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Vespas in Cambodia

Italy's iconic scooter remains a presence in Phnom Penh thanks to the efforts of a handful of enthusiasts and shop owners.

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That famous Italian mode of transportation, the iconic Vespa scooter, has seen better days in Cambodia. Once a popular mode of transport in the Kingdom, the Vespa has now taken a back seat to the popular Honda Dream motorbike and its cousins.

But despite this fact, there are a few devotees left who are making the effort to prolong Vespas' lifespan in Phnom Penh.

Currently there are two shops in the capital that sell and restore Vespa scooters, Monivong Vespa on Monivong Boulevard, and Kim Hong Vespa on Charles de Gaulle Boulevard.

According to the elderly Bun Choun, owner of Monivong Vespa, the ‘60s and ‘70s were a heyday for Vespas in Cambodia, with Vespas coming in just behind cars as the trendiest mode of transport.

After the Pol Pot regime and ensuing civil war, many Vespas were exported out of Cambodia to Thailand and Vietnam, as well as a few European countries, and today the number of remaining Vespas has dropped significantly.

"Khmer people like newer, more modern bikes," said Bun Choun. "Vespas are mainly popular with foreigners, who more often than not, will buy the bikes here and then ship them home when they leave Cambodia."

Sam Sambath, or 'Bo', who owns the Kim Hong Vespa shop, said that today most of the Italian Vespas in Cambodia are leftover vintages from before the war, while the newer models come from the Vespa manufacturing plant in Taiwan.

"Generally, the models from Taiwan are cheaper and easier to care for as they are newer," said Bo. "The older bikes sometimes have engine problems, although they are easy to fix and we can replace any old parts with newer parts from Italy, Taiwan or Thailand."

Photo by: STEPHANIE MEE

Monivong Vespa.

Bo echoes Bun Choun's observations regarding the Vespa market in Cambodia.

"In general, customers are mainly foreigners or expatriates here in Phnom Penh. I think it's all about aesthetics; foreigners like the look of a Vespa, while Khmers prefer the more modern Japanese style bikes."

Despite the lack of popularity for Vespas here in Phnom Penh, there are a few enthusiasts who swear by their Vespas and hope to raise awareness and approval ratings of the bikes.

Tong Soprach, a local freelance consultant, has recently created the Phnom Penh Vespa Club with his friend Ben, and they organize biannual Vespa rallies in and around the capital.

"Anyone can join the Vespa Club and the rallies," said Tong Soprach. "The idea is to make new friends and acquaintances through Vespas and to show people that Vespas are still present and fashionable in Phnom Penh."

"People sometimes tease me about owning a Vespa," said Tong Soprach. "They say if you drive a Vespa you won't have a girlfriend because Cambodian girls don't like Vespas, but I don't care," he said laughing. "I like the design, the stability, the strength of the engine, the safety of the storage compartment, and even the sound."

Alan Haire, well-known Vespa owner and proprietor of the popular riverside bar and restaurant Green Vespa, also cited some advantages of owning a Vespa.

"Vespas are good city bikes in that they have storage compartments, which makes them easy to go shopping with, they seat two people very comfortably, and in general, people don't steal them."

Alan points out that the Vespa's lack of popularity in Cambodia may well be what keeps them exempt from theft.

"Most Cambodians see Vespas as ‘uncool' or a relic from the past, and they are therefore un-stealable," he said.

Vespa paraphernalia can be purchased at Green Vespa. Merchandise includes t-shirts, caps, beer coolers, and prints of vintage photographs of famous film stars and their Vespas, from the original Piaggio 50th anniversary calendar.

For Vespa riders and aficionados, the next Vespa rally will take place on International Women's Day on Sunday, commencing at the Post Office at 10am, and will include a tour of Sisowath Quay, Norodom Boulevard, Monivong Boulevard, ending at the  Independence Monument.

Monivong Vespa is  located at 703Eo on  Monivong Boulevard. Kim Hong Vespa is located at 341Eo on Street 217.

Green Vespa Pub and Restaurant is located at 95 Sisowath Quay. 

Vespa maintenance tips from Bun Choun at Moninvong Vespa

There is no separate oil tank in a Vespa, so you must mix oil directly into the petrol each time you fill. The ratio of oil to petrol should be approximately 20ml of oil to 1 litre of petrol. 
Any type of petrol can be used, although you will get the best performance with 98.

PHOTO SUPPLIED

Vespa rally 2008.

