Women Drivers
By: Ann Creevey. Pictures by : Nathan Dexter. ( February, 2002 Volume 2 No.2 )

There is chaos on the streets of Phnom Penh. Cyclos, bicycles, cars and pedestrians criss-cross each other on busy Sihanouk Boulevard in a blur of motion, cut for a second by a horse and cart jangling through its heart.
A typical day on the road in the Cambodian capital, and Mrs Penh Thary doesn't blink an eyelid as she looks out from her small office. The 47-year-old has an unusual business for a Cambodian. Especially for a Cambodian woman, for Penh Thary runs a driving school.
"My husband was a driver. He saw traffic in Cambodia a lot, and he saw problems," she says. "I, too, saw sad things when I went out of town. One day I saw an accident on Route 4. It was very bad. I knew these things were happening because no one here had learned how to drive. That was 1980-81. I wanted to do something to help people." Her husband Kien Sean, 53, had learned to drive with a driving school called Dai Thom in the Lon Nol era(1970-75). The name means "big hand".

"This was a very good school. In 1983, I began a driving school myself. I called it Dai Thom II in honor of this one. We would be Cambodia's second generation," she said. She employed her husband as her first instructor and they bought a couple of cars. "It was easier back then. There were a lot less cars. Traffic was much better," she says. "But it wasn't the same as before. Before people respected the law. Before, you could compare this country's drivers with any other country. Now there was no comparison. Cambodian drivers were not very good." Cambodian driving instructors don't have the dual controls instructors from more developed countries have. They must guide students with vocal instruction and the occasional touch on the wheel. It can be nerve-wracking. Mrs Thary leaves that to the professionals, instead shuttling back and forth from school to school taking care of the books and attract business. Often traveling with her is her first daughter, Kean Sophoan, 27. "When I retire, the school will be hers," Mrs Thary said, ensuring there is still at least one woman in charge of a Cambodian driving school.
The empire grew quickly from just two cars and an instructor who doubled as her husband. By the end of her first year of operation, she was opening a school in Battambang. In 1996, she opened in Siem Reap. Then Kompong Som. Soon she had seven schools in Phnom Penh and beyond and employed 10 instructors. "I hope that what I do earns me merit. I am very proud of my school because the more trained drivers there are on the roads, the more lives are saved. I set out to help people, especially in the provinces. Sometimes I get people learning who cannot read or write. They take longer but we eventually get them there." She believes her students are top quality by the time they leave her care. "I always read the paper and watch television. In all the accidents I've seen, I've never seen one of our students involved," she said. Mrs Penh knows she is the only female running a driving school in the Kingdom, but she doesn't think it is because she is unusual.
"In America, I'm sure I would not be such a novelty," she said. She returned from the United States late last year, amazed with what she saw. "There are more cars. You hardly see any motos sometimes none for hours. People drive a lot faster over there, but their roads are so much better and wider," she said. "I enjoyed traveling over there." Cambodian drivers need to learn two things to pass the test and get a license the wheel and the law. Knowing the law, Mrs Penh says, is what keeps drivers safe. Knowing the wheel gets them through the Kingdom's often potholed roads and chaotic traffic conditions. "It will be years before we are the same as America, but I think it will happen. One day. Maybe when my daughter is running the school..."