mystifying. Even among the developing, “dangerous-driving” groups of countries, Cambodia, in my experience of 60 countries, is by far the worst. They drive as if there are no other cars on the road or they somehow can’t see what’s directly in front of them. Or perhaps its a “part the seas” mentality where everyone expects everyone else to move out of their way — which doesn’t work so well when everyone has it. I really have no idea.
Around thirty kilometers outside of Phenom Penh I looked up to see a police truck trying to overtake a bus coming our way. There was clearly no way that he was going to make it prior to hitting us head on and there was more than ample time to realize this and retreat. But he kept going, as did the driver speeding behind him. Screeching tires, swerving cars, the whole lot ensued. What was interesting was that the driver of my bus did not show any emotional response — as though this happened everyday.
Just outside of Phnom Penh on the way back a guy in an SUV tried to make a left hand turn onto our side of the highway. But he didn’t wait for a lull in traffic but instead tried to merge directly into the side of the van I was riding in, as if he didn’t see it, although it was right in front of him. Seemingly surprised to find his path blocked, he slammed on his brakes, fishtailed, and was nearly taken out by a row of oncoming cars.
Then there was another close call as the lanes of the highway merged while going around a traffic circle near the entrance to Phonom Penh where nobody wanted to give way to anybody else — but that’s more or less normal in this world.
Although National Highway 4 is classified as a modern roadway, it is by no means modern. It is not a thoroughfare tat many modern companies are going to rightfully invest much into shipping along. Ironically, the thing has become a barrier to trade in and of itself. Thus being, it presents the prime opportunity for an upgrade — which just happens to be China’s specialty along the New Silk Road. Yes, the Chinese were apparently as unimpressed with National Highway 4 as I was, and are currently in the process of building a new expressway linking the deep sea port at Sihanoukville with Phnom Penh.