Cambodia,  Life,  Travel

The Good News is I Survived

And luckily there’s really not bad news!

I feel like I need to start this post off with a brief history of my interactions with motorized vehicles – just for added context. Once we went as a family to Breckenridge, CO and decided to take some time to go snow-mobiling. Sounds fun, but alas, I almost flipped the snowmobile with my mom and I on it more than a few times, and I think we both ended up more than a little stressed. Whoops.

And then there were driving lessons… apparently, the way to start is not to ask “Which is the brake and which is the accelerator?” because I think my mom might have had a minor panic attack.

If the key won’t come out of your car, you probably shouldn’t call your brother almost panicked. He might suggest you simply place it in park.

One of my friends and I went to lunch one day, and on our way back to the office he asked “Did you really just make three right turns rather than a left turn?” The answer most certainly was “Yes.”

Suffice it to say, I’m not excellent at piloting things. I’m pretty good with a Sea-Doo, but that’s about it.

Here in Cambodia, there aren’t many ways to get around. One way is through tuk-tuk, which I found to be a giant pain. And very uncomfortable to boot.

Another is by motorbike. That still scares me.

Then I discovered e-bikes. E-bikes are motorized bicycles and I think they just have bike pedals on them to avoid licensing requirements. They are technically “bicycles” for insurance and driving license purposes. You can pedal if you want, but generally you don’t need to – it’s essentially like a motorbike but it goes a bit slower and has less exhaust. They go about 20km/h, or that’s the recommended speed for best battery life. They can go up to about 32 km/h.

What could possibly go wrong if I rented one of those in Cambodia?

Nothing, of course!

Given my excellent history with driving things, I decided it would be a fantastic idea to rent an e-bike and drive it out to Angkor Wat for my second day of temple sightseeing.

I went to the e-bike company, signed the paperwork, and handed my passport over as collateral. Terrifying. But standard practice I’m afraid…

The lady at the shop gave me about a five minute lesson on how to use the bike (and a helmet, thank goodness) and then I was off.

Except I wasn’t used to the e-bike so as I pulled out of their front sidewalk, I made a somewhat wide right turn. Right into the left lane. And had a bit of a problem getting to the right. Behind me, the lady from the shop was yelling “We drive on the right here!”

I’m praying she chalked it up to me being British or Australian or from somewhere where they drive on the left (though she had my passport, so I think I’m giving myself the benefit of the doubt to save some embarrassment).

Then I was straight into merging into traffic. Of course, the e-bike office is in downtown Siem Reap, and that’s about 10km from the Angkor Wat complex. All told, the route I planned was about 55km.

But leaving from the heart of Siem Reap meant that I had to navigate my way to Angkor Wat through the traffic in the city. Traffic in an Asian city. Where I think I’ve seen a total of four stoplights. And street signs are not a thing. Turn signals don’t seem to be either.

I stayed as close to the side of the road as I could (there’s really not a multiple lane concept here for traffic going in one direction). People just kind of go around you, and will frequently go into the oncoming traffic lane if they think that’s a fast way to get around you.

Even so, I had to make two left turns and cross about five busy streets. Doesn’t sound like much, but each one had my adrenaline racing.

I made it to the complex without issue, and decided that this was quite possibly the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened. My day of temple touring was so different from yesterday – I took my time at each temple, I wandered around, I stopped at the side of the road for pictures. It was leisurely and wonderful. Driving around on the bike was fun, and it was great to feel the breeze in the heat.

I came across the most breathtaking expanse of rice fields, and it was easy to stop and take pictures. It didn’t feel like I was inconveniencing anyone like with the tuk tuk driver.

The Angkor Wat complex does not have a ton of traffic – it’s all tourist traffic of tuk tuks, cars (a shocking number of Lexus RXs, Toyota Highlanders, and Range Rovers), motorbikes, and bicyclists. But the complex is giant and especially where I was going, there was virtually no traffic to contend with. Most of the time I had the whole road to myself.

However, you get the evil eye from every tuk tuk driver you pass. They seem to hate people who rent e-bikes, bikes, or motorbikes because it’s one less tourist that’s paying the locals to drive them around. It’s an interesting balance – I feel bad not supporting them by using a tuk tuk driver, but my experience with them has been one of inconvenience.

I spent almost the whole day going around the complex – I left the e-bike shop about 10am, and decided to head back around 5pm.

I did not think that one through.

Turns out, rush hour here is the same time as rush hour at home. So I was now navigating my e-bike back to the shop through rush hour traffic while praying that the battery lasted me the whole way.

Rush hour here is like nothing I’ve ever driven in before. The “bike” lane on the far right side was filled with people who just plopped their street food kiosk in it… so I had to merge into the main traffic to get around those.

Then there were people who decided to use their motorbikes in the bike lane so they could drive into oncoming bike traffic. (What could possibly go wrong? I have no clue what possesses them to do this but it seems to be quite common.) There were all sorts of cars, trucks, and who knows what also parked on the side of the road.

The whole thing felt like I was playing Mario Kart – I had to dodge all sorts of things being thrown at me by my opponents. It really was just like Mario Kart except for the part where it was real life.

It took me far longer to get back than it should have – I might have gotten lost in Siem Reap a few times, but I finally made it successfully back to the e-bike shop. Thank God.

As I was driving in the traffic, and just in general today I recalled a lesson from learning to snowboard. Once, when I was working on switching from my heelside edge to the toeside edge, I had a number of problems. (This was one of my first snowboarding lessons.) My instructor came over and said “Your problem is not that you can’t do it, it’s that you don’t commit to the turn. You’re afraid if you commit to it, you’ll fall – but if you don’t commit you’ll definitely fall. Decide you’re making the turn, and go all in.”

In retrospect, that’s not terrible life advice. It was very true while driving in Cambodia – if you want to cross a street with traffic coming in perpendicular, you can cross it if you basically just confidently go across the street (while there’s the lightest traffic coming). You’ll never get a spot where there’s no traffic – people here are used to that and they tend to move around for you.

But if you don’t commit, if you’re hesitant, they no longer know where and how to move around you. So when you’re being overly cautious, you’re actually putting yourself in more danger. It’s an interesting balance – you have to be aware of others on the road, but if you proceed with confidence, you can cross almost anything.

But confidence and commitment are key.

{{Side note: the bike company has no idea I wrote this post, and it’s not sponsored in any way. Opinions are completely my own, but seriously – if you’re in Siem Reap you should check them out.}}

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *