10 Tips for Cycling in Cambodia (Siem Reap)

Even if you have no plans to ride a bike or motorbike, or even attempt to cross a street without getting plowed in Cambodia, who knows, you might end up visiting Angkor Wat one day, which I highly recommend as one of the best cultural attractions in the world. Traffic in Cambodia is also kinda’ funny, which I generally think F’d up stuff is, as long as one isn’t the victim of it going all wrong.

Just some of the many, many bas-relief sculptures decorating Angkor Wat. Come in the off season and it’s better to deal with intermittent pounding rain than throngs of tourists.

One of my very favorite things to do in Asia is get on a bike and go exploring. Some of my best experiences were in the middle of nowhere in China, in the North of Lao, and in Chiang Rai of Thailand. I didn’t even try in Saigon when I lived there (Oh, but cycling in Hoi An and Da Lat was great) . Cambodia, well, I’ll ride, but it’s iffy.

Motorbikes

I don’t do this. I prefer to ride a bike and get the exercise, and it seems a bit too risky if I don’t have real cause to do it.

Ah, you are young, you are on an adventure, you’ve never ridden a motorbike before, and you can do it here without a license, and for less than you’d pay a tuk-tuk to take you to the same destination. I would say pay the tuk-tuk, as this really isn’t the place to LEARN how to ride a motorbike unless you have to, because you are a teacher, and you need to be to school at 6:00 a.m., and you are making $12 an hour tops, and you can’t pay the tuk-tuk and still have disposable income for beer to help you recover from your teaching load.

This section will be short. I’ve known people in Thailand, which is safer than here as far as I can tell, who’ve ridden motorbikes for years and years, perhaps a decade, without losing a limb, a fingernail, or getting their hair mussed. On the other hand one of my first acquaintances in Thailand told me how he was on a motorbike with a friend, they got in an accident, and while he was OK, riding in the back, the driver lost a leg. People don’t like to be reminded of these stories while purchasing their first motorbike, but, it’s the kind of thing that if it does happen to you, it’s a life changer. I decided about then that it just wasn’t worth the risk. Also, my current girlfriend’s father was killed in a motorbike accident in Thailand, but I learned that years and years after I decided to NOT ride one.

Additionally, when riding a motorbike, you can seriously injure yourself without anyone else even being on the road (I speak from experience, but that’s another story). That’s harder to do on a bicycle. Anyway, because of my refusal to ride motorbikes, I can’t advise on that really. In your life, you are lucky if you never have to risk your life for some important purpose. And then there are things just not worth losing a leg over, like getting to the 7-11 on your teaching break to get a can of coffee to spike you up for the next 2-hour lesson in which you are expected to be an entertainer on par with Jim Carrey. That would be Thailand, where the guy lost his leg. They don’t have 7-11 here. At least I don’t think they do.

I know, I know, you’ve been riding here, there’s no problem once you get with the flow, why, it’s even safer than back home… One just needs to be able to adapt, acclimate, adjust, evolve. Well, and I hope you are right, for your own safety. In fact, I’ve never been in a bike or car accident in my life, and I’ve done some stupid shit, like racing people on “suicide canyon”. But I think we can all accept that, for example, if there are loose dogs humping in the road, it ADDS rather than DECREASES danger. Seems logical. I wish you luck.

On top of all that, I know me, and I can be a little adventurous at times, am not adverse to testing my metal, and this could include the metal of the motorbike. In other words, I’m not sure I really trust myself not having too much fun on such a device for my own safety. In short, I don’t have to ride a motorbike so I don’t, otherwise I would.

Traffic in General

There are hordes of tour-buses; people with SUVs frustrated that they can’t really use them properly on crowded and sometimes shitty roads so do so anyway; street vendors with their carts pulled by bike, motorbike, or leg propulsion; dogs; people with fancy cars and fancy entitlement road manners; min-van alternatives to buses that pride themselves on speed; tourists who haven’t figured out that walking two or three abreast in the street is causing pandemonium; potholes that would strand the Mars Rover; weddings with loudspeakers set on 11 taking place in the street; and of course tourists out on their first-time motorbike rides testing the waters. It’s fucking Frogger out there. Riding a motorbike in Siem Reap reminds me of the scene in Apocalypse Now where soldiers try to surf while the beach is being pounded with artillery.

Bicycling

This is also not the place to learn how to ride a bike unless you need to. The traffic rules here are very strict, and the first rule is that there are no rules. The second and third apply this to dogs and macaques, who also make use of public roads.

