20/03/17 – E-Bikes: Cambodia’s Training Wheels

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Fun, cheap, and easy to ride, this is admittedly my set of training wheels for when I eventually ride a real motorcycle down to Wat Phu in Laos

Motorbikes are the heart and soul of Cambodia’s transportation from A to B, and at least 80% of the vehicles you’ll find on any given road in the Magical Kingdom (the name expats give for the Land of Rice and Wats). They pull tuk-tuks, farming equipment, food to and from the market, banana pancake stoves, hot-dog stands, and most importantly people. Lots of people. One of the benefits of having a population that rarely grows taller than 5’2″ is that you can stuff two parents, an uncle, and three kids on the same motorbike and barely have the suspension suffer.

(I’m heading back to Phnom Penh on April 9th – there will be photos of this to come)

That is, until you become involved in one of Cambodia’s numerous motorcycle accidents that claim the lives of 30+ (and 10+ drunk) foreigners every year and exponentially more Cambodians.

To be honest, I actually saw the remains of a fatal crash on Thursday on one of the roads up to Angkor Thom from Siem Reap. Poor guy had been run off the road by a Korean tourist bus and had broken his neck. He was young, too.

Thankfully, authorities have cracked down on safety over the last few years, and one of the only road laws I’ve ever seen enforced in Cambodia is that it’s now illegal not to wear a helmet. However, this seems to only apply to adults, but being a kid in Cambodia is kind of like living through Herbert Spencer’s theory of “Survival of the Fittest”.

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Strong current? Waterfall 30m downstream? Sure, jump on in kids!

The mentality of many Cambodian parents concerning their young children is best summed up in one of my favourite Russell Peters quotes: “If I get rid of one, I’ll make another one. And I will tell the new one how much of an idiot the last one was!”

My parents nor my girlfriend have that mentality towards me, so I’m practicing on an E-Bike first. It’s actually officially illegal for foreigners to ride motorbikes in Siem Reap, too, although this rule is 99.99999% never enforced and most of the rental places near my guesthouse have big “motorbike rental” signs attached to them. But better to be safe than sorry, and an E-Bike is both safer and more environmentally friendly.

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Even if the helmet is totally dweeby.
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And the bike looks like it was picked last in gym class…

Based on my personal experience, you can get nearly everywhere on an E-Bike in the immediate Angkor Archaeological Park. They’re anywhere between $9-$10/day (which means it’s still cheaper to split a tuk-tuk four ways, but hear me out on this), and most restaurants along the way will have little plugs where you can charge them while you eat.

The benefit of riding something motorized and controlled by you, based on my experience in tuk-tuks and on bicycles, is personal freedom, lack of physical exertion, and distance traveled. My tuk-tuk driver gets me there and back from wherever I want at Angkor Thom for about $10; however, I’ve spent three weeks developing a mutual trust with the guy I’ve got now, and before him I’ve had a number of drivers who would try to find any excuse to charge a few dollars more if I wanted to stop somewhere arbitrary and take a look at something. Before, I had a guy who charged me $14, so I ditched him.

Tuk-tuks are great, they’re relatively cheap, and they give you a great chance to experience the outdoors without being exposed to the sun, but they don’t really give you that “hey, what’s that?” or “I’ve heard of this temple down this road” ability to explore a bit more.

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Or, hey, cool, what kind of spider is that? “No! No! Very dangerous! Go to temple! Look, Angkor Wat! I take you!”

As for the physical exertion factor, I blame the combination of heat and the sheer amount of riding every day for the mental breakdown I had in Cambodia in 2012 (my worst day was 50km in 46 degrees + 70% humidity). Even in the cooler months it gets incredibly sweaty riding a bicycle in the Cambodian heat, so why wouldn’t you want to save your physical and mental energy to experience the temples in a way that allows you to truly absorb everything you’re seeing, especially if you’re paying that ridiculous new $60 USD 3-day pass price?

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Case and point: I despised the Bayon the first year I was at Angkor because it took me 12km to ride there (which is arguably not that bad) but then I had to outride a monsoon rainfall in order to get back.

That said, the average city bike (a shitty rusty thing that goes over bumps as gracefully as a wheelchair) is $2 and the average mountain bike is $5, so if you’re really on a shoestring then go for the bicycle.

There’s two main companies that hire out E-Bikes in Siem Reap: Ovelocity, the one I used, and Green E-Bike, which is the more popular one. There are more charging stations for Green E-Bike, but Ovelocity has a station near the Srah Srang Reservoir where they’ll actually give you a new full battery; a dead E-Bike battery charging in a wall socket will take about half a day to recharge fully.

