This July, Cambodia got its first official motorbike gang. But instead of drug dealers and hooligans, the Cambodia Biker Club has filled its ranks with businessmen, government officials and white collar workers, who combine a love of biking with charity work.
They were trying their best to blend in, but the table of undercover police sitting in the corner of the Chicago Grill & Bar during the first meeting of the Cambodia Biker Club were fairly easy to spot, says the club’s president Yoonng Kee Gin.
“Cambodia is a very small place. Our members would sometimes know, they would say ‘hey this one is police.’ When we first started there were police in the corner trying to find out what was happening, you know, ‘what is this club, why are there big motorbikes here.’ They used to sit down, drink beer, pay money, and after a few meetings they stopped coming. It was like ‘hello, bye.’”
Whatever the police were expecting to find at the Cambodia Biker Club’s first meeting in July, it probably wasn’t a table full of engineers and businessmen, including the general managers of companies selling major brands. Or an army major nicknamed after a Sylvester Stallone character. Or a CPP senatorial candidate in next year’s elections.
But that’s what sets Cambodia’s first motorcycle club apart. Rather than a gang with tattoos and attitude, it’s a biker club whose members are more likely to offer to do your tax return than sell you meth.
“A lot of people think riding a big bike means you’re a gangster with a tattoo, out drinking and fighting. But here, most of our members are high level managers or businessmen, professionals, government officers, entrepreneurs. Most of them are quite educated and come from rich families.”
As well as having varied but respectable backgrounds, the 42 members of the Cambodia Biker Club also hail from almost every country in the region, including Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, China and South Korea. What unites them is a shared love of so-called “big bikes,” ranging from classic Harley-Davidson cruisers through to Yamahas and Ducati racers.
While riding a motorcycle may only be the most convenient way of getting from point A to point B for most Cambodians, for the members of the Cambodian Biker Club it’s a passion. A passion that club member Leonard Lim indulges on a Honda VFR, when he’s not working his day job as a business development manager for an engineering company.
“Actually it is the freedom that appeals, because when you are riding a bike you have to bond with the bike, two into one. A car is just a steel box on wheels, with the air-con and music. With a bike you can feel it move with you, the bike is like one part of you. When you are accelerating or braking you can feel the bike move with you.
“It’s about big toys for big boys.”
Lim was one of Kee Gin’s early recruits in July, when he decided to form a club for motorbike fans to ride around the country together, after noticing more and more classic bikes on the streets of Phnom Penh.
“Now the lifestyle is different. In the past many people could not afford to get a big bike,” he explains. “Now some people in Cambodia are rich and they can afford to have big bikes like Harley-Davidsons, or the expensive bikes costing $10,000, $20,000, $30,000. It shows the economy in Cambodia is growing.”
He adds that he found the process of recruiting new members much easier than he first thought.
“Sometimes if I saw someone on a big bike I just gave them a telephone number to contact me. Or if an auto shop was selling a motorbike and someone bought it, I asked them to pass on my number and tell them to call me and then we can ride together. So from that we went to two people, then three, four, five, six. It grew and grew and we formed the club.”
Kee Gin told 7Days he became interested in motorbikes, Harley-Davidsons in particular, while growing up in Malaysia. But it wasn’t until he moved to Cambodia in 2009 to open a short-lived girlie bar that he had a chance to indulge his interest.
“One of my friends was running a computer business in Cambodia and Malaysia and he was training staff. He asked me to come just to visit Cambodia, and I said ok. I came to Cambodia for work every month from 2007 until 2009, then I opened a shop called Pure Bar. I saw good opportunities here as a businessman and also most of the people here are quite friendly compared to other Asian people. That’s what made me stay and get married here.”
While motorcycle clubs are widespread in Malaysia, Kee Gin says parental disapproval is always a factor in keeping people from joining them, a problem he doesn’t have to worry about here.
“I’m Chinese and Malay. We come from families where the parents do not allow the children to ride big bikes, and they always believe and tell children that if you drive a car, the body, the iron, protects you. But when you drive a motorcycle it’s like you protect the motorcycle. If you fall down, who’s injured first? If a car comes, then boom!”
Two years after buying his first Harley in Phnom Penh, Kee Gin hit on the idea of forming an official motorbike club, to provide a social outlet for members sick of riding the open road by themselves, and to perform charity and community work. A point Yoong says he insisted on due to his belief that people would only start to join the new club if they saw its work as meaningful.
Khor Woh Hok, a general manager told 7Days that thousands of dollars have been raised by club members so far for 13 different charities, with the most recent efforts focusing on providing $4000 worth of emergency supplies to victims of last month’s flooding in Kampong Cham.
“We do not just want to group together and ride here, and ride there. We want to do something more meaningful, we want to do some charity work and give back to the community and the country we are working in. On Sunday October 23 we went to Skuon to donate funds we collected from various countries – Malaysia, Singapore, and Cambodia – and we were able to help 200 hundred families affected by floods.”
