So. Cambodia, holy sh*t. We had a soft beginning, we’re starting to realize. As soon as we crossed the border, the world changed. No more traffic, and the countryside was visible from the road – there were breaks in development! Cambodia is blessed, in our opinion, with a tenth of the population of Vietnam, and the reduced traffic very much compensates for poorer road conditions.
But it rains here, a lot. We didn’t see a day of rain in the delta, and its been torrential every day since we crossed the border.
We arrive after each day of biking covered in mud, soaked, our bikes making noises that they shouldn’t. The noises are worrisome, given that we’ve each fixed our bottom brackets several times now.
The food! We starved the first day because of our dumbfounded confusion. Our hand signals didn’t work any more, and our language was worthless. We started the day with a plate of the spiciest food either of us had ever had, streaking our faces with tears and leaving Alex biking with a burning pile of coal in his stomach. We later sat down to enjoy some “meat”, along with a pile of eggs that Rob thought looked extremely delicious. Not quite. Realized too late that they were duck fetus. The black goo that spilled out, and the orange brainy goodness inside were too much for us on that day – not yet.
The people! We stopped on the side of the road the next day looking for some fresh cane juice, and an hour later the group of Cambodian merrymakers next door had shoved eight beers down each of our throats and hand-fed us fried crickets, boiled snails and snakefish. Afterward, we crawled onto our bikes in the pouring rain and biked, piss-drunk, the final 30km to Phnom Penh.
—Thoughts on the (motor)bike
When we first arrived in SE Asia we were pretty enamored with the flow of traffic in the cities. Impressed by the swerving swarms of motorbikes. But a constant stream of traffic means that there is nowhere to cross a busy street. What we’ve realized now is that the motorbike is almost more antithetical to the pedestrian than the automobile: they can go anywhere and come from any angle. They make the simple act of crossing the street a dangerous undertaking. Seemingly to prove our point, Rob was hit and knocked down yesterday while crossing the road by a motorbike turning the wrong way down a one-way street.
We were originally taken with the ramped curb design that allowed motorbikes to avoid traffic jams by taking to the sidewalks. In Phnom Penh, the sidewalks can be up to 20 ft wide in places, but because of the ramped curbs they are so chock-full of parked cars and motorbikes that you must be a trained contortionist to navigate them, and you are instead forced to walk in the street alongside the whizzing motorbikes. The vast number of walkers in the city’s parks attest to the fact that Cambodians understand the importance of exercise, but it should come as no surprise that no one walks in Phnom Penh. A cultural impasse?
It truly does all come down to culture. The motorbike, much like the car in the U.S., has become a status symbol, the easy and visible way to show the world that, “yes, I have made it.” Our friend Tho in HCMC remarked that Vietnamese often have several motorbikes, “One for work, and a nicer one for going out.” Walking back from the river yesterday alongside a constant stream of engines spewing dirty exhaust, our mission seemed pretty hopeless. How are we to compete with the entrenched cultural norms of billions of people in the world’s fastest growing economies? Even if we were successful in changing hearts and minds back home in the U.S., would that even make a dent on a global scale?
This sparked a deeper discussion as to the roots of the motorbike in contemporary Cambodian culture. Is it truly a necessary function of an industrializing economy to undergo the “growing pains” of an adolescent obsession with the internal combustion engine before realizing its negative effects? Is it possible to move beyond this obsession? We look to Europe as an example, but do so with caution, knowing the vast historical, cultural and environmental differences.