Lean and aggressive with a vicious growl, they stand out from Phnom Penh’s Scoopies and Honda Dreams like wolves among sheep.
For aficionados, custom motorcycles – deliberately modified or restored to reflect their owner’s particular tastes – are much more than a way of getting from A to B.
Patrick Uong, co-founder of a new motorcycle customisation outfit, Moto Cambodge, said the attraction was manifold.
“We love the freedom and energy of riding them,” Uong said. “But we also love fashioning them. We love the building process and the process of modifying uses for parts, and the parts themselves.”
Uong, a Cambodian-American, founded Moto Cambodge last year with friends Justin Stewart, from Australia, and Paul Freer, from the UK, after discovering a shared love of riding and tinkering with their two-wheeled toys.
They regularly get together to talk bikes over beers, go hunting for parts and organise road trips to places like Kampot and Oudong mountain.
Their business – or what they call their “lifestyle brand” – is built around taking second hand bikes – often models from the 1970s and 1980s – and restoring or customising them using spare parts sourced from local markets, cannibalised second-hand bikes, garages and from overseas.
Uong said that while the transformed bikes ended up being unique – guided by the base bikes’ characteristics, availability of parts and the owners’ vision – they generally conformed to three traditional styles.
He said “cafe racers” were built for speed and so stripped of all unnecessary weight with flat or downward pointing handlebars so that the rider’s forward-leaning avoided drag.
Then there were the “dirt trackers” or “street trackers”, designed for rougher conditions, which were “taller and softer” with a more upright seating posture and greater clearance on the suspension.
Finally there were the “brats”: loud, aggressive, often intentionally ugly looking bikes with a lowered suspension and profile – the equivalent of low-rider cars.
In the past Uong said Moto Cambodge had limited themselves to assisting others with their customisations – working with locally run mechanics providing advice, sourcing parts and overseeing work – but they had big plans for the future.
Ideas floated include a workshop and a motorcycle-themed cafe and even a line of Moto Cambodge clothing and bags.
“It’s about doing something that we love doing, building a community and building a lifestyle brand,” said Uong.
“Think about sun and surf, street culture, exploration, art, freedom and the wind in your hair, bugs in your face, the camaraderie and bonding of a long ride as the destination itself.
“It’s about the loose spirit of Cambodia packaged into a custom bike and exploring this brilliant, adventurous and sometimes really wild, and often unpredictable, country.”
Mike Gebremedhin, a 44-year-old communications specialist, bought his first custom motorcycle – a 1994 Yamaha SR400 – from Freer slightly more than a year ago.
He said the bike had already had a fair amount of work, transforming it from stock into a “street tracker”, and he had since also replaced the seat, chain, exhaust, rearview mirrors, taillight, and fenders to reflect his own tastes. He also recently bought a 1978 BMW R100 which he planned to customise with Moto Cambodge’s help.
He said he loved custom bikes because they could be tailored to each owner’s individual style.
“A custom bike is a reflection of its owner,” he said. “It is a wonderful medium for self expression.”
He added: “The custom possibilities are endless which is important from both an aesthetic and financial point of view. Those who are design conscious can create their objets d’arts with little effort, but the real beauty of the custom bike business is that it can accommodate any budget.”
He said the best part was that the bikes could be customised to suit Cambodia’s particular conditions.
“Trail bikes are great for mud and unpaved roads while road bikes are more comfortable to ride on tarmac. Customised street trackers like mine are happy on both types of surfaces,” he said.
“I’ve been through mud, rain, sand, and hundreds and hundreds of kilometres of tarmac with never a complaint from the bike. It’s like it’s been reborn for Cambodia. I just love it.”