For someone who’d never really been on anything motorized without four doors and a roof, an E-Bike was an aspirational step towards getting my hands on a petrol-powered scooter or, when I eventually decide to sell my right kidney to afford it, my future dream-bike: a red, black, and white Kawasaki Ninja 300.

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Like a rifle, pet, or a guitar, every good bike gets a loving name. I’ll know this one’s when I see it, but I’ve so far narrowed it down to Albino Pit Viper, Jayavarman X, or Lucille.

My goal in renting one was simple: Angkor is big, really big, and a trip to Kbal Spean cost $25 in a tuk-tuk when it could’ve cost $13 on a motorcycle scooter + $2-$3 on roadside gas. For a PhD Candidate with the expectation set upon him to a) save money and not work and b) expand his intellectual horizons by seeing as much of Angkor as humanly possible, learning to ride something motorized presented me with an opportunity to get around a bit more cheaply long-term. Mind you, I’ll still be taking tuk-tuks whenever I have to get to and from Angkor Thom because by the end of the day all I want to do is put my feet up, but for day-trips around Angkor on days off (especially now that I’ve got my APSARA pass…finally), the bike offsets the admission costs.

Using the Srah Srang battery charge station, I was able to get one and a half good solid days (over the span of six…the other four were doing research at Angkor Thom) of long-range travel around Angkor, and saw some sites that I never thought I’d get to in any other circumstance:

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On the first day I went from Siem Reap to Banteay Samre, then went back after doing a few doughnuts around Srah Srang pond. The second day I replaced my battery before heading up to Phnom Bok and barely got back to the charging point in time before heading south…which is the second part of the story.

On a motorcycle, an E-Bike, a scooter, or even a bicycle, you’re not covered like you are in a tuk-tuk, so you see EVERYTHING. Every farm, every village, every animal, every tractor, and every villager (and it’s incredible how many people decide to take a dump in plain sight, men and women); both the beauty and the bluntness of subsistence living in the rice fields comes to life so much more than if you spend your entire three or seven days stuck in the jungle.

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And believe me after that amnesia experience I needed a break from the claustrophobia of the jungle.
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I will never stop saying it: Cambodia is the most colourful place on earth.
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“I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees!” – “You said that on Facebook, shut up if you please!”

Considering how large Angkor’s urban area is thought to be (the size of Los Angeles), Banteay Samre, a Suryavarman II-era (1102-1150 CE) temple tower and the first stop on the E-Bike tour, is only about 10.5km as the crow flies, so it’s really not that far away from central Yasodharapura. However, you do have to remember that Angkor once had two giant reservoirs of water and everyone and everything was either transported on foot, raft, cart, or elephant. So 10km was a day’s walk through hundreds of villages.

It’s actually quite a pleasant temple, both quiet/out of the way and monumental at the same time, but because the road to Banteay Samre has recently been paved, the tour buses turn it into a zoo between 9am-11am and 2pm-3pm. My revelation of “oh, I should try an E-Bike!” came around 1:30, so I just missed the tail end of the Chinese and Korean rush.

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I gave up on waiting for those two to get out of my shot because…well…they were fat and immobile.
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Suryavarman II’s architecture is a mix of smaller, rectangular shrines and Angkor Wat.
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As you can see, Banteay Samre mixes these extremes fairly well.
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It also faces east, not west, so even though S-II is thought to have patronized Vishnu, he’s given his Shaivaite princes something to he happy about.

Because I wasn’t willing to tempt the fates of the Electric Battery Gods that day, I turned around and went back to Siem Reap, undertook two more days of in-jungle research at Angkor Thom (I do a two days on, one day off research schedule because of the heat), and then hopped back on another E-Bike to test the limits of the engine up to one of Yasovarman’s three hilltop temples: Phnom Bok (Correction: I said that Phnom Kulen was a Yasovarman Temple in a previous entry, it was an earlier Jayavarman II temple – I know I sound like a nerd for correcting myself on that but I am). The capital temple, Phnom Bahkeng, I’ve been up a dozen times, while the southern one, Phnom Krom, is on my list for when I start riding around on a motorbike.

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This is Wikipedia’s image because it’s not often feasible to take photos when you’re driving.
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However, when you’re walking up 640 steps to get to the top of an ancient temple, you get a little more freedom with your hands *wheeze*.
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It’s a fairly typical temple up here, and one might say it’s not even worth all the stair-climbing except for one thing:
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Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you the world’s oldest set of goalposts!
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Jayavarman snaps it to Indravarman, he kicks it, aaaaaaaaand it’s good!!!
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Oh, yeah, and there’s a small post-Angkorian monastery in front of the ancient temples with some really ornate sima stones, too.

