Bina Hanley on the Honda Nighthawk she won at The Bike Night raffle on June 19.
Into the land of motos have come three wise men from the West bearing helmets, protective clothing and bloody big bikes.
These are huge monsters of motorcycles: Some are 1000cc hardcore machines; one is 1200cc; one weighs in at 600 kilograms; some are so fast they can go from here to there and back again in the blink of a gecko’s eyelid.
The three men, who all live in Siem Reap, are Bertrand Huguenin, Sebastian Wajnon and Nicolas (Nico) Humbert, and in March they opened a new business called Big Bikes.
The stock on offer when they opened their shop included 38 large motorcycles imported from France in a container, but since then their supply has increased following acquisitions from local expat motorcycle fanatics. The 38 cycles sent from France were dispatched by a company involved with the Big Bikes operation to test the market to see whether there is a viable demand for really monstrous motos, especially among the Khmer middle class.
To announce their arrival in town, the Big Bike boys organised The Bike Night at Siem Reap’s XBar on June 19, and the evening kicked off with one of the crew haring around downtown Siem Reap at high speed on a noisy, modified quad bike, scaring the living daylight of out of many Khmers.
Large, rare choppers including a KTM Duke 640cc and an Aprilia Shiver 750cc were lugged up three flights of stairs to the XBars’ upper playground where they were displayed, one on top of a pool table. An elaborate ice chute was installed to encourage serious drinking, the Marlon Brando movie The Wild Ones was screened to foster dreaming about denim-clad biker rebellion, and a serious bike – a Honda Nighthawk 250cc – was raffled and won by John McDermott’s go-to gal, Bina Handley.
The expats in attendance drooled at the machinery on display, but whether Khmers will be attracted to buying such big bikes is the million sprocket question.
It’s one that sits heavily on the shoulders of Big Bike’s sales and marketing boss Nico Humbert. Also sitting heavily on Nico’s shoulders is, as he sees it, the sad and sorry state of Cambodia’s motorcycle culture.
With great despondency he declares that he simply cannot understand the Khmer penchant for small 100-125cc motos. Nothing so small is on the market in Europe, he says, except scooters. And while he acknowledges that the price factor is the draw for the small bikes here, he also notes that, in his opinion, from his European perspective, the bikes are seriously overpriced here.
He despairs further when I confess that I own a Yamaha Fino 110cc. He looks at me with moist eyes, shaking his head, saying, “No, not the clutchless one?”
I further confess that yes, it is an automatic. Nico shrugs and points to a big bike in his yard, a Honda Silverwing 600cc. He in turn confesses that not only is it “clutchless”, but yes, he actually rides it – to the supermarket because to him it has one use: Its panniers are big enough to hold a week’s shopping.
But the real despair that Nico has is the safety issue, or the lack of it, among Khmers. He despairs at how they carry helmets on their motos and put them on only when they think police are in the vicinity. He further despairs about the helmets on sale here, which he says are just cheap junk: caps, not helmets. He despairs about the lack of safe footwear and boy, does he despair about the five-people-including-baby-on-one-moto phenomenon.
He explains that while Big Bikes is a commercial business and out to make a profit, it is also very much a social project and aims to educate riders and introduce safety measures.
“Even before the container with the motorcycles arrived, we received gloves, helmets, goggles, jackets, knee pads and elbow pads to help people realise they must be well prepared for the roads,” he says.
“And all our staff must always wear helmets, even if it’s just to go a few hundred yards to buy cigarettes.”
To ram home the safety aspect, Nico says Big Bikes is negotiating with Bob Passion in Sihanoukville to bring a road safety show to Siem Reap.
In Sihanoukville, Passion and his team run entertainment shows based around safe driving that have humorous takes on day-to-day road incidents, including confronting the notorious heedless rich guy from Phnom Penh in a Lexus, having groups of people on one moto, and riding motos while busily chatting with other moto drivers.
Early in June, Passion, as part of the Smart Drive Awareness Project, organised the Drive It In art exhibition and stage show, playing to over 2400 spectators in six days, and the hope is that a similar awareness show can soon be staged in temple town.
“We are now working on bringing the show to Siem Reap,” Nico says. “There are about 25 people in the troupe and it will not be cheap to bring them here so we are trying to find sponsor partners in town.”
But safety and increasing rider skill levels aren’t the only aspects on Big Bike’s social project agenda.
Training local mechanics is also a driving force.
“Our goal is to have people from abroad come here and to have a school to train people,” says Nico. “We have employed seven Khmer guys, and training programs for them have already started.”
In March a Scotsman, Maguire Turner, signed on for three months to impart hands-on practical skills. That course is now finished, and two engineers are being brought from France to teach more theoretical skills, such as how to read mechanical drawings.
Nico says, “The first phase of training was how to do it, and the second phase is why we do it.”
But apart from the social do-good elements, the heartfelt raison d’etre of Big Bikes is to provide two-wheel vehicles for people who love real bikes and whose idea of pleasure is to spend their time on a throbbing highway monster, or to travel off road on a gutsy trail or sand bike.
The only rule is that safety comes first, including helmets.
Oh yes, the bike should also be bigger than 110cc and please, no clutchless pretenders.