Dutch blood runs through my veins. My legs are genetically supposed to begin making cycling movements before I even start to walk…
In my volunteer programme, we are generally expected to ride bicycles if our workplaces are within 5km or so from our homes. Living in Phnom Penh, most of us reside close to work. When I arrived and had a look at the chaotic city traffic and chronically potholed roads, I thought there was no way I was getting on a bicycle. Not even to mention the fact I had arrived in Cambodia under that stifling heat at the beginning of the rainy season and daily flooding. Other volunteers encouraged me to get on a bicycle and give it a try – which I did once – and subsequently made a decision to never try again. Alternatively, I decided to focus my Dutch genes on spinning classes at the gym with machine bikes, cute instructors, and pounding dance music!
I spent the first year getting to work on a moto-dup – basically a motorcycle taxi. Usually men drive around the city or wait on corners ready to take you on the back and scoot you to wherever you need to go for a small fee. A lot of them come from the provinces, spending their time in Phnom Penh to moto people around and save a bit of money to go back to their hometowns and share with their families. There are a few more city-savvy ones that know Phnom Penh inside-and-out and might even speak some English. I had three main moto-dup drivers. They made sure I got to work and home. I usually spent 20 minutes speaking non-stop in Khmer and taking the chance to talk to them about anything that crossed my mind. For the most part, they probably didn’t understand me but they always got me to my destination. I paid a dollar to get to most places and always wore my heavy Canadian-bought helmet – carrying it in my arms after they dropped me off somewhere.
I also walked a lot. At first I was overwhelmed by walking in the craziness of a pedestrian-at-the-bottom-of-the-food-chain environment. But I soon learnt that you just need to walk through the moving traffic and they will all just whiz around you. There’s no animosity, no shock at a jay-walker, and in fact, nobody truly gets road rage and has the intent to kill you. OMB! (Oh My Buddha!)
About two months ago a friend strongly encouraged me to try biking again. I knew all the roads, I was used to the ways of motorcycles and pedestrians, and the hot season had just given way to slightly cooler evenings and mornings. I went to the office and picked up the old bicycle I had left abandoned for the year. A little oil and brake job, and just like new. I took the handles, put my feet on the pedals, and away I went out into the week-end traffic. I made it home alive. I rode it the next day to the grocery store. The following day I went to another part of town for dinner. Over the week I explored new places. The city became so much smaller. I no longer had to just think destination, but now was more focused on the journey. My bicycle has opened my eyes in Phnom Penh and in some ways has made me think a little more broadly about my life here. As I race by the congested traffic, pedal through floods, get caught under torrential downpours, and finally arrive at my destinations signalled by a quick kick to the kick-stand, I always feel a sense of new found freedom. I’m choosing where I want to go and I’m really enjoying the ride to get there under all sorts of conditions. And… I bought a handy basket cover, Just like that I now have a goods transport machine to boot.
I am a converted bicycle-lover. My granny bike has changed the way I make my way around and how I see Phnom Penh. It might have taken a year, but my Dutch genes are really kicking into gear.