Of the three temple-mountains in the Angkor region, Phnom Bahkeng is the most impressive in terms of its architecture, but Phnom Bok (having yet to go to Phnom Krom) is the most serene. It’s far out of the way, with a functioning modern Buddhist monastery, and stunning views over an extremely rural area of countryside. The tour-buses don’t make it out here because…well…there’s too many stairs.

As I mentioned, I barely made it back to the battery charge/switch station at Srah Srang Reservoir and had the plan to go down to the Rolous Group 30km southeast. This is the oldest part of the Angkor Archaeological Park, and was one of Jayavarman II’s four capitals founded in 802 CE. This capital, however, was used for long periods of time afterwards, unlike Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen, which appears to have been abandoned after a short period of time – I know I keep promising an entry on this but I’m waiting for the archaeologist who leads excavations there to tell me when I can come up and visit…

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The map given to me by Ovelocity told me that there was another charging point in front of the Bakong Temple, the primary temple at Rolous, so I would be fine to get home. So I zipped down Route 6 (which despite all claims otherwise is actually quite safe until you get to Route 66) 17km to the Rolous, which if you’re on a bicycle or E-Bike is an awesome place to go off-road through rice-paddies to explore some of the more ornate and unvisited temples in Cambodia.

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Preah Ko Temple, side-temple under restoration. This one isn’t as hard to get to…it’s right by the ticket check.
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Prasat Prei Monti – I couldn’t find this one in 2012 but here it is today…worth it? Meh…
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BUT this was the view on the other side of the temple. So yes, it was worth it.
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Prasat Bakong, the Rolous centerpiece.
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Traditional Cambodian rice-farmer house…with stick picket fence.

So after my little joyride through the farmland I figured I’d go visit the battery-change station beside Prasat Bakong so I could visit one more temple across Highway 6 called Lolei and then head back to Siem Reap. Great day, a bit of a sunburn, but overall an incredible use of a $9 E-Bike.

Buuuuuut there was a little bit of a problem: the battery replacement station had closed down two months prior and had been replaced by a chicken farm.

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See that blue dot? That’s as far as I got until the E-Bike spluttered to a halt.

It was 4:45 and the sun sets in Cambodia around 6:30. So no Lolei Temple, no power, and pushing an E-Bike is not the same as pushing a bicycle – E-bikes are about 2/3 the weight of a motorcycle. But thankfully, E-Bikes have pedals. Problem is, though, that the pedals only really work when the engine has juice and are really oddly positioned so that they don’t get in the way of the bike’s footrests. So I pulled into a nearby gas station, plugged the bike in, waited for half an hour with a Fanta and a bit of banter in Khmer with the owner, and then sped off again…

…for about ten minutes. Like I was saying, it takes nearly half a day to fully charge an E-Bike battery. So it died again, and I pulled into yet another gas station, waited forty-five minutes, and then kept moving.

The bike died a third time on the outskirts of Siem Reap, and according to my GPS I was only 5km from my hotel. So with the remaining 2% energy of the battery, I both revved and pedalled my bike down Highway 6.

And the locals loved it, gathering around to watch whenever they could. It was like Cersei Lannister doing her Walk of Atonement through King’s Landing, except instead of a nun shouting “SHAME! SHAME! SHAME!” (and me not being butt-ass naked) it was every old man, woman, and child bursting out laughing with some piteous stares and a few “get out of the way” truck honks. The whole ordeal was, admittedly, pretty funny despite the tendon between my foot and my knee aching like crazy, and I think everyone got a kick out of it (pun intended) without getting too pissed off I was moving too slowly (8kph downhill slowly). Still, it’s the most attention I’ve ever had in a foreign country as a foreigner, and all I could do was smile, shrug, and ride that 5km as fast and as awkwardly as I could trying not to veer into traffic

I reached the rental place by sundown, ate a giant pizza, and then decided that E-Bikes are not meant to be driven down Highway 6.

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My little orange friend made for some great adventures, but I’m upgrading to a moto-scooter next time.

If the ancient city of Angkor was indeed the size of Los Angeles, the temple sites located outside of Central Angkor are not meant for short-range environmental travel. It’s a great way to get around, it’s clean, it’s relatively inexpensive, and it gives you the freedom to veer off the beaten path, but don’t expect to get to the Tonle Sap and back on a single battery. If I want/need to get somewhere in close proximity to Angkor Thom I’ll definitely use one again, but the goal here was to eventually upgrade to a real bike.

Like I said, training wheels. It’s time to get those engines revving!

Andrew Harris

 

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