After traveling for over a month, I was beginning to feel pretty confident with my abilities in navigating new cities with a simple map and the unearthed Boy Scout skills from my childhood. The day before I had been driven from place to place in a motorbike tuk tuk, feeling relatively posh with my own little carriage to be chauffeured around in. During the evening of my second night in Phnom Penh, I had a brief encounter with another guy staying in my dorm, who had told me that he and a few other people had rented their own motorbikes and driven themselves around the city. Back in Ho Chi Minh City when my Couchsurfing host had offered me the controls of the vehicle, I had, rather sensibly, declined the offer. However, I’d seen quite a few people at my hostel in Saigon rent and even buy motorbikes, using it as a cheaper form of travel as well as a way to see more of the countryside. I had told them they were crazy, but one of the Americans had assured me that the traffic out there was nowhere near as crazy as in the city itself.
It never really crossed my mind again until it was mentioned to me in Phnom Penh. I’d seen the roads and the traffic, and it didn’t seem quite as busy as the hustle and bustle of Bangkok or Saigon. I told myself that I should be making the most of the unique experiences on offer here, and so far I’d been all about pushing my boundaries and challenging myself. With that in mind, I set off down the road to rent myself a motorbike, oblivious to the fact that my stay in Phnom Penh was about to get even more harrowing than a trip to the Killing Fields.
In retrospect, it was a terrible decision. As my mother reminded me when I emailed her after the fact, “You can barely ride a push bike, Bob!” Yet I was taken over by some kind of invincibility complex that most young adult males get after a six pack of beers (though it should be noted that I made this brilliant decision completely sober). The fact I’d never really ridden a motorbike didn’t occur to me as a potential problem – how hard could it be? It was only when they showed me the bike and demonstrated how to change the gears did the sheer unfamiliarity of this vehicle truly hit home. My blank, uncomprehending expression must have given me away, because one of the men suddenly shouted, “Ahh! Automatic! You need automatic?”. Honestly, I’d had no idea there were automatic and manual motorbikes until that very moment, but I figured I was going to have a hell of an easier time on an automatic one, so I agreed enthusiastically and waited for him to bring around another bike. After a brief overview of the controls, they handed me a helmet and the keys, and away I went.
I puttered along through the small streets, using the same cautious method that I employed for crossing the roads as a pedestrian, before turning onto a main road and zooming along with the rest of the traffic. It was a similar thrill to riding on the back of a motorcycle taxi, except this time there was a certain element of fear, given that I was the one who was actually driving. But I was doing pretty well so far. I was heading towards Phnom Wat, a large temple located in the north of the city, surrounded by lots of traffic. I managed to park the bike next to Phnom Wat, which was situated in the middle of a huge roundabout. I wandered over to the temple and had a brief look inside. It is still a very active place of worship, so I didn’t stay too long so as not to disturb the prayers inside. Besides, I was keen to get back on the motorbike and do some more exploring.
And shortly after that is when it all went wrong. My destination was to be the Russian Markets, which are supposed to be a unique and interesting corner of the city. I’d checked my map and memorised a rough route through the main roads, but I’d only been driving for a few minutes before I came up to the next roundabout. I needed to turn left, but as I followed the roads, I realised I was veering right, and there didn’t appear to be any way to change my course. Was I not as far as I thought I was? Was I taking a wrong turn? Could I still turn left from where the road was taking me? All these perplexing questions bombarded me at once, and the fact that they drive on the right side of the road rather than the left didn’t help my heightening confusion – although the very limited road rules at all hadn’t laid the best foundation for building confidence. In the end, I hesitated for just a moment, but that was all it took. I came tumbling off the motorbike and skidding across the road.
It all seemed so slow and surreal at first. I thought for sure that I was dead. I’d heard the horror stories, the idiot tourists who thought they knew what they were doing when they set out onto the roads and ended up becoming another statistic. I could hear my mothers “I told you so” screeching through the back of my mind. But as soon as I was down, I was jumping up again and scrambling off the road. The way I’d fell meant I’d skidded out of the roundabout towards the edge of the road, rather than deeper into the oncoming traffic. Anyone behind me just swerved around me and continued on their way, as though nothing had happened, or as though that kind of thing happened every day – though for all I knew, such accidents were a common occurrence.
A few of the motorbike taxi drivers on the edge of the road rushed over to my aid, pulling the bike up and helping me wheel it to the edge of the road. I checked my arms and legs to find myself, remarkably, almost unscathed. The only exception was a shallow, bloody graze on my right knee, though I was so full of adrenaline at the time that I barely noticed. I cleaned myself up as best I could, and the local men checked to make sure the bike wasn’t damaged. Thankfully, other than a few mild scratches on the paint, which could have very well been there before I took my little tumble, it was fine. I thanked the men for their help, though they didn’t understand English, so they simply watched me curiously, probably trying to figure out the exact same thing as me – what the hell was I going to do now?
There was nothing else I could do. In my shaken and unsettled state, I mounted the bike and took a few deep breaths. I assessed the roads and where I was going, and then revved the engine and took off again into the traffic. With my confidence shattered from the fall, it was one of the most terrifying decisions of my life, but I didn’t really have any other option. I could have called the rental company, but I didn’t want to risk having to pay for any damages if I confessed to crashing the bike. I couldn’t ask anyone for a lift, since I was the one who had the vehicle. Though it screamed of the illogical and was beyond all common sense, I managed to get back on my bike and continue driving around the city.
It was horrific. With the exception of the crash itself, I had never felt so scared as I did navigating the streets of Phnom Penh by motorbike. For some ridiculous reason that I still can’t explain, I decided to travel further from where I was staying, perhaps in the hopes I would regain confidence and learn from my mistake. I didn’t. Every turn, corner or crossing filled me with terror. I had several extremely close calls with both other motorbikes and cars. In the haze of my terror I think I actually even made it to the Russian Markets but by that point, shopping for whatever trinkets they sold there was the last thing in my mind. It was on the return trip that I became not only frightened, but lost. I remember stopping at a petrol station, staring out into the peak hour afternoon traffic, and wondering how the hell I was going to make it back to my hostel alive.
After a lot of slow puttering down busy streets and long waits at corners to make sure there was absolutely no chance of being caught by other traffic, I finally made it back to the hostel. I’d been following the setting sun to make sure I was going in the right direction, and using what little I did remember of the streets from my drive through the city yesterday. It had been another long and exhausting day, and as soon as I parked the bike I showered, tended to my wound, and put my leg up by the pool whilst nursing several scotch and Cokes to calm my nerves. Needless to say, I had learnt my lesson. The traffic might not seem dangerous when experienced locals weave their way in and out of cracks and crevices of the gridlock, but it’s still a death trap for anyone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.
I promised my mother I would stay away from motorbikes altogether, but that’s literally impossible in most parts of Cambodia, so from now on I’ll just leave the driving to the locals.