Oil type should be 2T (two stroke) / SAE30.
Engine oil should be changed for every 1,500km driven.
When you have the headlamp on, be careful not to rev too much, or you will blow the bulb.
Make  sure to regularly check the air pressure in the tyres, as low

air pressure can make the wheel wobble, which in turn can damage the

shocks and carburetor.
Only change gear when the engine is running. Don't try to change gears at any other time, or you can break the gear cable.
Don't leave the bike in the rain, as this will cause rust and damage the electrics and wiring.

Sharmani Fowler  

High school teacher    
Do you own a motorbike?

No.

Would you consider owning a Vespa?
I think they look cute and fun, but I probably wouldn't own one myself as they look a bit difficult to drive. For example, one of my friends owned a Vespa, and he would always have to tip the bike over to prime the engine, by running petrol into it. I wouldn't like to have to do that all the time.

Do you think Vespas are outdated?

No, I don't think they're outdated, although I'm seeing less and less Vespas in Phnom Penh nowadays. I think many Westerners like to buy them and then ship them to other countries. Many of the models that are left are the newer models from Taiwan, and they just don't have that classic Vespa look.

Khem Sokkhieng

Student   
Do you own a motorbike?

Yes, a 2008 Honda Dream.

Would you consider owning a Vespa?

Yes, I would drive one. I like the style. They're not really modern, but I think they're still cool. I bought a Honda Dream because I kept seeing advertisements on TV for this bike, and I thought it looked like a great bike, but if I had the money I would buy a Vespa also.

Do you think Vespas are outdated?

Maybe a bit. The younger generation prefer Hondas and Suzukis because they're more modern and in style. Old people like them, but only a few young people know about them and like them.

Thol Mom

Waitress
Do you own a motorbike?   

No.

Would you consider owning a Vespa?

I like the look of Vespas, but much prefer the look of a Honda, Yamaha, or Suzuki, so no.

Do you think Vespas are outdated?
Yes. Vespas are not modern. I don't know anybody who has a Vespa. People want to drive modern bikes, like Hondas. The older generation might know about Vespas and want to drive them, but the younger people like the more modern styles.

Raaj Singh

Restaurateur     
Do you own a motorbike?

Yes, a 750cc Yamaha Virago

Would you consider owning a Vespa?

Yes, I would. I have always liked Vespas ever since I saw the movie Quadrophenia, which featured Vespas. The bikes looked so cool, and ever since then, to me they've been romantically linked to mods in the late 1970s and 1980s. Also, I think they would be very practical city bikes, but maybe not so good for long distances.

Do you think Vespas are outdated?
No, I think they're one of those classics that will never be outdated. Fifty years from now they will still be in style, kind of like the Volkswagon Beetle.

Peter Steen

ESL teacher

Do you own a motorbike?

Yes, I own a 1978 Vespa PX.
What do you like about Vespas?
I think they're good city bikes, they're very practical and dexterous. They can turn on a dime, they have good weight distribution and they're very aesthetically pleasing.

The only downside is that they're a bit more difficult to drive than some of the modern bikes as they have the clutch and the accelerator on the handle.

Do you think Vespas are outdated?
No, although few young Khmers drive Vespas, it's mostly the older generation [that like them]. I think they were considered old-fashioned by Khmers even in the 1980s.

Nhim Janie

Co-owner of Bella Salon
Do you own a motorbike?

Yes, a Hualiya.

Would you consider owning a Vespa?

I would love to buy a Vespa, but they're expensive, and they don't always have proper paperwork to go with them, like a warranty for example. But I like the style, especially because not many people have them.

Do you think Vespas are outdated?

I think they're old-fashioned, but I like the style, and I think that ladies look especially nice driving them. Most young Khmer people like modern bikes like the Step, Click and Fino, but I like the old-fashioned style. If someone gave one to me I would definitely drive it.

Ryan Bareither

Linguistics student     
Do you own a motorbike? 

Yes, I have a 1967 Honda Scrambler back in the States, but not here in Phnom Penh.

Would you consider owning a Vespa?

I would like to own a Vespa here in Phnom Penh because I think they are good bikes for riding around the city, but maybe not to go out to the provinces with. I also like the fact that they're unique - everybody has a Japanese or Chinese bike, but not many people have Vespas.

Do you think Vespas are outdated?

I don't think they're so much outdated as they're more of a pop icon. It's all about the style. The only problem I see with them here is that any roadside mechanic can fix a Japanese bike, but because Vespas are not popular here, and a bit older, the roadside mechanics may not be able to fix a Vespa, or have spare parts for them.

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