After India I swore I would never be that idiot Westerner who shows up in some random tropical country, hops on a motorbike and finds myself three days later on crutches in an internet cafe arguing with with the British Airways call centre about why my flight simply must be changed to accommodate my broken leg and sudden need to either go home or stay put.
Luckily internet cafes hardly exist anymore, and I haven’t broken my leg… yet. I do have a pretty nasty burn from the motorbike exhaust pipe though, a less than gentle reminder to keep my wits about me. Sorry early-20s me, but late 20s me has realised that motorbikes are actually really, really fun – plus they’re a cheap way to get outside of cities.
After less than a week cruising around on these two wheel’d death traps I feel I am qualified to offer some advice on motorbike rentals in Cambodia.
First things first: check out the bike. Or don’t – your call. But I have come up with a four point check system, with features listed in order of importance:
- Functional horn: one point
- Front light that turns both on and off: one point
- Functional fuel gauge: one point
- Functional speedometer: one point
Regardless of fuel gauge functionality you should open up the tank and look in. If you see any petrol sloshing around this is a serious bonus (they usually come totally empty) and the bike gets a bonus point. If the tank is full, that is a straight +2 bonus points – take it.
A fill up usually costs between $3 and $5, so a full tank = a free day of rental (it is usually $5/day to rent a bike in Cambodia).
If the bike gets two points from a combination of any of the above items I’ll take it. One point and I’ll bargain it down to $4/day. Zero points and I’ll walk to the next shop and hope for something better.
They should thrown in a helmet for free – after twenty-something years of school the least I can do is make sure my brain is protected.
The entropy of organised chaos (or why it isn’t worth learning the rules of the road)
On the third day of zipping around southern Cambodia on my bike I was feeling pretty confident, so the first stop was the market for some breakfast noodles. I led us straight into the beehive of motorbikes, clam carts, taxis, banana stands (there’s always money in the banana stand!), tuk-tuks, baskets of piglets and sunglass racks.
The rings surrounding the market are the picture of chaos in a nation with seemingly no traffic laws – save one: DO NOT have your front light on during the day. At night it is optional, but if you have it on during the day you’ll get a fine.
We buzzed right in. Somehow over the shouts and squeals, horns and honking we heard a whistle. It was coming from the side of the road where a police-looking man was standing, waving us over. Shit.
In Cambodia you barter on everything, and the first rule of bartering is that both parties have to show their respective levels of total and utter indifference and boredom with the other and the task at hand. After exchanging a quick smirk, wondering what was in store, we slowly directed our bikes over to the cop. With painful lethargy I removed my sunglasses, then my helmet, fixed my hair and then looked at him. My buddy checked his phone and stifled a yawn.
The cop pulls out a laminated page of traffic signs, probably from a discarded European traffic rules book by the looks of it. I stare at him blankly. “License??”
My friend and I look at each other. Obviously neither of us has a license. I slowly take off my pack, and eventually make my way down to my wallet, wondering which piece of ID I’ll try to pass off as something that might indicate I’m somehow allowed to drive. I’m thinking a fiver will probably be the most convincing option. But by now my friend has just said “At the hostel.” and shrugged. This seems ok for the cop, who then points to my friend’s bare head. He responds by pointing to his helmet attached to the front of the bike. This also seems to be a sufficient answer to the cop.
He lifts out the traffic sign sheet again and points to a “do not enter” sign. A quick glance around confirms that a matching one is nowhere to be seen in the general vicinity. However, my eyes suddenly grow to twice their size as I note that a good 95% of the traffic is going in the opposite direction to the direction we had been driving. We had unknowingly driven up a one-way street, and my expression had just admitted that I recognised this fact.
The cop used this split-second moment of recognition (and our first unintentional admission of guilt) to pull out what I assume was part of about ten words he knew in English: “One dollar!”
We passed over two bills, which promptly disappeared into his pocket, and drove off.
Fines paid! Now, if I could only read the roadsigns…