Over the weekend, a barren vacant block nestled amongst Koh Pich’s rapid developments was overrun by a collection of some of the most extravagant looking motorcycles spotted this side of the Hell’s Angels Oakland clubhouse.
The inaugural Phnom Penh Bike Week, hosted by the Cambodian Biker Club, saw a wild response from thousands of young locals and the participation of hard-core enthusiasts from as far afield as Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia.
CBC Vice President Pily Wong attributes the event’s success, despite the club only forming in the middle of last year, to the fraternal bond between the club’s officials.
“People in the club are very nice. I’ve come to find a lot of friends and brothers in the club. I find it meaningful to participate in charity as well. In the time the club has existed, there’s been 40 big events in that time. So we’re very active,” he said.
A number of eagerly watched, and occasionally bizarre events were dotted across the weekend, including a hamburger eating competition, a challenge to see which driver could ride between two points the slowest without falling, and a charity bike wash attended by models in hot pants and fluorescent wigs.
Proceeds from the two-day long event went to Operation Smile, a global charity that provides correction of cleft palates and other congenital facial deformities.
“We do believe in financially contributing to charity,” says CBC founding member Sean Wong. “We’ve been especially supporting road safety campaigns ... In this country wearing a helmet is seen as an inconvenience, and we want to change that. Everyone who is a member of the club and everyone participating here today is required to wear a helmet.”
After the sun went down on Saturday, a number of young rock bands from the region took the stage, performing a mix of local staples and Western covers to a swelling crowd of Phnom Penh’s teens.
The show was briefly interrupted by the arrival of a convoy of 40 bikes, which had set off from Bangkok at six in the morning only to have their arrival delayed by inclement weather, and were now cutting a path through the venue to the base of the stage.
“Let’s hear it for our Thai brothers!” an offstage MC cried, as the weary riders assembled on stage to soak up the applause of the audience and pump their fists in the air in a sign of defiant victory over the skies above.
Fraternal spirit on display
To those of a certain time and place, the idea of a motley collection of burly, Harley-riding men at a music concert will most likely conjure images of Altamont. Back in 1969, the Rolling Stones decided to hold a concert in this bucolic Californian town, and made a somewhat foolish decision to hire members of the Hell’s Angels motorbike club to conduct the security.
The resulting violence later made Altamont a metaphor for the death of the freewheeling, optimistic spirit that characterised America in the ’60s and turned motorcycle club members into objects of foreboding.
If Koh Pich’s Bike Week is to be remembered in years to come it will rather be for the spirit of gentle fraternity said by Pily Wong to govern the Cambodian Biker Club’s conduct, and the recognition that a growing number of people in the region view their motos as an object of affection rather than merely a mode of transport.
Both nights saw groups of Cambodian youth and curious Phnom Penhers winding through rows of high-powered, chrome-plated motorbikes, many of which looked like the only creature comfort they were missing was a DVD player on the dashboard.
Among the stallholders was the Southeast Asian chapter of the Legacy Vets Motorcycle Club. Despite the reputation of such clubs in the West, their president, Aquaman, welcomes any inquiries about his peers.
“We have very strict rules inside the club … One of them is family first, business second, club third,” Aquaman says. “Every two weeks we take a trip to Kampong Thom or Kampot – our options are limited by the state of the roads – and every year we travel from Phnom Penh to Thailand.”
As the name suggests, membership of the Legacy Vets is only open to those who have participated in some kind of military service. Despite this restriction, the club is expanding in the region and expects to badge two members based in the Philippines in the coming year.
While guarded about details of the club’s operations, Aquaman states that members’ bikes are a matter of personal preference, which seems unusual when spoken next to the unbroken line of Harleys parked outside the club’s weekend residence.
“We require every member to have a bike that’s a minimum of 600cc. Any brand is fine – but of course, we have a special fondness for the Harley Davidson!” he laughs.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at email@example.com