Look out! Khmer drivers about!

Ok, so having found sanctuary from obnoxious tourists with pride in the strength of their hangovers…. Back to bike drama!

I haven’t ridden a bike since pigtails were the height of fashion. But they say you never forget, and although they turn out to be right, what they don’t mention is the Cambodian highway! The way to Honour Village follows National Route 6. It’s the biggest, and hence busiest, stretch of road in Siem Reap and it’s a straight shot from the airport to the centre of town. Trying to explain using the roads here will involve some rather inventive metaphor, so bear with me please. Imagine you’re the marble in a pinball machine… or the puc in an ice hokey match… Gulliver on Brobdingnag (check me out: literary reference!)… Simba caught in the stampede. Are we seeing a pattern here? For drivers here the only rule is that rules are for wusses. Traffic lights are optional, right of way is fiction, everyone drives on the side of the road that suits them best and running over Westerners is hilarious. Now everybody race to their destination. Ready. Steady. Go!

But I’ve skipped ahead of myself again. All that fun only begins when I make it to the actual road. Between Prom’s and the road is…well, a stretch of rubble. There are renovations going on and the builders thought a good old fashioned game of Trip The Tourist was in order so the smashed up contents of an entire building have been emptied into the street for people who were not born wearing flip flops to sprawl spectacularly over, or for audacious cyclists to give every one of their 206 bones a good rattling.

So, over the shards of brick we go, turn right, pause briefly at red light, shoot it and join the stream of traffic racing hectically out of town. Some of the wheels on the road belong to things even my overactive imagination cannot reasonably call a vehicle: a motorbike connected by a few lengths of string to a disarticulated wheelbarrow supporting a crew of acrobatic Khmer, transporting lengths of steel pipe to yet another hotel building site along route 6 while the driver balances his cargo with whichever hand he needs less to steer doesn’t really belong in the same category as a car… or even my rusty old bike with it’s lovely habit of leaning to the left and leaking air out of the rear tyre.

Having said all this I have become very attached to my ride to work. After a risky dash across a roundabout you come to the royal gardens. In the morning they’re just a sudden patch of beautifully manicured emerald green garden in the midst of red dust and moto exhaust fumes, in the evening though the smell of jasmine is intoxicating and I’ve been known to take the long route home just to breathe deeply of air that doesn’t smell like cow dung and durian. (For those innocent souls unaware of the reek of durian please, do your utmost to stay in blissful ignorance; it’s a piquant mix of rotting fish and raw sewage.) Then there comes a pagoda that more often than not is hosting a wedding so I’m treated to a glimpse of brightly coloured traditional Khmer outfits. They really are wonderfully exotic, like birds of paradise each one brighter than the one before and weighed down with shining gems and gold, the women have their hair piled in high ringlets on the tops of their heads and the men stand sombre and proud with hands behind their backs. The warble of prayers and music floats into the sky and over the golden roof of the pagoda. The whole thing makes my heart soar. No matter how many times I see it. Then on through a cloud of incense at the statue of Buddha and, at last, on to route 6.

Here the careening trucks, Lexuses, motos, bikes, cows and green-shrouded road sweepers are easier to dodge. And a mere 20 minutes later I’m turning left onto the track that is the last 15 or so minutes’ ride to HVC. There’s a school and a small stretch of lean-to houses and shops where the locals yell hello from their hammocks and the kids wave from the backs of their parents’ motos. When it comes, the change to rural farm land is sudden and immediate. The civilisation drops away and the landscape stretches out in front and to both sides, flat and seemingly endless. The path is flanked by rice fields, a mix of water and grass and the odd punctuation mark of a floating Khmer head as fishermen dodge eels to catch tonight’s dinner. I am joined by an honour guard of mating dragonflies that flash in the stark sunlight and butterflies the size of my palm that skate along beside me. The road tails away into the bright red of Cambodia’s dirt tracks and the smooth ride of route 6 becomes a jog over stones and into furrows made by the wheels of passing motos and farm trucks. Occasionally the near-total quiet is pierced by the shriek of a pig, tethered on its back into a half-barrel and balanced on the back of a motorbike. But for the most part silence reigns. In the distance is a treeline that I’ve come to believe can never be reached and on the hottest days it’s easy to feel the danger of the place, that it may well go on and on in every parched direction waiting to lure an all to human body out of the shade to collapse under its own need for water. It’s easy to feel the weight of the locals in this place too, the weight of their poverty as they pepper the planes with tiny homes, sometimes as little as four sheets of corrugated iron propped together, sweating it out under the cruelly blazing sun.

Soon enough I turn into the school grounds. It’s made up of four main houses; the children’s living quarters and a large open-faced classroom/dining room. The walls are merrily painted with animals and Tibetan prayer flags wave their bright colours in the ever-present wind. I am more often than not met by Hing, a dapper little gentleman in an infallible brown shirt with scabies sores on his ankles and a fascination with watches. He parks my bike for me before returning for a big hug and recoiling in comically exaggerated disgust at how sweaty I am after my 6Km, 40º cycle. Then the school day takes hold. I’ll save that madness for another post.

Needless to say I’ve succumbed to the craziness of the roads here a couple of times. I’ve bumped wheels with a moto driver who was too busy staring at me to realise he was about to roll into me. I’ve been knocked off by a moto carrying three people, which attempted to cut me off when I was far too exhausted to employ evasive maneuvers. And I have, get this, been physically blown off by the wind! Let me tell you, Cambodia does not compromise on storms!

However, since I’m still alive and unharmed I am rapidly running out of excuses not to plan this weeks’ lessons. So I must be off.

I’ll be back though.

See you there.


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