I’ve decided to re-print the edited email of my first motorcycle ride in honor of this afternoon’s return to motorcycle travel. This is the story of what happens when you’re forced to learn to ride a motorcycle in the nuttiest population center on the planet.
I was being pressured into a bigger and better adventure than simple backpacking. My friend “Big” and I were traveling through southeast Asia for a few months and we decided to rent bikes to get a more personal view of the country. We’d gotten some cheap-o mopeds in Vietnam, but to cross Cambodia we’d need 250cc engines and I’d need to learn how operate a motorcycle.
Learning to ride a motorcycle in Phnom Penh is like learning to windsurf in a hurricane. The streets are mad with confusion – every lane, sidewalk and garden is equal game and all are infested by motorbikes, taxis, tuk-tuk’s and Toyota Hilux trucks. Each of these is traveling at full speed and being catapulted into intersections. Watching an intersection from the roof of a hotel the traffic rotaries become spectator spot, like watching motivated Mad Maxian figures fight for thoroughfare freedoms. Heading into the trip I’d been given a piece of sage advice from one-time Phnom Penh resident Peter Maguire, “Don’t ride on a fucking motorbike, those fuckers have no regard for human life.” This from a guy who wrote a book about the genocidal maniacs within the Khmer Rhouge.
We picked up our motorbikes from a well-reviewed shop in the center of Phnom Penh’s tourist area. Big is a lifelong rider and inspected our options, concluding they were both what he considered to be “bulletproof.” We chose the best two options, but were stymied when asking for a helmet. Instead of getting decent quality melon protectors we were essentially given baseball caps and prayer beads. We argued with passion being told we should buy helmets for $10. I made it known that he would be providing us quality helmets free of charge. The owner relented and cruised around the corner emerging with great looking hardhats, but not without establishing that he was pissed for having to do so.
It didn’t take long to get the hang of riding up and down the deserted side-street and with confidence, and Big’s emotional support, I shot myself headlong into the blender of limbs and engines that is the traffic of Phnom Penh.
We immediately headed to the Killing Fields to see the final resting place for 100’s of thousands of Cmabodians. The traffic was maddening but it didn’t take long to understand the established, recognizable order of things: Bigger cars win. The first 20km were scarier than a Kucinich presidency. I stayed tense and upright, as Big effortlessly floated through traffic, his 6-5 frame leaning into turns.
The Killing Fields had an impact. There were skulls and earthen pits with cloth and bines frayed, fragmented and sticking out through the mud. The Khmer Rouge is never to be misunderstood as a government meant to help people, or promote equality they were simple and sadistic genocidal leaders
We shook out the images and sat at a nearby restaurant to eat curried duck and have a beer (by the end of trip we’d eaten crocodile, kangaroo, octopus, rabbit and ostrich). The sun was an hour from setting and we had a 45-minute ride. As luck would have it, one of the “bulletproof” bikes was refusing to start.
After ten minutes of two helmeted gringos sprinting down the street in attempts to jump the engine, a couple of Cambodian teenagers offered to help, but after another fifteen minutes we had nothing. At that point everyone walked to one house and roused what had to be the local mechanic. He fooled with the bike for a half hour, adjusting the sparkplug and fiddling with carburetor. The sun had set and the more he worked the more spectators would arrive to watch. I know that nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd, but only a few hundred yards from one of the worst genocides in modern history and loaded with $300 in cash I felt uneasy.
The mechanic calls the owner and is yelling about the spark plug, which from what we gathered had gotten wet when they were washed the night before. We give the mechanic $10 and head off into the darkness, towards what we think is Phnom Penh, on a road now filled with darkness, dump trucks and dust. I feel as safe as any terrorist character ever made to chase a car in a movie that features Matt Damon or Bruce Willis.
Big was on the once-broken motorcycle, making sure to keep it humming along, which meant we were passing vehicles and staring down oncoming traffic every 30 seconds. The risk was that if he stalled we’d be stuck in a mush more violent town and nobody wanted to roll those dice
But as these things go, it was my bike on the return into Phnom Penh which ended up stalling in the middle of a major intersection. Blaring horns, Cambodian insults and here I am to the side of my bike pulling the clutch and pushing it through as cars fly past like racers in the Dakar rally. Big is long gone and with no cell phones I had no way to reach him. I finally pull off the street and call the owner from my American cell phone (I later found out this was a $75 phone call) and he says he’ll deliver a mechanic to my location. Big finds me and we limp home with one bike broken and the other sputtering. It was a comedy of errors but we were still planning on heading to Siem Reap a solid six hours through the heart of a sometimes empty countryside.
The next morning we saw the mechanic and the owner and they let us know that the second bike is in fact busted (fuel issues) while the earlier one did in fact have some water on the spark plug. They deliver us a new bike and an old bike while echoing the ubiquitous Cambodian assurances, “No problem … I fix … Same, Same … Only Different.”
We’re at a crawl out of the city which feels fine, speed can be scary, but I know that we won’t keep along at 25km an hour and that I’m gonna have to open this bitch up and deal with whatever happens – basically I had to buck up and stop being an enormous wimp about the idea of going 120km an hour. This sounds intuitive – that you have to travel fast to get somewhere far away – but trust me that no amount of rational thinking changes the idea that anyone of these drivers could stare you down with their car, truck or tuk-tuk and not break or swerve … I kept hearing it: “no regard for human life.”
