In traffic-clogged Phnom Penh, could a recent boom in bicycle sales and cycling clubs herald a cleaner future?
Growing up in a small village in Battambang province, Untac Hem rode his bicycle – a gift from his father – to and from primary school, and then high school, like many of his classmates. It was the best bike in his village.
As he got older, many of his friends bought motorbikes. But he kept cycling, buying four bicycles and, earlier this year, riding from Bangkok to Bali – an exhausting 400-kilomete stretch. It took him 44 days. “Sometimes, I had no lunch, because I needed to save money to travel the long distance,” he said.
The 23-year-old, who works as a barista as well as a cycling tour guide, also cycled from Ballarat to Port Douglas, in Australia. “Cycling is a great sport… it can take me from one place to another, without using gas or electricity and contributing to climate change, and it makes me healthier,” he said.
In traffic-clogged Phnom Penh, where motorbikes are ubiquitous and luxury cars rule the roads, the humble bicycle is becoming the transport of choice among savvy urbanites pursuing healthier, more environmentally friendly living.
At the start of last month, more than 400 cycling enthusiasts took to the roads in Kampot for the 2014 National Cycling Championship, organised by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports with the Cambodian Cycling Federation.
More competitors than ever before, both men and women, completed the course, which consisted of 120 kilometers on the roads and 40 kilometers into the mountains. The winners were awarded cash prizes, medals and flowers.
The number of participants has increased each year since the championship started in 2000, according to Van Than, the secretary-general of the Cambodian Cycling Federation.
“I can see the increasing number of bicycle teams in the federation, and private teams, because people have started to love sport, and they choose bicycling,” he said.
At Giant Bicycle shop on Tchecoslovaquie Boulevard, manager Lim Pao Kruy said more cyclists are on the roads than when he opened the shop seven years ago. And demand for bicycles is accelerating: initially he sold fewer than 1,000 models per year, but last year more than 3,000 were snapped up.
“When we first started selling bicycles, more foreigners bought them, but now it’s more Cambodian people,” he said, adding that his customers use them for exercising, racing, commuting and sight-seeing.
Most of the models are priced between $200 and $300, but a handful of customers each year ask the store to order expensive overseas models costing up to $10,000.
Some of his customers are part of cycling groups who ride around the city together. Among them is office-worker Nhim Sophanna, who took up cycling a couple of years ago. Last year he and six friends started a bicycle club, calling themselves “Cycling for Freedom”.
“We decided the name because we wanted to raise awareness with what we wanted to do – we cycle and adventure everywhere freely,” he said. “We cycle for health, friendship, the environment and sometimes [to raise money for] charity.”
But in Phnom Penh, where cyclists are often stuck breathing in the hot fumes of cars, Sophanna admits bicycling is not always pleasant – nor safe. “Mostly, we ride outside town, because we are scared of the big trucks,” said Sophanna.
While there are still comparably few bicycles on the roads compared to other vehicles – and just 2 per cent of crashes last year involved the vehicle, according to government data – accidents do happen. Forty cyclists died last year.
Ear Chariya, an independent road safety consultant, said incidents involving pedestrians and cyclists “remain a real problem in the country”. He attributed the small percentage to the small number of bicycles on the roads.
“We are lacking in policies about bike lanes, bike parking, and encouragement of bicycling like other Western countries have,” he added.
Cyclist Sophanna agreed, saying: “If we had a bike lane or parking, we would be happier to cycle.”
But there is no sign of that yet, in a city where even some of the roads remain in poor quality. Talking on the phone, Long Dimanche, spokesman for the Phnom Penh municipality, said that the city had no plans to make bicycle lanes.
“Bicycling is not our main challenge… we still have a lot of small roads to construct, and this is a further plan to think about, we need to think step by step,” he said, adding that he “never sees many accidents involving bicycles”.
But Sophanna believes cyclists are still seen as second-class citizens on the road, and hopes that, even if it takes time, cycle lanes are in the city’s future.
“[Other vehicles on the road] don’t value bicycles, especially the expensive cars, and this makes me disappointed,” he said.
“When I checked Google, [I saw] the other countries have bike paths. I feel jealous of them, but I know we are in a developing country.”