I have never seen an officer give a ticket for anything other than not wearing a helmet, which can be settled on the spot by paying a bribe fine. Why shoot fish in a river when you can shoot them in a barrel? And this means when it comes to traffic violations of the dangerous sort, such as running red lights at top speed going against traffic while on your smart phone, the only thing one doesn’t have to worry about is getting caught doing it. It’s a way of life. It might be risky, but it is just accepted that when you get on the road, life is cheap, and that’s a fact you just accept like the fact that you can’t fly or breathe under water. Never mind that this fact can be remedied, you’ve already accepted it.

For a while I stopped cycling, which I mostly do just for exercise. I realized it’s just too dangerous, so I would go on walks instead. Now I’m riding my bike again because walking just doesn’t get the heart beating fast enough to decrease waist padding. So, why is it too dangerous? How dangerous can it be to ride a bike? A guy who was riding his bike around the world died in Thailand when someone plowed him over, and that’s Thailand, which is like the older, more responsible, married brother of Cambodian traffic. Thailand traffic is nutty, but not off the charts where questions of sanity don’t even apply.

I should have mentioned earlier that I live in Siem Reap, and what I say may not apply to, say, Battambang, which seems a bit safer, or Phnom Penh, which seems even more dangerous. Here I do choose to ride a bike, despite the various hazards, so here are some of my tips to not wake up in the hospital hoping you merely had a concussion.

  1. Wear a helmet. This is the difference between denting your helmet and denting your skull. Nuff said.
  2. Assume nobody else is looking, because often they aren’t. People can be coming from any direction, and the chances of someone looking at YOU before they drive out into the road in front of you are pretty damned slim. It’s better, I guess, for them to make a leap of faith when driving into traffic, from, say, their home or a business, than to look at oncoming traffic before leaping. One is faith in God or supernatural force of choice, the other is just faith in your own eyes, I guess. What you can’t see can’t hurt you?!
  3. Nobody stops for pedestrians or bike riders. This can be disconcerting to down right outraging when crossing a clearly marked crosswalk on foot. People will just plow down on you anyway, and if you are rigid enough to think that law will save your life, than you will become a martyr for the law.
  4. Get off your bike when crossing an F’d-up intersection. This is my favorite trick. Let’s say you have to do a left turn at a busy intersection with 8 lanes of traffic. You have to be looking in a few directions, and while going slow maintaining your balance, and you can’t predict how fast other people will go. If you lose your balance or make a miscalculation, it could go very bad.
    1. This all changes when you get off your bike and walk it across. I’m not sure of the entire psychology of why this is so effective. I’m sure there’s something to do with people not wanting to scratch their fenders or paint, and that you are now at least 3 times as wide as you were before, and 10 times more conspicuous. You are also a vulnerable moron in their eyes, which might elicit charity deceleration. A pedestrian is cattle, but a pedestrian with a bike is something people just don’t want to run into. I find this so funny I almost rejoice whenever I pull this trick, even if it makes me look stupid. I am, however, the one chuckling in the end.
  5. When there are dogs pick up speed, assuming it’s safe, before you get near them. This is in beta testing, so, don’t trust me 100% on this. This is something I learned riding in Thailand, where the dogs are a bit more vicious in my experience. If you are already going at a good clip, a lot of dogs are too lazy in the hot sun to launch into a sudden sprint after you, and if they do you already have an edge. If you are the one who suddenly has to go into full sprint mode to not be bit, that’s going to be more unpleasant.
  6. Don’t do anything unexpected. As I said before, people aren’t looking. Well, they’re sorta’ looking, but, there can be several people on the bike, and people drive with their smart phones sandwiched between their helmets and ears, and they are going on instinct. So, for example, if someone passes you on the right, which they will do, you shouldn’t suddenly veer to the left, because whoever is in that lane will probably plow into you. You should just adjust your trajectory as slightly as possible. Even if someone is a conscientious driver, they still have to look every which way, and even if they did take note of your presence, your sudden game change may happen when they are checking on the craziness happening in all other directions.
  7. Remember that lights are mere decorations to remind people of Christmas, or something, or are mere suggestions for beginners. Just because there’s a red light doesn’t mean anyone is going to stop for it. Often it means that they should lean on the horn to let you know they are barreling through no matter what and it’s up to you to spare your own hide.
  8. Don’t think it’s safe to cross a road just because there’s no vehicles in the immediate vicinity. When there’s an opening, that’s when people gun it. I think it’s a sexual thing, at least for the boys: a chance to rev. So, you see motorbikes off in the distance and think you can leisurely stroll or bike across a road, but don’t realize they see the rare opportunity to express their hormones and floor their machine. Now, should you trip, you will also be part of some sort of accident.
  9. Bring money for when your bike breaks down, most likely in the form of a flat tire. In that case you can flag down a tuk-tuk, and they can easily cram your bike in the carriage, along with you, and take you home or to a bike repair shop.
  10. Exploring can kinda’ suck, so it might be a really good idea to get a bike tour if you are riding for exercise or to see the countryside. I rode around a bit trying to find a decent route I could do for a daily workout. I finally found a reasonably good one which only requires one nasty intersection crossing (and this is where I get off the bike and reverse the dominance factor). But I also did some exploring, and it was not so pleasant. There’s a lot of construction going on here, which means there are a lot of big-ass trucks driving around, which means people are trying to go around them forwards and backwards simultaneously. Garbage tends to be heaped up and set fire to. So, if you don’t know a good route, your adventure can just be an endurance test. I once went out and sucked down shitloads of dust and exhaust, burning garbage, got my ears blasted by a wedding, saw heaps and heaps of trash in plastic bags, and had to cling to the side of the road to let the larger trucks blaring their horns squeeze by. I got home feeling like I survived an ordeal instead of having a leisurely work out riding through the rice fields.

