One could argue that learning to ride a bicycle is not really a Khmer skill, but that’s not the way I see it. It wasn’t in the great open spaces of my American childhood that I mastered the skill, it would take a trip to another continent; to the dusty, uneven streets of Siem Reap, before I conquered a two-wheeler.
I’m not sure why it took me so long to tackle something that most people, Western and Khmer, learn before they lose their baby teeth. I can say only that I was an inordinately clumsy child and that since I was the youngest of the family, everyone just forgot that it was something I couldn’t do. And so it went for a couple decades, until I landed in a country where there are far more vehicles with two wheels than four, and my secret bicycle shame became evident.
Shortly after moving to Siem Reap, I decided that the abundance of $1 rental bikes was surely a sign, and I set off to the Royal Gardens, certain that determination alone would have me pedalling beneath the imperial trees in no time. Two hours later, with a sore rear and a crushing sense of failure, I was still teetering woefully back and forth, unable to get my feet off the ground. As dusk fell, the groundskeepers began to look askance, and I trudged home.
The next attempt was in the parking lot of the Allson Angkor Hotel, where I had the advantage of a longer paved runway. The local tuk-tuk drivers, delighted by this unexpected windfall of entertainment, were eager to hand out unsolicited bits of advice. “Faster, faster!” they yelled, groaning every time I lost my balance. After a while, they began to look away, studying their hands, embarrassed to see me perform so poorly. One of them walked over to my boyfriend, who was watching, and put his hand on his shoulder as though about to break some bad news. “Cannot learn,” he said, nodding in my direction. “Impossible.”
It would be months, and a few more failed attempts, before I found the keys to my Cambodian cycling success. The first was a set of training wheels that my boyfriend gave me as a birthday gift during a visit to the US. The second was the consumption of enough BeerLao that I, a 28-year-old woman, didn’t mind that I was about to ride around on training wheels in public. Under the bluish, fluorescent lights of the Royal Empire Hotel parking lot, I pedalled as I’d never pedalled before. “Bah, bah,” the tuk-tuk drivers yelled this time. “Go, go!” Soon, I wasn’t even tilting over onto the training wheels, and it felt more like flying.
Maybe it would be an exaggeration to say that the most important thing I have learned in Cambodia is how to ride a bike, but then again, maybe not. After all, it is the small obstacles that surprise us, that cause us to stumble, that embarrass us, and consequently, that teach us the most about ourselves. Riding a bike in Cambodia certainly reinforced that I’ll never be competing in the Tour de France, but there was also something else in the experience, something about resilience and perseverance, the same qualities that I admire in many Khmer people. Now, every time I ride a bike, I will think of Siem Reap – it is the best Cambodian souvenir I can imagine.