An Accidental Detour

Towards the end of the afternoon, I met up with Kate and her daughter Pearl at the Bambu Hotel – our favorite getaway place, just around the corner from Kate’s home – for a swim and drink. I knew that I had laundry and writing to get done in the evening, so I begged off her invitation for dinner at home, and walked back towards town, still wearing a half-wet bathing suit that dampened my clothes.

Dusk. I don’t know what compelled me to walk all the way towards the Psar Nath (market) when I usually turn down one of the streets well before the bank at the corner. But as I neared the corner where the ANZ Bank’s brightly lit sign beckons to businessmen and foreigners alike, I noticed a sight I’d hope never to see: a large group of people gathering together, blocking the road and sidewalk. I pulled out my cell phone as I approached, imagining the worst. As I entered the crowd, I saw a dazed blond guy stumbling to stand, looking shocked. A blond girl was nearby. They were shuffling slowly to the sidewalk, the stunned locals standing around.

I asked what happened, and before the couple had a chance to reply, a brash French man interrupted me and said that he was already helping them and needed to get them to a hospital. I explained that I worked at Emergency and that I would try to get the young man to the hospital. He took umbrage with my efforts, thinking that I was trying (as he made clear shortly after) to overpower him, take credit, have a power trip. When I said Emergency, he yelled at me that he’s been in Asia many times and knows how to bring someone to a hospital, but it is not a good idea to bring a foreigner to an emergency room in Cambodia.

It was patently clear that he had not heard of Emergency, and I was not going to waste time explaining that it was not an emergency room of a provincial hospital. Instead, I tried my best to fend him off so that I could dial the numbers of Emergency staff and tuktuk drivers whose numbers I’d entered into my phone.

By the time Erik (who was only slightly bruised but shaken up), Linn and I got into a tuktuk, darkness had set in. The young Norwegian couple explained: They were trying to cross the road. Out of the blue, a motorbike knocked into Erik, sending him flying into the air. Two young Khmer women (they looked more like teens) were on the motorbike. No helmets. Blood everywhere. I wondered how many more of these accidents was it going to take…

The bloodied girl was lying in the outpatient / triage room when I entered. She writhed on the stretcher. It was an awful sight. Dr. Tes arrived shortly after. Erik and Linn came in. As I was about to walk outside, the girl suddenly slid off the stretcher, bloodied clothing and gauze pads hanging off her body, and started towards the door. I was too stunned to say anything, but soon after I understood that her sister – on the bike, with clothes also stained red – wanted to help wash off the blood.

As I stood outside in the mosquito-ridden night, I saw the uninjured sister wring blood-soaked towels into a sink. She helped her listless sister back into the building.

Erik was released, he and Linn emerged from the hospital and we headed to the road to find transport back to town. Not a tuktuk in sight. I called Mr. Lee, please would you send a tuktuk to Emergency. While we waited, the uninjured sister with the blood-stained shirt stood nearby, shaking and on the verge of tears. I walked up to her and with gestures, offered to give her a hug. A subtle nod was enough for me to embrace her for scarcely a moment before she pulled away.

We suddenly noticed the injured sister approaching the gate. Unbelievable as it was, she had been released. Erik explained to her brother (he spoke basic English) that we would bring her home with us by tuktuk. He shook his head, no it’s ok with motorbike. And indeed, had our tuktuk not arrived at the moment it did, the brother and boyfriend were perfectly prepared to load her nearly lifeless body – and helmetless head – onto the back of a motorbike.

Once the two sisters, Erik, Linn and I had squeezed into the tuktuk, I was immensely grateful that Mr. Lee had sent over a driver who spoke English quite well. We explained that he was to first deliver the girls to their home, then drive us back to town. Off we went, into unknown territory.

The tuktuk pulled into the front yard of a home, where half a dozen people sat around a table eating and drinking. Not a single person rose from the table, not a single look of concern. In fact, only after the boyfriend (who had arrived by motorbike) lifted the injured woman out of the tuktuk, and brought her inside, did the men slowly get up from the table and come over to the tuktuk. None of the women went inside. Apparently, nothing unusual had happened.

Once the men approached and began to talk with the tuktuk driver, we said that the girls should wear helmets while riding their bikes. But our plea fell on deaf ears: Reiterating what the woman’s brother had earlier replied to my question about why his sister doesn’t wear a helmet: only the driver wear helmet. Quickly enough, it became clear that the family had only two concerns: The foreigner should not create a problem for them with the police; and that he should go to the police station immediately to help them get the motorbike back.

Our next stop: With the brother and boyfriend, to the police station – which just happens to be located across the road from Emergency.

The first cop was in his undershirt, a holster and gun tucked underneath, looking more like a geometrically-shaped bodily protrusion. On his feet were white aerated plastic slippers, the kind I’ve seen grannies wear to avoid slipping at the pool. A second cop skulked into the room, his hair heavily greased, wearing nothing but a krama tied around his waist, a smelly towel hanging over his shoulder. Each of us got a once over.

The first left, returning shortly after, tucking his uniform into place. A third cop, in brush cut, dressed in a tshirt and pants, arrived and took a seat at the head of a table; Erik and the tuktuk driver were asked to sit on either side of a table perpendicular to the cop’s. A fourth cop looked on briefly, just long enough for me to catch sight of his grossly disfigured face – no doubt a product of a mine injury or accident (or perhaps he was shot in the face?), superseded by a botched operation, leaving in its wake a ghastly facial quilt of stitches.

There was a lot of talk in Khmer so I took a quick survey of my surroundings, hoping to never see the interior of a Cambodian police station again in my life. Affixed to one wall was a massive poster displaying images of, quite possibly, between 100-200 road signs. Signs that I have never seen before (what do you think a road sign with just “!” would be trying to indicate?), signs that I know are anyways ignored. On the other wall, another large poster, this one disturbing and sickening to a fault: photos of dented and crushed vehicles, but more shockingly, accident victims, clearly dead or badly injured, limbs all askew, pictures taken by the police shortly after impact. Gruesome. I might have fainted had the fan not been turned on.

The second cop, now (thankfully) dressed, returned, sat on a chair and produced a clipboard with report sheet. The questioning – and translations – began in earnest, even though they still waited for a relative to arrive in order to confirm that the two young men who were vying to get the motorbike back were indeed related to the accident victim. Shortly after, a Khmer woman dressed in Levi’s (?!) and a bright green shirt, sauntered in, laughing and jovially chiding the cops seated in another part of the room. She soon turned to our group, offered her ID card, and joined the conversation. She was the accident victim’s cousin. We were now nine.

Questions. Explanations. Clarifications. The cop dutifully filling out the paper. Asking Erik to write out his name. The formalities were completed, the tuktuk driver translated (you do not want to make problems for the family, right?), Erik inked his thumbprint onto the paper, photographed the document and gave the brother money for the bike to be released. Then the tuktuk brought us all back to town.

Something – maybe because of their genocidal history or their unquestioning belief in spirits and fate, there is nevertheless a shocking lack of affect, of affection and concern – is sadly, miserably, desperately, intractably rotten in the state of Cambodia. But I remind myself that this is a city in which, despite its daily challenges, I must practice and spread gratitude. And so, trusting that the same angels who watched over me returned to spread their wings over Erik and the Khmer girl this evening, for that also, I am thankful.


  1. Thank you for this and for all of your beautiful blog entries. You write so well, and describe a world I can only barely imagine. Thanks for sharing it with your friends on the other side of the planet!

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