On the Road to Phnom Penh

posted by Kaitlyn Weber

Out of the blurs of everyday life events there arise moments of absolute clarity. Time stops, senses heighten and everything changes.  In moments of death absolute clarity is born.

In a country devoid of any enforced traffic laws, bikes, buses, cars, and motorbikes exist together on the roads in a form of organized chaos. There are no lines in the center to indicate safe times to pass slower moving vehicles. Driving decisions are based on instinct and opportunity, neither of which ensures safe passage. With no one around to maintain rules of driving, this is how it is done. Millions of people safely arrive at their destinations each day they embark on a journey. On a dusty, bumpy road lined with cows and rice fields, I witnessed a journey cut cruelly short in the blink of an eye.

The timing was perfect. Had I averted my eyes from the window for a second, I would have missed it completely. As fate would have it, my eyes remained fixed on the outside world.

Our bus rolled to a halt, the result of some sort of delay in the road ahead. The vehicle behind us, perhaps lacking patience in traffic jams, pulled into the other lane, a common Cambodian driving technique. Speeding down the road from the opposite direction was a motorbike laden with passengers.

The impact was sudden. The screaming crunch of contorted metal, the knock of accident debris on the sides of the bus, and the gasps of horror from my fellow passengers began and ended in a matter of seconds. I saw everything. I knew that no human body could withstand the force of that brief but powerful collision.

I wanted to see the bodies. Every grain of common sense told me not to look back, to shield my eyes from the outcome of the crash. Yet something else inside told me to look, it is the same sick curiosity hoards of highway travelers are struck with every time they pass a major accident. I began to rise from my seat. I needed to know the men were not lying motionless in the street. I needed to know they had picked up the shattered pieces of their bike and road off towards home. I needed an option besides death. The moment I started to stand I felt the pressure of a million arms forcing me back down.

“Don’t look back. Please, don’t look back.”

I sat down. Feeling slowly began to return to my body and I realized the impenetrable force preventing my rise was the gentle hand of Narla. In a moment when my entire world was on the verge of collapse he pulled me back from the edge. His words shielded me from a site that had the potential to permanently destroy me.

The bus rolled on, our lives continued. I sat void of emotions, my eyes staring out the window that had already betrayed me once. I did not want to talk or laugh or cry. I remained in a motionless state of mindless bliss. No thoughts of what I had seen had yet penetrated my conscious mind.

It was an indeterminable amount of time later when a dog crossed our path. The bus began to slow and the dog safely crossed before impact. I lost all control. Every emotion my body had refused to let out consumed me. I let myself speak the words that could not be true. I had seen death. They were not bodies lying motionless in the street, they were people.

Leaving Phnom Penh our bus rattled down the same rough road. Without realizing my decision until we were already in motion, I had chosen the same window seat I had previously occupied. I soon heard whispers surrounding me. We were approaching the site of the accident.

I found my eyes frantically scanning every inch of the scene against the screaming protests of my mind. I am not sure what I hoped to see. Perhaps I longed for a sense of closure or a better understanding of the event. Perhaps the same sick curiosity was again taking hold. Above all I prayed for a sign that nothing had actually happened on this strip of road. I saw nothing. The road was a road, like every other I had ventured over. The lack of evidence could have reassured me that it had in fact all been a dream, but the sickening memory of the event told me otherwise.

Every detail of the accident is forever engrained in my senses. Whenever I find myself in a time of momentary peace the sound of crushing metal fills my head. With eyes tightly shut the entire scene replays in gruesome mental images. The random fleeting thoughts of the event cause my body to tense up and my heart to race. I want to forget, but I never will.

Upon relaying my story to the few I could bear to tell, I received very similar words of condolence. Everything happens for a reason. I wonder though, can reason ever arise in death? Even if there is a cosmic timeline for each person’s life and death, there can never be understanding for those left behind.  A split second has the ability to change and end lives forever. Maybe it was just time for the passengers of that motorbike, but I refuse to believe that their deaths occurred out of reason.

Out of this inexplicable event I have forced my mind to momentarily set aside the images that plague my thoughts in an attempt to find a shred of understanding. Death is real. It is instant and unfair. Life is real too, and it is in this thought that I am able to find an ounce of comfort in the aftermath of the accident. I will never forget the souls that were lost on the road that fateful day, but I will cherish every instant of life, knowing it is never guaranteed


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