When the club’s 43 members ride out across the country together, the job of coordinating the pack falls to Cambodian Royal Armed Forces Major Keo Piseth, more commonly known to his friends as ‘Captain Rambo.’
Piseth told 7Days he takes his duties very seriously.
“The super sport guys, they go at super speeds and they would go over the limit, and you have to be careful of the gap between the limit of the bike and the limit of the rider. The job of the road captain is to take care of the people if they go over the limit and endanger themselves and other people. I know how heavy this duty is, but I am glad to take care of it because I worry about the other people. I was appointed to the job of road captain because on our first ride together I took care of people, and they felt that’s why this job would be good for me.”
In person Piseth presents as so slim and softly-spoken that it begs the question of how he came to be named after a blood -splattered Hollywood character. That’s something Piseth is happy to explain.
“One half of my nickname, ‘Peter,’ was given by the people in China, because I went there to learn Mandarin and Piseth is so difficult to say in Chinese so they just called me Peter. And the Rambo name I got long ago when the country was quite difficult, when people used guns. In that period of time…”
Before he can finish, another club member, Ratchakith Vasunan, interrupts to point out that Piseth’s physique now bears little resemblance to Sylvester Stallone’s.
“His face looks like Rambo, but now he’s getting old, and his body, is little, little, little, no muscle. Before he was like Rambo.”
Despite the earlier unhealthy interest from the police, the club is now on good terms with them, says Kee Gin, and even counts some of their number as members.
“After the police came to our meetings, a friend of a club member who was a policeman told him, ‘our men went there and are checking your background, checking what your biker club is doing, and your club is very good, it helps the people.’
“Now the police most of the time will help automatically when they see us riding together. If they see us at a traffic light they will help us. If there are too many at the traffic lights they will maybe stop and let us through, and sometimes we have police escort as well.”
The motorcycles owned by club members come in all shapes and sizes according to Kee Gin, but the most popular are Asian and American brands, usually super speed bikes and cruisers.
“We all have different bikes here. We have Honda, Yamaha, Harleys, but we are not sponsored by any one of them. We are independent. I like the Harley because it is a classic motorbike, and because the company is more than 100 years old. Especially I like that it’s a loud bike, because people can hear me coming. I think loud bike, safe life.”
One of the common problems of riding more exotic bikes in Cambodia is finding spare parts, says Khor Woh Hok. This is particularly so with recent model BMWs or Harley-Davidsons ,where tune-ups and maintenance are done via computer by authorised technicians.
“Usually on eBay you can find the parts, but for some modern bikes it is a problem. For instance, Harleys made after 2007 are not supported in Cambodia. So if you want to change the Harley you have to get a guy with a computer to reset the motorbike. You have to fly in the guy, pay for his hotel, pay for his air ticket and expenses to come and re-set it.”
He says shipping costs are also a factor in buying big bikes here, and many members opt for used models to cut down on the price, particularly for Harley-Davidson owners.
“I met Kee Gin before he owned a big bike, I sort of introduced him. I was the first one to ride a Harley and then he bought a Harley. At the moment I ride a Harley Road King, straight from America. There are few big bike shops here compared to America. The price we pay here for a Harley is almost comparable with a used one in America that is two or three years old. Compared to other Southeast Asian countries it’s still very, very cheap. I bought my Road King in America for $15,000 second-hand.”
Many club members own several different types of bikes, added Khor, and will often select a different one to ride depending on the route chosen. But one thing that never changes is the group’s emphasis on safe riding. Driving in a pack down a highway to deliver flood aid is a good thing, but only if everyone arrives at the other end in one piece.
Before setting out or after returning from a charity trip, the bikers can usually be found at the Chicago Grill & Bar on Street 214, which serves as the Cambodia Biker Club’s de-facto clubhouse. The club’s Myanmar treasurer Hlaing Moe David told 7Days that he and his Harley-Davidson Sportster joined the club after relocating to Cambodia.
“I got into a political problem in Singapore. I was doing some politics in 2007 before the Saffron Revolution in Myanmar, and I founded an organisation called the Overseas Burmese Project. The Singapore government didn’t like us, and after that I couldn’t go back to Burma or Singapore. I like riding big bikes and I like that in Cambodia there are so many people like that.”
Club memberships are set at a low $50 a year, and Kee Gin predicts the Cambodia Biker Club will increase from 43 to 70 members by March next year. At the moment, the club is busy preparing for a summit with Vietnamese and Thai biker clubs later this month at Bavet on the Cambodia-Vietnam border, a summit they plan to hold in style at the five star Titan King Hotel and Casino.
“At the moment our members are only in Phnom Penh but we hope to get other members from provinces like Siem Reap or Kampong Speu,” Kee Gin told 7Days, “Or if they want to form their own club chapter using our name we will let them do it. We try to work very hard to promote our motorcycle club. We believe we can do it and be the biggest and only motorcycle club in Cambodia in the future.”