Bicycle Network: Ride On magazine
Phnom Penh by bike
Ruth Balding braved the busy traffic of Cambodia’s capital on a borrowed bike in January 2011
The staff at my villa, four kilometres from Phnom Penh’s downtown tourist attractions, are adamant – it is too far to walk.
I explain that I need the exercise, but they suggest I take a tut tut (a trishaw pulled by a motorbike). A warm, humid climate, busy roads and crowded footpaths makes it inconceivable to a Cambodian to walk such a distance. A westerner who turns down a tut tut, opting to walk, is viewed as either crazy or stingy.
Thus we come to the complimentary guest bike. I’m proudly shown the bicycle, a classic model found throughout Cambodia. No gears, or lights, and dodgy brakes. The brakes worked when clenched against the handlebars.
“Oh no; no air,” I say and press the tyres to demonstrate; expecting the staff to rectify the problem. The answer that they have no pump or any bike tools doesn't surprise me. After all, this is a poor country that has been through much devastation and trauma. “Oh Madame, you get air on street."
Back home in Perth I’ve always geared up as a cyclist with helmet, gloves, cycling shoes and bike clothing. It’s different in Cambodia, where such items would be deemed as luxuries and way beyond the means of the average Cambodian. So it does not take me long to be ready; I go as I am, how the locals ride. I’m wearing a skirt, shirt, sun hat and sunglasses. I wheel the bike out to the street and remind myself about traffic being on the right-hand side. Soon I’m at the corner where the air is supposed to be. Only, the corner is so crowded and busy I am unable to see any pump, and there is definitely no service station. There only appear to be newspaper and magazine stands.
“What are you looking for Madame?” asks the driver of the tut tut I was stopped next to.
“I’m looking for the pump.”
“Pump?” he says puzzled. A discussion started with the next tut tut driver.
“Look” I demonstrated pressing the flat tyres, “I’m looking for the pump.”
“Ahh” said the driver, and from under the tut tut seat triumphantly pulls out a foot pump. He pumps my tyres.
The bike is ready, but am I? I am a little nervous, which shows when I wobble as I set off. Phnom Penh traffic is continuous and frenetic. A mass of cars, vans, bicycles and the overwhelming favourite - motorbikes. It is like a never-ending onslaught. Initially it looks as if there were no road rules as everyone "went for it". Or if there were road rules, to me they appeared incomprehensible. Vehicles merge, weave and with few traffic lights, rarely stop. The idea is not to stop, you can slow down, go around, merge and weave. The slowest traffic is in closest to the gutter and the fastest in the centre of the road. I am cycling at a steady pace next to the gutter and only pull out if I have to pass slower traffic like vendors pushing food carts.
When the idea is not to stop, how does one cross busy four-lane boulevards? Trying to get across is nerve racking, and all the while I was trying to figure out the local customs for such a manoeuvre. Watching the behaviour of other road users, I started to get the picture. The answer is to edge forward. Keep edging forward until the traffic has to go behind you or weave in front of you. It’s a bit like the seas parting, the sea of traffic flows either side. Everyone watches everyone’s movements continuously. Make no sudden movements. This allows everyone from all directions time to see and understand your intentions. Vehicles convey their intentions by beeping horns. As a bicycle is about the slowest on the road, a bell probably seems of no use in all the noise. Fortunately the factor that seems to make it work is traffic moves at slower speeds than in Australia. Soon I learned an easier way to get across four lanes of traffic. Wait for another vehicle; car, tut tut, motorbike or bicycle going in the same direction and go alongside them. Basically, they acted as my protection.
Equally daunting is to turn left into a busy boulevard. Left-hand turns are generally executed in the following manner. From the far-right hand side of the road where I’m cycling, as I approach the intersection I weave through gaps in the traffic to the centre and continue weaving through any gap in oncoming traffic until I’m on the left-hand side of the road. Then I glide round the left-hand corner into oncoming traffic – bit scary at first although you soon get used to it. Now weave some more magic back across to the far right hand side of the road. All the time saying, “Oh my gawd”.
My successful negotiation of the intersections increased my confidence and I became more relaxed.
Early evening I head back to my Villa, cycling down the major boulevards of Phnom Penh, keeping in near the right-hand side with slower traffic. The most direct way is to cycle down one of the five major boulevards that converge and circle the Independence Monument. I need to enter this circle, go ¾ round the Independence Monument and down Norodom Boulevard. I weaved, merged, entered, flowed, weaved, merged and exited. Wow, I did it! So beautifully executed I’m not sure how I did it. The Independence Monument was my cycling zenith. I was SO proud of myself, my confidence soared. Now it was fun, I was enjoying myself, and the cooler evening air made for a pleasant ride back to my Villa.
"I'm back; I made it," I called out to Villa staff as I wheeled the bike into the courtyard. I had been out all day.
With fresh confidence brimming, by bike became my first choice of transport for the remainder of my stay in Phnom Penh. Each morning I set out by bicycle and was able to cover a lot of ground. Western women passing me in tut tuts give me amazed looks as they go past. The bicycle gave me a wonderful sense of freedom and independence, I went where and when I chose and could spend as much time as I liked where I liked. The bicycle also allowed me to feel I was "on the ground". Seeing street life up close. From my vantage point I was able to absorb life happening around me.
I felt like a local: this was cycling Phnom Penh style.