Lost in Navigational Translation: The Tuk-Tuk and Motorbike Drivers of Phnom Penh

“Tuk-tuk la-dee?” “La-dee, moto-bike!” “Where you go?” “La-dee, la-dee—you need moto-bike!”

This is the chorus you hear, endlessly, walking through central Phnom Penh. It’s like birds chattering, only more jarring, less song-like. It comes accompanied with a raised arm, two fingers extended—more of a summons than an offering of service.

By the touristy riverside, the touts can be pushy, but for the most part they’re just guys trying to make an honest(ish) buck. At first I tried to respond to all of them—Lisa ran a tuk-tuk company in Phnom Penh, given as part of her dowry, before the Khmer Rouge—so I feel a special responsibility to be respectful. I smiled politely and said “no” or “ot te.”

Eventually it got to be too much to respond to each other them, perched on their bikes at every street corner, crying out to you when you’re half-way down the block. I began to just shake my head, and soon stopped making eye contact. I started feeling like a bobble-head toy, my neck hurting from the constant swinging. Now I barely respond at all.

But I suppose that’s not so unusual, the constant barrage—being a Westerner in a city like Phnom Penh, where you stand out, gleaming of privilege and sweat and thin layer of sun screen. You take it in stride, a small price to pay for the relative welcoming warmness of the Cambodian people.

But here’s what is so unusual: most of these tuk-tuk and motorbike drivers have no idea how to navigate the city. A city, I should add, that’s laid out in a neat grid. And not just a grid, a numbered grid, where even numbered streets intersect the odd.

It is perhaps the easiest city I’ve ever learned. And I don’t make my living by driving its streets. So what, what, what is going on here?

It took me a few days to clue into it. I did a lot of walking at first, and when I did finally take a motorbike, chalked the confusion up to language barriers and my hotel’s offbeat location.

On Friday night, I was headed from a party back to my hotel. “Street 141 at 232,” I told the driver. The glassy gleam of incomprehension stared back at me, followed by a vague nod. This did not produce a feeling of confidence in me.

Must not know his English numbers yet, I thought and whipped out a piece of paper. I wrote the street numbers as largely and legibily as I could. I showed him. He nodded a little more vigoriously; we negotiated the price and I hopped on.

We slid down the wide Norodom Boulevard, nearly empty of its honking, and I felt the breeze of the night on my arms, my legs. I closed my eyes and let it kiss me.

I’d been in the city four days by that point—so I knew when we were making a wrong turn.

“Um, no,” I said and pointed back to Norodom. He shot me a confused glance. I pointed to the street sign. “This is only 156. We go to 232.” I waved my hand down the road.

A series of slow circlings and U-Turns ensued, me growing ever crankier on the back of the bike. It devolved to me leading the motorbike driver street-by-street back to the hotel.

He must be new at this, I thought as I finally hopped off.

But the phenomenon repeated itself: the glassy look, the vague nods, the wrong turns and aimless meandering. Another characteristic element to the typical un-joy-ride, I soon discovered, comes when you stop every couple blocks for the driver to discuss with other drivers the intended destination of the passenger, locked in some sort of secret code no one is able to decipher. Lots of pointing and shrugging ensues. This is apt to repeat two-to-four times before one finally arrives.

At first, I blamed it on my own inability to say Khmer numbers, and took to only writing locations, following it up with a big, you-get-it? grin.

The answer you always get is “okay, okay.” The ride you get is not always “okay, okay.”

I was utterly confused and out of ideas. Maybe they were guys from the countryside, who’d only just come to Phnom Penh. Maybe they didn’t know the city that well yet—but come on, how long does it take to learn a city? A numbered grid of a city at that?

No, no, there was something more going on here—some kind of deeper divide than just language or location familiarity. There was so kind of vast cultural chasm, a disconnect.

“Oh no, no, no,” Mathilde told me. “They don’t know street names, only landmarks. It’s better to say ‘near to Independence Monument,’ or ‘Royal Palace.’ These they know. But sometimes even then…”

I’ve worked that into my repertoire, a long, drawn-out process in which I use every means I can fathom to communicate my destination. “Sihanouk, near Independence Monument,” I told the driver yesterday.

We got closer this time, but just before the up-lit monument—positioned handsomely at the crossroads of two main thoroughfares and surrounded by the massive honking roundabout—we took a turn down a random sidestreet. I sighed. We U-Turned.

I reported my failure back to Mathilde. “They will always say ‘okay,’ even if they don’t know.”

“So, how do they work? How do they live and get around a city they don’t know at all?”

She shrugged, and I guess that’s all you can do. Because they must know it—there must be some way they know it, some entirely different way of interacting with a city and a landscape that doesn’t even occur to me, that I can’t even fathom—as foreign as another language, as mysterious as an alien scribble, written all over this city in a way I can’t read, can’t decipher—in a way that I can’t even see.

Perhaps I’ll figure out the mystery. But for now I’ll keep circling, keep ambling, keep pointing to a destination I can’t communicate, hidden somewhere in the gap between cultures—foreign, mystified and helmetless on the back of a Phnom Penh motorbike.

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1 Response to “Lost in Navigational Translation: The Tuk-Tuk and Motorbike Drivers of Phnom Penh”


  1. 1 jasa penerjemah August 7, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    thank you, but I’ve never tried it, hopefully


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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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