We lose the city and Big gets in the lead as we zoom into the very verdant countryside. I’m doing better shifting into higher gears as I learn the weight of the bike. I’m playing it safe and like the night before falling behind Big’s pace.
A few hours into the trip and it starts to rain. We stop for coffee at a roadside stand and change into our rain gear, but after 3km a monsoon takes hold and with rain pelting my face and no vision I frantically pull of the road. I immediately fell guilty for pulling out (insert your joke here) of the ride while Big seemed comfortable. We were crouching under a small tree in the middle of farmland; no stores or roadside stands in eyeshot. About the time we thought we had to trudge on for a few more km a woman calls to us from within her thatch roof and bamboo hut. She make room and we pull the bikes into her12x12 covered dining area. We cut the engines and take a quick tally of the humanity: 16 men, women and children crowded into corners and in hammocks. We sit down and wait for something, anything, to be said.
Soon there was some giggling and nudging. They were talking sex. No, I don’t know that for certain, because I don’t speak Khmer, but if two Cambodia ladies stumbled into my Chicago apartment speaking zero English I’d bet that my roommate and I would at least a few off-color jokes. The mother definitely offered us her teenage daughter, as they kept repeating, “marry … you” as they pushed her towards our seats on the bench.
Despite the pronounced pedophilia there was a nice family setting in that small roadside shack. In the middle of the continued downpour one of the young girls began washing dinner plates and boiling a pot of water for two pieces of fish and some rice (for whom? there are way more people than two fish could feed). Another girl, maybe four, was busy pulling well water to the surface and scrubbing clothes in a basin harder than Lady McBeth on HGH. It was cute when she realized that what she was wearing was dirty – she just stripped down in the rain and added to her pile. Great photo, but with rampant misunderstandings re: pedophilia it didn’t seem worth the miscommunication.
It’s been 45 minutes and we’ve now attracted a few more people and have 25 Cambodian in the shed staring at our Gringo faces. One lady who was dressed for city work offered us a cup of beer, which we accepted with glee. The crowd continues to crack jokes and leads us into laughing in a secondary way that is common when you feel an unexpected personal connection.
The rain let up and we gulped down the last of our Angkor beer and headed for Siem Reap, but after a full day of riding that took us 200km we had an hour to finish the final 100km.The sun-imposed deadline meant staring down more Cambodian drivers and trying our best not to become Dingo feed.
We arrived Siem Reap just before sunset and met up with our country-singer friend and her mother who’d found out about an out-of-the-way restaurant with local Khmer cuisine where we met Sobey and his wife, Touich who became out friends and chefs for our two days in town.
Sunday morning came early and we loaded the bikes for the 8-hour trek back to Phnom Penh. Big took the lead and after two hours we’d gone over 190km, with an average speed of 95km. It wasn’t without some risk. To get on clear road we had to increase the consistency of our passing and that meant Big and I were staring down buses filled with tourists and trucks with farm workers. In the lighter moments it felt like the tractor scene from Footloose except without the crazy legs of Kevin Bacon.
The night before we left Siem Reap Big had the idea to do something nice for the family that’d saved us from the weather and filled our desperate gullets with beer. We’d wanted to get a present but didn’t know what they needed, so Big asked Sobey and Touich their thoughts. They recommended chickens.
We had Touich, write two letters in Khmer:
1. We want to buy two chickens. We will pay 20,000 riel for each chicken.
2. Please accept this gift as a thank you for your hospitality in bringing us into your home. We did not know what you need but we think you could use these chickens. We hope you like the chickens!!!!
(Exclamation marks seem to be popular in Khmer, too.)
We went to the town nearest the house and found a local chicken seller who read our first note and produced two chickens for 40k reil or $10. The owners tied the legs together, stuffed them in an empty Angkor beer box and strapped them to the back of my bike.
We sped off to the house, where the 12-year-old chef greeted us along with three very rough looking older women. Big handed the young girl the note and she looked at it with quizzical excitement, though it was evident she couldn’t read. After investigating the chickens and asking if we wanted her to slaughter them for us to eat, she bowed in appreciation. We were back on the bike in minutes, as the shack waved goodbye and we made for our last 200km.
We made it back to PP without much incident. There were asshole drivers who tried to clip us, but we came out of each stand-off unscathed, as losing would’ve sucked.
We returned the bikes in perfect condition and gassed-up. I began finalizing the payment process by demanding the $10 mechanics fee from our incident at the Killing Fields. The owner refused and things turned ugly in a hurry, as he refused to pay and I refused to back down. With no recourse (I was asking for a refund) I grabbed his $10 helmet and told him to either you pay up or I’d take the helmet. Some yelling ensued before he picked up the phone and threatened to call the police. The Cambodian police might be wimps, but if they showed up we’d be on the hook to pay a bribe much larger than the $10 I requested. I backed down, but left the places with a serious of expletives and some generous mother effing of anyone who happened to be employed at the shop. It was classy.
Was it petty to bitch about $10 in a broke and broken country? Probably. Ten bucks is a burger meal at Applebees or a movie on iTunes, but if you can get the refund and survive the ride, it’s also enough to feed a generous family.