x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Cheap thrills with easy riders of Phnom Penh

Just as Londoners take the Tube and Venetians ride the Vaporetto, so people in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, often journey by “moto”.

Just as Londoners take the Tube and Venetians ride the Vaporetto, so people in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, often journey by “moto”. These small, motorised scooters – usually with 80cc engines or less – have longer and wider seats than normal scooters, allowing their drivers to take up to two passengers at a time, although sometimes entire families manage to cram on to these tiny, two-wheeled vehicles.

Across Southeast Asia people make the act of riding on a moto look deceptively easy. In Bangkok, suave couples emerge from shopping malls clutching bags of designer clothes, slip effortlessly onto waiting motos and zigzag off through the standstill traffic. In Phnom Penh, families weave through the potholed streets with parents bookending their young children. Young men zoom by with huge televisions or heavy sacks of rice balanced on the back. These simple daily acts are almost always executed with balletic grace and gravity-defying poise.

While riding a moto for a foreigner, however, can be fraught with difficulties, finding one should not be a problem. Many Cambodians supplement their meagre incomes by working part time as moto drivers. The streets around markets and hotels are usually swarming with drivers in baseball caps and T-shirts vying for your attention.You only have to take a few steps outside before the heckles of “moto, sir, moto” begin. If, for some strange reason, you are not approached by an enthusiastic driver, you can always flag one down in the street.

Fares are very cheap. Even with the so-called “tourist tax” – simply meaning that tourists pay a lot more than locals – short trips cost a fraction of a dollar (about Dh1 to Dh2). Hiring a moto for the day will set you back about US$6 (Dh22). Haggle over the price at the start of the journey to avoid arguments and surprises at the end.

When you climb aboard the scooter you will be more balanced if you grip the metal bar behind you rather than hugging the driver around his waist. Keep flailing items, such as long limbs and loose skirts, tucked in and try to avoid touching the hot metal exhaust which can inflict painful burns on exposed flesh.

You are unlikely to be offered a helmet or ever see one being used. Although there are obvious inherent dangers in travelling at high speeds without protection for your head, the sight of businessmen, monks, students, children and tourists all doing the same thing should help allay your fears.

Though motos are abundant, finding your destination will no doubt be tricky. Here’s a common occurrence: a driver pulls up, you get on and say where you want to go. He greets you with a smile and acknowledges your stated destination with a nod. But do not be deceived – you might not arrive at your desired endpoint. Remember that the driver is eager to please and will say just about anything to coax you on board. Language is not usually the problem, since most drivers speak a little bit of English, some French and a smattering of other tongues.

Rather, most difficulties seem to stem from a widespread vagueness about bearings. In a country whose major river, the Tonlé Sap, changes direction twice a year, orientation is more of an abstract art than an exact science. Tales abound of passengers frantically buzzing through the city’s streets on a moto for 20 minutes only to end up where they began.

Always carry a map and get to know the city’s landmarks. By learning to recognise the Independence Monument, the National Museum of Cambodia, the Royal Palace and the city’s remarkable 1930s art deco Central Market, you will increase your chances of arriving at your destination.

With your nerves and the engine humming, the city will flicker by in an exhilarating blur. You will fly past the plastic tables and fluorescent lights of fast-food joints such as KFC (Khmer Fried Chicken) and Burger Queen – prior to joining the World Trade Organisation in 2004, Cambodia had no copyright protection – and inhale a gamut of aromas (some enticing, some rank).

Try not to pay too much attention to the chaos around you. Some drivers do not stop at red lights, while others have been known to go the wrong way down a dual carriageway to avoid a traffic jam. Try to enjoy the novelty of the experience rather than cringe at your reckless swerving. Most drivers are as keen to avoid an accident as you are.