I wish I could say I enjoy cycling here as much as in China or Lao or parts of Thailand. It’s just too hectic for me to really enjoy. I had a good ride in Battambang though, on a tour, and I hear there’s at least one good one in Siem Reap. I’ll have to look into that. It’s probably the way to go.

Finally, a tip for pedestrians when you cross a street. OK, as I mentioned, almost nobody is going to stop for you, even if the cross-walk is freshly painted and not one of the ones they’ve just let it go because, well, F pedestrians full stop. In China, and I guess here, if you are a pedestrian, it’s because you are too poor to buy a vehicle, in which case you are merde (pardon my Francais). So how do you cross a street other than waiting forever for an opening in which a hormonal teen doesn’t suddenly gun his motorbike? There’s an old technique I learned in Saigon. Pretend you’re not looking. This is kinda’ like the walking the bike across the street thing, in that you are presenting yourself as a sitting duck, in which case it is incumbant upon them to not hit you.

The default, if you haven’t already figured this out, is that the pedestrian is responsible for staying out of the way, you worthless POS. But if you are a clueless stationary object, they need to pay attention to you. This doesn’t mean DON’T LOOK when you cross the street, because someone may still be watching porn on their smart phone while driving, but rather look out of the corner of your eye while pretending to be hopelessly oblivious, just in case you do need to leap for dear life at the last second. Vehicles will slow down for a clueless imbecile whereas if you show yourself to be aware and intelligent, they may accelerate at you to tell you they mean business and they know that you know they mean business, which means it’s up to you to get the hell out of the way because you don’t have a motor, because you are a cretin, or miscreant.

Outside of their vehicles I find the people here mostly very nice, even sweet, and more so than in Thailand (they got a bit jaded over time, and it’s no wonder). Plus I’m sure some people know some better bike routes than I do. Also, I do know a good, reliable, friendly, trustworthy place to buy or rent a bike or motorbike, where English is spoken, if you wanna’ give it a try.

I’m sure you realized there’s a bit of humorous hyperbole in this rant. I only wish it were more of that and less of the truth. And when I am living in another country, I stay well clear of the politics – American politics are more than enough to overwhelm my circuitry – as I’m a guest with precarious standing. But I would make one gentle recommendation to those running the show here.

With all the rampant construction, new guest houses, more restaurants, and swarms of tour buses, a normal schedule of garbage pickup doesn’t seem to be able to keep up with the increased excess of smelly, unsightly trash, which doesn’t look good in photos nor leave a positive impression. There’s a stretch of river where I like to walk, and it’s the best and cleanest stretch, the most well maintained. However, restaurants, or tour buses, or whomever, like to dump all their garbage in modest trash bins that were designed for the casual stroller to toss a bottle of water or the remnants of a snack. Recently, there will be full bags of Styrofoam takeaway containers piled around the cannisters, as if clever businesses have found a new dumping grounds for their own overflowing garbage problem. In my experience, nobody, and I mean nobody, likes to look at or smell heaps of food garbage rotting in the hot sun, and it puts a real damper on the scenery, especially as stray cups and styrofoam bowls and tissues blow around and alight in unsightly places. My guess is labor is pretty damned cheap, and upping the trash removal would create the impression of a much cleaner, greener, more traditional, more cultural, and overall more desirable tourist destination. The river has beautiful large trees, and the foliage is well kept, but the repugnant litter kills it, and leaves memories of holding ones breath in disgust.

Yours in loving kindness, not really, more like respectable politeness, which is about all I can muster:

Eric

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