Her eyes were as large and round as Kennedy half-dollars, her mouth open and of similar shape. Her adult driver parroted the expression of sheer horror but deftly maneuvered the motorbike.
We passed with literally two inches to spare.
He’d circled the round-about a second time, I tapped his shoulder and pointed to a site that provided a great photo opp. Amazingly there was only one other vehicle on the street but that one motorbike heading towards us was the one Mark aimed his tuk directly at.
I’d met Mark the previous afternoon, one of 7 drivers encircling me, bringing my exit of the guest house to a complete stop. He spoke perfect English, had a calm and charming demeanor and promised to undercut the competition by $3 if I’d hire him for the day. I took his card, explained I wanted exercise but maybe tomorrow. Maybe. Tomorrow arrived, I sought Mark out, explained my itinerary – this had worked so well in Sihanoukville so why not in Phnom Penh?
That poor child was not the first near miss of our day. There was the Lexus SUV driver cutoff at more than 40 mph with a foot to spare, the cyclo driver aggressively pushed to the curb and several pedestrians forced to leap backward on the sidewalk knocking over café chairs. They weren’t the only ones to angrily shake fists or shout all manner of insults in several languages.
The horrified child was the final straw. I asked Mark to pull over, calmly paid the previously agreed price and said, “Mark, I am not afraid of death, but understand me now… I am NOT READY to die. NOT today!”
Mark looked at me sheepishly, gazed up at the brilliantly blue sky, slowly smiled charmingly before he replied, “I understand. Today is NOT a good day to die.”
Squinting against the sun, I was about to issue a polite exit and appreciative statement as I had indeed survived our hours together but Mark launched into a diatribe on socioeconomic prejudice. Wildly gesticulating and loudly stating I wouldn’t understand as an American, the prejudice towards tuk-tuk drivers ran deep and how the anger we’d experienced was an example of the irrational snobbery and hatred against tuk-tuk drivers in Phnom Penh.
I squinted harder, my head began to ache; it was too hot, the sun too bright, too many adrenalin rushes and I was a foreigner in a foreign city now accompanied by a mad man with a death wish.
Without saying another word I stepped down from his tuk and continued on foot.