Countless motorbikes zoomed past us in a free-for-all, like a swarm of angry wasps. On the edges of the road, people rode bicycles with trailers carrying stacks of wood for cooking. Sometimes they wore face masks, but almost never helmets. Once a guy on a primitive tractor, with huge wheels and a tiny motor, hogged the middle of the road, going a few miles per hour as his machine chuffed out smoke. Whenever we tried to pass him, we launched ourselves through a big rut, then battled the oncoming traffic until we finally gave up, tucking in behind him. Half an hour went by before he finally pulled over; the line behind him must have been hundreds of cars long.
I looked out of my taxi's window and took in the city. There were few cars and thousands of motorcycles. Lane markers meant nothing, but there was so much traffic, it was impossible to drive quickly or aggressively. Filth and poverty were all around me. Many foreigners, too. Like the locals, they drove motorcycles, and squeezed between other bikes whenever a tiny space opened. They wore shorts, muscle shirts and flip-flops in the sweltering heat. One motorcycle passenger leaned back and clenched the seat behind him. His hair was pulled into a bun behind his head. His driver wore a helmet, but he didn't. He looked happy as the breeze whipped against his unprotected face. This was Phnom Penh, the sprawling capital of Cambodia. It was my first day in Southeast Asia.